Two days into my first Taglit-Birthright Israel trip, during which I led a group of 40 Americans around Israel, I heard the news of the Obama administration’s unprecedented refusal to veto a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Israel’s settlement policies.
As an American immigrant to Israel who has many times heard President Barack Obama reaffirm the unbreakable alliance between the U.S. and Israel, the news was a bitter reminder of his administration’s hypocrisy as well as the U.N.’s disproportionate condemnation of Israel, a trend that U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon himself has acknowledged. But even more than hypocritical and disproportionate, in insinuating that settlement expansion is the greatest barrier to peace in the Middle East, the U.S. and U.N. have disengaged from historical reality and integrity.
On the day of the Security Council vote, my Birthright group visited the Lebanon-Israel border, where we learned about the thousands of Hezbollah rockets aimed at Israel. “But don’t worry,” our lecturer said, “Hezbollah is much too busy fighting in the Syrian conflict to start a war on this border.”
A few days later, we visited the Erez Crossing between Israel and Gaza, where we spoke with a resident of Sderot, a southern border-area city that has endured tens of thousands of Hamas rockets over time. Hamas’s new strategy, we were told, is to dig tunnels toward Israel’s civilian population. Yet Israel continues to send humanitarian aid to Gaza, even as Hamas’s terrorist government neglects that territory’s residents.
In the evening, we spent time with members of Israel’s Bedouin population, a peaceful Muslim group with full Israeli citizenship and even some enlistment in the Israel Defense Forces. A senior member of the Bedouin community posited that the Bedouins are peaceful because they educate their children for peace. “Our children learn that we approach our enemies from the front—to talk—rather than stabbing them in the back,” he explained.
Finally, we learned the history of the conflict and the many times Israel offered land for peace, only to be greeted with the three “no’s”—no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel and no negotiations with Israel. Most importantly, we heard of all the times we would have had peace by now if settlements were truly the obstacle to peace.
While all of this would leave many pessimistic and burned-out trying to convince the world of the Jewish people’s right to its homeland, the change I witnessed in the 40 Americans during the 10-day journey kept me optimistic.
The Birthright organization’s goal is to foster the connection between Diaspora Jews, Judaism and the Jewish state, and I have no doubt that this is exactly what Birthright—which to date has brought more than 500,000 Jewish young adults ages 18-26 on free 10-day trips to Israel—is doing. Even before the end of the trip, it became clear that a life-changing experience was the norm for participants. By the end of the trip, some who had never stepped foot in Israel were hoping to extend their visit, and participants with no previous Jewish experiences were engaging in serious discussions about Jewish continuity and life.
In the most meaningful moment of the trip, our group of Americans stood together with Israeli soldiers on top of the Masada historical landmark as we recalled the ancient story of our ancestors choosing self-agency—even if it meant taking their own lives. Our tour educator led us to the edge of the Masada fortress, where we shouted into the distance “Am Yisrael Chai!”—the Jewish people live!—and our voices echoed back in a phenomenon that truly sounded like the voices of our ancestors returning our cry.
After most of the Americans began to descend Masada, a few Israeli soldiers lingered to shout “ad matai” into the distance, waiting for the echoes. The common phrase “ad matai”—meaning “until when”—reflects Israel’s wish that in the future, its army will be obsolete. Israel’s enemies will lay down their weapons and the mandatory military draft will end. Parents will stop needing to send their children into war, not knowing what will become of their homeland or of their children.
Unlike my Birthright group, our ancestors on Masada did not descend the mountain. But Masada did not truly fall if the young people of Diaspora and Israel remember the story and continue to fight for self-determination of the Jewish people and the Jewish state.
The sounds of Masada will forever echo in my mind and heart—the cries of my Israeli peers for the end of conflict, and Masada crying back. It has been thousands of years since our ancestors gave their lives at Masada, but the war against the Jewish people continues unabated in the U.N. I can only pray for the day when the Israeli people’s cries for peace will echo throughout the world.