Gender & Sexuality

Birthright Israel and #MeToo

Participants reflect on the oft-fraught sexual and gender dynamics on the famous free trip to Israel.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
The Israeli flag is seen near the Western Wall in the Old City on November 25, 2014.

The day after Julia Peck says she was sexually assaulted by an Israeli soldier on her trip with Birthright Israel, she had thoughts of jumping in front of a bus. Wracked by pain and guilt as she arrived at the Western Wall, she says she slipped a note between the stones. The note read, “I’m Sorry.”

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Peck, then a sophomore, arrived back at Columbia University during a heated campus discussion of consent, alcohol and coercion. She steeled herself and filed a report about her incident. Her fresh trauma and distress didn’t stop her from being scrupulous; she gathered two comprehensive witness accounts from her Birthright roommates, and even included the screenshot of an apology text from the alleged perpetrator. Encouraged by campus Hillel staff, the central location for Jewish life on many campuses that also ran and organized her Birthright trip, she filed a report.

Key Findings

  • More than 50 Birthright Israel participants and staffers shared their experiences, uncovering nine alleged incidents of harassment or assault.

  • Four out of five of the staff manuals we reviewed ranging from 2012 to 2017 contain no language around harassment or assault.

  • Six interviewees discussed inappropriate or coercive games, some which were initiated by staff or soldiers.

  • Some interviewees felt that the culture of the trips made it difficult to report incidents.

Julia spent the spring of her sophomore year waiting for a response from Birthright Israel. Spring break came, then final exams, and then the quad filled with chairs and tents for graduation and the class of 2014 donned their robes.

Peck expected, she says now, that when she heard back, she’d get some words of sympathy and the promise of change, a guarantee that something would be done to curtail the combination of hook-up pressure, spring-break partying, and romanticization of planned encounters between Israeli soldiers and American women on Birthright that made her own assault feel “fated.”

Raised in Jewish youth groups, Peck was sure someone cared. But as school ended and summer days grew hot, she still hadn’t heard real news, except for an email from her school’s Hillel officials in July, during Israel’s 2014 military actions in Gaza, asking her to hang tight as “the current situation” was keeping staff busy and delaying communication with colleagues in Israel.

“That shock and that compassion that I expected from Jewish institutions which had until then nurtured me, never happened,” she says. “What took precedence was defending military action.”

Disillusioned and hurting, she went abroad to Morocco for the fall semester of her junior year, while her parents began to press her case with Hillel, with Birthright, and even with Israeli officials, saying in one email: “It is time that our family have a response.”

Hillel officials eventually met with Peck’s family and told Jewish Currents they took the lead in implementing changes to policy on their Birthright trips. A spokesperson for Hillel International, Matthew Berger, told us, “From the moment Ms. Peck brought her allegations to our attention, Hillel has worked tirelessly to investigate and address the issue” and to engage with her on ideas to prevent similar incidents in the future. Berger added that Hillel adheres to all Birthright policies regarding “the reporting and addressing” of incidents on these trips.

Courtesy Julia Peck

Julia Peck, back turned, on a separate trip abroad.

In March 2015, more than a year after Peck’s alleged assault, the family received a letter from Gidi Mark, the CEO of Birthright Israel, averring that the organization had implemented a series of changes to prevent situations like hers, including group discussions of appropriate behavior and a written commitment signed by Israeli participants, most of them soldiers. “I regret not having reached out to you sooner, but in fact we did take the matter very seriously when it was brought to our attention – there is no difference between you and us on the issue of unwanted sexual contact, and our aim is to reach zero incidents of this or similar nature,” Mark wrote. The letter noted that Birthright encourages participants to report problems to the police (a step Peck says she didn’t feel up to) and said they had reported the incident to the Israeli army, adding that, “We are not an investigating body, and do not have either the tools or the authority to determine facts and take steps against those accused.”

Peck says that was the last she heard on the subject.

Taglit-Birthright Israel, a near-100 million-dollar annual enterprise which has served more than 600,000 participants over its 18-plus years, is one of the most expansive projects in the world Jewish community. The standard trip, an all-included 10-day vacation set in Israel and available only to qualifying Jews, brings a few dozen young people together on a private bus, along with a guard, a hired Israeli tour guide, and two young staffers, who are compensated with airfare. A Birthright trip is designed to be a magical experience, checking the boxes of Zionist history, religious experiences (like a communal Shabbat) and opportunities to socialize with young Israelis, most commonly Israeli soldiers, who sign up for a portion of the trip known as the “mifgash,” or encounter.

As the #MeToo movement unfolded, Jewish Currents spoke with more than 50 Birthright Israel participants and staffers about their experiences with the often-fraught sexual and gender dynamics on the trips, uncovering the case above along with eight other alleged incidents of sexual misconduct ranging from verbal harassment to assault. The participants and staffers told us about a volatile mix of sex and alcohol that, as on college campuses, has the potential to turn toxic. In the cases of some incidents recounted to us, it did.

But many spoke of something more: a pervasive environment of sexual pressure that encourages Jews to meet, marry, and, someday, procreate with other Jews while being awed by the beauty and culture of Israel. This expectation is communicated before the trip even begins by official social media, and on the trips is expressed most directly around American women and Israeli soldiers.

Some participants cited this environment as the reason they did not come forward about their own experiences of sexual misconduct.

This was the environment that Julia Peck challenged in 2015 when she came forward with her story. Our reporting suggests that this culture was compounded by a lack of uniformly applied assault and harassment policies. Our interviews spanned 14 years with more than 20 trip leaders; of 15 who led trips before 2016, only one remembered sexual assault training. Many of those staffers acknowledged that if such issues were covered, their trainings did not dwell on the subject long enough for them to recall it with any specificity; others say they were fairly certain there were no such discussions.

  • “Many spoke of something more: a pervasive environment of sexual pressure that encourages Jews to meet, marry, and, someday, procreate with other Jews.”

While official Birthright literature and brochures do address safety of the trips from external “security” threats—namely terrorism—four out of five of the staff manuals we reviewed ranging from 2012 to 2017 contain no language around harassment or assault.

Behind the scenes, some things do appear to have been changing. Birthright told us they have expanded their protocols and trainings around misconduct in recent years, including creating clear guidelines and strengthening reporting mechanisms for all participants and staff. And a Hillel International spokesman says that since the incident with Peck was reported, it has “taken a leadership role in developing and implementing sexual harassment and assault prevention training for everyone who engages with Birthright Israel participants on Hillel operated trips.” Seven of the eight staffers we spoke with who led trips to Israel from 2016 to 2018 say that there was more discussion of the issue in both staff trainings and participant orientations; some recall providers using “zero tolerance” to discuss harassment and assault.

When asked for comment, Birthright Israel sent a statement: “Birthright Israel has clear and unwavering rules that require appropriate conduct by participants and staffers, at all times. Our robust reporting procedures and enhanced training programs are backed by a zero tolerance policy for violations of our Code of Conduct, with participants who violate our rules sent home immediately without hesitation.” Jewish Currents repeatedly asked for documentation of the reporting and training procedures, including details about how the zero tolerance policy is implemented and how many participants have been sent home; Birthright did not provide those.

Our 13 interviews with 2016-2018 participants, other press reports, and a review of the Birthright and trip-provider social media indicate that the sexually pressurized environment hasn’t faded away.

Ronen Zvulun - Pool/Getty Images

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks as he attends a Taglit-Birthright Israel event on January 4, 2012 in Jerusalem, Israel.

In fact, this winter, hundreds of participants were treated to a speech by Prime Minister Netanyahu himself, who quipped, “Statistically, 187% of you will meet your future husband and wife on this visit, maybe here tonight.”

To truly understand the context of Birthright, you have to understand Jewish survivalism, and the trips for young Jews that are arguably at its center.  Early in the year, musician Jack Antonoff sat down with comedian Seth Meyers and riffed on Jewish teen tours that lead to sexual exploration. “Jews put other Jews on these crazy trips,” he said. “They want you in a very emotional environment to connect with other Jews ... and then they get you back to the hotel they’re like, ‘Now have fun!’ So... you go and you touch other Jews.”

“Some other faiths, they’re more like, ‘Don’t touch!’” Antonoff continued, as the studio audience laughed and Meyers mugged. “Jews say ‘Touch, but with a Jew, ‘cause if you don’t...the race will die!’ So you have this crazy freedom, and stress.”

The musician had succinctly explained a culture that mixes sexual permissiveness with pressure for future in-group babymaking, all to counter demographic concern. As Rebecca Krevat, an anti-sexual assault organizer in the Jewish community put it in a recent interview, this unique brew is “a combination of rape culture in our society [at large] and the pressure to create Jewish continuity: that the future of the Jewish people is literally on your back.”

Founded in 1999 after a decade of panic within the organized Jewish community about rising intermarriage rates and young Jews’ declining communal involvement, Birthright is the ne plus ultra of organizations devoted to “Jewish continuity.” According to its own website, the program exists “to ensure the future of the Jewish people” through tours that promote Zionism and Jewish identity. Birthright is far from the only entity in the Jewish community whose purpose is widely understood to be making sure Jews produce more Jews. But in the vast enterprise of fostering Jewish “bonding,” nothing reaches the size and scope of Taglit-Birthright Israel.

Taglit-Birthright’s major funders include the State of Israel itself, along with big names in Jewish philanthropy like co-founders Michael Steinhardt and Charles Bronfman, as well as Trump mega-donors Sheldon and Miriam Adelson. Recent donors have included a veritable who’s who of big shots in Jewish institutional giving. The Birthright Foundation gala, celebrating the organization’s 18th year and honoring the Adelsons, was held on April 15th, an event targeted by some activists for a range of grievances regarding Palestinians, who are excluded from their “birthright” of ownership of the land.

  • “I think it’s super heady for participants if they get ‘chosen’ to do something sexual with a soldier.”

Although the organization maintains that its trips are educational in nature, the Yente-meets-Tinder aspect of the trip has been acknowledged by at least one founder. In 2010, while reporting on Birthright for The Investigative Fund and The Nation, journalist Kiera Feldman met Birthright co-founder Michael Steinhardt. Feldman mentioned, in their conversation, that she’d dated someone she met on the Birthright bus. “Is he the man of your dreams?” Steinhardt asked her. She said no, and he was unfazed. “Well, a few months of pleasure is wonderful!” “Later, from the stage, Steinhardt promised a free honeymoon to anyone who met that night and tied the knot within a year,” Feldman writes. When Feldman spoke to consultant Elan Ezrachi, who designed the mifgash encounter with young Israelis, he told her the encounters “move very fast to what we call ‘hormonal mifgashim.’ … Things happen.”

One doesn’t need a ticket to an exclusive gala to understand the environment of the trips; dozens of official Instagram pictures mash together sex, Zionism, and the Jewish future. Along with hummus and falafel, common motifs are smiling girls in bikiniscaked in mud from the Dead Sea—or doing yoga twists and backbends in short-shorts with sunrises or desert vistas in the background. Often, participants are draped in an Israeli flag, silhouetted against the land itself.

Posts in official Taglit-Birthright social media feeds also celebrate the shidduchs (matches) made between former participants, showing a picture of a proposal or wedding, and a flashback to the pair back in Israel.

The sexualized environment is arguably most intense around the soldiers who join the trip. “Everyone freaks the hell out when the soldiers come, and inevitably, there are hookups,” says Chanel Dubofsky, a feminist writer, activist and former Birthright staffer who led three trips between 2008 and 2011. “I think it’s super heady for participants if they get ‘chosen’ to do something sexual with a soldier.” At least 14 former staffers and participants reported the use of some variation of the refrain “Are you ready for the soldiers?” as being a significant climax of the trip.

“It was almost like a monster truck pep rally voice,” says Julie S., another former staffer who led two trips. “There was hooting from the students.” At least five former staffers we spoke to described one or more soldiers being visibly disappointed that the women on the trip weren’t single or more “fun.” For their part, some Israelis, a former soldier told me recently, refer to the Taglit-Birthright trip as “shaglit” (a pun on the British slang for “sex”).

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Israeli soldiers pray at the Western Wall in the the Old City in Jerusalem on November 25, 2014.

All this is compounded by a drinking culture that echoes American college life, with an extra layer that arises from the immersive and far-from-home experience. Although the legal age for purchasing alcohol in Israel is 18, Birthright participants sign an agreement laying out specific rules around drinking—not to excess, not on the bus, not in hotel rooms, and not before visiting the Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem. Soldiers and staffers aren’t allowed to drink at all. Nonetheless, participants say drinking often extends far beyond a few sanctioned nights out, sometimes reaching “high-school” level partying as one recent participant described it. Seventeen of those interviewed say they’d personally seen or participated in rule-breaking around increasingly strict alcohol rules regulating time and place of consumption—up through the last round of trips this winter. Birthright did not to respond to questions about the issue of alcohol policies being routinely violated.

This atmosphere is so well known as to be something of a cultural joke. Consider a sampling of recent headlines on stories about Birthright sex: From Cosmopolitan’s sex and love vertical, “The 15 Things That Really Happen On Birthright,” a list that encompasses sex with a soldier and with co-participants and learning to say “I think you’re sexy” in Hebrew; from Vice, a subheadline reads, “Without question the best thing about being Jewish is the free sex vacation to Israel.” A third post, from a blog called Jewlicious, gets more specific, as its “Unofficial Guide to Sex on Birthright Israel” includes this gem: “For the male soldiers the possibility of uncomplicated sex with their choice of dozens of exotic foreigners serves as added incentive to join the trip...But approach with caution. These men, well… boys really, have prodigious appetites.”

Then there’s the 2016 Broad City episode that put its secular heroines on a plane to “Birthmark Israel.” Hapless stoners Ilana and Abbi find themselves seated next to potential matches, chosen by Birthmark. When Ilana expresses doubts, her counselor lays on some Jewish guilt: “Would it kill you to try?”

On the trips, this culture can veer from humorous to horrifying. Interviews with former participants and leaders revealed a series of experiences ranging from outright violations to the merely bizarre. In addition to the nine incidents of alleged harassment or assault, six discussed inappropriate or coercive games, some of which were initiated by staff or soldiers. The lines between harassment, bullying, and simple juvenile behavior, participants said, could sometimes be hard to parse, and tired and overwhelmed trip leaders felt unequipped to deal with these problems.

In the Summer of 2015, a group of Birthright participants told the Forwardthey experienced sexual harassment from peers, including vulgar language and racial and homophobic slurs. Leah Susman, the participant who was the primary source for the Forward, described this behavior again to Jewish Currents.

Peter DeAnna, another participant on that trip, says the antics on that trip—including the use of slurs—were “super disruptive.” He says a tripmate later told him about peers who opened doors on female participants while they were changing. “I think there is an inherent problem, when you hear about this sex culture,” Susman told Jewish Currents. “People are very familiar with Birthright as the 10-day party of sex and drinking.”

“There were a lot of weird patriarchal undertones” and, “toxic elements of hookup culture” says Rae Szereszewski, who participated in a trip in 2010. To her, and others we spoke with, what was toxic about the hook-up culture on the trip was not participants having sex; it was a combination of sexual pressure with gendered double-standards and skewed power dynamics—in this case, soldiers, staff, and groups of male participants who have social power over female participants.

  • “I did not go on the trip to find a soulmate or boyfriend.”

In some cases, participants say that risqué games and activities meant to be fun and frivolous felt oppressive. Some of those activities were sanctioned by leaders and guides: one 2008 participant described an ear-licking game initiated by the Israeli tour guide and a tradition of waving boxer shorts around at each stop. A 2014 staffer told of a game played with visiting soldiers where “you have to come up with the most outrageous things that would make someone sexually unappealing.” Two participants on a winter 2013-2014 trip both told Jewish Currents about an activity in which, mandated to stay in their hotel, they were asked by staffers to pair up and ask each other personal questions. “That made me uncomfortable,” says one. “I did not go on the trip to find a soulmate or boyfriend.”

Some interviewees felt that the culture of the trips made it difficult to report incidents. In 2007, a then 18-year-old Talia Kassie found herself out at a club on a sanctioned dance night out with her trip-mates. She recalls a stranger coming up to her, aggressively hitting on her and eventually pinning her against the wall and attempting to put his hands up her skirt.

Eventually, she says, she ended up crawling out between the man’s legs to safety. But when she tried to tell other participants on her trip what happened, she says they were too busy dancing in a circle to really heed her; she recalls being unable to find trip leaders at the time. So she stepped outside in a panic and called a friend back home. Reached by Jewish Currents, that friend said she remembers the call distinctly, especially the fear in Kassie’s voice and the process of staying on the phone with her for her entire solo walk back to the hotel. (When we reached out to Kassie’s trip organizer, Routes Travel, for comment, they referred us directly to Birthright PR. We also reached out to one of the leaders and the tour guide, but the former didn’t return calls or emails and the latter couldn’t remember any specifics of the trip. Commenting generally, and not about this incident, Birthright wrote: “We strongly encourage all participants to inform our staff of any incidents they have witnessed or were personally involved with and we provide our participants with any needed assistance and support.”) Kassie now believes the youth of her leaders and the singular focus on having fun and bonding on the trip made it hard for those around her to really comprehend or care about her terrifying experience.

HRYMX/Flickr

A group attends a Hatikva 6 concert while on a summer Birthright trip in 2016.

Former staffers say that insufficient harassment prevention training bred silence on the ground in Israel. One 2013 staffer recalls not reporting a possible assault because he was told it would be counterproductive by his Israeli guide. “It’s not clear whether an assault actually took place and it’s not my place as a staffer to determine it, but I’ve sat with some deep discomfort about how we dealt with it,” he says.

“I would liken it to how a fraternity deals with something in their fraternity house,” this staffer said of the environment at that time.

Other staffers, who say they are more like camp counselors or mentors than authority figures, voiced similar regrets. Several went so far as to say that participants told them about forbidden hookups with co-staffers, and other unspecified “bad” sexual experiences, months or even years after their trip. The whispers that fly on the bus, they say, are hard to verify.

Unequipped to deal with these cultural pressures and attitudes, some Birthright trip leaders say they found themselves on the receiving end of misconduct. One former staffer who worked on trips between 2014 and 2016, describes being kissed by participants on two trips without giving permission. “There were participants who acted incredibly inappropriately towards each other and me,” says this former staffer, who asked not to be named  because of her Jewish communal involvement. “If I had gone to our trip provider and said ‘Hey, there are problematic participants,’ half the bus would have been gone,” she continued.

A second former leader, Annie Lascoe, who led ten trips during her years as a staffer at a Jewish organization between 2012 and 2015, also says that there were times that a group of participants made her feel unsafe by commenting about her body, even circling around her as they made innuendoes and tried to touch her. “You’re their peer,” she says of participants. “They know you don’t have that much power and you know you don’t have power.”

In this environment, former participants and staff say, it’s hard for the relatively young staffers to put the brakes on unwanted behavior like casual racism and sexism. Her co-leader on one trip in question in 2015, Benji Berlow, told Jewish Currents that he wasn’t surprised at all that she felt unsafe, describing the participants as “extremely inappropriate.” Birthright did not respond to a question about whether staffers lack authority and might be vulnerable to harassment themselves.

  • “There’s so much pressure on you to not let people binge drink that any other aspects of bodily safety fall to the wayside”

Most staffers we spoke to recollect an exhausting ten-day sprint, focused almost exclusively on keeping people with the group, preventing dehydration, alcohol poisoning, and illness, and answering constant questions. One described the sleep lack as akin to “cult hazing.” “There’s so much pressure on you to not let people binge drink that any other aspects of bodily safety fall to the wayside,” says Lascoe, who led ten trips.

Looking back, says Kassie, “You should not have people in their early 20s running a trip of 18 year-olds.” What former participants and staff on various trips say—including those who had experienced or witnessed harassment or assault—echoes Kassie’s comments: the responsibility can’t rest with young staffers alone.

When presented with a list of behavior identified by our interviewees as problematic, Birthright responded: “It is wrong to make inaccurate generalizations from a handful of incidents that were not [officially] reported and are not a representation of either the experience we provide or our values,” a spokesperson wrote in an emailed statement. “Our top priority is always the safety and wellbeing of our participants. We aim to facilitate an open dialogue and empower our participants and are dedicated to providing them with the most meaningful and positive experience possible.” Asked if Birthright believes there is a problematic sexual culture on its trips, the organization didn’t respond.

In 2013, Julia Peck, the Columbia University sophomore, signed up for a winter Birthright tour to access the region and join a post-trip educational program in the West Bank. She says she planned to “try to create an atmosphere on the trip that honored Palestinian history.” But she also wanted something out of the trip that was very much in line with Birthright’s mission: to “form some Jewish relationships.”

The sexualized environment appears to have been as prevalent on Peck’s trip as others described to us. In interviews with Jewish Currents, Peck and one of her roommates both mentioned feeling encouraged to, in essence, make themselves cute when the soldiers arrived; trip leaders told them that the fact that they were in bathing suits at the pivotal moment of the soldiers’ arrival was a stroke of luck. They were “hyping people up,” Peck’s roommate says.

The trip turned into a nightmare during a big party towards the end, she says, when a number of Birthright groups were mingling in a hotel bar. She says a friend poured Peck, who had already had some wine, a green drink which she now thinks was absinthe. A group of participants, including Peck, her two roommates, and two men, went back to her room, with her roommates observing her slurring her speech and struggling to stand as one of the men, a soldier from the trip’s mifgash who also appeared intoxicated, held her up.In the room, there was more partying and the roommates began sexual activity with one of their two male guests.

Peck had begun to brown out soon after drinking the liquor, but has distinct memories of being back in the hotel room with the soldier, with whom she’d been debating politics earlier in the night, she says in both the complaint she filed to Birthright and a recent interview. In both the document and interview, she says remembers saying, “no, I have a boyfriend” as he performed unwanted oral sex. “I remember not being able to move,” she says now.

  • “I remember feeling like I was in an emergency and that the anxiety felt painful... My memory after this picture is black again for a while.”

Peck says her assailant later stood over her, and she thought he was about to attempt unwanted intercourse. “I remember feeling like I was in an emergency and that the anxiety felt painful,” she wrote in her report. “My memory after this picture is black again for a while.” Her roommates, fill in the picture: “Julia then became visibly upset, and began to cry, running into the bathroom and locking herself in,” one roommate wrote in her witness report. Peck remembers being in the bathroom in tears.

Peck provided Jewish Currents a Facebook message from the soldier that arrived the following day, saying, “i’m sorry about what happend [sic] last night … i’ve feeling ashemd about how I treated you. i hope you can forgive me and it won’t affect your stay in israel.”

Her two roommates later filed detailed witness reports. In these statements, both said that during the course of the encounter they heard Peck attempting to rebuff the soldier; one said Peck suggested the soldier should hook up with one of the roommates, who was in the next bed. He then approached that roommate and “was inappropriately forceful with me as well,” recalled that roommate in an interview, confirming her witness report. In recent interviews, they both told Jewish Currents that in their view Peck was too drunk to consent.

Peck returned to Columbia University the semester before activist Emma Sulkowicz would carry out her nationally-covered “Carry That Weight” mattress protest against sexual assault. At that point Peck was able to get professional help. A month after Peck’s return, she messaged her assailant back, saying “it is so obvious you did not have my consent” and asking for cessation of contact. He apologized again.

Jewish Currents reached out to the soldier. Through his lawyer, he emphasized “that nothing non-consensual occurred between the two of them, over four years ago.” “In such circumstances, normally, each party is left with his or her own subjective feelings,” the lawyer wrote. “Nonetheless, [he] deeply regrets, from the bottom of his heart, that this lady feels hurt in any way.”

Soon after her return, Peck decided to file a report with Hillel International, which she dated March 9, 2014, almost two months after the incident. “[P]art of what remains in my memory is the sound of my own voice saying, ‘stop,’” she wrote in the report, adding that since her return, she had experienced debilitating anxiety attacks. She says she put the documents, including witness accounts and texts, together, and emailed the package off. Peck says that the same month she was diagnosed with PTSD.

Concern over the sexualized culture of Birthright trips was one of the reasons the Peck family sought structural change—first by attempting to help her own Columbia-Barnard Hillel chapter create a new training for staff and Birthright participants, and then as her parents pursued answers with Hillel and Birthright itself once she left for a semester abroad.

The change they were looking for led them to reach out to a series of Hillel and Birthright officials.

Four years later, our attempts to find out whether Peck’s case prompted institutional change revealed an organizational structure that makes it hard to pin down responsibility.

Birthright trips are administered by “providers” that partner with Birthright and are able recruit directly. At the same time, local Hillels and Jewish Federations can work with these groups and run their own staff trainings beforehand—so a college Hillel, for instance, might field and organize a trip that is then actually run in Israel by a provider. Potentially, then, multiple layers of Jewish institutional involvement can be wrapped around a given trip, muddying the question of who is ultimately accountable for issues that arise. Jewish Currents attempted to clarify roles and responsibilities with both the providers and with Birthright multiple times; the providers who responded referred us to Birthright, and Birthright did not answer specific questions about its relationship with its trip providers. We reached out to ten current providers we were able to identify to ask for copies of training manuals and codes of conduct for participants. Only one provided the latter—the rest either did not respond or referred us immediately to Birthright PR.

A spokesperson for Hillel, itself a trip provider, says “Birthright Israel sets standards and qualifications that each trip organizer must meet, which includes sexual assault and harassment prevention training. Hillel adheres to all Birthright policies regarding the reporting and addressing of any incidents during the trips.”

HRYMX/Flickr

Group activities during a summer Birthright trip in 2016.

About a year after Julia Peck filed her report, her parents reached out to Yossi Beilin, a former Israeli politician who was instrumental in launching Birthright, as well as to Birthright CEO Gidi Mark. Soon after, in a letter to Peck’s parents dated March 23, 2015, Mark outlined a new series of concrete steps taken to train the soldiers:

“In the wake of what Peck reported, we reinforced our policy and adopted additional steps... each Israeli participant is required to be present at a conference of the soldiers and students, at which the code of acceptable behavior is explained to the entire group. Then, after they are divided up among the various tour organizers (such as Hillel), the appropriate conduct is explained again, both orally and with the aid of a visual slide, which explicitly addresses the issue of sexual harassment. We have also instituted, in the wake of last year’s incident, a practice of signing each Israeli mifgash participant on a written commitment, in which they declare that these issues have been explained to them, and undertake to abide by the rules of conduct. Furthermore, in each group of Israeli participants there is a group leader who has been charged with reiterating the code of appropriate behavior, and keeping an eye out for reports of violations.”

Hillel International confirmed that Peck’s report initiated changes around sexual harassment and assault protocols for its Birthright trips. “We worked to mandate training for Israeli soldiers and guards who interact with participants, as well as expand training to include sensitivity towards LGBTQ inclusion and mental health,” wrote spokesman Berger.

Other evidence also suggests that Birthright made some changes around this time. A Birthright “Mifgash Handbook” labeled “pilot edition” and dated Summer 2015, was found by Jewish Currents on the website of one of its providers, Israel Outdoors. The handbook includes detailed instructions to the staff about how to brief the Israeli participants on their role on the trip emphasizing the codes of conduct: “be assertive and clear and do so in a manner that is unambiguous,” it advises staff, identifying “red lines” such as drugs and alcohol use, violence and sexual harassment (“Remember cultural differences,” it exhorts in the section about sexual harassment).

Birthright also told Jewish Currents that in recent years, they have increased training around misconduct, and strengthened reporting messages as part of a process of “constantly making adjustments.” The group reiterated the points made in Mark’s letter to Peck, focusing on the Code of Conduct, repeated briefings for anyone who “comes in immediate contact with the group” on policies, and the strong message that everyone on the trip must adhere to these guidelines; the organization emphasized that participants are encouraged to report problems and offered support when doing so.

  • “You can’t prevent everything, but you can put structures in place to mitigate a situation.”

Three recent staffers described a new way of talking to participants, saying that it was mandated by providers: Participants sit in a circle, often in Ben Gurion international airport in Tel Aviv, while their trip provider’s Israel point-person leads a discussion about conduct and respect. According to another recent staffer, the point person from her trip provider, Israel Experts, came and spoke to her New England-based group about the code of conduct, adding that Israel Experts has a trained professional on the ground in Israel who could be reached at all hours. “He said, ‘these things have happened at Birthright. We want to get ahead of that,’” she reported. “You can’t prevent everything, but you can put structures in place to mitigate a situation.” She also says that midway through her most recent trip, a Birthright staffer came to check in on the trip staffers to make sure they understood and were following policies on alcohol, and sexual harassment and assault. “It’s different than in 2015,” one recent staffer says, “Every year, people are a little bit more sensitive.”

Birthright also told Jewish Currents that in recent years, they have increased training around misconduct.

Several staff application forms from different providers contain identical language about “newly implemented trainings.” We spoke to 13 participants who attended trips in the last 18 months, and they almost all reported hearing similar “zero-tolerance” language on harassment in their briefings.

Acknowledging the existence of past problems and the implementation of some training signal important changes, especially given the silence around the issue that participants say was once the norm.

A training and a message of support can’t obliterate the culture that’s been built up over decades, former participants say.

“I’ve appreciated the feeling of ‘this isn’t a joke’,” another staffer who has worked three trips in recent years says. “But it’s hard to know how much it prevents things from happening. The trainings can only do so much.”

The manuals reflect the contradiction between the trips’ sexually pressurized culture and the efforts to prevent sexual misconduct. In addition to discussing behavioral “red lines,” the same “mifgash” manual cited above includes a getting-to-know-you game called “Speed Dating” and another in which staff are instructed to “encourage them to reveal juicy details.” A Winter 2016-2017 Bay Area Federation staff manual discussed the rules around nights out: “Due to recent incidents of nights out getting out of control, Birthright has been limiting them, especially during the mifgash with the Israeli participants,” but the manual does not specifically discuss sexual assault.

As with previous years, recent participants cite the culture of the trips as the reason they did not come forward regarding incidents of sexual misconduct. Three college students on a school-affiliated trip in winter 2017 told Jewish Currents about an incident in which several American women, taking a dip in crowded hot springs, found themselves getting groped by a group of unknown men in the water. Looking back, one of the students, Talia B, who was groped in the hot springs, says she wonders why she didn’t speak up to her trip leaders: “In a lot of other circumstances I would have said something,” she says. In part, she blamed her reaction on classic self-blame: in a crowded public place, in a bikini, what else would they expect? But part of it was reinforced by the tenor of the trip itself, she says, which reinforced a “longstanding cultural idea that American Jews are sheltered and soft and don’t know how hard it is to be an Israeli,” and by the fact that they didn’t recall any serious discussion of consent or what to do about unwanted sexual contact.

  • “We tried to do as much as we could once we got the picture... We could have done a lot more.”

recent article in the Forward described a college’s Hillel director receiving complaints about inappropriate behavior on a spring 2017 trip, including comments encouraging hookups with Israeli participants. He was later banned from Birthright trips. This echoes what our interviews suggest: Many recent participants told us that jokes and whispers about hookups with soldiers persist on trips; the majority of this recent group saw alcohol rules broken.

Several participants on a summer 2017 trip described a series of uncomfortable sexual comments from a fellow participant toward the women on the trip, culminating in a night when he refused to move his sleeping bag away from female participants while they camped in the Bedouin tent despite participants’ objections. While they appreciated that staff tried to intervene, the women felt the reaction was hardly one of zero-tolerance. “We got the sense that giving a stern talking to was really the most that [staff] could do,” says one. “It’s nice that have these policies in place, but I don’t think there’s a ton of follow-through,” says another student who was present on the trip. “It’s disheartening.”

We reached out to a staffer on this trip who described being told about the behavior after the tent incident, which came towards the end of the trip. She says that although she had been instructed to report instances of assault or harassment to a trip provider’s point person, she felt the focus of that instruction was mostly on assault, and that Birthright could more thoroughly train staffers on how to handle behavior before it escalated—while also more explicitly encouraging participants to report any kind of verbal harassment or inappropriate comments. “I didn’t know exactly what my role was in reporting,” she says.

The staffer says she was “disturbed” by what her participants told her, and wanted to take action, but was told by her guide he would handle it and speak to the participant on his own. “We tried to do as much as we could once we got the picture,” she says, describing talking to the women, then the man, and emailing Birthright about the situation. “We could have done a lot more.”

In many ways, the year in which Julia Peck pressed her case was the middle of a cultural gulf. In 2015, the campus rape discussion was still permeating into the mainstream. Today, students are coming from campuses where consent discussions are lapping the national discourse—and Jewish student activism is already pushing against institutions like Hillel International, which has been publicly accused of prioritizing Israel politics over young survivors’ stories. Hillel’s endorsement of pro-Israel Trump appointee for Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the United States Department of Education Kenneth Marcus has drawn the ire of campus anti-rape activists for Marcus’s opposition to Obama-era Title IX guidance on sexual assault. Participants we spoke to say they wondered if experiences like those reported here are part of a larger communal pattern of obscuring the pain and isolation faced by assault and harassment survivors in favor of fostering a love of Israel.

Birthright is hardly the originator of social pressure to in-marry, date, and have “Jewish babies.”  But its reputation is inextricably enmeshed with those larger cultural tropes, according to experts and participants alike.“I grew up being told things like ‘Jewish men are safe and spaces like these trips are safe and we can let our guard down,’” says Debra Guckenheimer, a sociologist who has extensively studied rape culture in Israel. “That message really sets up Jewish women to not expect violence, to be in situations where they may not otherwise put themselves, and to blame themselves later when it happens.”

Dubofsky, the former staffer, says that in order to really combat the broader culture, Birthright might have to push its new anti-harassment message with so robust a training process that it actively deters some potential staff and participants. “I understand that fewer trips flies in the face of the entire mission, but you can’t just make a gesture,” she says. “I’m not interested in controlling people’s sexuality—but there’s a really unhealthy culture. We’re tantalizing you with ‘you will hook up and you will marry.’ The trips promote allegiance and a lack of critical thinking. And to talk about rape culture, you have to be able to think critically.”

For Julia Peck, that lack of critical thinking has had repercussions even four years later, making her question a Jewish community bent on on ”Jewish continuity.” In the effort to produce more Jews, “we forget who bears the brunt of this sexual pressure,” she says.

A recent post from the Instagram account of a Birthright provider provides a small window into the cultural mystique that still accompanies the trips. Five women pose with four Israeli soldiers and what appears to be a policeman. They’re laughing, flexing muscles, waving arms, pointing; the policeman makes a “rock-and-roll” gesture with his hand.

The caption reads, “Bring home a soldier to your Jewish mama?”

This article was reported in partnership with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute, with support from the Puffin Foundation.

About the reporter

Sarah M. Seltzer

Sarah M. Seltzer

Sarah M. Seltzer is a writer in New York, covering culture, activism and gender.