British Birthright participants quit trip over West Bank settlement stay

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British Birthright participants quit trip over West Bank settlement stay

EXCLUSIVE: Demand for rooms due to the Maccabiah Games and President Biden's visit meant another option could not be found last minute, organisers said

Visitors to Israel on a Birthright trip
Visitors to Israel on a Birthright trip

Participants on a British Birthright tour this week stayed in a West Bank settlement for three nights after an itinerary change, leading two young adults to leave the trip in disgust.

Jacob Middleburgh, 25, a photographer, and Lauren Keiles, a madracha (tour leader) who works at the Board of Deputies, walked away from the 10-day programme once the Israeli organisers’ decision was made. It is the first time a British Birthright trip has included an overnight stay in the West Bank.

Although the free trips are facilitated in the UK by the British Jewish charity UJIA, Birthright Israel is run by a subsidiary of Israel’s Jewish Agency, and the trips are seen as a rite of passage for Jewish youngsters around the world.

The 30-strong group of British 18-32-year-olds were told that their Jerusalem hotel had been cancelled and that they would instead be staying at Almog Kibbutz, near the Dead Sea and close to the border with Jordan, but behind the Green Line. Organisers said the influx of visitors to Israel due to the Maccabiah Games and President Biden’s visit meant no other rooms could be found at the last minute.

Websites advertising the kibbutz say it was established in 1979 by “idealistic members from other kibbutzim in Israel who came to the area to fulfil the Zionist settlement vision”.

Palestinian activists say the land was confiscated from the Nabi Musa locality in 1977. UJIA, which this week put the West Bank stay down to logistics, tells participants that the Birthright trip gives them “the chance to immerse yourself in the culture, history, and politics of our dynamic homeland”.

Speaking to Jewish News this week, Middleburgh said: “I only knew it was in the West Bank because Lauren found out. I was so angry, I felt I had no choice but to leave.” He said the pair were then “dropped off in the middle of the road” in Jaffa while the rest of the tour continued. “I’m 25 and I work, so I had the means to stay somewhere else and to pay for a flight back, but most of the others on the tour were younger, around 18, and simply couldn’t afford to do that,” he said. “We were far from alone in being deeply uncomfortable about staying in an illegal settlement, but others felt they had no choice. What happens if there’s an incident while they’re there? Is insurance still valid?”

On the Israeli organisers, he said: “It just didn’t occur to them that it might be an issue. Earlier, the Israeli Birthright tour guide had been pointing to West Bank territory, beyond the Green Line, calling it Israeli. It was all very political.”

Birthright Israel is run by Israel Experience Ltd, a subsidiary of the Jewish Agency for Israel. It says its programmes offer “the highest standards of service, safety and security… to facilitate and implement Jewish-Zionist experiential, educational visits to Israel in order to strengthen Jewish identity among Jews, especially youth”.

A spokesman for UJIA confirmed: “One leader and one participant withdrew from the group. We understand the reasons for their decision.” They added: “Our partners on the ground and their service provider were informed at short notice that one group’s planned accommodation was unavailable.

“Security arrangements around President Biden’s visit, demand caused by the Maccabiah Games and the fact it was over Shabbat made finding alternatives very challenging. Our partners on the ground sought out all possible options within an hour of Jerusalem and only Kibbutz Almog was available.”

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