An Australian Birthright trip made what is believed to be an unprecedented stop in Hebron last week complete with a post-visit webcast, raising questions about whether the program has shifted policy on visits to the West Bank.
The group, led by trip provider Israel Express in conjunction with Chabad on Campus in Melbourne and the Zionist Federation of Australia Israel Programs, toured Hebron’s Cave of Patriarchs, the second holiest site in Judaism after the Temple Mount and a site that is also holy to Muslims. Recently deemed a National Heritage Site by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Cave of Patriarchs is believed to house the graves of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and their wives, according to all three major monotheistic religions.
“Be’ezrat Hashem [with the help of God], all the Birthright [trips] will come to Hebron, connect with ‘the mamas and the papas,’” said tour guide Daniel Gutman on the webcast, referring to Judaism’s matriarchs and patriarchs. The webcast still appears on video host WeJew.com but has since been taken down from YouTube.
Prior to the Hebron visit, trips to West Bank towns — as well as Gaza and most parts of east Jerusalem — have been consistently prohibited by Birthright, which sends young diaspora Jews on free 10-day trips to Israel. “Our tours do not travel to or through areas of the West Bank of Gaza,” reads a Birthright web page detailing its security measures. Similar stipulations appear on Israel Express’s Web site, which guarantees that tours do not travel in such places that they deem “unsafe.”
In Hebron a community of several hundred Jews lives surrounded by tens of thousands of Arabs in the West Bank city. There have been periodic outbreaks of violence there between Jews and Arabs, including settler Baruch Goldstein’s 1994 massacre of 29 unarmed Muslims praying at the Mosque of Abraham in the Cave of the Patriarchs.
Both Birthright and the trip providers insist that the group had the authorization and security clearance of the Israeli government to visit Hebron.
“All Taglit-Birthright Israel itineraries are approved by the security authorities, and are updated constantly according to the situation,” read a statement from Ada Spitzer, vice president of marketing, community relations and development at Taglit-Birthright Israel, in response to a Jewish Week inquiry about the Hebron visit. “Our website is updated from time to time accordingly, as well.”
Birthright’s leaders declined to elaborate on whether the Hebron trip marked a policy change, and Israel Express staff members could not be reached for comment.
But tour guide Gutman remained insistent, adding in the video, “Birthright is the connection of our right to our land, and I brought the Jewish people — the descendants of Avram, Yitzhak and Yaacov — to the land of Israel, to the roots of our people, to show them what their Birthright is all about.”
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