No-fly zone

Birthright cancels December trips to Israel, says working to resume them quickly

This marks the first time that the organization has had to call off trips due to the security situation in Israel; CEO Gidi Mark says Birthright focusing on new volunteer project

Birthright Israel has canceled all of its trips scheduled for next month in light of the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. This marks the first time in its nearly 25-year history that the organization has called off trips because of a war.

“We currently canceled Birthright Israel trips that were scheduled to arrive in December 2023,” the organization told eJewishPhilanthropy on Tuesday. “We are working to begin them again as soon as the situation in the country allows it.”

Gidi Mark, Birthright Israel CEO, said it was possible that trips could resume in late December-early January, “once things become more stable.”

Mark said the organization was for now focusing on a new program that it announced last month in which alumni come to Israel for two weeks to volunteer in agriculture or in donation centers. The participants, who have to be between the ages of 18 and 40, will have to pay for their own flights and travel insurance, while Birthright Israel will provide accommodations, transportation within Israel and a small stipend.

“Yesterday we started bringing the volunteers. We will be bringing thousands [to Israel] from around the world,” Mark said, noting that over 1,000 people have already registered for the program. “We’ll be strong on volunteering.”

Mark downplayed the significance of the December cancellations, saying the trips been postponed, not canceled altogether, which he said has happened in the past.

Birthright canceled trips because of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 and 2021 — the only time in its history that it has done so. During the Israel-Hamas war in the summer of 2014, not only did trips continue, but that season saw the second-largest cohort ever, with some 20,000 North American participants arriving in the country.

The trips have, however, been adapted in light of security concerns over the years. During the 2014 war, groups did not travel to most of southern Israel or, in certain cases, to Tel Aviv in light of the threat of rocket attacks from Gaza. 

Researchers found that the 2014 trips appeared to have a more significant impact on participants than others. A 2015 study found that they were more likely to have said that their trip included “thoughtful discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” compared to Birthright participants from the year before.

In the winter of 2015, a period that saw a spate of stabbings, car-rammings and shootings in Israel, organizers again adjusted trips to avoid crowded areas. And in 2018 and 2019, when there were regular clashes along the Gaza border, Birthright trips also avoided certain parts of southern Israel.

In those cases, however, despite the heightened security situation, flights from the U.S. to Israel largely continued as normal. Now, in light of significant rocket fire toward central Israel, almost all major airlines that fly to Tel Aviv, save for El Al, have canceled their flights to and from Israel.

Airlines have yet to announce when they will resume service to Ben Gurion Airport. United Airlines, which had said it would begin flying to Israel on Nov. 24, quickly retracted the announcement on Monday.

Mark said the decision to call off the December trips until further notice was not only the result of fewer flights but in light of the general security situation in Israel.

He said that once trips resume, Birthright Israel will put a significant focus on southern Israel, which has been hit hard by the ongoing war.

“Every participant will be part of the reconstruction of the south in one way or another,” Mark said.