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Birthright

 

 Birthright

 

            I have been reading a book called Our Guys. The book traces the history, origins, and outcomes of the Glen Ridge rape case. For those unfamiliar, the Glen Ridge case became famous for its brutality and its disappointing outcome. Four football players stood accused of raping a mentally disabled young woman with a baseball bat, stick, and other objects, while a crowd of their teammates stood by and watched. They certainly did it. Eyewitnesses insisted they did it. The victim bravely testified. The young men were ultimately convicted, but served only a few years each. Most members of that chanting, jeering crowd walked free.

            I can relate to this young woman’s story, thanks to Birthright.

            I am not mentally disabled, but I am a disabled person, and that can make me a target in a crowd. I struggle with the exhausting effects of a chronic auto immune disease. I have migraines and short-term memory loss and other very obvious mental processing problems as a result of a neurological disorder caused by concussions. I am not as vulnerable in the world as this young woman was. Yet in a crowd of hyped-up young men convinced the rules don’t apply to them, I am as visible a target as she.

            We the participants are meant to remember our Birthright experience based on a series of landmark events. Climbing Mt. Masada at dawn. Swimming in the Red Sea. Hiking along the Sea of Galilee. Praying by the Wailing Wall. We are taught growing up that these events will mark our entrance into adulthood, as surely as our Bar and Bar Mitzvahs. We are taught to look forward to Birthright. We are taught we will perhaps meet our new best friend, our next romantic partner, the godparent to our unborn children there. We are taught that Birthright will be the trip of a lifetime, a trip to remember.

            I have all these memories, yes. I hold them dear, yes.

            Yet here is what I also remember, from my 26-32 year old trip of adult men and women. I remember the man who put his hand in my underwear in a public place when he assumed I was too sad and too exhausted to fight back. I fought back anyway, and then he yelled at me, trying to convince me that I was refusing him because I had issues with sex, because I was frigid. I remember how another man on the trip chalked his behavior up to “youthful antics,” never mind that he was 26 years old. How long will the “boys will be boys” rationale apply? Apparently, as long as men wish it to.

           I remember other things as well. I remember standing in corners speaking covertly with my female friends about how uncomfortable we felt, as though our bodies were on display at a meat market for these men’s casual perusal. I remember that my friend asked again and again that the music on the bus be turned down, because her musician’s ear had made her very sensitive to sound—and I remember the glee with which the male trip leader raised the volume in response to her requests. I remember that same male trip leader reading half a paragraph from Birthright’s official sexual harassment policy, then literally tossing the document down and declaring that everyone should “just respect one another.” I remember him and other men on the trip icing me out each time I expressed an opinion, and asking only men to read or make statements at the graves of important Israeli statespeople at Mount Herzl National Cemetery, a literal representation of Jewish power and discrimination.

            I remember finding one of my bras in a hotel hallway and wondering how it got there. I remember one of my roommates yelling at me all night long because she believed I had spread a rumor about her in order to attract all the male attention on the trip to myself. I was rebuked for the rumor I never actually spread. She was never held accountable for her behavior.

            I remember that a friend of mine was harassed on the trip, and the man she told insisted it was her fault for being a tease. I remember that she boarded the plane home nearly too drunk to stand, and nobody stopped her or asked if she was okay. I remember the man who fat-shamed me one day then hit on me the next, and that by then, this seemed normal to me.

            I remember being hit on. Over and over, relentlessly. I remember thinking I ought to just go along with it, just smile and nod, even if I didn’t feel like it. I remember being afraid to say no. I remember hanging out with a guy and not knowing how to tell him that as much as I liked him, I hated the rote, overconfident, aggressive way he hit on me and other women. I remember that every man on that trip had the same rote, overconfident, aggressive way of hitting on us or other women.

            To them, this was a vacation. They didn’t want to have to think about gender violence. They didn’t want to have to think about how their actions impacted the experience of the women on the trip. To them, we belonged to them, bodies and emotional labor and empathetic warmth. We were to be there when they wanted us, to leave them alone when they wanted to get laid—or else to be the objects they used to service themselves. We were the producers of goodies they hoped to attain, and when they were done with us, they expected us to conveniently disappear.

           No, not all guys. But enough. Enough so that none of the other guys stepped in to stop them. Enough so that all of my favorite interactions took place outside of the group space. Enough so that by the time I got back to the U.S., I was a basket case of low self-esteem and crippling self-doubt.

            I attended this trip as a full-fledged adult. I am also a woman who majored in Gender Studies, who earned my graduate degree from a historical women’s college. I know how to name and how to fight against male violence. Yet far from home, surrounded by strangers, massively sleep-deprived, aware I was perceived as stupid or mentally incompetent both because of my disability and because of my chest size, I retreated into survival mode. I thought when I got back home, I would be okay again.

            I was wrong. I am still not okay.

            In the end, that is what bothers me most of all. Those men, “our guys,” they have all gone back home. They have resumed their lives. Those with wives or girlfriends returned to their wives and girlfriends. Those who consider themselves liberals or feminists go on calling themselves this.

            I, on the other hand, act like a traumatized person. I still have nightmares. I still feel a gaping hole where my spirituality used to be. I still feel abandoned by my own community.

            I still feel abandoned by the people who sent me on that trip, knowing that they could not and would not do what was necessary to keep women like me, women like us, safe.

            Those men are “our guys,” I suppose. Young Jewish white Ashkenazi men, they are the center of everything. The community’s great white hope for the future.

            So what about women like me? Just what, exactly, are we? Because on that trip, we were the sacrifices. Will we continue to be?


Ariadne Wolf

 

Ariadne Wolf’s current project, a speculative memoir, is a staunchly environmentalist and powerfully feminist battle cry for the ones this society tends to throw away. This book integrates mermaid mythology, dis/ability, and the impact and usefulness of popular culture and story in disintegrating and reconstructing the self. Her academic work lives at the intersections of Trauma Studies, Whiteness, Disability Studies, Monster Theory, Gender and Performance. As a professional writer, she works cross-genre in Creative Nonfiction, Fantasy, and Historical Fiction. Her essay "A Jewish Perspective on Change" was previously published in Ariel Chart in 2020.


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