When it comes to unique holiday experiences, a group of young Jewish tourists from Canada and the U.S. recently had something to write home about: being stopped by two Israeli army soldiers while on a visit to Hebron in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

The soldiers wanted to see their identification, a regular occurrence for Palestinians living in areas under Israeli control, but something new to most members of the group.

"The reality that the status quo can continue instantly gets shattered," said Isaac Kates Rose, a tour guide with Extend, a group aimed at shedding light on life in the occupied territories.

"A lot of the conflict is perpetuated by the invisibility of the suffering of Palestinians under occupation," Kates Rose said during a recent tour.

Extend was started by two young American Jews — Jon Emont and Sam Sussman — who felt that a related program that organizes tours for Jewish youth from around the world wasn't giving participants the full story.

That other tour group is Taglit-Birthright, which has sent more than 500,000 young people from 68 countries to visit Israel since 1999. About 75 per cent of the participants come from Canada and the U.S.

"Only the smallest fraction of them are given the opportunity to visit the West Bank, to connect with the Palestinian narrative and society," Kates Rose said.

Extend, which aims to continue the Birthright experience through visits to Hebron, Ramallah and other West Bank locations, is tiny by comparison. Only 75 people have taken the tour since the group was founded two years ago.

Extend relies on donations from Jewish philanthropic organizations as well as a fee from participants to pay for the week-long tour.

By contrast, Birthright's 10-day-long program is free to anyone of Jewish heritage, and is paid for by a number of Jewish organizations and the government of Israel.

Connecting to the past

Birthright has its critics, with some saying it doesn't provide a complete picture of the situation in such a charged and complex region.

One former participant, Sandra Y.L. Korn, wrote in the Harvard Crimson student newspaper that "Birthright advances the political agenda of the Israeli and American right." 

One of the participants of the recent Extend trip to Hebron, Ilana Levinson said she was eager to take her experiences of interacting normally with Palestinians back home to the United States.

"Being here in the occupation, where people feel it the hardest, but still smiling with them and interacting with them, I think it'll ease the fears of my community."

Those who visit Israel on Birthright are shown where Israel's founders declared the country's independence.

Birthright group

Tour members with the Birthright group listen to a presentation in Tel Aviv about the founding of Israel. (Samer Shalabi / CBC)

They also usually visit the Sea of Galilee, Eilat in southern Israel, and holy sites in Jerusalem, including the Western Wall, the most revered site in Judaism.

Jessica Swan's recent trip to Israel was a milestone. The 26-year-old from Toronto was the 30,000th Canadian Birthright participant.

She said the highlight of her visit was Yad Vashem, the Jerusalem memorial to the victims of the Holocaust.

"It provided an opportunity for me to look at my history and look at what's going on in Israel right now," she said, adding. "I think that was important for me to connect to Judaism a bit more than I have in the past."

Craving more

Birthright has no plans to change its tour itinerary, says Michael Soberman, the vice-president of the Canada Israel Experience, the Toronto-based organization that runs the Canadian tours.

Participants "hear diverse opinions from within the Israeli political world," Soberman said during a recent stop in Tel Aviv.

"But in terms of speaking with actual Palestinians from the Palestinian Authority, that's not a regular part of the program. The main concern there is the safety and security."

Ben Lipsey

Ben Lipsey, a Birthright participant from Vancouver, says his interest has been whetted and he now would like to visit the Palestinian territories. (Samer Shalabi / CBC)

Ben Lipsy, who recently visited Israel from Vancouver on a Birthright trip, said that what he saw has made him crave more.

"I'm politically inquisitive and I'm interested in world events and foreign affairs.

"I would very much like to go to the Palestinian territories," he says. "I'd very much like to see what's on the other side of the fence, literally."