Halfway through a 10-day tour in Israel, Risa Nagel had a decision to make.
The 25-year-old grant writer from Seattle had hiked the hills of Galilee and wandered the ancient market in Jerusalem. But then some of the friends she had just met told her they were planning to walk off the tour to visit a Palestinian family, an act of protest that was bound to cause pain and controversy.
"We will be able to see for ourselves what's going on," one of them told her. "Do you want to come?"
Nagel agonized. The next day, after the group held a moment of silence at the Western Wall, her friends announced that they were walking off. She followed them.
Over nearly two decades, a nonprofit organization called Birthright Israel has given nearly 700,000 young Jews an all-expense-paid trip to Israel, an effort to bolster a distinct Jewish identity and forge an emotional connection to Israel. The trips, which are partly funded by the Israeli government, have become a rite of passage for American Jews.
But over the past year, some Jewish activists have protested Birthright, saying the trips erase the experiences of Israeli Arabs and Palestinians living under occupation in the West Bank. Activists have circulated petitions, staged sit-ins at Hillels on college campuses and blocked Birthright's headquarters in New York. But no protests have generated more publicity and outrage than the walk-offs from a handful of Birthright trips.
Supporters of Birthright dismiss the protesters, calling them professional activists and publicity seekers whose views are out of step with the majority of American Jews. In a statement, Birthright said that demand for its trips is higher than ever, and that the trips grapple with Israel's complex history in an apolitical manner.
But the protests highlight growing unease among many young American Jews over Israel's policies. They see Israeli leaders who have been drifting rightward and openly embracing the annexation of the West Bank, land on which Palestinians have long hoped to build their own state.
The Birthright protests also highlight a generational divide between Jews who grew up with the constant fear of Israel's destruction and younger people today who may be more likely to take Israel's existence for granted, and who focus instead on the millions of Palestinians left stateless by the conflict.
Nagel, who grew up in Glen Cove, N.Y., had never been involved in any Israel-related protest before her Birthright trip.
On the group's first night in Israel, one of the attendees, a law student named Rebecca Wasserman, asked if she could facilitate a discussion about Israel's military control over the West Bank. The group's Israeli guide agreed, and even shared some of his own deeply personal experiences as a former Israeli soldier.
Many welcomed the talk that first night, said Ben Fields, 26, from Denver.
But as the trip wore on, Wasserman and three others kept bringing up the same points.
"They kept saying, 'When are we going to hear from Palestinians?' " Fields recalled.
Fields did not know it at the time, but Wasserman and the other three had all been in contact with IfNotNow, a network of Jewish activists who want to end Jewish American support for the occupation.
One of IfNotNow's founders, Yonah Lieberman, had helped lead a Birthright trip as an outside volunteer the previous year and said he "saw a lot of lies" about Israel.
Activists cite the fact that one of President Donald Trump's biggest donors, Sheldon Adelson, has also given generously to Birthright as a reason to be skeptical of the program. Others question whether a program aimed at bringing Jews from the diaspora to one of the most contested regions in the world could ever be apolitical.
Almost a year has passed since Nagel's Birthright trip.
She said the protests have prompted an important conversation that Jewish Americans need to have. She said that she has been attending more Jewish religious and social events since the trip.
"I've been to more Shabbats and Havdalahs," she said, referring to the Jewish Sabbath and a ritual marking its end. "What's different is that at our Shabbats and Havdalahs, we talk about racism, sexism and the occupation."