It’s February and promotion and recruiting for Taglit-Birthright trips to Israel is in full swing on campus. “Birthright” trips, which provide Jewish youth between the ages of 18-26 with an all expense-paid trip to the state of Israel, are advertised as “connecting Jewish students to their Jewish journey and identities, to Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people, and, upon return, to their Jewish communities.” The funding for the trip comes from private individuals, the government of Israel and various Jewish organizations worldwide.
Fourth Estate recently published an article entitled “What it means for Jews to go on Birthright.” I have to say, I’m disappointed in the completely uncritical approach the article took in profiling such a heavily politicized trip.
The trip has been marketed at Mason (both online and on posters in the Johnson Center) as a “free” trip of a lifetime. While on the trip, participants will visit significant cultural/religious sites such as the holy sites in Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, Massada and various other activities such as spending a night on a Kibbutz, with a Bedouin community, and a night in Tel Aviv.
Birthright is one of the greatest propaganda trips in existence. The itinerary unassuming North American participants will experience there is equal parts fun, equal parts religious and equal parts nationalist, and when you combine that with the fact that it’s all paid for, it’s little surprise that participants return to the U.S. believing in the dominant narrative surrounding Israel: that it’s a “beacon” of democracy, hope, light and whatever else it’s been described as in American discourse surrounding a state built on ethnic cleansing, settler-colonialism and, frankly, genocide.
I’m not going to address the obvious problem with conflating North American Jews with a nation-state only in existence since 1948 since it’s already been done by many American Jews. But I’d like to address what Birthright participants won’t see in their time in Israel.
Participants will likely visit the beautiful old city of Jerusalem, which is home to religious and cultural sites sacred to all three major Abrahamic faiths. They’ll visit the Western Wall, holy site to Jews around the world. They’ll likely walk through the Armenian Quarter, have falafel under an ancient arch, and hear church bells and the adhan in tandem.
What they won’t see is Israel’s desecration of the Noble Sanctuary this past summer, when the Aqsa Mosque, third most holy site to Muslims, was stormed by soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces who let loose tear gas canisters and what sound like small explosives. On my trip to the region this summer on Mason’s Israel-Palestine summer internship program, access to the mosque for Friday prayers was restricted only to women and men over 50, week after week during the holiest month on the Islamic calendar, Ramadan.
Participants may visit the breathtaking Church of Holy Sepulchre and be told that Israel is the only safe place in the Middle East for Christians, but they won’t be told of the vandalism of churches across the country with graffiti such as “Jesus was the son of a whore” and “we will crucify you” in Hebrew. This extreme religious nationalism is inspired by the politicians of the same government that funds Birthright trips. They won’t be told that the indigenous Palestinian Christians of the region deeply suffer the effects of military occupation and settler-colonialism and were even prevented from seeing Pope Francis on his visit to Jerusalem.
Birthright participants might visit the beautiful Golan Heights, Syrian territory occupied and annexed by Israel since 1967, a move condemned by the United Nations and not recognized by the United States. They might catch sight of distant Lebanese villages while in the Golan, and likely won’t be reminded of Israel’s occupation of south Lebanon for over 15 years nor its many multiple military operations in the area.
It should go against decent human sensibilities to visit a region and ignore its politics, the bloodshed one’s tax dollars have been responsible for and the ways in which the human suffering continues to this day. It is almost impossible to visit Berlin and not be reminded of the evil that extreme German nationalism was once responsible for. When we think of South Africa, beautiful coastlines come to mind, but so does apartheid. The American cities of Montgomery, Birmingham, Little Rock and Selma all mean something to Americans beyond sleepy oak trees and soul food.
Likewise, separating Jerusalem from its politics is a distinctly political act. Engineering and promoting a program which ignores the harsh realities of half of the people living in a region (meaning Palestinians living both within the state of Israel as well as those in the Occupied Territories) and focuses almost entirely on the experiences of the those privileged by law (Israeli Jews both within Israel proper and in the Occupied Territories) is a starkly political act which aims to distort the perceptions of North American visitors to this region. Propaganda is defined as “the deliberate, systematic attempt to shape perceptions, manipulate cognitions, and direct behavior to achieve a response that furthers the desired intent of the propagandist.” As mentioned earlier, Taglit-Birthright’s mission includes the statement that “the experience of a trip to Israel is a building block of Jewish identity…we can strengthen bonds with the land and people of Israel…” This ingenious program is carefully constructed so as to create the idea of Israel as a warm paradise next to the Mediterranean, with neighbors who hate it solely for what it represents, rather than for what it’s been built on or what it continues to do to this day. Participants leave the country having never visited a refugee camp, or seen the elderly and mothers with children attempt to pass through a dehumanizing checkpoint, or without facing any harassment at the airport (that anyone of dark skin is almost guaranteed to face).
At its core, what Taglit-Birthright’s mission statement says that the purpose of the program is to indoctrinate non-Israeli Jews with the notion that they possess an inherent and exclusive claim to the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. There are, of course, many students on campus also with a “birthright” claim to their ancestral homeland, meaning the homeland that their grandparents were forcibly expelled from, and a homeland to which they are not welcome by law. These students are not welcome on Birthright trips to Israel, and in fact, Palestinian students at Loyola University Chicago were subject to probation after attempting to register for the trip. One does not need to be Palestinian to see this stark and gross injustice.
In a recent article published in Fourth Estate it was written, “Mason Hillel director Ross Diamond says that Hillel’s role on campus is ‘to inspire Jewish students to be engaged in learning about Israel.’ Hillel is not exclusive however, and non-Jewish students are more than welcome to attend their programs.”
Although there is no doubt that Hillel provides a valuable community for Jewish students, as well as organizing valuable events, sometimes in collaboration with other organizations, its professed emphasis on the importance of the state of Israel is alienating and makes it a distinctly political group on campus advocating for a very clear agenda. Hillel’s rigid politics have prompted some students the American Jewish community to establish the Open Hillel movement, which led a conference last October for the purpose of fostering dialogue within the Jewish diaspora community about the politics of Israel.
As a non-Jew and a non-Palestinian, my stake in this issue is that I find it impossible to remain silent while a racist and genocidal state provides free trips to North Americans, while my Palestinian friends – both in the United States and in the Occupied Territories – are barred by law from entering Israel proper. The promotion of Birthright on campus is an almost uncontested facilitation of this injustice, and if nothing else, I hope Mason students find it in themselves to challenge the narrative, for the sake of their Palestinian classmates.
Featured image courtesy of Zachi Evenor. Creative Commons License. No changes made.