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Another kind of Romance: Birthright Israel for young Americans?

Jewish young adults are extended all-expenses paid trips to Israel.  Are the US funders and Israeli politicians planning to create the next generations of American Zionists?

Kiera Feldman, a Brooklyn-based journalist, published in The nation this August 4, 2013: The Romance of Birthright Israel

A baptized child of intermarriage, I traveled on an Israel Experts Birthright trip in February 2010 that promised “serious programs for serious people who want to have fun!”

It felt more like a Zionist summer camp for young professionals.

We sang campfire songs, used nicknames that ended in “Dawg” and made lunchtime dares to eat unsavory concoctions.

Lawyers, corporate strategists, a personal trainer—my Birthright tour mates were twentysomethings with grown-up jobs and responsibilities everyone seemed glad to leave behind. For 10 days, we basked in a second adolescence.

  • Israel
How Birthright Israel Works its Magic

As if according to some divine script, my crush was soon requited, and when the lights went down in the fake Bedouin tent, I got my mifgash on. “I love it,”

Harold Grinspoon, a member of the Birthright Israel board, told me upon hearing of my romance. “You have a nice interaction with a Jewish person—that’s great.” An octogenarian philanthropist who made his money in real estate, Grinspoon rattled off high intermarriage numbers and low Jewish birthrates. “We’re really in trouble as Jews,” he said sadly.

Birthright’s boosters seem strangely unaware of the tribe’s more visible woes, the 44-year- illegal occupation of Palestinian lands and the racism and legal discrimination that underpins Israel’s ethnocracy. If the former was kept nearly invisible on my Birthright trip, the latter was laid uncommonly bare.

Our guide was Shachar Peleg-Efroni, a second-generation secular kibbutznik. Several times a day he said things like, “Arabs are those who originated from Saudi Arabia.”

Everything we saw out the tour bus window was “in the Bible,” reinforcing Zionist claims to the land. He used “Palestinian” interchangeably with “terrorist.” Driving through northern Israel, Shachar gave a lesson in “Judaization,” the government’s term for settlement policy.

Passing through an Israeli-Arab town, he called our attention to a litter-strewn road (perhaps the result of inequities in municipal funding, which escaped mention) and then pointed to a neat ring of state-subsidized Jewish towns. “Judaization,” he explained, was necessary “to keep them from spreading.” My American crush and I exchanged a knowing look.

From my notes on Day 8:

“Israel just went in and cleaned Gaza,” Shachar said of Operation Cast Lead, which had taken place a year earlier, as we drove south to an organic farm along the border. There, the Israeli proprietor explained that his low-hanging trellises were Thai worker–sized and invited us to nibble the dangling strawberries. “Thank you, Thai worker!” he instructed us to say when a laborer walked by.

En route to the next stop on the itinerary, Shachar pointed to tin shacks—Bedouin villages—and jovially detailed the government’s Bedouin home-demolition campaign, saying the IDF needed to “kick them away.” We arrived at our far more picturesque “Bedouin Dessert [sic] Village Experience” and rode camels into the sunset. A man named Mohammed served coffee and played a familiar tune on the oud: “Hava Nagila.”

To varying degrees, Birthrighters from an array of other trips have recounted similar experiences. “Don’t go to the Arab Quarter, because they will throw acid on your face,”Max Geller recalls his Birthright guide saying in 2006.

Geller’s trip also featured AwesomeSeminar.com’s Neil Lazarus, a pro-Israel advocacy trainer who says he’s delivered presentations since Birthright’s inception. (“When the Palestinians kill Israeli men, women and children,” Lazarus says in one online video, “they celebrate, and they give out sweets in the streets.”) Lazarus’s take-home was, according to Geller, “Arabs want to kill you.”

Jared Malsin went on a 2007 Birthright trip where IDF soldiers role-played a checkpoint. “The message was every single Palestinian is a threat until proven otherwise,” he recalls.

Ella Rose Chary recalls a Birthright activity in 2009 in which soldiers described sending neighbors to knock on the doors of suspected militants, an illegal use of civilians as human shields. “I might die if I go up there,” one soldier said to his new friends. “What should we do?”

* * *

A new era is dawning for Birthright. What began as an identity booster has become an ideology machine, pumping out not only Jewish baby-makers but defenders of Israel. Or that’s the hope.

With the relentless siege of Gaza, the interminable occupation, the ever-expanding settlements, the onslaught of anti-Arab Knesset legislation, Israel has earned its new status as an international pariah.

Meanwhile, the rise of J Street, the liberal pro-Israel lobby group, suggests that the American Jewish center is inching leftward along generational lines, and the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement is gaining traction among young activists.

In the wake of Operation Cast Lead, Republican pollster Frank Luntz found that Jewish college students are “not standing up for Israel”; he calls the results “horrifying.” Enter Birthright.

In the words of CEO Gidi Mark, Birthright trains participants to “go back to anti-Zionists on their campuses and say to them, ‘Don’t tell me what you saw on CNN—I was there.’”

In May 2010, Hillel president Wayne Firestone denounced campus divestment campaigns for seeking to “delegitimize and demonize Israel,” declaring Birthright alumni to be “the only way to combat these efforts.”

In November, at an assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, Bronfman shared the cheerful news that half of all pro-Israel activists on college campuses had been on Birthright. “Many of our Birthright alumni come back and are ready and eager to be advocates for Israel,” Susie Gelman, a Birthright board member and funder, told me. “In the current atmosphere, it takes on even more of a significant role than could’ve been anticipated when Birthright began.”

At a recent Birthright open bar night dubbed “Zionism Is Humanitarianism,” I approached Steinhardt and mentioned that I’d had a Birthright boyfriend throughout last spring. “Is he the man of your dreams?” Steinhardt asked. “Is he here in New York?” No and no, I answered. “Well, a few months of pleasure is wonderful!” he exclaimed. Later, from the stage, Steinhardt promised a free honeymoon to anyone who met that night and tied the knot within a year.

Alumni often assure me that Birthright is just a fun heritage trip. Funders and officials, too, reiterate Birthright’s “apolitical” nature.

In January, J Street announced it would sponsor a Birthright trip. Shortly thereafter, Birthright said a miscommunication had occurred—as a “political” organization, J Street was ineligible. Yet a Birthright trip run by AIPAC, the far more conservative Israel lobby group, has been renewed for years.

Very few trip providers offer sessions with Palestinian citizens of Israel.

My trip, advertised as “pluralist,” met an Israeli-Arab computer programmer who spoke briefly about legal discrimination against minorities, followed by an Israeli-Arab teenager who called herself “pro-Israel.”  When I asked her thoughts on the Palestinian right of return, she giggled, consulted with a Birthright activity leader, and said, “I don’t think it’s the right time for them to come back.” My requests for a full list of Israeli-Arab groups on Birthright itineraries were declined.

Since its inception, Birthright has been funded by an illustrious and varied lot; most of them just happen to share hawkish Israel politics.

In 1998, during his first term as prime minister, Netanyahu gave the initial guarantee of Israeli government funding.

By 2000, when the first Birthright trips were under way, at least 8 funders were trustees of AIPAC’s think-tank spinoff, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy—including Steinhardt and Bronfman. And Casino magnate Adelson.

Adelson is Birthright’s largest donor, staunchly opposes a two-state solution. He once famously broke with AIPAC—for not being conservative enough. Other notables: oil billionaire Lynn Schusterman, a Birthright founding funder, 35-year AIPAC veteran and the purse for many “pro-Israel” youth initiatives such as the Israel on Campus Coalition, which combats “the worrisome rise in anti-Israel activities”.

Diamond baron and settlement construction impresario Lev Leviev.

Slim-Fast billionaire 
S. Daniel Abraham, a member of the AIPAC board; and neoconservative philanthropist Roger Hertog, emeritus chair of the Manhattan Institute.

Then there’s donor Marc Rich, a founding Birthright board member, the billionaire oil trader controversially pardoned by President Clinton; throughout his business dealings, Rich gathered intelligence for the Mossad.

Several Birthright donors, including family foundations operated by the Gottesmans, Grinspoons, Steinhardts and Schustermans, have also financially supported illegal Jewish settlements.

In 2008, for example, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation gave $25,000 to Ein Prat, a school in the settlement of Kfar Adumim.

In a phone interview, Robert Aronson, president of the Birthright foundation, maintained that he simply wants the trip to be “the opening of a door” to Jewish communal life. But should that doorway lead to political engagement, Aronson hopes it will be through right-wing Zionist groups such as AIPAC and Stand With Us, whose members have been known to target Jewish anti-occupation activists with Nazi slurs and pepper spray.

What about “Students for Justice in Palestine? “No, that one I probably wouldn’t list,” Aronson laughed. Soon, his humor evaporated. He ended the interview when I asked why the organization encouraged Birthrighters to patronize settlement businesses, as was done on my trip. “Not my issue,” Aronson said. “I never answer to political questions.”

Birthright tour providers are allowed to take tourists anywhere between the Dead Sea and the Mediterranean.

Mark, the CEO, explained that “as an apolitical organization,” Birthright does not concern itself with the Green Line, the internationally recognized border separating Israel proper from the illegally occupied West Bank. “If security allows it, we allow for our participants to see the beginnings of where the nation started.”

Theoretically, a visit to a Palestinian town in the West Bank would be within the boundaries of acceptability—but Chazan said no trip provider has done it. Birthright funders and officials see Palestinians as best avoided, for “security” reasons. On my trip, we were given maps of Israel that referred to the West Bank as “Judea and Samaria”—biblical terminology typically favored by settlers and their sympathizers.

“I trust that they’re doing the right thing,” Jewish Federations president Jerry Silverman told me, when asked about Birthright’s support of settlements. Such was the predominant sentiment of the funders on this matter, and on the overt racism expressed on some trips: Birthright, like Israel itself, can do no wrong.

Exchange: Birthright Israel’s Jewish Journey

As Jews we say “Birthright” trips must end

As the summer months approach, thousands of young Jews from more than 60 countries prepare to participate in the Taglit-Birthright program.

Since 1999, Birthright has brought 340,000 young Jews to Israel on free 10-day trips. In the midst of the fervor to sign up for this bi-annual program, we have launched the website Renounce Birthright (renouncebirthright.org) with the aim of providing a space for potential participants to engage with critiques of Birthright and of Zionism.

We are non-Israeli Jews who oppose the program that promotes and supports Israel’s ongoing colonialism and apartheid policies, and marginalizes Jewish experiences in the diaspora.

We are calling for the end of the Birthright program, and encourage individuals to boycott the trips.

Birthright was created in response to concerns over increasing rates of intermarriage, the perceived “crisis of continuity” and the weakening of Jewish communal ties.

Over the course of the last decade, the program has worked to create and maintain commitment to Zionism and Israel on the part of non-Israeli Jews.

Elderly woman sits in refugee camp

Israel claims all Jews have a “birthright” to the country, while Palestinian refugees are barred from return. (Ashraf Amra / APA images)

Exclusive ideology

Birthright’s mission, according to the organization, is to “diminish the growing division between Israel and Jewish communities around the world; strengthen the sense of solidarity among world Jewry; and strengthen participants’ personal Jewish identity and connection to the Jewish people.”

The idea of strengthening “solidarity among world Jewry,” “personal Jewish identity,” and Israel’s “connection to the Jewish people” through trips to Israel is based on a conflation of Judaism with Zionism.

Judaism is a religion. Political Zionism is a movement based on the belief that Jews have a right to settle in modern-day Israel, to the exclusion of the indigenous Palestinians.

The term “Birthright” itself is telling.

Like its American counterpart, the ideology of manifest destiny, it operates under the premise that all Jewish people have an exclusive “right” to Palestinian land. In both the American and Israeli contexts, the only way to secure that “right” is through violence, land theft and displacement.

Settler-colonialism must be opposed, no matter where it takes place.

For non-Israeli Jews living in other settler-colonial countries, we must also be accountable to other processes of de-colonization. No group of people have the right to live anywhere that mandates the explicit exclusion of anyone else.

The establishment of the Israeli State, and the alleged Jewish “birthright,” involved the violent displacement of several hundred thousand indigenous Palestinians, and the destruction of hundreds of Palestinian villages. A Palestinian refugee population of nearly 7 million people is to this day excluded from returning to their lands by Israeli state discrimination.

In contemporary Israel — where approximately one-fifth of the population is Palestinian — the rights of citizenship (ezrahut) and nationality (le’um) are intentionally distinct. Palestinians born within the 1949 armistice line are considered citizens (and not nationals).

Meanwhile a Jew born and raised in New York has a “birthright” to the Israeli state in Palestine, is considered a national, and can almost immediately become a citizen upon emigrating.

Maintaining a myth

Birthright in particular — as a part of the Zionist project — relies on the belief that non-Israeli Jews are national-citizens-in-waiting, a reality from which Palestinian refugees are forever excluded.

We would have no “Birthright” without Israeli occupation and apartheid — it is how Zionism sustains the myth of “a land without a people, for a people without a land.”

Birthright has spent more than $600 million since its inception in 1999. The organization has three major sources of funding: the Israeli government (which committed another $100 million to Birthright in 2011), wealthy donors such as Charles Bronfman, and Jewish federations across North America (“The romance of Birthright Israel,” The Nation, 15 June 2011).

In a 2012 speech delivered to Birthright participants, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: “So when you go out and people tell you things about Israel, tell them about what you saw. Make sure when you go back home, tell them about the real Israel” (“PM Netanyahu’s speech at Taglit-Birthright Israel mega-event”).

Convincing non-Israeli Jews to defend Netanyahu’s “real Israel” is an integral part of Birthright, and helps explain the government’s investment in the program.

The program’s largest financial supporter, billionaire Sheldon Adelson — who has provided $140 million to the program — was described in The New York Times last year as having “disgust for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” (“What Sheldon Adelson wants,” 23 June 2012).

Beyond individual donors, non-Israeli Jewish community organizations and institutions — such as the Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish Agency for Israel — support Birthright economically and politically.

Apolitical?

In the name of diasporic Jewish communities, these organizations invest millions of dollars into the promotion of Birthright’s political Zionism, rather than in local projects.

Despite all this, Birthright claims to be apolitical.

In 2006, Birthright Director of Marketing Gidi Mark said: “I don’t think it’s political for Jews to support Israel” (“Come, see Palestine!” Salon.com, 5 June 2006).

However, the establishment and maintenance of an exclusively Jewish Israel — through forcible displacement, land theft, occupation, segregation, institutionalized racism and systemic discrimination — is political at its core, and is both supported and reinforced by the Birthright program.

For instance, during the trip, approximately 10,000 Birthright participants visit the Ahava cosmetics factory each year; Ahava is located in the illegally-occupied West Bank settlement of Mitzpe Shalem. Ahava directly profits from the exploitation of Palestinian Dead Sea resources.

Moreover, disturbing accounts of explicit racism have arisen in recent years; former participants often recount how the language used by Birthright personnel demonizes Palestinians. One past attendee said her Birthright tour guide told her group that “Arabs have wanted to kill Jews forever, that they are ‘like mosquitoes’ we must swat away” (“So you’re thinking of Birthright,” Mondoweiss, 20 December 2012).

Zionism is a political project, and Birthright is perhaps the most tangible manifestation of that political project outside Israel.

As such, we must recognize our engagements with Birthright as a question of politics, and not just “a free vacation.”

Narrow confines

In reinforcing the belief that what it means to be Jewish is to be Zionist (particularly for non-Israeli Jewish youth), Birthright perpetuates a single narrative about what it means to be Jewish outside of Israel, and who can be a Jew.

Jewish people speak and have spoken an array of languages, live and have lived across the world, and possess different histories that extend beyond the narrow confines of political Zionism and the nation-state of Israel.

It is contemporary political Zionism that has “othered” Mizrahi/Arab-Jews, as New York University professor Ella Shohat explains, by urging Arab Jews “to see their only real identity as Jewish,” such that their “Arabness, the product of millennial cohabitation, is merely a diasporic stain to be ‘cleansed’ through assimilation” (“The invention of the Mizhahim,” Journal of Palestine Studies, Volume 29, No. 1, Autumn 1999).

Further, Israel’s policy towards Ethiopian Jews in recent years demonstrates how the limits of Jewishness are often defined through Zionism. There is a clear tension between Birthright’s claim to promote diasporic life, and the fact that it the program is so deeply rooted in Zionism, an ideology that homogenizes the experiences and identities of Jews.

Our alleged Birthright can only exist through the suppression and erasure of many Jewish identities, histories and experiences.

Liberation in Palestine is a question of land, colonialism and apartheid — not religion. The work of Jewish and Israeli organizations and collectives such as Zochrot, Boycott from Within, the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network, and Israeli Queers Against Apartheid attests to this fact.

As scholar Judith Butler has explained: “there have always been Jewish traditions that oppose state violence, that affirm multi-cultural co-habitation, and defend principles of equality, and this vital ethical tradition is forgotten or sidelined when any of us accept Israel as the basis of Jewish identification or values” (“Judith Butler responds to attack,” Mondoweiss, 27 August 2012).

No right to apartheid

We have founded Renounce Birthright because Birthright demands our complicity in two intersecting (but distinct) forms of violence: first, the occupation of Palestine and the Israeli government’s brutal regime of apartheid and second, the erasure and suppression of diverse Jewish experiences and communities across the world.

In organizing for Palestinian liberation, we are deeply committed to the belief that Jewish experiences and narratives — particularly North American Jewish experiences, including our own — should not be centered.

As Mezna Qato and Kareem Rabie explained in their recent article for Jacobin magazine: “the left often neglects these anti-colonial principles and seeks out Jewish voices to validate Palestinian claims. In turn, it privileges Jewish discourse, anxieties, and histories in ways that marginalize Palestinians in their own struggle” (“Against the Law,” Spring 2013).

We recognize that our struggles are greatly distinct yet related, and are engaged in this project first and foremost from a position of solidarity.

We call on non-Israeli Jews across the diaspora to join us in renouncing Birthright— and our privileged legal relationship to the Israeli state — because we have no right to apartheid and colonialism.

Note: Aviva Stahl grew up in New Jersey and now lives in London; she is the US researcher for CagePrisoners and a collective member of Bent Bars. She can be followed on Twitter @stahlidarity.

Sarah Woolf is an editorial intern at The Nation magazine. Hailing from Montréal, she currently lives in New York City.

Sam Elliott Bick is from Montreal, Québec. He is a member of the Tadamon! collective, and organizes at the Immigrant Workers Center. He can be followed on Twitter @sam_Bick.

The authors can be contacted by email: renouncebirthright@gmail.com.


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