this article was published in the newsletter for the jewish peace fellowship in the may issue of their newsletter, “shalom”
read it here on their website, or read it below…
1-5-13: Day three of Birthright, Negev desert
It’s a meditation exercise to sit on the ground and imagine how supported you are. But sitting here, in the desert in the Negev, you don’t feel supported by the earth, you feel engulfed by it. Like it might crack open and swallow you at any moment in its teeming, shifting crust. The shadows of the clouds are massive countries super-imposed on the yellow-brown sand like oil slicks, and the clouds themselves move like steamboats, slowly, but perceptively through the vast ocean of this massive sky. They’re not so much mountains, but rather, harsh scabs on the arms of war, wounds that don’t heal but merely change form. This place offers nothing like the mothering comfort one feels in the dank and mushroomy cocoon of the redwood forests of my native California. It offers only you, alone with yourself and the knowledge that others have also known solitude and survived, regardless.
At this point, most people who are at all interested in Israel are familiar with Birthright, the free 10-day tour of Israel provided to young Jews from around the world. The pro-Zionist lobby hails it as a fantastic success story; an incredible opportunity for young people to get in touch with their Jewish ancestry, feel connected to Jews their own age, and gain an appreciation for Israel. Those on the left who are critical of Israel tend to view it as a terrifying source of propaganda and brainwashing that uses creepy forms of manipulation to make young Jews support Israeli policies, perhaps even to the point of “making Alliyah,” emigrating to Israel.
I certainly identify more with the latter category, which is why I had mixed feelings about attending Birthright in the first place. Not only did I not want to legitimize the idea that I actually had some kind of birthright to the land of Israel and Palestine just for being Jewish, but I was nervous that I would be forced into situations that would bother me, like having to sing along to lots of Jewish songs that I didn’t know, or cry about the Holocaust in some kind of ritualized group catharsis, or be surrounded by people who nodded vigorously when outrageously racist comments about Arabs were made. I decided to go for two main reasons: I had never spent any time around Zionists before, and I felt that it was important for me to try to understand their point of view and I wanted to go to Palestine afterwards, and I didn’t think it was likely that I would make it there if not for a free trip. So I hesitantly arrived at the LAX airport on January 1st, armed with an open and patient mind, took a deep breath, and hoped for the best.
My experience was complicated. I can’t say that what I went through amounted to brainwashing or propaganda, at least not in the traditional sense. I believe that part of the reason for this was the particular trip I was on; a niche trip, of which there are more and more. The group I participated in was the “outdoors” – themed East Bay trip. (East Bay refers to the Eastern part of the San Francisco Bay Area in California, which includes Oakland and Berkeley.) I actually believe there was more to this niche than we initially realized. Here’s an excerpt from my journey on the fifth day:
1-7-13: I’ve never been surrounded by so many atheists my own age. Who would have thought? Maybe it’s because Jews come around to secularism easier than Christians? And I’ve never really kicked it with a bunch of Jews before. How ironic that that’s how I ended up relating to my fellow Jews. That’s how I’ve found community amongst the Jewish people. Through atheism.
Even our tour guide was an “out” Atheist. I considered the possibility recently that we were all selected to be on this group together partly because we were either atheists or “spiritual.” I think that our American trip leaders were the only ones who were full-on religious Jews. So they avoided a lot of biblical talk that I’ve been warned about on Birthright. There was no reference to the “holy land” and they didn’t try to talk about the stories in the Bible as if they were real history. In fact, there was no reference to the Bible at all. It was like they knew that these triggers would immediately turn us off, so they avoided them.
Our tour guide was also very willing to admit that the Palestinians had some legitimate complaints. He didn’t get into any of them, but he didn’t vilify the Palestinians either. His attitude struck me as sort of a courageous but cynical libertarian, who mistrusted government of any kind, and who had a somewhat pessimistic view of humanity as a whole, but a strong sense of respect and integrity about the humans whose paths he crossed, including his “Arab friends” whom he mentioned vaguely on more than one occasion.
What it FELT like we were getting on this trip was a very a-political, fun, first-hand experience of Israel. Furthermore, as has been documented by other writers who attended Birthright, the social dynamics end up taking up a lot of your focus. First of all, each evening ends around 5 or 6pm and you’re not allowed to leave the hotel so there’s nothing to do but get drunk and hang out, a situation ripe for a regression to high school. Crushes develop, cliques form, some people struggle to make friends, gossip starts; what else are we going to do with our time? At a certain point on the trip, participants began to ask: Why can’t we have a structured conversation about Judaism or the Israel-Palestine conflict? A few evenings we were told that we would have some kind of group discussion, but nothing actually happened. This puzzled me until I read more about what others have written about Birthright. It’s apparently common practice for the organizers to avoid anything too heavy that might lead to critical thinking about Israel. They like to keep it light and fun while occasionally hinting at the tragic cross the Israelis have to bear by living in a war zone. By avoiding any kind of detailed discussion of the conflict, but keeping a hint of tragedy in the background, the organizers made it feel like our fun-loving attitude was courageous, rather than indulgent.
What was tricky about Birthright’s biased message was that it came in the form of omission, which is inherently hard to spot and even harder to criticize, especially when you’re tired and hung-over, and preoccupied with why your crush didn’t sit with you on the bus. My fatigue and social stimulation paired well with my decision to keep a low profile on the trip. I didn’t ruffle any feathers. I just enjoyed myself. And though my Pro-Palestinian views stayed intact, I didn’t feel particularly obliged to share them with anyone, unless I was talking to someone one-on-one.
But once you cross that wall into the occupied territories, you want to vomit up all the Kool-aid you realize that you’ve just swallowed over the past 10 days. I didn’t so much feel as if I’d been lied to; I just felt sheltered. The diary that I kept on my experience in Palestine has a totally different voice than the diary I kept while in Israel. It was as if I had been thrown head first into an urgent and tangible reality where what was happening around me mattered. Instead of extended soliloquies about my new friends or thoughts about home, I was writing pages and pages about the wall, villagers whose homes had been demolished, how the universities have to have their lab equipment smuggled in, what sustainable agriculture looks like in Palestine. I felt as if I had come out of a cocoon and realized that there were all these flowers that needed pollinating.
Returning to the U.S., with all my feelings of urgency and inspiration, I tried to pin down exactly which flowers were meant for me to pollinate. I’ve decided that I want to put my energy into helping Birthright participants get to Palestine. I feel strongly that young Jews need to visit Palestine, and though I obviously have my problems with Birthright, I think it’s a pretty amazing and informative trip to go on as well. This is why my recommendation for anyone considering a Birthright trip, from any political point of view at all, is to go on the trip. Enjoy it, get everything you can from it, but afterwards, visit Palestine. You won’t know that you’re in a container until you see what’s outside of it, and that it all begins with checking out the other side of that wall.