Ghada Karmi and Ellen Siegel protesting in front of the Israeli Consulate in London, 1973.
Walking around campus these past few weeks, I couldn't help but notice advertisements outside of Warren Towers and the Hillel House telling students to go register for Taglit-Birthright's free 10-day trip to Israel that is happening this summer.
Birthright Israel is a program that is designed to take Jewish young adults on exclusive free trips to Israel through which, according to its website, it seeks to build a bond between the "land and the people of Israel," among other things. The Israeli government, and other organizations and individual funders sponsor the program.
Birthright, although sounds like a harmless free trip, actually has stark similarity to the state it seeks to cement a bond with: one of maintaining ethnoreligious supremacy and settler-colonial apartheid. Indeed, the trip sounds similar to a hypothetical scenario, in which Apartheid South Africa is funding exclusive trips for young whites to go visit the country's white enclaves, while denying its history of colonialism and its then-present apartheid structure.
In light of the political motives of these trips, my friend Francesca Contreras, a Mexican- American Jew who is active in the Palestine Solidarity Movement, and I decided to go to Hillel and see what they would tell us, a Palestinian and a Jew, ostensibly expressing interest in going on the trip.
Speaking to the representative, we quickly realized how naive she was about the historical context and the current situation in Israel-Palestine, and noted certain borderline racist things she said.
Taglit-Birthright participants, 2009 (Photo: Chelsey Lichtman)
With an Israeli flag draped in her background, she spoke to us for about twenty minutes and explained, according to her, what the trip is about. She said the trip begins in the (occupied) Golan Heights and Tiberias, and then they would go to Jerusalem, hike Masada, go to the Dead Sea, among other activities. She essentially painted a beautiful image of a country I had long heard about in stories, seen in pictures and in films but never been to due to a political reality. I wondered how my grandmother would feel about this program. I remembered the often-recounted story of when her and her family visited their stolen home in the village of Ramle a while after the creation of the State of Israel. The feeling of loss embodied in the key her mother held, while looking at her home now occupied by settlers epitomizes the type of privilege and supremacy this colonial project has created.
"What are the requirements?" Francesca asked.
The Birthright Coordinator confirmed our biases; she said the requirements are to have at least one Jewish grandparent and to consider oneself Jewish (without practicing any other religions), and having not gone on any previous peer-organized trips to Israel. She told Francesca (although having lived in Israel for three years when she was younger) that she is still eligible to go.
Jamil Sbitan: "So, what about non-Jews? Why are they not allowed to go?"
Birthright Coordinator: "The whole premise of this trip is connecting Jewish young adults to the land of Israel, to their heritage, to the Jewish state."
I asked her why they don't go to the West Bank on this trip, and she replied that they do. I was skeptical, so I rephrased my question. I then asked her if they go to the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and she said that they don't.
JS: "So, where would you go usually?"
BC: "The person who runs the organization, the trip organizer, they live in the West Bank in a settlement. So, he usually invites us over for dinner. It's really pretty, you can see Jordan from there. It's really cool."
Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which are continuously eating up Palestinian land, are considered illegal, not "cool," under international law. This, along with the fact that she informed us that eight Israeli soldiers take time off of facilitating continuous colonization and enforcement of apartheid to vacation with them, further confirms the fact that this trip is designed to create unconditional support for Israel and to sugarcoat its atrocities.
I asked whether she felt it important that Palestinians connect with their heritage and culture. She said that she does, but doesn't know what their "communities provide for them." This said, despite the fact that Israel ethnically cleansed 750,000 Palestinians to create a majority-Jewish state in 1948, and barred them from returning to their homes, in violation of UN resolution 194, which guarantees their right to return.
Jamil: "It just seems really unfair that people who are raised in other countries and have no connection to the land other than a religious one, can go and tour for free, whereas there are Palestinians who are living in refugee camps that are barred from entering or returning to their homes."
BC: "Unfortunately, that's the reality because of terrorism."
The BC also said that there are Palestinians who claim to be Palestinian but are originally from Egypt and Jordan, denied the existence of historic Palestine, and said that land was offered to the Palestinians in 1948 but "they didn't want to make peace, they didn't want to have a state."
Contrary to her orientalist use of the red herring word "terrorism," the refugees were denied their return simply because they were not Jewish. Indeed, this is the nature of Israeli Apartheid. In order to maintain a Jewish state, the demographic within the country needs to maintain a Jewish majority, and separate laws are created for Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, as are discriminatory laws targeting the Palestinian minority in Israel created to choke the Palestinians' lives and pressure them to leave.
Juxtaposed, the image of young white Americans roaming wildly between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean sea, while Palestinian refugees wait in ghettos of refugee camps longing to return, is sickening. Just recently, a thirty-year old Palestinian friend from the West Bank told me of how liberating it was when he finally visited the sea in Jaffa for the first time, solely because Israel had granted him an entry permit to apply for a visa at the U.S. embassy. He said that he had been to the sea before when he traveled to Europe, but not in his historic homeland. And Palestinians living in the diaspora have recounted to me their horrifying experiences being racially profiled, strip searched and interrogated for hours while trying to visit the country.
Birthright embodies this exclusive apartheid nature of the state, which Israel is and continues to be. The fact that Israel practices apartheid has been articulated by figures like former U.S. president Jimmy Carter and renowned South African anti-apartheid activist Desmond Tutu. The Palestinians are engaged in a justified anti-apartheid movement for equality, self-determination and human rights, and those supporting ethno-religious supremacy and colonialism are on the wrong side of history.
Francesca: "So I'll apply [to Birthright], and he won't?"