An open letter to Birthright participants past, present, and future

US Politics
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An open letter to Birthright participants past, present, and future:

My name is Hannah Friedstein and I am a past Taglit Birthright participant. I am writing this primer on Birthright to demystify its themes and binaries that exist in the understanding of the Birthright and its objectives. My goal is that you will ultimately gain a new and critical perspective and examine your role as a Birthright participant in Israel, for it is anything but neutral.

Israeli vs. Jewish

As you consider being a Birthright participant, I want you to ask yourself, what is your connection to Israel? Birthright tells you that coming to a Jewish nation state will strengthen your Jewish identity. They are saying that your relationship to a “Jewish” nation state will strengthen your relationship with your spiritual traditions. Is this really true? There are Jewish people all over the world who do not have the means or desire to travel to Israel. Are they any less Jewish? Do you feel a spiritual connection to this piece of land, and if so, why? One of Birthright’s main objectives is to maintain solidarity with Israel to “ensure continuity of the Jewish people by strengthening Jewish identity”. Can blind support of a nation that has disobeyed international law ensure and strengthen your Jewish identity? Not necessarily. Does being Israeli mean to be Jewish? Not necessarily. In the state of Israel, at least 20% of its citizens are not Jewish.

Zionism vs. Judaism

A photo the author took outside a Hebron checkpoint when she stayed in the West Bank after her Birthright trip. (Photo: Hannah Friedstein)

A photo the author took outside a Hebron checkpoint when she stayed in the West Bank after her Birthright trip. (Photo: Hannah Friedstein)

The effort to create and maintain a Jewish state is a political movement, not a religious movement. Modern Zionism is a political movement that calls for a “Jewish” state, not a nation for all its citizens. It traces back to the 1800s and its earliest believers were quite secular. Many Jews opposed Zionism for they believed only God could give them a Jewish state. If we take a closer look at Zionism’s goal, it is a movement of ethnic cleansing of an indigenous people. The slogan for this movement shows that the Palestinian people are not even a thought — “a land without a people for a people without a land”. Zionism creates an illusion that there was no issue of displacement of the Palestinian people.

Anti-Semitism vs. anti-Zionism

Supporters of Israel tend to equate anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism to silence resistance and opposition to Israeli policies. The great linguist and political commentator Noam Chomsky commented on this phenomena here. These false accusations of anti-Semitism against anyone who does not support Israeli policies are used in order to achieve the goal of distracting individuals and groups from the problems of illegal occupation. Opposition to the creation of a Jewish state does not mean denying human rights to Jews in that territory. It means opposition to a state that denies the rights to certain racial groups over others.

My Testimonial

I was offered a free trip to Israel because of my privilege constructed by Zionist ideals. I am not a Zionist. I have no connection to Israel as a Jew and did not find my long lost Judaism in the land formerly known as Historic Palestine. What I did find was a hotbed of racial discrimination and a skewed view of Palestine. While riding our tour bus from northern Israel to Jerusalem, we drove through the Occupied Territories. It was easy for us to get in and out of occupied territory because we were a clearly labeled Israeli Birthright tour bus. All of a sudden, my Israeli tour guide turns on his microphone and announces to the bus to close the curtains on the windows so that Jerusalem, our destination, will be a surprise. I was skeptical of this motive and peeked outside the curtain to find us passing the separation barrier and our bus passing through a military checkpoint. Why would our tour guide want to hide certain aspects of Israel from us? Why are we not getting the whole story when we’re on Birthright? It is simply not convenient for Birthright to show its participants that Israel is a place worth dropping everything and moving to while such racial discrimination is taking place.

I acknowledge that this “birthright” is a false construction created by those who wish to perpetuate racial exclusivity and ethnic cleansing of an indigenous people. My hope in going on this trip was to engage in a dialogue on serious issues that would not otherwise be touched upon in my 10 days in Israel. My main objective of Birthright was to extend my stay and travel to West Bank, Palestinian land currently under Israeli control and authority. Birthright became aware of my plans and almost took me off the trip. But why were they so concerned about me going to Israeli occupied territory?

My journey as a Palestine solidarity activist was not an easy one, but at the end of the day my ethnic identity allowed me into Israel without an issue. Palestinians who were forced from their homes are not allowed to return because they are not Jewish. The binaries I attempted to clear up above are strategically used by Birthright to shut out anyone who is for equality of all peoples, not just Jews. Israel claims to be the only democracy in the Middle East yet free speech is not something that is encouraged. I was called a racist and an anti-Semite, among other things by Birthright representatives. These types of accusations belittle the actual issues of racial discrimination that do exist against the Jewish people today.

According to Birthright I have a right to a piece of land given to me from my birth as a Jew. But I can identify as Jewish without ever stepping foot in Historic Palestine. I am a Jew that stands in solidarity with the Palestinians’ right to self-determination. I am a Jew who believes in human rights and equality for all. I am a Jew who sees the opportunity to voice a call for human rights by Palestinian Civil Society. I almost had my “right” to Israel taken from me by the organization because I am an active member of Students for Justice in Palestine, but there are millions of Palestinian refugees who have been denied their right to return to their homes since 1948. If you take anything away from this letter it is that you should not feel pressured by your religious identity to identify with a geographic plot of land or to discriminate against others. It is important to emphasize that to be Jewish does not mean to be Israeli. That to be Jewish does not mean to be Zionist. That to be Pro-Palestinian does not mean to be an anti-Semite.

Thanks for reading,

Hannah Ruth Friedstein

Students for Justice in Palestine
UMass Amherst ‘14

About Hannah Friedstein

Hannah Friedstein is co-founder of UMass Amherst Students for Justice for Palestine and a human rights activist based in New York City.

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25 Responses

  1. pabelmont
    October 23, 2014, 11:32 am

    Many people try to convince others of a proposition by telling only part of the relevant story. That’s what propaganda is for. Birthright is just such a partial (in both meanings) story-telling. Hannah Friedstein shows this nicely. Bravo.

  2. Annie Robbins
    October 23, 2014, 11:48 am

    thank you very much for your activism and witness Hannah Ruth Friedstein. i especially found the part about being instructed to draw the windows closed so jerusalem “will be a surprise” very amusing!

    the only part where i felt you were way to kind was this:

    These false accusations of anti-Semitism against anyone who does not support Israeli policies are used in order to achieve the goal of distracting individuals and groups from the problems of illegal occupation.

    the goal is not merely distraction, it is in order to brainwash, threaten and create fear of speaking out in order to stifle dissent so that the crimes of the state can go on unimpeded. and not just in jews but for virtually all of israel’s honest critics.

    • Mooser
      October 23, 2014, 5:32 pm

      “All of a sudden, my Israeli tour guide turns on his microphone and announces to the bus to close the curtains on the windows so that Jerusalem, our destination, will be a surprise.”

      Was it supposed to be a little like arriving in a sealed boxcar?

      • Citizen
        October 24, 2014, 4:45 pm

        Damn Mooser, talk about gallows humor. Them antlers are sharp! You should have your own series on National Geographic channel.

      • Mooser
        October 26, 2014, 2:10 pm

        Frankly it shocked me. They tell ’em to pull down the shades, and they do it?

      • seafoid
        October 28, 2014, 11:39 am

        They didn’t want all those nice Jews to see the checkpoints or the shoddy architecture on the edge of town.
        Jerusalem is still a young woman in the eyes of many even though she has aged dreadfully since 67.
        Very like Mrs Wildenstein really.

  3. Horizontal
    October 23, 2014, 11:56 am

    I know that certain things carry an impact that no amount of words can counteract. Seeing the razor wire barrier wall is one such object. I’m not surprised they tried to hide it from you. Thanks for looking.

    I hope your courageous letter encourages others to think.

  4. eljay
    October 23, 2014, 11:58 am

    Much respect to Ms. Friedstein for her letter.

    • Citizen
      October 24, 2014, 4:48 pm

      @ eljay
      Yeah, ditto here. Ms. Friedstein is one hell of a principled human being! Much respect for her character. Her tight article nails jellyfish.

  5. adele
    October 23, 2014, 2:32 pm

    “If you take anything away from this letter it is that you should not feel pressured by your religious identity to identify with a geographic plot of land or to discriminate against others. It is important to emphasize that to be Jewish does not mean to be Israeli. That to be Jewish does not mean to be Zionist. That to be Pro-Palestinian does not mean to be an anti-Semite.”

    Superb Hannah! But then again, once someone has reached this plateau of morality compliments are probably superfluous :-)

  6. Mooser
    October 23, 2014, 5:26 pm

    ” I was called a racist and an anti-Semite, among other things by Birthright representatives. “

    Yes, they are very concerned about tribal unity.

    • Citizen
      October 24, 2014, 4:52 pm

      Yes, tribal unity, and donations to Birthright are tax deductible! All American taxpayers get to fund this program. Now that’s not so tribal, is it?

      • Mooser
        October 26, 2014, 3:47 pm

        Citizen, my name for how Zionists use Jewish affiliation is “tribal utility”.

      • Citizen
        October 26, 2014, 4:15 pm

        @ Mooser
        That term “utility” has special meaning in my neck of the woods because I and other state residents have been paying on one of our home utility bills to a private company for at least the decade I’ve been here for a nuclear power plant yet to be built & without any sign it will ever be built. How’s that fit your term “tribal utility”?

  7. Marnie
    October 24, 2014, 2:50 am

    “But I can identify as Jewish without ever stepping foot in Historic Palestine. I am a Jew that stands in solidarity with the Palestinians’ right to self-determination. I am a Jew who believes in human rights and equality for all. I am a Jew who sees the opportunity to voice a call for human rights by Palestinian Civil Society.”
    Are these Jewish traits exclusively? Of course not. I am a little exhausted by the “I’m a Jew who……” part, as if your empathy and compassion when you see others suffering is somehow exceptional because you’re a Jew. It isn’t. That’s what bothers me a lot about throwing the “I’m a Jew who…” bit into the conversation over an over again. Who cares? It sounds to me more like “I’m a Jew. My people have suffered horribly throughout history and most recently with the holocaust. Therefore for Me to have empathy for others is exceptional.” No it isn’t. This is still clinging to that “chosenness” bit that is bullshit. If you care about the situation of others, it shouldn’t be because your a Jew or inspite of the fact that your a Jew, but that you see yourself as part of the big picture, the world and the human family.
    Sick and tired of the Jews for this, Christians for that, Muslims for this, etc. I’m tired of labels.

    • Mooser
      October 24, 2014, 1:35 pm

      But Marnie, try and think about it this way: This could be a big win-win kind of thing, all this “I’m a Jew” type stuff.
      See, all we have to do is reject all the stupid land claims and supremacy stuff which plagues Zionism but retain that magnificent sense of Jewish peoplehood which Zionism has engendered in us!! In fact, we could use this “Jewish peoplehood” to change or even defeat Zionism!
      How can we lose, if we do it like that? The power of Jewish peoplehood, used for good, instead of eeeevil!

      • Citizen
        October 24, 2014, 5:13 pm

        When I was a senior undergraduate at university in the city I dated a nice girl who ended up giving the valedictorian address at our class graduation ceremony. During our relationship, one of the gifts she gave me was a copy of that illustrated coffee table book, The Family Of Man. She had a an exquisite cameo face, porcelain skin; she drove to university in her father’s Checker car; she was a nice, serious young lady; near the end of college days she told me she could never get really serious with me because her parents, whom she loved dearly, required from her that she marry a Jewish man.

      • Mooser
        October 26, 2014, 3:50 pm

        Citizen, you know what the old saying is: ‘Where there’s a will, there’s an inheritance’.

    • Stephen Shenfield
      October 26, 2014, 2:10 pm

      Marnie: If this is what Hannah Friedstein means, I can understand and share your reaction to it. But perhaps it isn’t what she means. It would be interesting to have a response from her.

      I think there can be various motives for inserting the “I’m a Jew” bit, depending who the spiel is aimed at. It can be a protest against the claims of Zionists to represent Jews. It can be an appeal to distinguish between Jews and Zionists, aimed at people you fear may come to hate Jews in reaction to Israel’s crimes. It can be a way of reassuring yourself that Zionist accusations that you are a “traitor to your people” are false.

      • Marnie
        October 28, 2014, 3:07 am

        Hi Stephen – I understand what you’re saying. I have no idea what Ms. Friedstein means, it was a gut reaction but I still feel the same.

  8. just
    October 24, 2014, 11:54 am

    Thank you for your testimony, Hannah Friedstein.

    For the people who claimed to “never forget”, it’s rather astonishing to close the curtains.

    Or maybe not.

  9. Citizen
    October 26, 2014, 11:23 am

    Be a real macho man, young American Jew–come shoot native kids for sport & steal their homes: http://youtu.be/BLr44yi_8t8 via @YouTube

  10. shalom
    October 27, 2014, 10:28 am

    I am not quite young enough to make a Birthright trip. My first visit to Israel/Palestine was in 2001 as a member of the MidEast Citizen Diplomacy Delegation led by Leah Green which became known as The Compassionate Listening Project: http://www.compassionatelistening.org/ . I’ve traveled three more times so far and met everyone from Salam Fayyad in his office in Ramallah to Salah Shouky, a Hamas City Councilman in Bethlehem to David Wilder, spokesperson for the Jewish Community in Hebron. For many of the 400,000 who have taken the Birthright trip since 1999 it connected/reconnected them with their Judaism, with the Land of Abraham, Isaac and Ishmael and with a bit of the spirituality that was given to them as children in Hebrew school. It is not a trip designed to identify, define or discuss the plight of Palestinians, to dwell on the occupation or to create a dialogue. I went on such a trip and led another interfaith one because I spent my money and chose to do so.

    • Annie Robbins
      October 27, 2014, 11:43 pm

      It is not a trip designed to identify, define or discuss the plight of Palestinians

      but they always take the time to indoctrinate them w/the idf right? so it’s not really true all they do is connected with their “Judaism, with the Land of Abraham, Isaac and Ishmael and with a bit of the spirituality that was given to them as children in Hebrew school” throw in for good measure, now is it?

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