In the past few days, two incidents involving Jewish individuals’ experiences in Israel made the news in progressive Palestine rights circles. The first is that of the young women walking away from a Birthright tour to visit parts of Palestine that were not on the itinerary, and the second is the case of Code Pink national organizer Ariel Gold, who was denied entry into Israel, even though she had obtained a student visa for a summer course at the Hebrew University. While it can be argued that in both cases, the activists meant no harm to Palestinians, the incidents nevertheless reflect the ongoing normalization of Zionism, and the belief that it is perfectly acceptable, “normal,” for Jews from any country, and of any ideological belief, to go to Israel, where they would benefit from rights accorded them strictly on the basis of their religion. However, in light of Israel’s open embrace of Jewish supremacy, it is incumbent on progressive Jews who want to challenge Israel’s racism today that they stop taking advantage of their unearned privilege.
Birthright Israel is an all-expenses paid “Israel Adventure” offered Jews between the ages of 18-26, meant to make participants fall in love with the country. However, as one college student who considered (but did not go on) the trip writes: “the parameters and goals of the trip are set by the funders and stakeholders, like far-right American billionaire Sheldon Adelson and the Israeli government.” A central component of the trip is a meeting with Israeli soldiers, meant to endear the tourists to the occupation soldiers. A meeting with Palestinians, albeit sanitized and approved by the funders, once part of the program, was nixed in 2015. The Birthright participants who walked away from their tour did not consider any of the areas they had visited to be part of “the occupation” they wanted to witness, thus implicitly reinforcing the unquestioning and acceptability of the ethnic cleansing that took place in 1948, the seventy-year old, ongoing Palestinian Nakba.
I get it, walking away from the Birthright trip is fine. The participants, members of IfNotNow, escaped the brainwashing that is at the heart of the program’s agenda. But then again, they did not need to go on the propaganda trip to gain their awareness, they were already critical of “the occupation,” and they still took the free trip. It would have been more laudable to turn down the offer of an all-expenses-paid trip that is the exclusive unearned privilege of members of the “right” ethnic designation. Yet they insisted on “seeing for themselves,” despite the otherwise readily-available evidence of the horrors out there. They did not take any Palestinian’s word for it. They did not take any non-Zionist’s word for it. Even when they left the Birthright tour, they went into Hebron with members of Breaking the Silence–a group of Israeli soldiers who are only critical of “occupation” abuses, but otherwise willing to serve, and to continue to serve–rather than with Israeli refuseniks, or heaven-forbid, Palestinians. Their walking away from the Birthright tour, and asking other participants to “make it uncomfortable,” may be a feather in their activist hat, it does not in any way challenge Zionism. Rather, by accepting to go on their “Birthright” tour, and simply asking for a more complex narrative, they are normalizing Zionism.
Even as the “Birthright walkouts” are being applauded, I maintain that it is not laudable to normalize Zionism, the idea that any and all Jewish people can go to Israel, by accepting the Birthright trip, then feeling good about subverting it. It’s still privilege, since only Jews get to go, to a country founded on the dispossession of its indigenous people. To use an analogy, as the #MeToo movement gains momentum, with women from all walks of life coming forward with their stories of assault, do we celebrate a man who joins a frat party only to refrain from gang raping a young woman, then writing about the fact that sexual assault happens at such events? Would it not be better to listen to the survivors of the abuse?
Walking away from a Birthright trip should only be commendable if you were dragged into it by your parents, kicking and screaming, but with no say in the matter. Indeed, many American Jews today are boycotting the trip, “returning the Birthright,” because they refuse a free trip while Palestinian refugees are unable to return to their homes. This is an example of solidarity and accountability.
Code Pink national co-director Ariel Gold’s circumstances, while quite different, are also reflective of a privilege only available to her on the basis of her religion, yet one she readily uses. During a visit to Hebron last year, she was assaulted by a settler, and following an altercation with Israeli soldiers there, was informed she would henceforth need a visa to enter Israel. Additionally, Code Pink is one of 20 American organizations whose leaders have been banned from Israel on the basis of their pro-BDS organizing. Gold had secured a visa prior to this trip, during which she was to take a Jewish Studies course at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Her trip, then, was for her own enrichment. Gold told Mondoweiss she plans to contest the revocation of her visa and her subsequent deportation from Israel, thus implicitly asserting that she should have a right to enter Israel—a right denied millions of Diaspora Palestinians. Indeed, two days after her return to her home in New York, Gold announced that she is “looking into” making Aliyyah—the Zionist dream par excellence. “The land of Israel and Palestine is incredibly meaningful and sacred to me. It’s hard to believe I might not be allowed into a place that is so important to me,” she said. A day earlier, she had published an OpEd in The Forward where she explains that she had sent her young children on trips to Israel with NFTY, which organizes summer camps as well as year-long residencies for American Jews in 6th to 12th grade, and whose principles include: “The centrality of the State of Israel to the strength and survival of the Jewish People.” NFTY explains, in their FAQ section, that they consider their own trips as a good antecedent to Birthright trips.
Progressive Jews should not avail themselves of the opportunity to take a course at an Israeli university. Allies must understand that solidarity entails a loss of privilege. There is no heroism in crossing a picket line. At a time when BDS activists in the US are challenging the Study Abroad in Israel program as intrinsically discriminatory, it is perplexing that Gold thought it perfectly acceptable to enroll in a summer course at an Israeli university in Jerusalem, the city at the very crux of Israel’s violation of international law, a violation which most recently received the blessing of the Trump Administration, in the form of the US president’s “recognition” that it is the capital of Israel. Even assuming a national BDS organizer such as Gold is unaware of the campaign to end Study Abroad in Israel programs, how does one reconcile isolating Israel with traveling there for a summer course?
It is time for progressive Jews to understand they cannot denounce racism while benefiting from it. One need not go to Israel to study Jewish “collective history.” Nor does one need to go into Hebron, accompanied by Israeli soldiers, to see for themselves what Palestinians have been documenting for decades. For those privileged by an unjust system, dismantling that system entails giving up on the prerogatives and assurances that system offers them, including the option to make Aliyah, when Israel continues to deny Palestinians the Right of Return, and positions snipers to shoot at anyone joining in the Great Return March.
There are many BDS-compliant trips to Palestine, led or at least co-led by Palestinians. Some give a general overview, or others focus are on health issues, or academic freedom. Until progressive Jews stop going to Israel on propaganda tours to “see for themselves,” or to “see the occupation” (of the West Bank, as if Tel Aviv were not occupied), or even individually, to study “Jewish history,” they are complicit in normalizing Zionism, the idea that all of historic Palestine is indeed their birthright. And anyone who holds on to their unearned privilege cannot advance the struggle for justice.