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A teacher’s look at Birthright’s study abroad course description

Opinion
on 25 Comments

It would be a lie to say I wasn’t deeply moved when the 947 bus pulled into Jerusalem as dusk descended on the golden city on Christmas Day.  Who wouldn’t be stirred by the dramatic ascent into a town bathed in limestone. It’s always been this way for me. And though I’m no longer a Zionist, I remember most strongly what it feels like to be one at that moment I cross the threshold into the city.  

Earlier that day, I spent Christmas morning with participants from Taglit Birthright, the free trip to Israel for Jews under age 32, who were attending one of the new study abroad Birthright trips, Israeli Multiculturalism, from December 24 to January 6.  I met them at Kibbutz Afik, a collective community in the southern Golan Heights.  Afik was established in 1972 by Israelis who did their military service in the Golan Heights and helped Israel occupy the land from Syria in 1967.  Today about 250 people live in the kibbutz.

Last year Birthright began offering academic study abroad programs to U.S. college students.  Now, in addition to getting a free trip, students can earn three college credits.  Birthright also partners with several different organizations like Sachlav, Hillel International, Mayanot, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Hinam, Center for Social Tolerance–an encounter program that “promotes acquaintance” between Arab and Jewish citizens of Israel through principles like “colorblindness” and a “positive attitude,” according to their About Us page. 

The academic-themed courses Birthright offers are: Eco-Israel: Sustainability and Conservation; Food and Wine of Israel; Archeology: Uncovering the Hidden Past; Conflict Management & Counter-Terrorism; Innovation and Entrepreneurship; Diplomacy in the New Middle East; and Israeli Multiculturalism.  At the end of the program, students have two weeks to write a 7 to 9 page paper that is graded by a professor contracted with Birthright. For just $250, the three credits can be transferred to the student’s college. Given that three-credit courses at colleges can cost students thousands of dollars, the Birthright Israel Study Abroad program is a heck of a deal.

I was able to get hold of the Birthright course outline from one of the chaperones.  According to the syllabus, the course focuses on five groups that contribute to Israel’s multicultural society: the LGBTQ community, the Ethiopian community, members of the settlement movement, the Ultra-Orthodox community, and the Arab community.  

Part One of the Course Unit on “Arab Society” refers to the “Israeli-Arab Citizens” who live within Israel, and is notably ambiguous:

“Approximately one fifth of the residents of the State of Israel are Arab. In a State that is defined as ‘Jewish Democratic’ they are left with questions of meaning that affect their position and integration into ‘The Jewish State’. We will learn about the characteristics of Arab society from different viewpoints and religious traditions, such as the Arab community, family and culture.”

Some of these “different viewpoints” and “religious traditions” are broken down into smaller unit topics within Arab society such as “Culture and Folklore,” “Women in the Arab-Israeli society,” “The Culture of Food,” “Village Life,” and the Muslim religion.

To an outside observer, the syllabus does indeed look like Birthright is tackling these complex multicultural issues within Israeli society.  Under “Culture and Folklore,” for example, it states that students will “learn the Arabic dance ‘Dabka’ and its place in culture and community events.”  Students learn the dance without actually learning its history from the Palestinian perspective. They don’t, for instance, learn about the power imbalance between the Palestinian citizens of Israel and Jewish Israelis, or about the Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza.  They don’t learn about the Palestinian villages that were destroyed in 1948. The “Israeli-Arabs” are never called Palestinians, and the word Palestine is never used. Birthright’s idea of multiculturalism, then, becomes a form of entertainment, rather than a discussion of institutional power and Palestinian history.  

Part Two of the Course Unit on “Arab Society” is titled the “The Arab-Israeli Conflict.”  Unit topics include: “The Gaza Strip and its surrounding settlements,” “The ethics of Masada and its place in Zionism,” “David Ben Gurion as a visionary,” and “History of the establishment of the State of Israel and its wars.”  

Again, it appears that Birthright is tackling these complex issues, but ultimately the syllabus is apolitical in how the “Conflict” is described:   

“The Arab society in Israel finds itself in constant tension. On the one hand Arab individuals owe loyalty to the State of Israel as citizens but on the other hand, they have family ties and a common culture and nationality with the Arab World, which has been embroiled in a long and historical conflict with the State of Israel. In order to understand their unique situation, we will survey the Jewish-Arab conflict from its roots, up until recent times.”

The only “constant tension” here is the one Arabs have between their “loyalty” to the Jewish state and their connection to the larger “Arab world.”  Students are told they will study the conflict “from its roots,” that any “tension” the Arabs experience is because of this torn loyalty. Arabs are portrayed here as passive subjects of another people’s history, absorbed in to Israel.  Students don’t learn about the 1948 Nakba from the Palestinian perspective, that the land was Palestinian, that it was taken and colonized by Israel. Birthright’s version of multiculturalism both ignores Palestinian history but exploits its “Arab culture,” so that it appears exotic.  Palestinian history is pointedly left out.

One could argue that students do learn about the Palestinians in Gaza in “The Gaza Strip and its surrounding settlements” section, but only insofar as it serves to perpetuate Israel’s role as victim:

“A case study of the Gaza Strip and its Israeli perimeter in the Arab-Israeli conflict. We will get acquainted with the history of the conflict, the Jewish residents of the villages bordering the Gaza perimeter and the missile attacks against them, and Hamas dominance in the area.”

Israel is represented as minding its own business, just trying to survive. Students are told they will talk with the Jewish residents near Gaza, but they won’t speak with Gazans or hear their perspective.  They won’t learn about the peaceful Friday protests, for example, or the humanitarian crisis of Gaza that Israel has created.

These evasions and distortions in the Birthright syllabus are dangerous because the “Arab” history students are getting could sound legitimate to some who don’t know much about the conflict.  

But a closer look reveals a sophisticated insidiousness that not only exploits the very Palestinians who are ignored, but also exploits the students who have come on the trip to learn something.  The Israeli multiculturalism syllabus is manipulative; students are presented with a course that claims to represent Israel’s diversity but ultimately does nothing more than subtly perpetuate the erasure of Palestinian life while lauding Israel.  That students visit David Ben Gurion’s home and read his “vision of Israeli society,” for instance, as described in the unit topic, “David Ben Gurion as a visionary,”–listed under the “Arab-Israeli Conflict” heading(!)–shows that the Birthright curriculum was written with the intention of making sure only Israeli history is presented and celebrated.

I’m not trying to suggest that the Birthright students are passive. Certainly they can choose to learn more about Palestine, as indeed some have.  But as a teacher, I also know what it’s like to wield power over a room of eager students.  How I present information matters.

At my previous school when I was a new teacher, we held an annual “International Night,” where students brought foods and wore clothes representative of their culture and tradition.  It was a lovely evening celebrating the school’s multicultural student body, and the food, as you can imagine, was amazing. But a couple years later, it occurred to me, as I began reading about power and seeing the power imbalances among the student population within my own classroom, that it is important to talk about power–who has it and how it’s used to coerce and oppress.  I teach high school, and it’s incumbent on me to teach my students to think critically. Certainly the older college students who attend Birthright study abroad trips–who are studying at top U.S. universities–deserve to receive an education that encourages them to think critically, too, and does not only present a version of history that ignores and exoticizes others while making sure Israel looks good.

Kibbutz Afik

Even the kibbutz the Birthright participants visited both ignores and exoticizes the Syrian history it erased so that the kibbutz can be marketed as both ancient and modern.  According to its website, Kibbutz Afik has a spa with 50 rooms of “country lodging,” and “a spectacular, panoramic view of the Sea of Galilee.”  Treat yourself to a massage or swim in the pool, the site boasts, and “enjoy historical sites such as the aqueduct by the spring, which the Syrians used to water the nearby orchard.”  Here, Israel erases Syrian history in the Golan, but also fetishizes it as background scenery for current Israeli life on the kibbutz. The Roman historical sites are commodified and appropriated so that Kibbutz Afik can brand itself as both timeless and timely, while the Syrian people who did live there remain passive and ignored–they were there but not there.  

If the Birthright college students received a true history of the kibbutz they visited, they would also learn that Kibbutz Afik is on stolen Syrian land.  The Syrian town was called Fiq. In 1967 it had a population of 2,800. After the 1967 war, it was evacuated.

***

Ad featuring an “Arab House” for sale in Jerusalem. (Photo: Liz Rose)

Of course, the ways Israel ignores and fetshizes Palestinian culture isn’t confined only to Birthright classes.  As I walked around Jerusalem’s Rehavia neighborhood the day after I took the bus into the city, I saw an advertisement for a “Stunning Authentic Arab house” for sale in the German Colony neighborhood–an example of Israel sentimentalizing the past while it both fetishizes and ignores Palestinian history.  The Israeli real-estate company advertises the house as “Arab,” which, for potential homeowners, means that it is ancient.  Here “Arab” is only a style, a type of house with gorgeous arches and ancient tiles. The commodification becomes one more marketing opportunity for high-end Israeli real-estate to cover up Palestinian history at the same time being dependent on it to further its own agenda.  The Palestinians remain anonymous–from there but not from there.  

Gravestone at the Mamilla cemetery. (Photo: Liz Rose)

The same afternoon, I walked around the construction site for the new Museum of Tolerance near the City Center, a development sponsored by the Simon Wiesenthal Center.  The site sits on the historic 600-year old Muslim Mamilla cemetery. Many of the tombs have been destroyed, and construction has been halted several times due to the controversy of building the museum on the cemetery.  In 2010, architect Frank Gehry withdrew from the project because the project included destroying Muslim graves, yet the Wiesenthal Center maintains the importance of “building in Jerusalem because the Museum’s principal themes of universal respect, Jewish unity and coexistence are absolutely vital to Israel’s future.”  I walked through the cemetery, noting the Arabic writing on some of the graves that have not been touched.

Later, I asked a good friend, Tavit, to translate the headstone of one of the graves.  Tavit told me that a portion of the prayer for the dead was on the stone. The man was a father and grandfather.  His name was Muhi Eldan, son of Yusef. His family name was Al Disdar. He was Muslim. On the tombstone it is written that he was a “Guard of the Ottoman Empire.”  He died in 1913. Tavit, who seems to know everyone, laughed when I asked him to translate the Arabic on the grave. “What’s so funny?” I asked. “I know that guy’s grandkids,” Tavit said.  “One became a filmmaker.”            

The day before, I had walked through Mamilla Mall, the outdoor shopping mall full of American retailers like Gap and a few luxury brands such as Rolex. The storefront-lined esplanade seamlessly connects West Jerusalem to East–and has the same name of the cemetery upon which the Museum of Tolerance is being built.  

I had just arrived in Jerusalem at dusk, and was meeting Tavit, who lives in the Armenian Quarter of the Old City, whom I hadn’t seen in years.  As I walked through the mall, a clownish figure with a headset and mouthpiece approached me, hopping around like a human pogo-stick. He wore a blue and white sign around his neck that looked like the Israeli flag.  His sign said, “No Dividing Jerusalem,” with the website address, “United Jerusalem.com.” He wore a jacket with the Israeli flag embroidered on one sleeve. I made the mistake of catching his eye as he hopped towards me.  

Hasbara in Jerusalem’s Mamilla Mall.

“Don’t smile, young lady,” he said sarcastically.  “Whatever you do, don’t smile!” I moved away from him and started walking on the other side of the mall.  As a woman, it’s infuriating to be told to smile by strange men. I was really excited about seeing my old friend–it had been a long time–but maybe I did look upset.  I must have been thinking of other things, too, like that my nostalgia for Jerusalem is a myth, that it isn’t just bathed in limestone.  “Don’t worry,” I said back to the man.  “I won’t.”

Liz
About Liz Rose

Liz Rose is a Chicago teacher.

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25 Responses

  1. Citizen
    Citizen on January 8, 2019, 5:48 pm

    So many inner conniptions described here, and so what to do with them?

  2. RoHa
    RoHa on January 9, 2019, 1:23 am

    “Food and Wine of Israel”

    Academic?

    • eljay
      eljay on January 9, 2019, 9:53 am

      || RoHa: “Food and Wine of Israel”

      Academic? ||

      Elementary, seeing as how Israel is described as a “moral beacon” and “progressive paradise”.

  3. Misterioso
    Misterioso on January 9, 2019, 10:05 am

    “Birthright.” What a sick joke. These American Jews whose trip to “Israel” is funded in large measure by Zionist zealot, Sheldon Adelson, have as much right to the lands between the River and the Sea as Australian aborigines.

    • Jackdaw
      Jackdaw on January 12, 2019, 5:24 am

      Jews are the indigenous people to the lands between the River and Sea, and they were invited to settle there by agreement of the League of Nations, the same League that granted Arab Statehood to Iraq, Syria, etc.

      • eljay
        eljay on January 12, 2019, 9:39 am

        || Jackdaw: Jews are the indigenous people to the lands between the River and Sea … ||

        Geographic Palestine was not and still is not the “ancient / eternal / one-true homeland” of every person in the world who chooses to embrace the religion-based identity of Jewish.

        Geographic Palestine was and still is the actual homeland of all people living in and up to n-generations removed from it.

      • oldgeezer
        oldgeezer on January 12, 2019, 10:33 am

        @jackdoh

        Some Jews are. Many are not. It’s a ludicrous claim.

      • Mooser
        Mooser on January 12, 2019, 11:46 am

        .” It’s a ludicrous claim.”

        And “Jackdaw’s” incessant repetition of it sounds a little, well, demented.

      • echinococcus
        echinococcus on January 12, 2019, 12:02 pm

        There you have it: the best the Zionists can dig up to use to defend their theory on public forums is the Brothers Grimm and Perrault. Without the literary talent, of course.

      • Mooser
        Mooser on January 12, 2019, 12:35 pm

        ” and they were invited to settle there by agreement of the League of Nations”

        So go complain to the “League of Nations”. BTW, the US never joined the LoN, did it?

      • oldgeezer
        oldgeezer on January 12, 2019, 12:48 pm

        @mooser

        SIgh… I regretted my post as soon as I made it. Such stupid claims should just be ignored.

        Irish dna traces back to the middle east 3,000 years ago. Any Irish claims to be indigenous to the area would be met with howls of derision. Claims like jockstrap’s should either be ignored or meet the same response.

      • Talkback
        Talkback on January 12, 2019, 1:01 pm

        Jackdaw: “Jews are the indigenous people to the lands between the River and Sea”,

        Not the Jews who immigrated since the 1920s against the consent of the real indigenous people to the lands between the River and Sea.

        Jackdaw “… and they were invited to settle there …”

        Oh, so you admit that the were not indigenous, but settlers. Or is this another case of Zionist double think? Indegenous settlers? ROFL.

        Jackdaw: “… by agreement of the League of Nations, the same League that granted Arab Statehood to Iraq, Syria, etc. …”

        The League of Nations didn’t grant Jewish statehood. And the big difference is that in the Arab cases it was recognizing the right o self determinations of the people of the said territories, while in Palestine it was a denial of this right and the support for colonialization on behalf of Jewish foreigners.

        You know very well, how unjust and inhumane that was. So don’t pretend otherwise.

      • MHughes976
        MHughes976 on January 12, 2019, 1:21 pm

        A lapidary statement, Jackdaw. I say that the majority of Jews in the world come from places other than Palestine and that very many people who come from Palestine are not Jewish. Political rights, including the right to be an enfranchised citizen of a sovereign state, are everywhere for all legitimate residents without consideration of ancestry. Rights may sometimes be set aside with reasonable consent and for the general good, though that consideration does not apply here. Leagues of nations do not have the right to order or to legitimate changes in the population of an area or to decree that some people do not have political rights. Mandatories have an obvious duty to act in the interests of the people mandated to their care.

      • pjdude
        pjdude on January 12, 2019, 1:30 pm

        while truish your ignoring the fact the palestinians are also indigenous. unlike jewish settlers never left. and the league of nations recogized the palestinian state by labeling it a class a mandate. it was never intended to be a state with jews ruling over the native population.

      • Talkback
        Talkback on January 12, 2019, 1:31 pm

        Mooser: “BTW, the US never joined the LoN, did it?”

        Nope. Which is strange, since WW 1 was the first war that the US fought on Zionist behalf:

        ““The object [of the Balfour Declaration] was to enlist the sympathies on the Allied side of influential Jews and Jewish organizations all over the world… [and] it is arguable that the negotiations with the Zionists…did in fact have considerable effect in advancing the date at which the United States government intervened in the war.”[xxiii]”
        https://israelpalestinenews.org/wrote-balfour-declaration-world-war-connection/

        So much for the Zionist lobby.

      • RoHa
        RoHa on January 12, 2019, 9:28 pm

        You’ve said that before, Jackdaw. And we’ve shot it down before.

        It looks as though you are following the “if you can’t reply to the criticisms, just keep repeating the original claim” principle of propaganda.

        It’s a standard technique, and intellectually dishonest. But no-one expects honesty from Zionists.

      • Jackdaw
        Jackdaw on January 15, 2019, 6:17 am

        “BTW, the US never joined the LoN, did it? ”

        No Moos, the did not join, but they did one better.

        On June 30, 1922, a joint resolution of both Houses of Congress of the United States unanimously endorsed the “Mandate for Palestine,” confirming the irrevocable right of Jews to settle in the area of Palestine—anywhere between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea:

        “Favoring the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.

        “Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled. That the United States of America favors the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which should prejudice the civil and religious rights of Christian and all other non-Jewish communities in Palestine, and that the holy places and religious buildings and sites in Palestine shall be adequately protected.” [italics in the original]

        On September 21, 1922, the then President Warren G. Harding signed the joint resolution of approval to establish a Jewish National Home in Palestine.

      • Jackdaw
        Jackdaw on January 15, 2019, 7:26 am

        @pjdude

        “..and the league of nations recogized the palestinian state by labeling it a class a mandate. it was never intended to be a state with jews ruling over the native population.”

        Well. Not exactly.

        ‘In a private conversation at Balfour’s House in the summer of 1921, both Balfour and the Prime Minister contradicted him [Churchill] and told Churchill that “by the Declaration they always meant an eventual Jewish State.”
        Fromkin cited to Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill: Companion Volume, Vol. 4, Part3: April 1921-November 1922, p. 1559.(Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1975)

        It was clear at the time that the term “national home” really meant a state. Back in 1917, three months after his declaration was issued, Lord Balfour confessed: “My personal hope is that the Jews will make good in Palestine and eventually found a Jewish state.” See,Ronald Sanders book, High Walls of Jerusalem, p.652.

        As far as the United States interpretation of “national home”, a U.S. intelligence recommendations drafted for President Wilson at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference reported that: “It will be the policy of the League of Nations to recognize Palestine as a Jewish State as soon as it is a Jewish state in fact.” See, J.C. Hurewitz (ed.),The Middle East and North Africa in World Politics: A Documentary Record, Vol.2, British-French Supremacy, 1914-1945 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979, p. 132-36.

      • Mooser
        Mooser on January 15, 2019, 1:47 pm

        ” it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which should prejudice the civil and religious rights of Christian and all other non-Jewish communities in Palestine”

        And the Mandate is long over. And who ended it?

      • RoHa
        RoHa on January 15, 2019, 10:07 pm

        Neither the United States Government not the League of Nations had the right to invite Jews to settle in Palestine and set up a state there.

      • pjdude
        pjdude on January 27, 2019, 2:36 am

        @jackdaw just because balfour meant that didn’t mean the decleration did. also it had a voiding clause which has been met because the zionist jews have proven incapable of respecting anyone else right.

        also the United stated recognition of israel is actually unconstitutional

  4. Paul Larudee
    Paul Larudee on January 9, 2019, 11:09 am

    Credit for Birthright “courses” should be challenged at all the universities that offer or accept it, possibly even in court. These courses and the “scholarships” associated with them are off limits to non-Jews and persons who are not in the required age range, and even if they were not, the Israeli government would discriminate against some of them by not permitting them to enter Palestine.

    A few Palestinian student activists could volunteer to sign up for these “courses” and then file grievances or even lawsuits when refused. It’s worth doing.

    • Citizen
      Citizen on January 9, 2019, 2:41 pm

      Do they get extra credit for loving up an IDF soldier? Does the IDF soldier get a merit badge?

    • Peter in SF
      Peter in SF on January 10, 2019, 2:36 am

      From the original post, with emphasis added:

      Certainly the older college students who attend Birthright study abroad trips–who are studying at top U.S. universities–deserve to receive an education that encourages them to think critically, too, …

      Are the Birthright college courses restricted to students who are studying at “top” U.S. universities?
      Or is the author making a distinction between the kind of education that students at “top” U.S. universities deserve to receive from Birthright, vs. students from other universities, who maybe don’t deserve the same kind of education from Birthright?

  5. Elizabeth Block
    Elizabeth Block on January 9, 2019, 5:19 pm

    Of course they don’t talk to Gazans. It’s almost impossible to get permission from the Israeli government to get into Gaza.

    In Hebron there’s a sign that says that Jews are forbidden to enter the Old City. What it doesn’t say is that they are forbidden by the Israeli government, not by the Palestinians.

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