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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”