The Illuminations of Birthright

This summer, I left North America for one of the first times in my life. On an El-Al jet surrounded by dozens of other Jewish college-aged students, I flew across multiple continents before landing in the Ben-Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv to embark on my “birthright”: an all-expenses-paid ten-day trip across Israel.

Unlike Crimson editorial writer Samuel Doniger, my compunctions about travelling to Israel were not about the safety of public buses or the loneliness of Israel’s desert terrain. Rather, I feared what I would learn on the trip: Taglit-Birthright Israel, the organization that currently sends 40,000 students and young adults per year on ten-day tours of the Holy Land, is notorious for its role in influencing the political ideology of American Jews. (After all, Birthright gets much of its funding from the right-wing Israeli government and right-wing American Jews like casino magnate and Romney supporter Sheldon Adelson.)

At first, I was surprised to find that my Birthright trip was less explicitly political than I had feared. Our tour guide, a young Israeli who is also a reserve officer in the Israeli Defense Forces, gave us a thorough and objective history of the Israeli border and otherwise seemed to focus on describing Israel’s tourist attractions, ruggedly beautiful landscape, and Jewish culture.

However, I soon realized that a trip around Israel aimed at fostering Jewish identity cannot avoid politics. From its name—“Birthright” implies that all Jews have the right to the land of Israel, while ignoring the Palestinian refugees who have been prevented from returning home for decades—to its itinerary—which includes ventures into the disputed Golan Heights, where participants gleefully take pictures of the ruined shells of “abandoned” Syrian homes—Birthright advances the political agenda of the Israeli and American right. The fact that it does so in an insidious way makes its messaging all the more dangerous.

As all Birthright trips do, my group travelled to the Holocaust history museum, the Yad Vashem. Most of the museum is centered around a long, dark tunnel with exhibits on each side detailing the horrors inflicted on Jews in Europe. The “light at the end of the tunnel,” the symbolic conclusion of the Jewish saga, is a balcony overlooking Jerusalem. The tour guide at the museum asked us, “Why did God let the Holocaust happen?” One American on my trip dutifully responded, “If it weren’t for the Holocaust, there might never have been a state of Israel.” The existence of a political state hardly seems to justify the extermination of over 10 million innocent people, but this was the message conveyed by the architecture of the Yad Vashem and seemed to be the narrative our tour guides desired us to understand.

At the end of our trip, our tour guide brought us to Mount Herzl cemetery, Israel’s national cemetery. At the area of the cemetery reserved for civilian victims of acts of terror, our guide told us why it was important for us as Jews to support Israel: because “Arabs are different from us,” and teach their children to hate in school. As members of my group supplied other examples of “Arabs” killing innocents—“Syria.” “Iran.” “Al-Qaeda, 9/11.”—we reflected on the necessity of defending Israel from the Palestinians, who, after all, have plenty of Arab brothers and sisters to support them, right?

Throughout the rest of our tour, we spoke to young IDF soldiers who dismissed human rights abuses against Palestinians as a forgivable consequence of a Jewish state. We spoke to older Israelis who informed us that Israel was the only place in the world safe for Jews, invoking the racism that seems to run unquestioned through Jewish Israeli public discourse—one told us, “there could be another Holocaust in America any time. Jesse Jackson, or another one of those black people…” Our trip leader supplemented these interactions with a quip about Israel’s thriving biotechnology industry: “Israel doesn’t have many natural resources, but we do have the Jewish mind.” We posed for a picture atop an old tank, shouting, “Israeli power!” And meanwhile, throughout the entire tour, we were encouraged to return to Israel, to make aliyah.

Zionists look to Birthright Israel as a way to inspire Jewish pride among largely assimilated, ethnically Jewish college students. Even liberal Zionist Peter Beinart, when he came to speak at Harvard last semester, critiqued Birthright only for failing to expose participants to a Palestinian perspective (it’s true: we didn’t speak to a single non-Jew during a full ten days in the Middle East).

But Birthright’s idea of engaging with Israel means supporting an illegal and oppressive military occupation, claiming citizenship to a state that deports African immigrants, glorifying “the Jewish mind,” and decrying all Arabs collectively for their hateful terrorist tactics. Simply introducing a Palestinian voice could not begin to correct for the fact that Birthright is firmly entrenched in right-wing rhetoric, from racism to militarism. If liberal American supporters of Israel truly hope for their children to engage with global Jewish politics in a meaningful way, they should stop sending them on a trip to Israel called “Birthright” and start teaching critical thinking about the role of Jews in promoting justice around the world.

Sandra Y. L. Korn, a Crimson editorial executive, is a joint history of science and studies of women, gender, and sexuality concentrator in Eliot House.

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