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Visit Israel, Just Not on Birthright

By Nadine S. Bahour
Nadine S. Bahour ’22 is a Neuroscience concentrator in Leverett House.

From the vibrant and colorful fruit stands in the streets of Palestinian cities to the friendly store owners at every corner, I am always ecstatic to be in Palestine. Being home means being surrounded by loved ones and being in a place that continues to give me above and beyond what I could ever repay it. I consider it a blessing and an honor to call Palestine home. I strongly urge anyone who can to visit the region. But you should you go about doing that?

The opportunities and options to visit Palestine and Israel are numerous, many of which are organized trips that are fully funded by different parties. Currently, Harvard Hillel’s registration for one of these fully-subsidized trips, Birthright, is in full swing and the campus is flooded with students sharing registration information.

I am here to tell you one thing: Visit the region, just not on Birthright.

Birthright is a ten day trip to Israel for Jewish young adults ages 18 to 32. Their mission statement is “to ensure the vibrant future of the Jewish people by strengthening Jewish identity, Jewish communities, and connection with Israel.” But the reasons I am encouraging you to not partake in this trip outweigh the one justification, represented in the mission statement, for going on a Birthright trip.

First, Birthright trips do not expose their groups to the harsh reality that Palestinians living just minutes away from some of the trip’s destination experience. The lack of resources, blatant discrimination, and danger that Palestinians experience is difficult to grasp even with a well-rounded approach, but absolutely impossible to comprehend through a trip like Birthright, which chooses to completely disregard and intentionally overlook this reality.

This trip never exposes participants to Palestinian cities, villages, and refugee camps. Attempts to enter Palestinian controlled areas are carefully planned and executed in a way that avoids confronting the reality people are living. The region, which is exposed to Israeli oppression and occupation is carefully, and dare I say strategically, left out of the trip agenda, contributing to a one-sided and biased perception of the status quo. This reality was experienced firsthand by a Birthright participant, Risa Negal, who decided to venture off her meticulously planned trip and wrote about her experience afterwards.

A target audience for Birthright are individuals who have never visited or lived in Israel before. Participants receive full funding for the trip, including excursions on the itinerary. Whereas on the other hand, Palestinian refugees living all around the world, yearning to visit, are not allowed to step foot in their birthplace or visit family living in the region. So how is this dynamic fair?

On another note, Birthright’s largest donor and prime cheerleader is the right-wing casino magnate and mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, who happens to be one of President Donald Trump’s closest advisers and one of his largest donors.

When receiving something of value for free, one should be extra cognizant, be it a new smartphone or a free trip to Israel. Who is ultimately paying for your freebie matters, and has the potential to come back and haunt you and your career, not to mention blinding you from reality. Case in point is the Jeffrey E. Epstein fiasco that recently reached both Harvard and MIT, both of which Epstein donated to.

The trip and its agenda is as problematic as the planning and people behind it. People and powers who fund Birthright are detached from the reality of the situation, and are moving the pawns of that region’s chess game from far away without truly experiencing the reality on the ground.

The ramifications of Birthright can be overlooked by those who support the trip, but they are truly detrimental to citizens of the region. Consequences extend far beyond the ten days the participants spend in Israel, especially when the eligible audience is taken into account. This program definitely feeds a vision of creating a large Jewish, predominantly American Jewish, youth diaspora that has a very strong loyalty to the State of Israel, even though they are usually raised in a different country with a totally different set of values. In the past, some individuals returned to Israel after a Birthright trip to serve in the Israeli Defense Forces, often directly affecting the same Palestinian population they were never exposed to during the trip.

I am in no position, and cannot force anyone, to not go on a Birthright trip; it is ultimately a personal choice. I am merely trying to offer an opinion from the other side of the checkpoint and the separation wall that Birthright trip participants do not get the opportunity to witness or hear. I am asking you to pay my side of the wall, the wall that I think should not exist, a visit, and then make your judgement about the region and everyone living in it.

With that said, I still completely stand by my recommendation that every single willing and able person should visit Palestine and Israel, and there are several other opportunities for that. Some of the Jewish focused trips that visit both Israel and Palestine and have a diverse line-up of speakers from different backgrounds and views include Encounter, Extend, If NotNow, Green Olive Tours, J Street and others. Choose a trip that exposes you to a range of voices and reach your own conclusions, do not let anyone else do that for you. That is something you owe yourself, and your community, as an active citizen in this world.

Nadine S. Bahour ’22 is a Neuroscience concentrator in Leverett House.

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