Birthright in Palestine

From today’s Haaretz, a piece by Gideon Levy on the efforts of a handful of North American Jews to extend their Birthright tours to give them a few days in the West Bank.  The youths visit Jewish settlements as well as Palestinian villages and cities.  They come back from their trip feeling both connected with Israel and unsettled by what they have seen and heard on the West Bank.   They are on the beginning of a journey that might involve a lot of reading, and arguing, and, if they stick with it, more trips to the region and an ever-deepening involvement with it.  Birthright is about feelings, connections, and identity.  The “Extend” journeys into the West Bank are about education, stretching the mind and confronting challenges to comfortable ways of thinking.   Jews are, after all, not the only people who claim a birthright to this land.  

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A group picture on the steps of PLO headquarters in Ramallah. Around 20 young Jewish-Americans are posing for a photographic memento. In the background is a PLO sign, and two armed Palestinian soldiers in battle fatigues look on from the side. A few hours later, they are wondering aloud: “What will people in the States say?” “Maybe you don’t have to publish the picture?” Some members of the group panic: They’re afraid of what their parents will say and of what people in the synagogue will say.

Still, they’re here, in Ramallah, these members of a Birthright Israel group. After 10 days of indoctrination, including the Western Wall, Yad Vashem, Rabin Square, Masada, the IDF and the kibbutz in a pita, a veritable shakshuka of propaganda, they decided to stay on for five days of touring the occupied West Bank. It was a courageous, estimable decision – but still, they were leery of the photograph at the headquarters of the Palestine Liberation Organization. In the course of these five days of penitence, they visited Hebron and Ramallah, and the villages in the forefront of the Palestinian struggle, Bil’in and Nebe Salah; met representatives of left-wing organizations – B’Tselem, Peace Now, Breaking the Silence; and stayed in a guesthouse in the village of Jifna, near Ramallah. They also met with representatives of the Yesha settlers’ council and with the committee of Jewish settlers in Hebron, as well as visiting the settlement of Psagot. All in all, a very intensive study tour, balanced and horizon-broadening. Few young Israelis ever get to see what this group from America saw.

The person behind this new and refreshing initiative is Jon Emont, a young Jew of 23 from New York. Determined, energetic and brimming with good intentions, Emont has set himself the goal of presenting the other side of the coin, the dark side of the Birthright Israel moon. As a teenager, he thought he would enlist in the Israel Defense Forces – his parents are active Zionists. It was always clear to him that Israel’s enemies are also America’s enemies. Still, Emont did not make his first trip here until 2012, when he visited as part of a delegation, organized by Israel, of editors of student newspapers. A friend suggested that he also visit the West Bank, to get a better perspective on the situation. He then spent a few months in Shanghai, where he conceived the idea of the tours.

He and a friend, Sam Sussman, founded a new organization they called Extend. The idea is to extend Birthright, extend one’s knowledge. At the moment it’s a small initiative with a meager budget. This week they concluded their third tour, in which almost 20 young people took part, almost all of them refugees from Birthright. Zach, Rob, Emily and Daphna from New York, Lily from Maryland, Russell from Canada, Eliza from Boston, Ethan from Vermont, Kayla from Oregon, Julia, and even Aviva, from Alaska – a very likable group of eager-to-learn young people who had read about Israel before coming here, and listened closely to the speakers and taken notes while touring.

Contrary to expectations, perhaps, their bold choice to visit the territories did not make them pro-Palestinian. They’re not likely to join the International Solidarity Movement anytime soon. Most of them say they remain faithful Zionists. Only one of them said that after she read about the massacre in Lod in 1948, described by Ari Shavit in his new book, “My Promised Land,” she pondered the question of whether a Jewish state should have been established if that was the price. (She asked to remain anonymous.) They joined the Extend tour because they wanted to know more and see more. Some of them said that the five days in the West Bank actually made them more involved and more caring Jews. Almost all of them disagree with the prevailing view that you can’t be considered a friend of Israel and be concerned about the country’s future and wellbeing, and at the same time be critical of its policies.

As part of the changes that the large and influential Jewish community in America is undergoing, amid the search for a new identity, their voices should be taken into account, too. But let’s keep things in proportion. So far, this is only a handful: Some 350,000 young Jews have taken part in Birthright since its inception, whereas only a few dozen have availed themselves of project Extend.

After the group photo on the stairs, they enter the PLO building, which is situated at the edge of the Muqata – Palestinian Authority headquarters – in Ramallah. At the entrance to the impressive and deserted mausoleum holding the tomb of Yasser Arafat, a Palestinian soldier suggests that they visit the burial place of “Abu Amar” (Arafat’s nom de guerre), but the group hears it as “Obama” and promises to convey their impressions to him.

The street leading to the compound was lined with Canadian and Romanian flags: The leaders of the two countries were visiting and scheduled to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the adjacent building. Two spokeswomen, Rasha Uthman and Samar Awadallah, from the PLO’s information and culture unit, spoke to the group in a luxurious conference room. The young women were plied with tough questions: Why does a map of the whole of Palestine appear on the PLO’s logo? Has the PLO decided to abandon the path of violent resistance, and if so, when was the decision made? Does the PLO support a one-state solution? We hear a lot about apartheid, but why the use of the term “ethnic cleansing”? Why is Mahmoud Abbas said to be so weak as a leader?

“Go home and write about your impressions, write in your student papers and on Facebook, and tell your friends,” was the message of the two spokeswomen, one of them a Palestinian-American, to the group. “Tell people that you met Palestinians and that they are not as horrible as they are made out to be in the United States. Humanize us in the face of all the dehumanization. Ask your congressmen why they support Israel so massively despite the American values of democracy and human rights. You are Jews, so what you say carries great weight in the United States, in contrast to what we say. You can do so much. Talk about us.”

But afterward, on the way out of Ramallah in the minibus, some in the group said they felt they had not received genuine answers to their questions. Daphna Spivack, from New York, thought the two spokeswomen were somewhat out of touch: “So many people are talking about the one-state solution, and they only talked about two states.”

When they crossed the Hizma checkpoint, north of Jerusalem, they started to clap, as people do when their plane touches down at Ben-Gurion Airport. Emont told them that this was their last checkpoint. But here, too, they didn’t waste a minute. On the way to their next stop – a bar in Tel Aviv’s gentrifying Florentin neighborhood, for another political discussion – they engaged in a very lively conversation, not even pausing to look out the window. Almost all of them say they are secular Jews, even if their families belong to synagogues. They are preoccupied with their Jewish identity, the meaning of Zionism and their connection to Israel – all the more so after this visit.

They were astonished to discover that the two communities – the Israeli and the Palestinian – are so remote from one another and how deeply each is immersed in its own narrative. “It’s time to stop talking about history and start talking about the present,” Rob Roth, from New York, urged. Lily Sieradzki, from Maryland, said that the Jewish establishment in her country lacks a critical approach. Julia Peck recalled that in Bili’in, the day before, she had met a girl who was afraid of soldiers, and afterward they had visited the settlement of Ofra and seen two bullet holes in the kindergarten there. “Both communities are afraid in such a human way.” But she was also shocked to discover that there are two separate legal systems, one for Jews and one for Palestinians, in the territories. “Basic human rights, in which we were raised as Jews, are being violated here,” she said.

“I don’t know what you feel at the end of this visit,” Eliza Kaplan, from Boston, said, “but I feel more connected to my Jewish side and more involved in what’s happening here.” Zach Braunstein, from New York, observed that everything is presented in black and white here, “and I, as an outsider, was able to paint the gray for myself.” Ethan Tischler, from Vermont, noted that precisely because he is a Jew, it was important for him to visit the West Bank and see what the Jewish state is doing.

Someone said that if Zionism is occupation and settlements, then he is not a Zionist. Someone else added that Jews may have the right to live here, but not necessarily in a Jewish state. Julia said she will post the photos on her Facebook page. Aviva Hirsch, from Alaska, said she was more confused now than she had been. The organizer, Jon Emont, invited everyone to come to his shul in New Jersey this coming Valentine’s Day. He’ll be talking about his impressions of the trip.

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