Propaganda is not necessarily a monologue that intends to incite reflection. but rather works to produce echoes. Now, W.H Auden may not have been talking about Israel and their underhanded tactics, but his understanding of propaganda can definitely be applied to describe and explain birthright.
‘Taglit-Birthright Israel’ or simply 'Birthright' is a well-known Jewish heritage experience that many young Jewish people take part in. In its description, it sounds like a fantastic cultural experience that is packed with authentic cultural and historical experiences - and it's free! Unsurprisingly, this has led to me being asked the same question an umpteen number of times: "Why haven't you gone on Birthright yet Safia?” I continuously toss this question aside, having no intention of getting into an intense political conversation with family members and acquaintances who mean no harm - but then despite my efforts, I am bombarded with the same old slew of comments, "You really must go!” or “It’s an unforgettable experience, you’ll just fall in love with Israel!”
But now, down the rabbit hole we go after all - once and for all I’d like to explain why I have never, and will never will, go on Birthright - even if it's free.
Taking into account the dozens of accounts of the trip, I can begin to piece together a slightly precise idea of the overall experience one receives from the trip; Sarah Rosenblatt, a popular illustrator, affirms that “The Zionist indoctrination I experienced on the trip was far more insidious and violent than I had expected.”
Escorted by IDF soldiers at most times, Birthright trips are meticulously designed to present a comprehensive flawless (and highly fictitious version) of Israel, ostracizing and obscuring any possible traces of Palestinian life. These trips, quite clearly, are devised to establish cultural and political support for Israelis (which sheds light on why American Jews and the US, in general, are such avid champions of Israel); it doesn't end there though, the trip tries to obstruct the consequences of the country’s highly problematic policies that include but are not limited to:
- Israeli occupation of Palestine,
- an abundance of apartheid laws that actively discriminate against Palestinians in daily life,
- and the denial of rights to Palestinian refugees to return home.
I had a hearty laugh when I heard about various instances of tour groups visiting Palestinians schools - these school visits are intended to show young and impressionable Jews that YES! Arabs are in fact people too, and Israeli Jews and Arabs live in harmony and eat hummus and couscous together!
Ok, maybe I am being cynical, but what about the other elements of the trips? Another itinerary event involves quickly driving through Gaza with the sole purpose of saying, “look, no genocides here!” - the propaganda and manipulation are almost poetic at this point.
However, quite recently, Taglit-Birthright Israel’s education department made an announcement stating that all trips must cease any interactions with Israeli Arabs or Palestinians in their program. Brilliant! that was the authenticity that was missing from this propaganda trip - an established rule that now prevented contact with any non-Jewish state citizens. This is truly indicative of the problems with Birthright as Arab Israelis make up 21.6% of the population of Israel; they are a crucial part of Israeli culture and history. How can one truly learn about Israel, when they can't even interact with almost a quarter of its citizens? The idea that a proper dialogue was present before was quite ridiculous, but the lack of any remotely different perspective is frightening, especially for a 'heritage' trip. Tunnel vision is damaging, multiple perspectives add multiple dimensions to any dialogue, thus neglecting and censoring them would be detrimental to actual growth or discovery - ironically defeating the purpose of Birthright trips.
To explain the depth of the consequences of birthright, bear with me as I share a bit of history and Palestinian perspective; during the 1948 Nakba, Palestinians were driven from their homes in the dozens, never to return. Many of them kept the key to their houses with them when they left and passed them down over several generations with the hopes that one day they would be able to return - not only can they never sleep in their own beds, they can never visit their own homeland of Jerusalem, the holiest place for most Palestinians. Now, in the status quo, take a moment and consider the 18-year-old American with a vaguely Jewish background, possibly not even Bat Mitzvahed, who is able to embark on an all-inclusive ten-day trip to Israel with every experience meticulously planned and censored.
Yes, I do agree, it’s a great opportunity for a free trip, but the pretense and political implications behind it are glaring. How can we ever expect to see anything but support from the young impressionable adults that only ever see such a one-dimensional view of their supposed 'homeland'? Furthermore, not only are these non-Israeli Jews given a chance to visit Israel, but they are also given the right to settle in Israel (with automatic citizenship) according to the 1950 Law Of Return. All these privileges while the while the people who built their homes and started families on those same grounds are locked behind guarded walls. It is well known that one of the primary goals of Birthright is to persuade young Jews to one day take advantage of the Law of Return and move to Israel. The intention is distinctly obvious, they are working towards ensuring that the majority in Israel always remains Jewish, despite the presence of 1.8 million Arab Israeli citizens. The Israeli government is safeguarding the political power of Jewish people by maintaining this majority and thus will continue to build settlements and further assert their dominance over Israel and its surrounding territories, and subsequently the people who lived there before.
As Jewish Voice for Peace aptly explains, “It is fundamentally unjust that Israel’s Law of Return extends a ‘right to return’ to any Jew around the world, regardless of their personal familial ties to Israel, while denying the right to return to Palestinians, whose families have lived there for centuries.” If you cannot see the fundamental flaw with this ideology and legislation, than no amount of information or statistics will change your mind about why Birthright is a fundamentally bad idea, and why Israel is an oppressor.
Many a time, during these discussions, I am told that I am not allow to have an opinion on something or somewhere without seeing or experiencing it myself - this argument is absolutely incredulous and flawed. Will you discount a man’s activism and active involvement fighting patriarchy because he hasn’t experienced it? Is it inherently logical to shun perspectives and opinions of non U.S Citizens on Donald Trump? If you support this rhetoric of ‘No experience, no opinion’, all you’re doing is suggesting that it’s wrong for anyone who is not North Korean to comment on the country’s dire state and Kim Jong-Un’s tyrannical rule and policies.
As someone who is majoring in Middle Eastern geopolitics, worked extensively in the region regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and interviewed people on both sides of the issue, I feel that I have as much of a right to an opinion as that of an American Jew who attended a 10-day government-funded trip to Israel after graduating high- school.
Some of you have told me that taking part in Birthright is completely fine as long as you go in with a critical mind and ask the right questions - here’s the problem, by doing that, all you accomplish is perpetuating an inherently corrupt system. In my opinion, refusing to go on Birthright is confronting privilege head-on, a privilege constructed on dispossession and injustice. If not from here, hear it from the educated activists at Jewish Voice For Peace who say, “Whether or not a Birthright participant has intentions to be critical on the trip, or to protest a settlement or join an anti-occupation collective after their trip, their participation in the program reinforces the interests of the state and right-wing organizations that shape Birthright programming.”
Here is some extra reading for those who are interested!