Letter: What’s behind the curtains on Birthright trips?

By Hannah Friedstein

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(Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)

(Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)

An open letter to Birthright participants past, present and future:

My name is Hannah Friedstein and I am a past Taglit Birthright participant. I am writing this primer on Birthright to demystify its themes and binaries that exist in the understanding of the Birthright and its objectives. My goal is that you will ultimately gain a new and critical perspective and examine your role as a Birthright participant in Israel, for it is anything but neutral.

Israeli vs. Jewish

As you consider being a Birthright participant, I want you to ask yourself, what is your connection to Israel? Birthright tells you that coming to a Jewish nation-state will strengthen your Jewish identity. They are saying that your relationship to a “Jewish” nation-state will strengthen your relationship with your spiritual traditions. Is this really true? There are Jewish people all over the world who do not have the means or desire to travel to Israel. Are they any less Jewish? Do you feel a spiritual connection to this piece of land, and if so, why? One of Birthright’s main objectives is to maintain solidarity with Israel to “ensure continuity of the Jewish people by strengthening Jewish identity.” Can a blind support of a nation that has disobeyed international law ensure and strengthen your Jewish identity? Not necessarily. Does being an Israeli mean to be Jewish? Not necessarily. In the state of Israel, 20 percent of its inhabitants are not Jewish.

Zionism vs. Judaism

The Jew’s right to create and maintain a Jewish state is a political movement, not a religious movement. Modern Zionism is a political movement that calls for a “Jewish” state, not a nation for all its citizens. It traces back to the 1800s, and its earliest believers were quite secular. Many Jews opposed Zionism for they believed only God could give them a Jewish state. If we take a closer look at Zionism’s goal, it is a movement of ethnic cleansing of an indigenous people. The slogan for this movement shows that the Palestinian people are not even a thought, “a land without a people for a people without a land.” Zionism creates an illusion that there is no issue of displacement of the Palestinian people.

Anti-Semitism vs. anti-Zionism

Supporters of Israel tend to equate anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism to silence resistance and opposition to Israeli policies. This is a notion shared by the great linguist and political commentator, Noam Chomsky. These false accusations of anti-Semitism against anyone who does not support Israeli policies are made in effort to distract individuals and groups from the problems of illegal occupation. Opposition to the creation of a Jewish state does not mean denying human rights to Jews in that territory. It means opposition to a state that denies the rights to certain racial groups over others.

My testimonial

I was offered a free trip to Israel because of my privilege constructed by Zionist ideals. I am not a Zionist. I have no connection to Israel as a Jew and did not find my long lost Judaism in the land formerly known as historic Palestine. What I did find was a hotbed of racial discrimination and skewed view of Palestine. While riding our tour bus from northern Israel to Jerusalem, we drove through the Occupied Territories. It was easy for us to get in and out of occupied territory because we were a clearly labeled Israeli Birthright tour bus. All of a sudden, my Israeli tour guide turns on his microphone and announces to the bus to close the curtains on the windows so that Jerusalem, our destination, will be a surprise. I was skeptical of this motive and peaked outside the curtain to find us passing the separation barrier and through a military checkpoint. Why would our tour guide want to hide certain aspects of Israel from us? Why are we not getting the whole story when we’re on Birthright? It is simply not convenient for Birthright to show its participants that Israel is a place worth dropping everything and moving to while such racial discrimination is taking place.

I acknowledge that this “birthright” is a false construction created by those who wish to perpetuate racial exclusivity and ethnic cleansing of an indigenous people. My hope in going on this trip was to engage in a dialogue on serious issues that would not otherwise be touched upon in my 10 days in Israel. My main objective of Birthright was to extend my stay and travel to West Bank, Palestinian land currently under Israeli control and authority. Birthright became aware of my plans and almost took me off the trip. But why were they so concerned about me going to Israeli-occupied territory?

My journey as a Palestine Solidarity activist was not an easy one, but at the end of the day my ethnic identity allowed me into Israel without an issue. Palestinians who were forced from their homes are not allowed to return because they are not Jewish. The binaries that I attempted to clear up above are strategically used by Birthright to shut out anyone who is for equality of all peoples, not just Jews. Israel claims to be the only democracy in the Middle East, yet free speech is not something that is encouraged. I was called a racist and an anti-Semite, among other things by Birthright representatives. These types of accusations belittle the actual issues of racial discrimination that do exist against the Jewish people today.

According to Birthright, I have a right to a piece of land given to me from my birth as a Jew. But I can identify as Jewish without ever stepping foot in historic Palestine. I am a Jew that stands in solidarity with the Palestinians’ right to self-determination. I am a Jew who believes in human rights and equality for all. I am a Jew who sees the opportunity to voice a call for human rights by Palestinian Civil Society. I almost had my “right” to Israel taken from me by the organization because I am an active member of Students for Justice in Palestine, but there are millions of Palestinian refugees who have been denied their right to return to their homes since 1948. If you take anything away from this letter, it is that you should not feel pressured by your religious identity to identify with a geographic plot of land or to discriminate against others. It is important to emphasize that to be Jewish does not mean to be Israeli. That to be Jewish does not mean to be Zionist. That to be pro-Palestinian does not mean to be an anti-Semite.
Thanks for reading,

Hannah Ruth Friedstein ‘14
Former Vice President, Students for Justice in Palestine