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

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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

18 Comments

18 Responses to “Letter: What’s behind the curtains on Birthright trips?”

  1. Joel on October 22nd, 2014 4:41 am

    Could you share more details about your conversations with the Birthright reps? What did they say to you, and how did they come to threaten taking you off the trip and calling you a racist and anti-semite? I would just like to know more about what words and dialogue were coming from their end in how they justified such words and actions.

  2. Kris on October 22nd, 2014 8:27 am

    “I was skeptical of this motive and peaked outside the curtain to find us passing the separation barrier and through a military checkpoint.” One sentence. This is the extent of your criticism of Birthright. The rest is just bashing Israel. You should move to Palestine. It sounds like a wonderful place to raise your kids.

  3. Medtah on October 22nd, 2014 10:55 am

    More damage is done to palestinians by hamas than by israel. this is fact.

  4. Hannah on October 22nd, 2014 12:00 pm

    Hi Joel,

    In response to your great questions, I’ll give some background info then give the best answers I can: I had requested an extension to my trip, as most participants do. My FB profile also revealed that I had co-founded the group “Students for Justice in Palestine” a human rights and political group voicing calls from Palestinian Civil Society. SJP is known for voicing the call for BDS, a peaceful way to put pressure on companies to divest from Israel.

    Birthright reps then called me asking my true intentions of going on Birthright and if this trip really was for me. They then asked me to “explain myself” for being part of SJP as it is a “hostile, racist, and anti-simetic group”. I then explained that SJP is not infact racist or hostile in any way and that I was insulted for being indirectly called an anti-semite for my relation to SJP. I was told by the rep that I should reconsider going on the trip if I plan to disrupt it in any way. I assured I’m I would not disrupt the flow of the trip what so ever. The rep then inquired about my extension. He has the right to, his organization is paying for it. He then asked if I was planning on traveling to West Bank, which is technically land controlled by Israel. I told him I was extending my stay within Israel, which is true. This phone call was not enough to convince Birthright I was not a “threat”.

    I then received multiple emails containing screenshots of my FB activity posting updates to SJP’s Facebook page, asking me to “explain myself”. I felt violated and uncomfortable about this. I replied that despite my Palestine Solidarity activism, it is my right, according to birthright, to go on this trip. They ultimately could not deny me this “right.”

  5. David Lloyd on October 22nd, 2014 3:55 pm

    It is ironic that you are troubled that Israel has the audacity to seek to protect itself from terrorists with a separation wall and checkpoints. Just today, an Arab terrorist drove his car into a crowd of people waiting for a streetcar in Jerusalem, KILLING A THREE MONTH OLD INFANT and injuring many. Israel does not have to apologize for trying to protect its people from the terrorists that you seek to enable.

    Your column is false on all fronts. There is no country in the Mideast that is more racially, ethnically, and religiously diverse than Israel. If you bothered to open your eyes during your trip to Israel, and take off your extremist blinders, you would have noticed the same. Indeed, you even would have seen women and men in the Israel Defense Forces of your age bracket in all different complexions and ethnicities, including immigrants from dozens of countries. Your suggestion that Israel is racist is totally absurd. As you are well aware, there are many Ethiopian Jews who have risked their lives to get to Israel. These Ethiopian Israelis, and their descendants, proudly serve in the Israel Defense Forces and otherwise contribute to the country. You are the bigot for rejecting them because they happen to be Jews.

    While you are free to reject your Jewish heritage, and obviously need to work out your own family and faith issues, that does not give you the liberty to demonize the over 6.3 million Jews who live in Israel (approaching one half of the Jews on the globe). Israel is the historical homeland of the Jewish people, and the modern nation state founded by the Jews, and supported by Jews from around the world. Likewise, hundreds of millions of Christians around the world recognize the historical, religious, and national importance of the State of Israel to the Western world. That is why Americans from all walks of life recognize that Israel and the United States share critical common values. If you would be more comfortable living in an Islamist society, free of Jews, just buy a one-way ticket to any one of many Arab Muslim states in the Mideast.

  6. Josh Katz on October 22nd, 2014 7:32 pm

    You admit that 20% of Israel’s working population is not Jewish and yet you still maintain that Israel is an “apartheid state”. How hypocritical Hannah.

  7. Zac Bears on October 22nd, 2014 7:47 pm

    80 percent of South Africa’s “working” population (whatever that means) was oppressed. You aren’t making any sense. In any sense, Israel is a more effective apartheid state, having defacto expelled the Palestinians to their own “state,” except that few in the world legally recognize it.

    Peace comes through mutual trust. That won’t come while either side bombs the other. I understand that you are going to come back saying “We can’t trust them until they stop. We have to defend ourselves.” or whatever, but that’s the same mistake the U.S. has been making since 1950. It doesn’t work. Bombing people will never make them like you, and it will never make them stop. An agreement where everyone is treated fairly will. That’s that.

    On this and the news article you argue about “facts.” Why do they close the curtains? Why are there military checkpoints at every turn? Because two groups of people irrationally hate each other. Both have their justifications, but now one group has far more power than the other, and instead of being benevolent or merciful, is exacting as much misplaced vengeance as it can on another group of people who don’t deserve it. Why do you think Palestinians haven’t left for other Arab nations? Beside the fact they they don’t want to leave their home, which I hope as an American you can understand (would you leave your if the Native Americans asked for the land that we stole back?), they would be mistreated in other Arab nations, for the same reasons you lay out. You talk about democracy and freedom, but it doesn’t exist in the West Bank or Gaza. You talk about choice, liberty, and the right to live a good life, but it only exists in Tel Aviv and Haifa.

    Peaceful coexistence is possible, but both sides have to realize that if the goal is peace, justice, freedom, and democracy, they can only reach it together. The only other option is to purge one group. I don’t believe the U.S. would allow any nation or coalition to do that to Israel. And I would hope that the Jewish state would avoid putting that horrific stain on its already short, unstable history.

  8. Arafat on October 22nd, 2014 9:50 pm

    I think we should help Abbas and his dear friends and allies Hamas create a Palestinian state. Since Hamas is more popular than Abbas let’s call it Hamasistan. It could be based on all the other Islamist states. Women would have zero rights. Gays would be hung. Jews would be verboten. Non-Muslims would be killed unless they convert to Islam or pay a crippling tax that is designed just for them.

    I think this makes a lot of sense and is something college punks should march for, shout about, and pretend they care about. The world needs another Islamist state. What will we do without another one?

    In Hamasistan criminals will be punished by being tied to the back of jeeps and skinned to death on dirt roads until they die. The lucky criminals will simply be pushed off rooftops, and if they’re really lucky the rooftop will be very high.

    In Hamasistan they will blame all their problems on Israel that way the politicians can line their Swiss Vaults with endless international aid money and not be held accountable.

    In Hamasistan they will shoot rockets into Israel during rush hour and when schools get out. That’s the way they do things in Hamasistan. Then they will blame Israel for making them do it.

    Yes, this will solve all the problems just ask any leftist, liberal, dreaming moron and he will scream it at you as if there is no doubt about it.

  9. Arafat on October 22nd, 2014 9:55 pm

    The Yazidi in Iraq and the Christian Copts in Egypt are not “settlers” and “occupiers;” neither are the Jews in Israel. They are victims of a common enemy that seems to want a Middle East free of non-Muslims.

  10. Paul on October 23rd, 2014 12:09 am

    Very important binaries broken here. I’m also very glad to see the progress SJP is making on campus this year. Many of these comments are sadly immature and unnecessarily personal. Get a grip David Lloyd; questioning Birthright is “enabling terrorists”? Be more racist.

  11. Mike on October 23rd, 2014 1:51 am

    Never thought Id even be partially agreeing with Zac (especially since he wont talk to me). But it takes two to tango in both regards, and that includes not blowing up markets and busses with suicide bombers.

    Having gone on birthright I do think there is a definite bias, but it wasn’t as harsh as Hannah makes it out to be. Furthermore, there is an inherint security risk to opening up the settlements as the extreme faction if allowed free in Israel would reap havoc as it has in the past. This isnt to say more steps shouldnt be taken towards that end, but its not a simple issue.

    Hannah, did it ever occur to you that the organizers didn’t want some “nice jewish kid” running off into a third world country with many people who would not take too kindly to their presence? The real world isn’t as friendly as UMass. Thats not good PR, as it is I remember our organizer saying they were have trouble filling the trips due to nervous parents.

  12. Yiftach Levy on October 23rd, 2014 1:59 am

    Zac Bears: “Because two groups of people irrationally hate each other.”

    No, actually, only ONE group irrationally hates the other. Arab (and by extension Palestinian) hatred of Jews (and by extension Israelis) dates back to long before the creation of the State of Israel. Neither you nor Ms. Friedstein and her fellow SJP members around the country are able to admit this, preferring instead the historically ignorant and utterly absurd narrative of Jewish colonial imperialism of Mandatory Palestine. This is but one massive flaw in your arguments; others have been pointed out above, and I’ll refrain from repeating them.

  13. Josh Arons on October 23rd, 2014 11:59 am

    Zac, are you saying that Palestinian’s would be living better lives if Hamas, a terrorist organization was not in control of the Gaza strip. That is a reasonable assertion. However, do you even believe that Hamas is a terrorist organization? You say that there needs to be ” mutual trust” yet you never condemn the 3,000 rockets that were fired at Israel this summer. You also say, “Bombing will never make them like you”. Nonetheless, Israel is more concerned about protecting the livelihood of its citizens than winning a popularity contest from the Hamas led Palestinian government. It is very challenging to get a group such as Hamas, who explicitly says in their charter that it wants destroy the Jewish State of Israel. You also use empty words such as “misplaced vengeance” and that Israel is not being benevolent or merciful. Israel has every reason to implement checkpoints to prevent itself from those attempting to inflict terror amongst the population of population of Israeli citizens ( these citizens include Jews, Arabs, Christians, and multiple other ethnicities). Israel has no reasib to apologize for protecting its citizens from people who set out to commit terrorist acts. You talk about peaceful coexistence but never mention how Hamas leader Khaled Meshaled said how he has ” no intention to live amongst the occupiers in Israel”. That’s a pretty clear sign he is not a big supporter of a two state solution. Israel has had a short, and unstable history. Living in a tumultuous region where surrounding forces are hellbent on your destruction, and deny your right to exist is challenging. Israel is far from perfect, but is by far the greatest advocate for democratic rights with the Middle East and is a hub for diversity of multiple kinds.

  14. Arafat on October 24th, 2014 8:29 am

    Let’s boycott the Palestinians. Their leaders are about as bad as they get and we need to send them packing!

    I mean we all know Arafat stole hundreds of millions in international aid and now his widow has a choice of European mansions to wine and dine in. And Abbas has followed suit. In fact Abbas’ suits are said to cost thousands alone.

    And then there is this:

    “In recent media interviews, Professor Ahmed Karima of Al-Azhar University in Egypt noted that in recent years Hamas has blossomed into a movement of millionaires. According to Karima, Hamas can boast no fewer than 1,200 millionaires among its leadership and mid-level officials. That assertion was backed up by Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, who in 2012 estimated the number of Gaza millionaires to be 800.
    In particular, overall Hamas leader Khaled Mashal has amassed a fortune of $2.6 billion, the Jordanian media reported.”

    Meanwhile these same leaders {sic} whine and moan about their people’s plight. Yeah, right.

  15. robert affinity on October 24th, 2014 1:53 pm

    Hi. I think that any trip or educational program of any kind will have some point of view. I agree that it is important to think about the pov and be aware of it so that one can exercise greater free choice about one’s formative experiences.

    You write, “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?”

    You seem to be misunderstanding some of the issues from the Traditional Jewish point of view.

    1. I doubt that Birthright said that “coming to a Jewish nation-state” strengthen’s one’s Jewish identity. They probably said, “Israel.” There is a world of difference there. A Jewish nation state implies that the key principle is that it is an independent nation of Jews. The land of Israel is considered holy ground and a place that does have a spiritual effect on one whether or not it is independent or Jewish. This is found throughout the Bible.

    2. I have not heard anyone say that visiting Israel makes one more of a Jew. And what you wrote does not support this criticism by rhetorical question. Traditionally, anyone who is born Jewish OR who converts is 100% a Jew and is just as Jewish as Moses.

    3. It IS true that many people report that visiting Israel is a powerfully moving experience that increases their religious identity. But, this is not “being” more or less Jewish. It is about the extent to which one “feels” a stronger connection with one’s Jewish identity.

    Israel is an ancient place which was the center of Jewish spiritual life throughout the Bible. More about this below regarding zionism.

    You write, “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.”

    Israel is a state for all its citizens. 20% of all citizens and elected MKs are Arabs.
    Zionism is a word with multiple meanings. Just as a Democrat could mean someone who supports democracy OR someone who supports a particular (or one of several) political parties, zionism can refer to the generic desire to re-establish the Jewish state of Israel OR adherence to any one of several different modern political parties.

    As as the generic desire to re-establish Israel, it is inherently entwined with Judaism. This desire is found in each of the three times daily prayer services. The Grace after Meals is based on the Biblical injunction that after Jews “eat and are satisfied, you should thank G-d for the Land of Israel and for the food.” Israel and its inherent holiness and the Jewish people’s desire to be there are found throughout the Bible.

    While there were some modern political zionist leaders who called for ethnic cleansing, many did not. And they certainly did not put this into practice as evidenced by the fact that 20% of all citizens and elected MKs today ARE Arabs.

    “Supporters of Israel tend to equate anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism to silence resistance and opposition to Israeli policies.” Alternatively, critics of Israel often make this statement. But, it may simply be that many critics of Israel apply inconsistent standards when criticizing Israel. If you apply the same standards to Israel as you do to Palestinians and others, you are principled whether you support Israel or hate it. But, if you use inconsistent standards, applying them selectively and / or shifting to use those that justify one’s criticisms, one is being biased.

    ” Palestinians who were forced from their homes are not allowed to return because they are not Jewish.” It is a bit more complicated than this.

    1. Were ANY Palestinian Arabs forced from their homes? Sadly yes. Fortunately, it was the exception not the rule. Many did flee but most fled a war zone created by invading Arab armies (a very normal reaction anywhere) and others fled at the request or orders of Arab leaders or militaries.

    2. Were they blocked from coming back because they are not Jewish? No. Arabs forced them into refugee camps and refused to allow them to leave because any negotiated peace would have recognized Israel’s “right to exist.”

    “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 almost had my “right” to Israel taken from me by the organization because I am an active member of Students for Justice in Palestine…”

    1. As a Jew Israel is your birthright. AND this does NOT mean “taking” land from anyone else. It means you may have strong motivation to legally purchase land from current titleholders as Jews have done.

    2. It does not sound like you “almost had this right taken away” because you are an active member of SJP. It sounds like they almost chose to not pay for your to join their trip. Those are two very different things. And you may not know this but ISM and other radical anti-Israel organizations and groups have a history of disrupting Birthright tours and meetings and of having people pretend to want to visit Israel so that Birthright will pay for their trip and they can then afford to join ISM efforts in WB or Gaza.

    ” If you take anything away from this letter, it is that you should not feel pressured by your religious identity… to discriminate against others. It is important to emphasize that to be Jewish does not mean to be Israeli… That to be pro-Palestinian does not mean to be an anti-Semite.” I think we both agree on this. Peace.

  16. Arafat on October 26th, 2014 9:14 am

    This is somewhat off-topic but is not in terms of describing Hannah’s essence.

    “Despite its precedents in the Nazis’ kauf nicht bei Juden campaign begun in 1933 and the expulsion of Jews from German universities by “Hitler’s Professors,” and the Arab economic boycott of Israel now over 66 years old, the BDS movement may fairly be called, despite local variations, “Jews Against Themselves.” It was begun in England in April 2002 by the Jewish academic Steven Rose and his wife. Espousal of the boycott of Israel, especially its academic institutions, soon became the identifying mark of “progressive” English Jews, so much so that Howard Jacobson devoted a whole satirical novel (The Finkler Question, 2010) to “the Jews of shame,” people who were ashamed of Israel’s very existence, though not of their own illiteracy, cowardice, and treachery.”

  17. Iosif Vissarionovich Stalin on November 4th, 2014 3:48 pm

    Why is Arafat the only one who makes any sense on this board? Topic after topic, Arafat is the only person who sees things for what they are. You must be suffering at UMASS, Arafat, with all the nonsense spewed on campus on a daily basis. I know I was nauseated by it all before I took over the Soviet Union. Not much has changed.

  18. Jenna J. on March 4th, 2015 8:10 am

    It’s amazing some of the things that overprivileged, upper middle class, white liberals will complain about. You received a free trip & 10-day tour of a country that you probably never would have had the means to visit (at least at that point in your life) with food , exclusive touring and lodging provided. You weren’t interested in learning about the history and culture of that country, which is your perogative no matter how spoiled it makes you. So admittedly you used that free trip for the free flight that enabled your excursure into a different country which you were more interested in. and then upon returning you proceeded to bash the emotional tone of said trip because you don’t agree with it. Regardless of your other convoluted “points” this is the biggest problem that I have with yor logic…you’re making some vast claims here so I assume that you consider yourself to be somewhat informed. You knew what birthright was, you went anyway, and then you wrote a scathing letter bashing the opportunity that taglit & the Israeli government gave you. You absolutely should not have gone on birthright – this trip is a privilege that people have spent thousands of dollars making available to you, and you spat in their face despite manipulating it to serve your own agenda. Do you think that if a trip like this existed for Palestinian youth that they would even be allowed to travel to Israel after? My suggestion to you, Hannah, is to check your privilege. And by all means keep traveling to Gaza – I wonder if you wore a Star of David would the Palestinian authority differentiate between your connection to Judaism vs the Israeli nation? do you really think they would care that you held a “free Gaza” sign at a rally in college one time? My biggest takeaway from this article is how unfortunate it is that a valuable birthright trip was wasted on you.

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