If you are Jewish and American you have most likely heard of Birthright Israel. Since its inception in 1999, the tour has
taken over 500,000 young Jews, mostly white and U.S. citizens, on a (nearly) free trip to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. Today the pilgrimage has become a rite of passage among budding generations of American Jewry. Many participants excitedly enroll, tantalized by the idea of a free tour of a foreign country; others attend to explore their Jewish identity, history, and culture; and the notorious party scene and hot Israeli soldiers recognized as the tour’s hallmark features draw more in. Few participants question the idea that all Jews by a “birth right” deserve an open invitation to a strip of territory many of our ancestors never stepped foot in. Few participants will stop to think about the millions of Palestinians living in exile, or in fragmented archipelagos in the occupied West Bank, or in the open-air prison of Gaza, who are barred from claiming their own right of return to ancestral land. Few will mull over the violence that enables a nascent Jewish state to establish itself on expropriated land and evict, incarcerate, or kill millions of Palestinians.
This zine is written to expose the price Palestinians must pay for diasporic Jewry to claim a “Birthright” to Israel. It is written to make visible the policies of militarism, settlement, evictions, and confinement that enable Jews like myself to travel to Israel under the pretense of “visiting ancestral homeland” and “discovering one’s own connection to Jewish values and tradition.”1 This zine is written for those I went on Birthright with, and for any American Jew who is thinking about claiming their “Birthright”. By going over our itinerary, by tracing our route and the activities we participated in, I rewrite my own Birthright experience. This is an attempt to write the ongoing histories of Israeli settler colonialism and occupation into Birthright Israel, histories Zionist narratives usurp from Jewish memory and erase from Israeli landscape. Ultimately this zine aims to challenge the Jewish identity Birthright imparts and to ask those who render Zionism synonymous with Judaism, at whose cost do we claim a Birthright?
Whose Birthright? From 1947 until the establishment of Israel in 1948, between 750,000 and one million Palestinians were forcibly displaced from their homes. Most were exiled to foreign countries, still more forced into refugee camps throughout Israel/Palestine and neighboring nations, and many were killed.2 As Palestinian communities flooded out of their homes, crying out for a right to return that reverberates loudly into our present, millions of Jewish refugees flooded into Israel’s newly established borders. Jewish immigration was enabled by Israel’s 1950 Law of Return, which grants all Jews throughout the world fully enfranchised Israeli citizenship.3 In Israel, the Law of Return works to secure Jewish demographic majority within the newly settled borders of the Israeli state. Globally, the Law of Return weds modern Zionism—a political ideology born out of colonial interests with the help of European imperial power—to the diverse religious traditions of Judaism.
Plugging the Dam of Assimilation In 1990, the American Jewish community was thrown into uproar when the National Jewish Population Survey results indicated 52% of American Jews married in the past five years had married outside the faith.4 Jewish community leaders scrambled to solve what became known as the “crisis of continuity” among American Jewry.5 The following year the American Jewish Committee published a “Statement on Intermarriage,” recommending, among other initiatives, educational programs to communicate “the vital importance of Israel to Jewish American identity”.6 In 1999, Jewish American philanthropists Charles Bronfman, heir to Canada’s Seagram’s Liquor, and Michael Steinhardt, a retired Wall-street executive, heeded the Committee’s call and founded Birthright Israel. With the program, Bronfman and Steinhardt sought to “plug the dam of assimilation” by bringing thousands of young Jewish adults to Israel. Lifting its language directly from Israel’s Law of Return, which stipulates that “every Jew has the right to immigrate to Israel”, Steinhardt and Bronfman believed “it was the birthright of all young Jews to be able to visit their ancestral homeland.”7, 8 Birthright Israel was thus created to make “a visit to Israel ...something experienced by every young Jewish adult.”9 Since 1999, over 500,000 young American Jews have participated in the program. Birthright has succeeded in instating “continuity” among American Jewry, and wedding Jewish religious tradition to Zionist state building: In 2006, the Center for Modern Jewish Studies found the “strongest single attitudinal effect of the Birthright Israel experience is on participants’ sense of connection to Israel.”10
A R R I VA L When you touch down in Tel Aviv many trip participants are visibly inebriated—excited that they have been able to procure alcohol from unwitting Swiss air attendants. Still more are stumble around groggily; the effects of the Xanax lifted from parent’s medicine cabinets not yet dulled. It is early afternoon in Israel and the sun is shining brightly. As you walk past vast windows that line terminal four of Ben Gurion airport your cohorts chant “Israel! Israel!”.
The collective enthusiasm is a stark contrast to the clenched hands and nervous faces that greet you at customs. While black and brown passengers are questioned and detained, you walk up to the security official manning the customs booth with confidence. An Israeli man with Ashkenazi features barely makes eye contact—taking one look at your American passport and Taglit Birthright name-tag before hurriedly welcoming you into Israel. The blatant contrast, between your ability to pass easily through such security apparatuses and the immobility imposed on black and brown travelers, is eclipsed by the excitement you and your peers exhibit upon finally reaching a land you have been taught to call “home.”
As you leave the terminal you are greeted by happy shouts hurled from soldiers jumping ecstatically in full uniform. With colorful balloons in hand, these Israeli Jews, who will be joining you on the full ten days of your tour, welcome you “home.” A young Jewish Israeli woman steps into the ever-expanding dancing circle we have formed in the middle of the busy terminal. She introduces herself as our tour educator for the next ten days. “Today we welcome you home! From now on we are not 47 individuals!” She shouts, “We are one family with a lot of joy!”
D AY 1 : K I B B U T Z A M I A D After exiting the airport, you board a large tour bus, one of scores that line a vast asphalt lot outside of the airport. You notice other Birthright groups boarding identical buses, with white tourists chattering eagerly in English, mindlessly swapping bundles of dollars, as you do, for shekels to spend on over-priced souvenirs and alcohol.
Once all passengers are settled, the bus immediately drives North. You hurtle down highway 6, which divides Israeli cities and infrastructure from a concrete wall, behind which you glimpse houses with black water basins perched on roofs. You do not wonder if these homes might be separated from your view because they sit in the West Bank, cordoned off by a barrier that bars Palestinians (whose refugee status is the price of your Birthright) from ever entering their ancestral villages again.
You are jostled awake as the bus pulls into Kibbutz Amiad, where you will be spending the first three nights of the tour. Located just over 5 miles from the contested Golan Heights, Kibbutz Amiad was established in 1946 by Ashkenazi Jewish settlers, sent by the Palmach to secure a strategic route to Tiberius.11 You are not told that the kibbutz was established just north of the village Jubb Yusuff, populated by Bedouin of the Arab al-Suyyad tribe. 12 The village was destroyed and depopulated in the Spring of 1948, when Palmach commander Yigal Allon ordered that Zionist fighters “clear out the Bedouin encamped between the Jordan river, and Jubb Yussuff, and the Sea of Galilee”.13
Today Kibbutz Amiad lays claim to historic Palestinian village land—Jewish settlers have planted orchards where apples, pears, and peaches are harvested.14 You walk through these orchards and marvel at the abundant harvest growing over violently expropriated land. Like most settlements established throughout Israel’s borders, this kibbutz is a testament to the contested history of the land you are made to admire, and claim as your own throughout the tour.
D AY 2 : H I K I N G I N T H E G O L A N H E I G H T S
Your time in the North is filled with outdoor activities—hiking, river rafting, and swimming—in the nearby Golan Heights. The region, part of Syria’s Qunaytra’s province, was annexed by Israel during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Prior to ‘67 the Golan was home to various Arab communities, from Sunni-Muslim and Druze villages to Alawite and Palestinian refugees.15 During the war, Israel claimed 70% of the Syrian territory as its own; within a month the Golan Heights was nearly emptied of its Arab population as tens of thousands fled violence or were driven out by Israeli forces, while still more were killed by Israeli forces.16 Today only four Arab villages remain, while 30 Israeli settlements—illegal under international law—dot the landscape.17
You wake early to hike in the contested Golan Heights. Your tour guide gushes at the beauty of the landscape as the bus pulls up to the trailhead but does not mention that the land you are traveling is not technically part of the “Jewish State.” “The best way to know the land is to walk it!” she exclaims. Hiking in Israel is rooted in a history of Zionist settlement on Palestinian land.18 Zionist soldiers used hiking as a means of creating an armed Jewish presence in disparate regions, gathering intelligence on Palestinian communities, and sharpening fighters’ as well as future soldiers’ senses and physical capabilities.19 You and the soldiers scramble over the foreign landscape, gushing at the beauty of the region, indexing strange plants alongside your Israeli peers. Despite signs forbidding you from straying from the allotted course, warning you of landmines lying hidden and undetonated in the landscape since 1967, you feel at home here. You do not wonder why these landmines, stark reminders of the violence intrinsic to Israel’s claims over this territory, remain embedded in this picturesque landscape. You do not question your ability to love this undeniably hostile terrain.
D AY 3 : S H A B B AT I N T H E G A L I L E E
After a night of ecstatic drinking (you are too young to consume alcohol legally in the United States so here you happily binge on red-wine bought for an exorbitantly high price from the kibbutz’s supply), you awake to a day of rest on the kibbutz. You splash in the large pool alongside white Jewish Israelis. Water flows abundantly, diverted from West Bank aquifers through apartheid infrastructures. You cannot imagine that only a few miles away Palestinians struggle to live off rationed supplies of water diverted from local fresh-water sources and into Israeli communities.
As a romantic sunset consumes the blaring afternoon light, you gather in a picturesque field with your new peers. Prompted by trip leaders, you share vulnerable facts about your past, your relationship to Judaism, and your hopes for the future. An Israeli soldier hands you a rose as you sing Jewish prayers in a shared language alongside one another. “Are you falling in love yet?” your trip leader asks with a knowing smile.
Day 4: Safed, Haifa, and Tel Aviv The next morning you wake up early to drive south towards Tel Aviv. The urban centers your group passes through on the third day of the tour are made part and parcel of a Jewish landscape, effectively erasing the history of displacement and expropriation embedded in this soil. During a brief stop in Safed, your tour guide explains how the “ancient Jewish city” once had an Arab population that “decided during the War of Independence to leave.” The history you are presented of the city does not mention how Israeli troops forcibly expelled the majority of the city’s Arab population in 1948 to render a once mixed city wholly Jewish.20 Today more than 67,888 Palestinians from Safed live in exile, with vivid memories of their expulsion from stolen homes now occupied by the Jewish Israeli population of the city.21
In Haifa, your tour guide lauds the possibilities of “coexistence.” “Haifa is where Jews and Arabs live together peacefully,” she announces as you drive through the urban center. “Haifa and Jaffa are a good example of peace in Israel—these are our examples of two different religions and cultures that can get along.” Her words are juxtaposed with the empty, decrepit structures you pass on the highway into the city center: remnants of Palestinian homes and businesses evacuated of their residents and left to decompose as more than 70,000 Palestinians fled Haifa amidst lethal violence in 1948.22 Those remaining were forced into the poorest section of the city, while Jewish immigrants poured into vacant neighborhoods and constructed new infrastructure to facilitate the creation of a Jewish majority in the nascent Israeli state.23
As you enter Tel Aviv your tour guide praises it as a “gay friendly” and “progressive” city. The rights afforded to the city’s queer, Jewish, Israeli citizens prove Israel is not only a vibrant “democracy,” but also importantly, the “only democracy in the Middle East.” The expansive rights afforded to Israel’s constituency, (without accounting for the myriad of ways those citizens deemed deviant from the Ashkenazi, cis-gender, heterosexual, Israeli norm are discriminated against by the state) is celebrated in Tel Aviv’s Independence Hall. You endure a long presentation on Israel’s “founding.” nodding along as you hear the familiar story of Nazi genocide and the millions of Jewish refugees fleeing persecution for much needed safety, and believing the speaker who urges you to regard yourself as native to this land.
You are not told that the Independence Day lauded is known as al-Nakba, or the Catastrophe, to the millions of Palestinians expelled, exiled, or confined following the establishment of your “homeland.” As the Declaration of Independence was signed in the very room you sit in, the Palestinian population of Jaffa (now part of Tel-Aviv-Yafo) plunged from 120,000 to 4,000. Tens of thousands of Palestinians were killed or violently evicted from their homes, and their infrastructure demolished. Those who steadfastly remained were forced into one area of the city, al-Ajami.24 Akin to the ghettos your ancestors in Eastern Europe were cordoned off into, the Palestinians in al-Ajami lived impoverished, under the Marshall law of a hostile state. From 1949 to 1992 Palestinians were forbidden from moving out of or expanding the small portion of the city they were made to inhabit. The parts of Tel-Aviv Birthright leads you through, far from the Palestinian enclaves, do not point towards this ongoing history.
D AY 5 : T H E W E S T E R N WA L L After a morning lounging on the beach in Tel Aviv you head to Jerusalem—the most important stop on the tour, according to your guide. Years of Jewish education have sanctified the city in your mind. Participants chatter excitedly at the thought of standing in front of the Western Wall, or Kotel in Hebrew. It is a site your ancestors, you have been told, only dreamed of visiting. “The tension of Jerusalem,” your tour guide proclaims as you drive through West Jerusalem, “is what makes the city so beautiful and special.”
Excitement coalesces as you draw closer to the Kotel. You do not know that the clean and expansive plaza that surrounds the Kotel constituted the “Moroccan Quarter” for 700 years prior to 1967. Many of the houses in this area were owned and leased to Jewish residents by Muslim and Christian landlords for centuries leading up to 1967.25 During the 1967 war, the Israeli army flattened the entire Moroccan Quarter after evicting its residents, as well as some 3,000 Palestinian refugees living in the neighborhood. While the actual historic Jewish quarter was historically set back away from the Kotel, along the southeastern portion of the Old City’s gate, the Israeli government constructed an enormous plaza to link the Jewish quarter to the Kotel after it claimed this area.26
On August 31 only two months after the war, the entire old city was declared a site of “antiquity” and the Israeli government began an enormous archeological survey of the area.27 Today packs of tourists with cameras mill through the vast, sparkling plaza, made to feel, as you do, an ancient and sacred Jewish connection with this only decades old site. You do not stop to think about the metal detectors you pass through to enter this plaza or notice the soldiers bearing rifles, milling around the wall’s perimeter. You do not notice these symbols of militarism—reminders of the history of expropriation and destruction that undergird this site— because you are too busy crying before a wall of crumbling rock.
The destruction of the Moroccan quarter and transformation of this area into a holy Jewish space is not exceptional. Similar processes have turned most of the Western Jerusalem you travel through into Jewish property; identical methods of settlement and colonization are claiming East Jerusalem as Jewish space as well. The Palestinian speaker you hear from that evening, who lives in East Jerusalem, does not speak to this reality. Instead he cries out that “The Palestinians are not ripe for a state!” (justifying Israel’s latest siege on Gaza because of Hamas’ terrorism). No matter that this man is paid by many pro-Israel groups to broadcast his denunciations of Palestinian leadership. No matter that even the Israeli soldier next you whispers “This man is more right wing than Netanyahu,” when the speaker has finally uttered his last word. Because this speaker is one of two Palestinians you will meet during this trip, you take his word as irrefutable proof that Birthright is, as your guide claims repeatedly, an apolitical framing of contemporary Israel. You are glad you are presented so many diverse viewpoints of this land you are coming to call home.
D a y 6 : Ya d Va s h e m a n d N e o t K e d u m i m ’ s Biblical Park The morning is spent at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial Museum, which you tour alongside Israeli soldiers in full uniform bearing rifles. After winding through the heart wrenching exhibits and displays, learning of the unspeakable horrors wrought by the Nazi regime upon Jews (as well as upon Jehovah Witnesses, suspected communists, queer, disabled, and Roma communities among millions more who go unnamed throughout the exhibit) you gaze out over Jerusalem from the museum’s viewpoint. Before boarding the bus to head south, you are asked if you think the Holocaust might have happened had there been a Jewish state already secured for the millions of Jews who perished.
You are glad for a change of scenery as you board the bus and head to a lush, green park full of pine and eucalyptus trees to plant saplings with the Jewish National Fund. You do not know that this park was built atop Dayr Abu Salama, a Palestinian village surrounded by lush agricultural land where villagers cultivated grains, vegetables, grapes, and figs prior to Israel’s establishment on their land. Zionist fighters destroyed the village in 1948 and the surrounding land was expropriated by the newly formed Israeli state. By 1965, when the land was handed over to its current owners, who created a biblical themed park atop stolen village land, the landscape was overgrown after years of neglect. Today the imported flora and fauna that fill the park have transformed the landscape. The few stone remains of the Palestinian village were used to construct a roman amphitheater you pass by.28
As you plant pine seedlings into rocky soil you are not told that the Jewish National Fund, which co-manages the expansive park and bought these seeds, has a long history of facilitating such expropriation of Palestinian land and transformation of Palestinian landscapes into Jewish spaces. For the past 116 years the organization has fulfilled Theodore Herzl’s vision of ‘making the desert bloom’, priding itself on agricultural development, settlement construction, and afforestation projects, primarily over expropriated Palestinian land. Today the JNF continues to fund Jewish only settlements in occupied territories, on Bedouin village land in the Naqab, and plant pine trees over the ruins of recently destroyed Palestinian villages.29 Since its inception, the JNF has enlisted young Jews throughout the diaspora to aid in planting foreign trees throughout Israel. You might have had a tree planted in your honor for a birthday, b’nai mitzvah, or important holiday. You might have unwittingly paid for one of these afforestation initiatives with the tzedakah money you dropped in a little blue box over the course of your religious education.
Day 6: Laqia and the Naqab Your first stop in the Naqab is in Laqia, one of 10 recognized Bedouin villages in the Naqab, where you will hear from a “Bedouin women’s empowerment organization.” As you drive through this town, you notice a stark contrast to the modern skyscrapers and clean roads you passed in Haifa, Tel Aviv, and Jerusalem. Your guide’s introduction to this town does not mention that the majority of Bedouin live in 45 unrecognized communities, enduring far worse poverty than what you witness in Laqia. Residents of these towns are denied basic human rights such as access to plumbing, schools, roads, and health clinics. Lilach does not tell you that the Bedouin have endured brutal and systemic discrimination since the declaration of Israel, when the majority of Palestinian Bedouins in the Naqab were forced into exile in neighboring countries and their population of 95,000 plummeted to a mere 11,000.30 Most of the remaining tribes were forced into an enclosure zone in the northeastern region of the Naqab, made to live on a parcel of land that represented 10% of the territory they had lived on and cultivated prior to the Nakba.31 You do not think that the state’s refusal to legally recognize the majority of Bedouin communities enables you to travel through this desert seamlessly, conceiving the vast sand dunes as empty, barren space waiting for Jewish development.
The Bedouin women you hear from at Laqia speak of the history of their organization, the work they do to organize and empower Bedouin women, as well as the struggles of integrating traditional Bedouin culture with Jewish Israeli society. In sharp contrast to the Jewish Israeli speakers you have heard from, only now does your tour guide do a poor job translating from Hebrew to English. After the presentation, a Hebrewspeaking participant confides that much was left unsaid and certain phrases mistranslated. And unlike other presentations you have witnessed on this trip, Israeli soldiers interrupt the speaker often with their own opinion or interpretation of what she is saying. They laugh openly when she speaks about the colors of the women’s embroidery and talk over the speaker as she attempts to answer questions posed by American participants. The palpable tension you feel in this unfamiliar setting is unlike anything else you have experienced on Birthright.
The Q & A session is notably brief. “Do you feel discriminated by the Israelis and if so how?” asks one participant. Your speaker tells about how having to pull her son out of school early on hot days because his kindergarten lacks air-conditioning. She alludes to the discrimination she has endured in Israeli hospitals. Then the visit quickly ends. “Our time here is rushed,” your guide explains as we are herded back on the bus.
In the comfort of Kibbutz Kramim’s guesthouse, where you spend the night, you quickly forget the tense exchange back in Laqia. The evening is spent drinking copious amounts of vodka under the vast desert sky while whispering about who has hooked up with which participant so far.
D AY 7 : S D E R O T A N D K FA R H A N O K D I M The next morning, you wake up early to drive to Sderot, near the Gaza strip. Sderot was constructed atop Nadj, a Palestinian village that was destroyed after Israel’s founding, its inhabitants evacuated (many to Gaza) or exiled, and its land repopulated with poor Jewish immigrants in the early 50’s. Sderot is notable to your tour guide only because of its proximity to the Gaza Strip. As your bus whirls over the black highway, Israeli soldiers share their experiences during Operation Protective Edge, the IDF’s siege on Gaza that took place the summer before, in 2014. They talk about friends of friends who were killed during the violence, which claimed the lives of 66 Israeli soldiers and over 2,000 Palestinians living confined within Gaza’s borders.32 No one mentions the Palestinian civilians who were killed. No one mentions the millions of dollars of infrastructure destroyed. An American girl behind you won’t stop voicing her anxiety as the bus drives closer and closer to a hotbed of “terror.” The bus pulls up to your destination—an indoor playground built by the Jewish National Fund for Israeli children living in the city. The playground functions as an expansive bomb shelter where Israeli children can play safely: it is equipped with rock climbing walls, foosball tables, numerous jungle gyms, basketball hoops, a computer lab, and ample toys. You spend an hour or so playing throughout the large indoor complex. You cannot imagine that just over a half mile away 1.8 million people live inside the 25 x 6 mile area, confined to a densely populated strip of land, their movement constrained by Israel’s land, sea, and air blockade of their borders. You cannot imagine that just over a half mile away Palestinians can only dream of whirling over highways, drifting through borders, hiking over lush landscapes, and playing on brightly colored gym equipment as you do today.
Participants are excited to move on to the next destination, Kfar Hanokdim, an “authentic Bedouin Oasis” where you ride camels, experience “Bedouin hospitality”, and sleep in a “real” Bedouin tent. Israeli men holding iPhones and rifles—reminders you are on contested land—mill around the resort-like complex. Scores of Jewish tourists, on similar Birthright tours, stream between expansive billowing tents surrounded by green palm trees and bright grass. This is the night you have awaited in anticipation—the first and only time all genders will sleep in cozy proximity. Participants have been whispering about this night since the start of the tour. “My friend told me it’s bad to go on Birthright single,” one participant tells me before we have even boarded the plane to Tel Aviv. “We want you all to fall in love! Just wait!” your American guide exclaims on the second night of the tour. Since middle school you have heard of Jewish peers finding sexual gratification inside the Bedouin tents, sick parodies of Bedouin culture. Tonight these rumors come alive: participants peel off in pairs from the huddle formed around the bon-fire. Blankets covering bodies scattered through the vast tent rustle discreetly as night fades to dawn and young diasporic Jewry forge intimate connections with this romantic land and one another.
Day 8: Masada, The West Bank, and Jerusalem At 4:30 AM, you are roused by your guide’s excited shouts to scramble up Masada. As you approach the mountain’s base you see thousands of Birthright participants climbing to the summit, forming a snaking line that stretches from the trailhead to the peak. It is a veritable Birthright reunion: participants run into teammates, camp friends, and sorority sisters from American hometowns and universities as you hike up the cliff ’s side. Amidst young adults in neon hiking gear, chattering in English, and playing rap music from iPhones, you feel at home in Israel. The exhilarating hike wears you all out. Most participants pass out on the bus-ride North, from Masada to Jerusalem. Asleep you cannot notice that you are driving over Highway 90, which snakes through the West Bank, serving as a segregated Israeli highway that fragments Palestine into a collection of disparate islands. This road connects to the shining settlements you drive past, perched like menacing fortresses on hilltops. Smaller roads wind towards dilapidated Palestinian homes that scatter throughout the valleys; cut off from the highway you travel. For once your guide is not shouting over the loudspeaker. Everyone is sleeping soundly as you whirl through a checkpoint that takes you into East Jerusalem, still oblivious that the land you travel isn’t rightly yours.
Day 9: Mt. Herzl National Cemetery Your last full day in Israel is devoted to a three-hour tour through Mt. Herzl National Military Cemetery, which lies adjacent to the Holocaust Memorial Museum you visited earlier in the week and named for the founder of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl, buried at its peak. Israeli soldiers appear on the bus in full uniform and your tour guide speaks in a hushed whisper as you approach Mt. Herzl, setting a solemn tone for the excursion. As you walk through the cemetery, where identical gravestones line up and down green terraces in uniform formation, your Israeli peers narrate Israeli military history. You visit the tombstones of national heroes, your peers’ loved ones, and white American Jews like you, who left a suburban home and college friends behind to fight for your Jewish state. It is hard to imagine that the carefully curated cemetery your tread over, with a lush grass carpet, enveloped in the shade cast by pine, cypress, and eucalyptus trees, and peppered with bright flowers, is only a few decades old. Mt. Herzl didn’t appear on Zionist maps until 1949, when Yosef Weitz, the head of the JNF’s Land and Afforestation department chose the summit as Herzl’s resting place. Its panoramic view of Jewish settlements, spanning from Jerusalem to the Hebron hills and across the Jordan river, made it the ideal resting place for the visionary of modern Zionism.33 The mountain had been seized just a year earlier, during the Nakba, when Israeli troops used the hilltop as a strategic outpost to raid and demolish the Palestinian villages of Ayn Karim and Al-Jura that lay at the base of the hill.34 As Herzl was buried on its peak, freshly planted pine trees and Jewish-only settlements quickly replaced the lush olive groves and beautiful stone homes of Palestinians that once checkered the surrounding valley.
But to you the cemetery is devoid of these inconvenient histories. “It’s nice to see Israel beyond the politics,” one participant whispers to an Israeli, “to just experience emotions.” As you reach Theodore Herzl’s tombstone on the peak overlooking Jerusalem, most participants are quietly weeping. Holding hands around Herzl’s grave, surrounded by waving Israeli flags and a panoramic view of your homeland, you sing out the national anthem.
D a y 1 0 : T h e K o t e l a n d Fa r e w e l l s
The day you depart is Shabbat. You spend a leisurely morning at the hotel. Trip leaders and participants reflect on your experience together over coffee and cake. Your peers recount “eye-opening” moments and “life-changing” experiences. Many express gratitude to your Israeli peers for providing their perspective and guidance throughout the ten days. Still more discuss the newfound connection they have forged with this land. “Before I felt I had no reason to be connected to my Judaism.” One participant gushes, “But now I’ve visited Israel I feel so much more connected.” “I’ll be back for sure,” another participant promises.
After sunset and a short walk down Ben Yehuda Street you board the bus and drive to the Western wall. Your cohorts have managed to get belligerently drunk and are chugging a bottle of Svedka as you near the old city. Women in shorts drunkenly scramble to find something to cover their legs as you walk up to the Western wall. Others shout inappropriate lyrics to top-40 rap songs. Your final hours in Israel are spent exploring the Western Wall tunnels, with half of the group slumping in the narrow corridors of this archeological site, too drunk to participate.
Your tour guides are busy trying to reign in the rowdy participants, and choose not to mention that these tunnels were excavated following ’67, when vast swaths of Palestinian property were seized by Israel as state lands and slotted for excavation to prove Jewish claims to the ancient city’s multi-religious and multi-ethnic past.35 Your guides do not mention the tunnels you walk through snake beneath Palestinian homes and a local mosque, causing structural damage to these communities. Your guides do mention that these sites force a Jewish presence into the Muslim quarter of the Old City, and enable the creeping spread of Jewish claims to more and more Palestinian land, rendering subterranean space beneath Palestinian land wholly Jewish. Instead you marvel at the thousand year old rock dug out by militarized archeologists and feel thankful you can visit this holy site one last time before your departure.
Departures Back in Terminal 3, where your trip through Israel began only 10 short days ago, you and your peers cry and hug one another goodbye. Many Americans are staying in Israel for the summer, working as paid interns through a program that provides Jewish Americans a summer stipend and free housing to work after their Birthright experience is over. The Israeli soldiers who have joined you will be returning to their respective bases, but you promise to stay in touch. The drunken participants who barely made it through the Western Wall tunnels now slump toward the ticketing counter, dragging suitcases haphazardly behind them. You pass as easily through security leaving as you did through customs entering this country. Reminiscing on the incredible experience Birthright has afforded you, you do not think twice about calling this land millions of Palestinian refugees only dream of returning to, your homeland.
Key Terms P a l e s t i n i a n s - I use the word Palestinian to denote Arabs—Christian, Muslim, Bedouin and Druze—whose roots are located within the territory of Palestine as defined by the British mandate borders. According to the Middle East Research and Information Project, “5.6 million Palestinians now live within this area, which is divided between the State of Israel, and the West Bank and Gaza. Today, over 1.4 million Palestinians are citizens of Israel, living inside the country’s 1949 armistice borders and comprising about 20 percent of its population. About 2.6 million live in the West Bank (including 200,000 in East Jerusalem) and about 1.6 million in the Gaza Strip. The remainder of the Palestinian people, perhaps another 5.6 million, lives in diaspora, outside the country they claim as their national homeland.”36 Z i o n i s m – I use the word to denote the political ideology first articulated by Theodore Herzl in
1897. Herzl believed that Jews need, and have the right to establish/protect, an exclusively Jewish state on the land now claimed as Israel. An influential and assimilated Jew from Vienna, Herzl sought to gain the support and financial backing of European imperial powers to enable the founding of a Jewish state. In the eyes of European powers, the existence of Jews in Europe posed the "Jewish Problem," and Herzl proposed a Jewish refuge in historic Palestine to appease the imperial powers and safeguard his people. As Herzl’s vision was realized, Jewish settlers moved to historic Palestine, seeking to establish a Jewish majority on the land. They believed their need of a refuge from racist persecution in Europe overrode Palestinian counterclaims and resulted, to this day, in the forced eviction, displacement, and destruction of Palestinian populations.
J u d a i s m - April Rosenblum writes "Jews are a globally-dispersed, multi-ethnic culture
which is linked by a shared history of diaspora, and a religion (Judaism). Many Jews practice the religion; others are ethnic, secular (=non-religious) Jews."37 Judaism takes manifold religious and cultural forms and its practitioners span across all continents. As Daniel Boyarin argues, "Jewishness disrupts the very categories of identity, because it is not national, not genealogical, not religious, but all of these, in dialectical tension.38 In other words, Jews cannot be defined within the terms of a single ethnic group, race, nationality, or even religion.
A n t i - S e m i t i s m - This term describes a hatred of or prejudice towards Jewish people based on their identity as Jews. It is based on what April Rosenblum (2007) describes as a “system of ideas passed down through a society's institutions to enable scapegoating of Jews” which was “first popularized in 1879 by German anti-Jewish racists who sought to build specific movements against Jews as an inherently inferior and threatening race.” Anti-Semitism has been used throughout history and into the present by economic, religious, and social elites to scapegoat Jews for ills caused by capitalism systems, and in that way it works to cover up the roots of oppression and protect the powerful.
I m p e r i a l i s m – Here, imperialism describes the process of empire building, or the ex-
tension of one nation’s political, economic, and thus cultural, domination of other nations, communities, and ecologies.
C o l o n i a l i s m - Eve Tuck and Wayne Yang (2012) define colonialism as two-pronged: external colonialism “denotes the expropriation of fragments of Indigenous worlds, animals, plants and human beings, extracting them in order to transport them to - and build the wealth, the privilege, or feed the appetites of - the colonizers, who get marked as the first world.” Internal colonialism means “the biopolitical and geopolitical management of people, land, flora and fauna within the “domestic” borders of the imperial nation.” Internal colonization manifests in “prisons, ghettos, minoritizing, schooling, policing” that confine communities excluded from the nation’s elite.39 S e t t l e r C o l o n i a l i s m - Lorenzo Veracini (2010) defines settler colonialism as “the
domination of a majority that has become indigenous (settlers are made by conquest and by immigration).”40 Patrick Wolfe (2006) contends that settler colonialism does not begin and end with such conquest. Settler colonialism operates as a structure; settler societies continuously erase the existence of indigenous communities and establish settlers as native to expropriated land.41
H o w i s I s r a e l a s e t t l e r c o l o n i a l s t a t e ? Zionist settlers in Israel actively seek
to make themselves native to Israel by expropriating Palestinian land and evicting Palestinian communities, creating their own origin stories, or claims to nativism, in their place. Through skewed historiographies, writing maps over in Hebrew, and labeling recently seized Palestinian landscapes as sacred Jewish sites, Zionist settlers erase Palestinian claims to the land Jews now call Israel.
Key Places J e r u s a l e m - The UN partition plan of 1947 established Jerusalem as an international zone. In 1948 Israel seized control of West Jerusalem and Jordan established sovereignty over the Eastern part of the city, including the Old City. In 1949 the armistice line, also known as the Green line, cut the city in two. In 1967 Israel occupied East Jerusalem and annexed the area; this annexation was reaffirmed in 1981. Today Jewish settlements, like French Hill, dot East Jerusalem, seen by most Israelis as suburbs of West Jerusalem.42
T h e W e s t B a n k refers to the West Bank of the Jordan River, which was designated
part of the Palestinian state by the UN partition plan in 1947. Israel captured portions of this territory in 1948, and from 1948 to 1967 Jordan administered the remaining territory of the West Bank, which remained home to millions of Palestinians and still more Palestinian refugees who had been displaced from their homes usurped by Israel’s borders. Following 1967, Israel’s military occupied the West Bank, instituting curfews, destroying homes, blockading roads, and establishing checkpoints throughout the territory. Since 1967, Israel has built 145 official and some 100 unofficial settlements throughout the West Bank and East Jerusalem, connected by a system of Israeli-only highways that further fragment Palestinian territory into a collection of archipelagos. Since the West Bank remains a distinct political unit, recognized as part of the Palestinian state, Israel’s occupation of its land and population remains illegal under international law.43
G a z a -The coastal plain around the Palestinian city of Gaza (now known as the Gaza strip) was controlled by Egypt from 1949-1967. In 1967 Israel seized control of the territory, and imposed a military administration to govern the Palestinian population of Gaza. Jewish settlements were established throughout the Gaza strip until 2005, when Israel evacuated the area of its some 7,800 settlers. Today the Israeli military continues to impose a land, sea, and air military blockade of the territory, restricting mobility in and out of Gaza, and prohibiting Palestinians from importing and exporting goods. Noam Chomsky has called it the largest open-air prison in the world.44
Key Events 1 9 4 8 A r a b - I s r a e l i Wa r is celebrated by Zionists as the year Israel was founded as a
Jewish state. In Arabic Israel’s founding is known as al-Nakba, or the catastrophe. Al-Nakba was a bloody war fought by Zionist forces against a coalition of Arab nations, including Palestine. Zionist fighters sought to expand the borders of Israel beyond the UN partition plan and seized 60% of the land allotted by the UN to Palestine through mechanisms of ethnic cleansing (massacre, home demolitions, forced eviction, military occupation, land annexation, incarceration etc…).
1 9 6 7 A r a b - I s r a e l i Wa r (known in Israel as the 6 Day War) was spurred in ‘67 by
Israel’s assault on Egypt, which quickly drew Jordan and Syria into battle. In six days Israeli forces seized control of the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, East Jerusalem and the West Bank from Jordan, the Golan Heights from Syria, and the Gaza Strip from the Palestinians who remained. ’67 thus heralded Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem and Golan heights, expanding the area of land Israel claimed as its own.45
Those Without a “Birthright” Six Palestinian Tufts students published this plea for critical questioning of Birthright in March, 2014.
We are writing this piece as six students who identify as Palestinian. We were born into different religions: Christianity, Islam, Judaism and atheism, although none of this should matter. What matters is that all of us identify as Palestinian because our parents and/or our grandparents (and generations of our families before them) were born in Palestine. ... Well, imagine what it is like to walk by a Birthright poster on this campus, knowing that you have never, and perhaps will never see the very house your grandparents were expelled from in 1948. Yet, over one fourth of the Tufts population can see that house and they, simply by being Jewish, can eventually own that house, while their Palestinian fellow students cannot. To us, Birthright is the erasure of our right to our homeland, and it promises our homeland to one in four students at this university. Birthright is marketed as apolitical. Participants are led to believe that it is an innocent trip of camel rides, hiking, clubbing and swimming in the Dead Sea. It offers tourists a chance to “reconnect” with a country to which they have never been, and often times, to which they have no immediate familial ties. Yet for us, Birthright is not only political; it is violent. That may sound dramatic, but it is our reality. To make Birthright “fun” and “safe” means eradicating an Arab populace. It means erecting illegal walls and vanishing the Occupation. It means exiling our brothers and our sisters to refugee camps, prisons or worse. It is important that students at this university understand the implications of their socalled right. Kind reader, understand that our hearts ache when we see photographs of friends and acquaintances swimming in the sea our grandparents once swam in. Our hearts ache when we see photographs of classmates posing in front of the mosques and churches our grandparents once prayed in, but now pray to one day see. Our hearts ache when we see pictures of peers eating the fruits of the land we have grown up hearing of, but never tasted. Our hearts ache when we see our classmates posing next to exotic camels and mysterious Bedouins in a grotesque charade of our culture. Our hearts ache each time we are reminded that we do not share this birthright. We hope Tufts students who go on Birthright realize the privilege and power they possess. … When you see us building mock apartheid walls, asking difficult questions, and fostering discomfort in place of passive acceptance on this campus, please realize that we see it as our moral obligation: not only for us and our families, but for the silenced who cannot be here and for those who desire to live a life in solidarity with the oppressed. We are fostering this tension to build a community; a community in which we are truly treated as equals; a community where no student has a “birthright” at the expense of another person’s freedom. Read the whole piece: http://tuftsdaily.com/opinion/2014/05/17/op-ed-those-without-a-birthright-2/
Author’s Statement This zine is based off of the author’s experience as a participant of Birthright Israel in the Summer of 2015. The author carefully documented their tour with the express purpose of critically exposing Birthright Israel. This zine is entirely fact based; each stop listed, activity described, and speaker/tour-guide/participant quoted throughout this work is a true-to-life depiction of the author’s experience on Birthright Israel. Trip leader and participant names and are omitted to ensure confidentiality. While the curriculum documented is specfic to the author’s own Birthright tour, most Birthright Israel tours mirror the trip described. By instating a strict set of guidelines, Birthright Israel ensures most tours follow uniform routes, present comparable histories of the landscape traveled, and ensure participants engage in similar activities throughout the ten days. The specific histories of Palestinian ethnic cleansing and Zionist colonization and settlement presented throughout this work should be used to expose other Birthright tours as well.
End Notes 1“About Birthright Israel” 2 Belnin and Hajjar, 5 3 Robinson, 99 4 Steinfels 5 Feldman 6 Steinfels 7 “Law of Return” 8 “About Birthright Israel” 9 Chazan and Saxe, 8 10 Saxe, 7 11 “About Amiad” 12 Khalidi, 460 13 Khalidi, 460 14 Khalidi, 460 15 Mara’i, 78 16 Mara’i, 78 17 Gostoli 18 Almog, 176 19 Almog, 176 20 Glazer, 106 21 Palestine Remembered 22 Pappe, 22 23 Pappe, 22
24 Shehadeh and shbaytah 25 Abowd, 113 26 Abowd, 135 27 Weizmann, 37 28 Khalidi, 375 29 Benjamin et al, 3 30 Abu-Saad, 1725 31 Abu-Saad, 1725 32 IMEU, “50 Days of Death” 33 Azaryahu, 49 34 Khalidi, 298 35 Weizmann, 45 36 Belinin and Hajjar, 5 37 Rosenblum, 5 38 Boyarin, 244 39 Tuck and Yang, 4 40 Veracini, 6 41 Wolfe, 388 42 Belinin and Hajjar, 7 43 Belinin and Hajjar, 7 44 Belinin and Hajjar, 7 45 Belinin and Hajjar, 7
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A zine exposing Birthright Israel