Birthright program ignores Israeli conflict

As we approach winter break, many Jewish Vassar students, along with Jewish young adults around the world, are considering taking advantage of what seems like an amazing op­portunity: a completely free trip to Israel as a part of the Taglit-Birthright program.

This program, using hefty donations from both the Israeli government and private Zionist organizations, offers an all-expenses-paid trip to Israel for Jewish people between the ages of 18 and 26.

Once in Israel, students are treated to a wide variety of experiences, including nature excur­sions, visits to holy sites, and chances to meet and hang out with members of the Israeli De­fense Force their own age.

On the Taglit-Birthright Israel website in the FAQ section, a question many of you may have now is posed: “This gift sounds too good to be true— what’s the catch?”

Unsurprisingly, Birthright’s answer is sim­ple: there is none. In reality, the answer is a bit more complicated than that. The phenomenon that is Taglit-Birthright is part of a huge body of policies relating to and instituted by Israel which afford rights based solely on ethnic and religious grounds. Not only are Jews around the world allowed to take advantage of Birthright, but those wishing to become Israeli citizens need only to prove that they are Jewish to be welcomed into the country.

At face value, this seems like a great thing–a no-questions asked safe haven for an ethnic group that has been repeatedly marginalized and attacked throughout history. But these rights and opportunities are only available at the cost of the rights of others. During the Israeli War of Independence in 1948, about 750,000 Palestinians were forced out of their homes and fled the country as refugees.

Today, the number of Palestinian refugees has ballooned to about five million and their existence has been referred to by the UN High Council on Refugees as “the largest of all refu­gee problems in the world today.”

While Jews such as myself, who have no direct connection to Israel whatsoever, may “return” to the land deemed to be that of their people, these refugees may not.

Young adults in Gaza, the West Bank and ref­ugee camps across the Middle East pine to re­turn to their parents’ homeland and struggle to survive and flourish in a world where they do not have freedom of movement and self-deter­mination, while we, as young American Jews, are literally being paid to take their place.

This is the catch Taglit-Birthright fails to mention, and this is the system you are taking advantage of by participating in their program. I know that many of my Jewish peers, including those who are sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians, feel a strong urge visit Israel.

To you, I say this: travel to Israel in a differ­ent capacity. There are many different types of Taglit-Birthright trips to go on, but all are fund­ed by the Israeli government and consequently will show you a biased picture of the situation in historic Palestine.

I understand the desire to visit Jerusalem, to swim in the Dead Sea, to slip your prayers into the cracks of the Western Wall. But it is our responsibility as informed, conscious young adults, who have only gotten to Vassar because of our capacity for critical thinking, to find the more complete and nuanced reality in experi­ences that seems too good to be true.

Taglit-Birthright will show you the wonders of the state of Israel, but they will not show you its ugly side. You will not see the occupied ter­ritories. You will not see the millions of refu­gees. It is a crime to travel to one of the most conflict-ridden spaces of the modern world and see only the lives of the privileged. If you must travel to Israel, it is crucial that you get a more complete picture than Birthright will offer–options of trips that will allow you to do this include Birthright Unplugged, Interfaith Peace-Builders and Extend.

Birthright Unplugged’s mission statement reads, “Israel has denied Palestinians the inter­nationally recognized right of return for refu­gees… thereby excluding millions of Palestin­ians from living in the land in which they were born.”

Over the past several years, we have focused our work in order to support Palestinian led non-violent campaigns that seek to pressure Israel to comply with international law. As Jews, we feel a strong pull to join our people in a country where we are welcome and feel like we belong. As college students, a free trip to the Mediterranean over winter break is near­ly irresistible. But as Vassar students, I think we are smart enough to know better. Jewish young adults did not ask for this birthright, but we are granted it nonetheless. All we can be held responsible for are our own actions and decisions. In taking values of anti-racism and anti-imperialism seriously, I encourage fellow Jews to consider the implications of accepting this “gift.”

The folks at renouncebirthright.org have an open letter to Taglit-Birthright that I encourage you to sign, and in doing so, renounce your rac­ist birthright. If you are not ready to do this, please at least learn more about the program being offered and what you support by taking part in it.

—Noah Myln ’19 is a student at Vassar Col­lege.

3 Comments

  1. First of all, saying 750,000 Palestinians were forced out of their homes and fled the country as refugees is wrong. While some were forced out of their home, which is bad, I agree, the others fled the country, which is what any reasonable person would do if they were in a middle of a big war. Not only that, many arab leaders had told their followers to leave the country, claiming that they’ll be able to come back after the arab countries win the war.
    So saying that they were forced to leave and fled the country is just wrong. Yes some were forced to leave but many of the refugees left “willingly” which is the logical thing to do when youre in war, and you have 20 countries that’ll take you, a privilege that the jews did not have.

    Second of all, like any other vacation, you will see the highlights of Israel.
    As a former counselor on a trip similar to birthright, I can also tell you that the participants have discussions about the situation in Israel and possible solutions to it.
    Not only that, in the itinerary usually have a “Coe-existence” activity where the students meet Israeli Palestinians and get to talk to them freely for a few hours.
    You say, “You will not see the occupied territories” while on a birthright trip, you forgot to mention that in the ”occupied” territories that are now ruled in most parts by the Palestinian National Authority you will probably be shot dead or lynched for being Jewish. And if you think that I’m making that up, or that that’s unlikely,

    http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4728385,00.html

    That’s exactly what happened to these 3 men who were sitting in traffic in the west bank 7 hours ago. One of which was an American volunteer.

    You also say “ It is a crime to travel to one of the most conflict-ridden spaces of the modern world and see only the lives of the privileged”
    Reading your article and seeing youre calling my family and me privileged just frustrates me! Of course we’re privileged compare to the refugees you portrait in your article! But why wont you compare our lives to those of any other citizen in a western country?
    You think we enjoy giving 3 years of our lives to the army? How bout the fact that probably every israeli have a friend or a family member who died or was injured in the army or in a terror attack? Or the fact that today 5 people were murdered in terror attacks? Or the fact that there are countries in the world whos leaders vow to demolish Israel?
    Its easy calling us privileged and make it look like we took those privileges from the refugees you talk about, their situation is unfortunate, I agree. But we earned our “privileges” of living under constant threats and attacks from the U.N who gave us the land of Israel. We didn’t get it for free, many jews had paid for it with there lives, in the holocaust, in the many wars Israel had gone through and in countless terror attacks.

    One last thing, you call the Jewish law of return a “racist birthright” that might look like it to you, a secular jew living in the U.S. but millions of other Jews are not as privileged as you are, many jews suffer from anti-Semitism in various parts of the world. Earlier today a French jew was stabbed while he was walking down the streets of paris just because he is jewish, THAT is why the law of return exist! Unfortunately, in most places jews cant be jewish and feel safe, in most places jews cant even be completely secular and feel safe. The law of return helps us make sure that any jew who’s not safe in his home country will have a place he could go to, a place where he could be any kind of jew that he’d like and still feel safe.
    Hopefully, one day it will also be safe to be a jew in Israel.

  2. Very well-written article and begins to touch on both sides of what’s really going on in Israel and the plight of the Palestinian refugees. I wish more people would take the time to realize that if you are against some of Israel’s policies you are not an anti-semite.

    Thans Noah for bring this to light.

  3. The article is just simply inaccurate. Birthright does not deny people the ability to hear Palestinian perspectives. And there are other birthright-type programs, such as Birthright Armenia, as well as similar programs for diaspora Chinese, Turks, etc. No one targets these programs for failing to discuss every negative in these societies. It’s not clear why Israel should use Birthright, which is simply a ten day introduction to Israel, in order to do the work of the BDS movement, which lives to tar Israel and has as its unstated goal the replacement of Israel with a Palestinian state.

    Not many people would say that criticizing Israeli policy makes one antisemitic. But targetting Israel for boycott, and obsessively focusing on it in the way that many do should cause people to think critically about why they privilege activism on Israel above so many much worse situations around the world, and do so from the comfort of America, a country responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in Iraq, or Europe, a continent that caused death to six million Jews and suffering to untold others less than three generations ago. There’s something wrong with that.

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