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an introduction

I recently returned from a Birthright Israel trip a few days ago and want to use this blog to relate some of my experiences. My first thought before typing anything was: would publishing a sometimes unflattering account of the program be lashon hara? The Birthright trip has caused me to ask this question. To prevent offense, I've changed the names of everyone involved.

The next question is whether this blog can have positive effects, and thus be totally exempt from the traditional Jewish prohibition of lashon hara. I think the blog can prepare people for what to expect on a Birthright Trip, as well as offer suggestions on how to get ready. In addition, I hope it can serve as a temporary epicenter for meaningful discussions about Zionists, Jews, Palestinians, and the like.

A mountain view in the Judean Desert

Not all trips are exactly the same so I can only relay thoughts about my own trip, though I suspect in many essential ways, Birthright trips are very similar. I'm sure that some trips have a more transparent agenda than mine, and some less. I would love to have some guest writers post on their own experiences.

Both myself and others on the trip were intellectually unprepared in many ways. It's hard to be critical about something when you don't know enough about the issue. I have used the time after the trip to think critically about some of the narratives crafted by our trip organizers (ie. the indisputable legitimacy of a Jewish state, the importance of marrying within the Jewish community). Post-Birthright I've also thought about what ideas and information trip organizers failed to mention, which I will share here.

I hope that you can gain some insight from this blog. I don't think I would advise anyone against a Birthright trip, after all, it's free and it's a chance to see another country. But I hope that future participants come armed with relevant questions and a skeptical mindset. I also hope that people choose their trip carefully.

Excerpts from the journal I kept during my trip will be in italics.

pre-trip thoughts and preparations

Many of the participants on my trip recognized that they were unprepared. Quite a few asked for a reading list where they could follow up on the two sanctioned political discussions we had on the trip. Our guides mentioned that there was a reading list on the Birthright website. Unfortunately, my group wanted more wide-ranging viewpoints on Israel and its policies and the Birthright-approved reading list presents a fairly narrow perspective. You can examine the list for yourself:

The Case for Israel & The Case for Peace, Alan Dershowitz
Still Life with Bombers: Israel in the Age of Terrorism, David Horovitz -- (This book does have some discussion of the living conditions of Palestinians)
Coming Together, Coming Apart, Daniel Gordis
Exodus, Leon Uris
O Jerusalem!, Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre
The Source, James Michener
My Life, Golda Meir
In The Name Of Sorrow And Hope, Noa Ben Artzi Pelosoff
Warrior, Ariel Sharon
Walking The Bible, Bruce Feiler
Nimrod Flip-Out, Etgar Keret
What Israel Means To Me, edited by Alan Dershowitz

As for me, I did a little preparatory reading. I read this article in Salon as well as Noam Chomsky's Fateful Triangle. I also looked at quite a few Wikipedia articles (especially 1948 Palestinian Exodus, Second Intifada, History of Zionism and Israel. I also read a book called Jerusalem Calling. I thought about these works in relation I had been taught in 8 years of Hebrew school. As I continue to read more, I may be able to put together a more eclectic reading list which I will post in the future.

I made my first journal entry on the plane ride to Israel:

I begin the trip in a defensive position. What is the spectrum of debate going to be? How far will I be allowed to go in my questioning before I'm chastised? How closely will the guides connect a Jewish identity to the state of Israel? How much will they "tug at the Jewish heartstrings?" And what will be the extent to which they mention or even discuss the Palestinians?

I notice that other people on the plane are journalling as well, so perhaps there will be a documentary history of the trip to refer back to. Ultimately what I'm wondering is: will I be the odd man out? A Hasidic man walks around the plane offering tefillin and I secretly hope that he takes the time to approach me. [Not because of any piousness, but because it satisfies me in some way to don this symbolic uniform. At times I like to assert my Jewish identity.]

An "artist's" depiction of me wearing the tefillin

I put on the tefillin, say the blessings, the shemah and the viahaftah. After I sit down, other members of my trip start asking: "What were you doing? What were those things on your head and arm?" So I explained.

good jew bad jew

As mentioned in a Salon article, a group of Birthright participants have used their trips to Israel in different ways than those intended by the organizers. Some have extended their trips to see the separation wall, the West Bank, Gaza Strip, or to volunteer with organizations like the International Solidarity Movement .

One organized trip, Birthright Unplugged, directed toward North American Jews, visits "Palestinian cities, villages and refugee camps in the West Bank and spends time with internally displaced Palestinian people living inside Israel. Throughout the journey, we help participants develop an understanding of daily life under occupation and the history of the region."

Personally, I was never apprised through Birthright's advertising or orientation sessions on what I was allowed to do politically during or after the trip.

The Birthright response (in this case, Gidi Mark, marketing director of Birthright) to these incidents gives clear insight into its agenda:

"Birthright is a Zionist program and we want the students to go back to their campuses and be able to answer questions from a Zionist perspective. There's a lot of gray area, because we want to be pluralistic, but at the same time make sure that people aren't taking advantage of us."

How "pluralistic" can your program be if you want your participants to argue from a Zionist perspective? When representatives of Birthright Israel define their Zionist agenda in opposition to Palestinian cultural exchange/community service programs, they imply that Zionism cannot exist alongside Palestinian rights.

In these "Birth-Left" scenarios in question, the participant took part in the Birthright trip, then went off on their own during the trip extension (up to 3 months) that Birthright offers. Yet Mark still considers this "taking advantage." As the Salon article notes: "Potential [Birthright] candidates who are discovered to have a 'hidden agenda' are not allowed onto the trips."

If the Birthright trip is a gift, the purpose of which is to allow participants to see Israel, and the living conditions of Palestinians under the occupation are a concrete reality of Israel, and a bunch of kids motivated by their humanistic values (in some cases springing from their Jewish upbringing) want to have dialog with or give support to oppressed people, then what moral higher ground does Birthright think they have? How much of a gift is Birthright if there are strict limits and on how you can use it?

Leaders on my Birthright trip tried to emphasize how everyone on the trip should think of themselves as part of a family. However, the love of this family is conditional. If you go "astray" like some participants have, then "you're out of the family" or if Birthright doesn't like your politics you can't join in the first place. It reproduces the "Good Jew" versus "Bad Jew" dichotomy illustrated here.

"Good Jew" ----------------- "Bad Jew"

In the Salon interview, Mark states that the practice of "Birth-lefting" is "taking advantage of the Jewish money that sends people to Israel, exploiting this money to promote an agenda which is not the agenda of the people who funded Taglit,"

Mark has made his point perfectly. Birthright has not only an agenda, but a very specific one. A participant fraternizing with Palestinians on their own terms does not fit Birthright's agenda and is a misuse of "Jewish money." This is occasionally forgotten during these programs; as when someone on my trip asked: "Why can't we focus on why we're here [in Israel] instead of politics?"

In response I wrote:
You take a bunch of Jews from America, send them to Israel for free (on the the dime of two Jewish businessmen in cooperation with the Israeli government) in an effort to get them to connect with and thus support the State of Israel-- the situation can't be anything but political!

I support the acts of these "Birth-left" participants, who act on their consciences and reclaim their trips. Thinking back, I wish I would have extended my trip even a few days. I'd be interested to hear about what kinds of ways other people have used their trip extension.

A former Birthright participant said it best: "If Birthright is going to weed people out according to politics, then it's not really about Judaism anymore."

the opening

We sit in a circle staring at each other awkwardly, exhausted from the 10-plus hour plane ride. We are situated on a promenade with a beautiful view of Jerusalem, but it's hard to appreciate. After name introductions, the leaders of our Birthright trip explain to us that they just want to show us the various ways of being Jewish and that they are there to answer all our questions. They used a marketplace analogy to explain themselves. The trip is like a marketplace; you take what you want off the shelf and leave what you don't want. Ultimately it is up to us to make our own decisions. We'll see how that holds up.

I have a feeling that it will turn out like this: as soon as controversial stuff is brought up, it will be oh-so-subtlety shot down with phrases like, "well, I respect that but..." In this way, those in command end the argument without actually responding to it. Instead, they use their power, which needs no public explanation.
However, they may actually take the comments and questions to heart and listen, but not let the subject get taken further, to the point where people feel empowered enough to actually get off their asses and do something. Instead, the controversial discussion will just sit on the shelf behind two other more mainstream opinions in the marketplace of ideas.

At the end of our little introduction, our guides point out the various parts of Jerusalem in the distance. One guide points to a concrete block and asks anyone if they know what it is. No one answers, so I chime in, "the separation/security/apartheid wall."
"Yes" our guide says. I knew this was the closest we'd ever be to that wall, so I took a picture.

The actual wall is that concrete stuff waaaay back in the haze of the background

a few hours at yad vashem

The pace of the this trip is relentless. Days have begun to meld together. Today we spent a few short hours on the grounds of Yad Vashem. A tour guide lead us through the Holocaust history museum rather quickly, but at least he had a few interesting stories to tell. He talked about how the Nazi regime mailed each German citizen a free radio (the equivalent of sending everyone now a free flat-screen television). This gift radio could receive only one Nazi-controlled frequency.

The front entrance to Yad Vashem

The endpoint of the Yad Vashem's Holocaust history museum opens onto a sunlit vista of the city of Jerusalem
, an ambivalent image of both the collective Jewish effort to survive the Holocaust, and a city held in part by a brutal military occupation.

Nahum Goldman, former president of the World Zionist Organization, expressed this strife over Israel's use of the Holocaust:
"We will have to understand that Jewish suffering during the Holocaust no longer will serve as a protection, and we certainly must refrain from using the argument of the Holocaust to justify whatever we may do. To use the Holocaust as an excuse for the bombing of Lebanon, for instance, as Menachem Begin does, is a kind of "Hillul Hashem" [sacrilege], a banalization of the sacred tragedy of the Shoah [Holocaust], which must not be misused to justify politically doubtful and morally indefensible policies."

While I disagree with Goldman about the sacred nature of the Holocaust, I agree with the sentiment that this past act of genocide does not give the Israeli state license to oppress others. Yad Vashem is a required site on all Birthright trips; and while I think it's an important visit, it is also important to recognize how memorials and museums may construct histories to support the status quo.

A cement pillar at Yad Vashem: "I will put my breath into you and You shall live again, and I will set you upon your own soil" (Ezekiel 37:24)

After a whirlwind tour through the history museum , we circled up on the lawn for a discussion about our feelings.
I thought: how can I talk to anyone respectfully about the fact that the reasons the Holocaust happened all make sense to me? And since the Holocaust was an aberration only in its scale, events like it can happen again. Large-scale genocide continues to happen in the post-World War II world.

Later in our circle discussion, one guy said the whole experience made him want to go out and kill some Germans (how ironic). I made the case that the Holocaust could not be claimed as an exclusive event of Jewish suffering. The Nazis targeted for death homosexuals, Roma, trade unionists, communists, and disabled people among others. However, it seemed to fall on deaf ears. A bit later in our discussion, someone asked, "why didn't the Jews resist?'
"Actually, they did
." I said.

However, the resistance did not have broad support in the Jewish community, and was heavily suppressed by the Nazis. Jewish and non-Jewish resistance to the Holocaust occurred on a number of levels: including underground presses, sabotage, and armed revolt. For more information, I suggest reading Resisting the Holocaust which contains essays on a number of different kinds of resistance to the Holocaust including a piece on the demonstrations of German gentile wives of Jewish men.

The book also does an excellent job of complicating the Jewish role in the event. On all too many occasions, Jews have been depicted as passive victims. In fact, the word "holocaust" itself comes from a Greek term that refers to a sacrificial burnt offering. Jews were not just victims; some were collaborators (in a number of cases community leaders hoping to buy more time for their village), some insurgents, and others were not as easy to classify.

I expect to come to back to discussing Holocaust Tourism in more detail later.

the "debate"

What a conversation we had today. Uzi, an executive from our trip organizer came to talk to us as a guest lecturer on "politics." He prefaced his talk by stating that he was "neutral" in his views of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. He jumped right into discussing the current security dilemma of Israel and a story began to emerge:

Uzi (our guest speaker) -- Those [Arab] countries don't have existential questions.
Israel is a unique bastion of "purity of arms."
[by "existential", I'm not sure whether he meant that Israel's existence is still uncertain (a paranoid and hyperbolic claim), or that Israelis engage in profound thought over their lives and their ethical choices whereas Arabs do not (a racist claim)].

But Uzi didn't even need to say very much since the guides and participants on the trip were helping bolster his narrative thread. I sat scribbling furiously in my notebook, hoping that their words would be incriminating enough:

Rivkah (Israeli tour guide) -- They [Arabs] don't value life like Israelis do.

Uzi -- I don't understand why Palestinians see the return of political prisoners as a victory, instead of Israeli goodwill.
Richard (trip participant) -- When are the Israelis going to say 'enough is enough' trading terrorists (ie. Palestinian political prisoners who are accused of being terrorists) for Israeli soldiers?
Leah (Israeli guide) -- There's a third party that's involved in this conflict; the media. The media is antagonistic to Israel, and holds the Israeli military to a higher standard.

[I find it hard to believe that anyone could say this after watching only a few hours of American cable news. I have no qualms about saying that I have never heard anything positive said about a Palestinian group on an American news show, and I have never heard anything deeply critical about Israel.]

Uzi -- Absolutely right about the media. It's extremely frustrating when the media takes politicians to task. We just need to trust our leaders to make decisions about Israel's security policy.

I could not stand it! All of these assertions were going unchallenged as facts. The authority figures were monopolizing the conversation and telling 21-25 year-olds how to think. I needed to stop this farce in progress, so I raised my hand to ask what I thought was a particularly soft question: "Since you're referring to the existential crises of Israel, is there anything that the Israeli military has done which you are deeply ashamed of? I'd appreciate it if the soldiers want to speak on this as well."

Uzi spun right into the old "every country's military does bad things" hustle, while jumping straight into a laundry list of the various atrocities that Arab terrorists have committed. He lists these atrocities for about ten minutes. Then, perhaps realizing that he is completely evading my question, finally gets into talking about a specific case of Israeli wrongdoing, Jenin. However, his entire discussion of the events at this refugee camp focused on the fact that this "massacre" was exaggerated by the Palestinians, Arab media, and international community.
[He was probably right. What happened in Jenin was not large-scale mass murder, however there is agreement among human rights groups that there were civilian deaths, dozens of destroyed houses, and instances of war crimes. He spoke of Jenin, but could not bear to talk about things like the Deir Yassin massacre, or the current occupation's day to day violations of human rights.

Uzi motioned toward the soldiers to speak, but we were faced with a wall of silence. Our medic, a former IDF soldier, spoke vaguely of soldiers who are bored and at times "act like children," but nothing more was said.

Not even allowing this meager accusation to go unchallenged, Uzi assured our group that every offense by IDF soldiers gets investigated and that the guilty are punished justly. He was invoking a judicial Disneyland. At this point, time ran out and we had to travel to our next stop on the trip.

Luckily, he looked so absurd that people realized he was totally biased. Our group leader apologized and even offered an extra discussion session about politics. Sadly, it's exactly how I assumed Birthright would present things: through only one fairly consistent framework; that it's Israel versus the "terrorists."

i've never felt so much like a kid

Everything on the trip was finely choreographed; from the bathroom times to the eating times. If you go on a Birthright trip you should expect this. Even our "free time" was constrained. We were allowed to do what we wanted within a 3 block radius and had to be back at the meeting point within 2 hours. The lack of sleep can be very disorienting. I probably got an average of 4 hours per night. I started to feel powerless to make decisions without the guides around me; I didn't know exactly where I was, what day it was, or how I could possibly travel in Israel without the Birthright bus.

Birthright organizers attempt to be the gatekeepers of Israeli identity. Throughout the trip I felt disconnected from the Israeli population. I knew there were Israelis out there who agreed with my views (Anarchists Against the Wall for example), but I didn't meet any of these people on my way.

Unfortunately one of the only spontaneous interactions I had with an Israeli was as follows:
I had to get directions from a stupid old man who told me a joke on the way:
"Why are the signs in Jerusalem written in Arabic?" He said.
"Why?" I said.

"So the terrorists shouldn't get lost!"
"Oh good one. All along, I thought it had to do with the fact that a large percentage of Jerusalem residents speak Arabic." He didn't say anything.

Despite the barely concealed racist assumptions of the man in this conversation, there are many admirable enclaves of the Israeli population that agitate against the oppression of the Palestinians. In fact, there are Israelis that would debate our guides and guest speakers on the exact same points that I did.

The Shuk (outdoor market) in Jerusalem

Unfortunately, tourists can get trapped into homogenizing a country's population, and it's in Birthright's interest to lure you right into this trap. If hypothetically everyone in Israel is a Jewish nationalist (read: Zionist), then that coincides perfectly with Birthright's ideology. Then Birthright can claim they are only representing the population of Israel. It's all so perfectly uncomplicated, unlike reality. Every country has its debates (and of course its limits around what is considered acceptable, sane, or mainstream debate). However, when a chorus of Israeli citizens you meet on your trip all sing the same tune, its hard to imagine where the debate happens.

In part it occurs in the Jerusalem Post (Israel's largest distribution English-language newspaper). In this "Right of Reply" article an Israeli anarchist (Uri Gordon) defends the anarchist community from the vilification of a previous article. Now imagine for a second a major American newspaper, say the Boston Globe allowing an anarchist the right of reply. Actually, I can't imagine it.

During the course of the trip we were able to see one Jewish organization (Yad Sarah) which rents out medical equipment to those who need it in their homes. We went on an extended tour of their facilities, with only half an hour left to actually volunteer.

There are other kinds of the trips, that may allow you to meet with different segments of the Israeli population. In another blog, heeb'n'vegan summarizes the events of his trip:

We went to a Tel Aviv peace rally marking the 40-year anniversary of the Six Day War and the Occupation and got to talk to different protesters as well as representatives from groups that were tabling...We met with a representative from Meretz...
We were hosted by an Arab-Israeli family at their home as they talked about their perspectives on the conflict. We drove along the Israel-West Bank border with Lydia Aisenberg of Givat Haviva and saw the security fence close up, looked out to the West Bank on one side and to the Mediterrean Sea (a mere 15 miles away from the border) on the other, and heard Aisenberg's stories about her interviews with Palestinians who wait for hours to get past checkpoints and who are separated from their families by the controversial fence. We attended a Parents Circle Family Forum event featuring a Palestinian woman and an Israeli man who had lost their siblings in the conflict and who shared their desires for peace.

Be careful in your trip selection. There's likely to be another post on other cool things Israelis are doing, but for now I'll move on to other aspects of the trip.

another unbearable "discussion"

When we arrived at our new lodgings, a girl named Tamar (who was Bat Sherut on a different Birthright trip) asked me how my trip was going. When I said that Birthright had met my expectations, some of them negative, she challenged me to come up with my reasons. Immediately I was thinking "well, here we go again." I talked about what the Birthright trip had left out of our experience: namely the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and the chapters of Israeli history that are not so flattering.

She instantly got defensive, and I kept trying to pile words in there, but I could sense from her body language that it wasn't working. She was most offended when I said that the leadership of our group was trying to present their interpretations as absolute truth (what I should have said was "facts").
"So, you're trying to say that the leaders are not presenting the Truth?" she replied.

There's a subtle distinction (but important) that she clearly did not get. The last thing I told her was "you're twisting my words" but she had to take some cell phone call and left. I never got to resume the conversation.

I wasn't claiming that there is one Truth in the world and that I know it. I was only trying to say that the picture being presented by our leaders omits and distorts information that has agreement outside of Israeli apologist circles.

There are ways to engage in conversation to discover facts, but there are also ways to obfuscate them. When speaking about the "situation in the Middle East," where some of the most basic facts are still contested, it's important not to muddle them or pretend to be vexed about Truth. In doing just that, supporters can create controversy where none exists.

That's why Norman Finkelstein, in the introduction to his work Beyond Chutzpah, draws a distinction between, "those controversies that are real and those that are contrived." People can agree on an historical record and come to different political conclusions, but it's clearly dishonest to come to your conclusions first, then omit, distort, or create facts out of thin air to support them. He goes on to write, "One can speak of, basically three sources of artificial disagreement [in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict]: (1) mystification of the conflict's roots (2) invocation of antisemitism and the Holocaust (3) on a different plane, the vast proliferation of sheer fraud on the subject [as long as the conclusions are politically suitable]"

The Birthright trip contained all three kinds of artificial controversy. From attempts to present the Palestinians as recent immigrants to the area, insinuations that Iran would commit a second Holocaust (an image incessantly invoked by John McCain and Sarah Palin), to the faulty assertion mentioned earlier in my blog that all IDF soldiers who commit criminal acts always get punished justly. I'll delve more into the meat of this in additional, better researched posts.

UPDATE: One of the better researched posts can be found directly below this one

a trip back in time

"A nation is a group of people united by a mistaken view of their past and a hatred of their neighbors" -- Attributed to Karl Deutsch or Ernest Renan

I'm going to take a break from the trip events to go back to the 1930s-40s, years that were critical in the formation of the Israeli state, to discuss events and insights that were beyond the pale of my Birthright trip. At this point in time, it's impossible to get a complete picture of what happened in the events that Israelis call "The War of Independence" and Palestinians refer to as "The Disaster." Thus far historians have relied on documents declassified by the IDF and the Israeli government (which still contain redacted information). Many documents about the 1948 war in the archives of Arab nations have not been released to the public.

Why is it important to discuss founding events that occurred over 60 years ago? As "new historian" Avi Shlaim explains, "debate about the 1948 war cuts to the very core of Israel's image of itself." (Rogan, p.101) A state's founding story can serve as a legitimation and precedent for that state's future policies. Coming to grips with this history may also mean questioning the very idea of a Jewish birthright to the land of Israel, and the very premise of free Birthright trips to Jewish youth.

Israel has a traditional narrative which American Hebrew School students and Israeli students may find familiar. In this story, Israel fights bravely for its very existence against an aggressive and coordinated attack of Arab states. Shlaim summarizes it thus: "a simple bi-polar, no holds barred struggle between a monolithic and malevolent Arab adversary and a tiny peace loving Jewish community. The biblical image of David and Goliath is frequently evoked in this narrative." (p.79) This is the story I was taught in Hebrew School. It places responsibility for the war on the Arab nations and casts Israeli Jews in the role of victims. Required sites on Birthright trips such as Mount Herzl Cemetery tend to reinforce this narrative. Other required sites such as Masada, and the Bar Kochba caves reference the time when Jews were being oppressed by the Roman Empire and tried to defend their own freedom. The emotional force of these sites can make a participant think that the 1948 war was Masada: the sequel. But the situation in 1948 is not analogous. It had the added complexity of Jews building a nation-state. However, ego-boosting and Biblically epic it may be, the narrative above is not consistent with the historical record that has been uncovered. The Arab states were not solely to blame for the 1948 war.

The first Jewish emigrants arriving in Palestine had to deal with the problem of creating a Jewish state on land that was inhabited by a majority Arab population. The Jewish immigrants and those who encouraged them to move to Palestine deserve some blame for the later conflict (as well as Britain for making promises to both Jews and Arabs that were impossible to keep). David Ben-Gurion said, "politically we [Jewish immigrants] are the aggressors and they [the Palestinians] defend themselves...The country is theirs, because they inhabit it, whereas we want to come here and settle down, and in their view we want to take away from them their country." (Chomksy, p.91)

The First Aliyah in Palestine, donning keffiyehs

Some "supporters of Israel" recognize the ethical problem inherent in commandeering other people's land, and have tried to sidestep this issue altogether. In dubious books they claim that a large population of Arabs didn't exist before the first Jewish immigration. Some others allege that Palestinians didn't constitute a coherent or legitimate ethnic group or some other bullshit. Even if their theses were true, they would still be irrelevant. As Andy Dyer commented on the controversy surrounding Joan Peter's book From Time Immemorial: "But most striking is that she [Joan Peters] and the Zionists believe that robbing people because they've only been there 10 or 50 years is somehow alright. Claiming that it is only reminds most western people (few of whom live near where they were born) that it's not alright."

The"demographic problem" or "demographic threat" (still hotly debated in Israeli society) was taken up by the temporary government headed by David Ben-Gurion. Ben-Gurion and other officials grappled with the difficulty of founding a Jewish state on land that didn't contain a majority Jewish population. Transfer of the Arab population seemed the only practical course of action to create such a state.

While I don't take issue with Jewish people immigrating en masse to Palestine (though certainly I can understand why they didn't receive a warm welcome), I do criticize the ejection of non-Jewish inhabitants by force.

In his essay, "Revisiting the Palestinian Exodus of 1948" Benny Morris shows that thinking about transfer was prevalent in the Yishuv. In 1937 Ben-Gurion wrote in his journal, "With the evacuation of the Arab community from the valleys we achieve, for the first time in Jewish History, a real Jewish State." He further stated: "We must first cast off the weaknesses of thought and will and prejudice-- that [says that] transfer is impracticable." Ben-Gurion goes on to write that the Jewish leaders must understand that the world would not look favorably upon transplantation of the Arab population, however it would be crucial to "condition the leadership to transfer's implementation." (Rogan, p.43) Transfer would be beneficial and would not be challenged. If another power began Arab transfer out of Palestine, nothing would be done to prevent it (p.45 ). Ben-Gurion relayed his thoughts at the World Zionist Congress where he said, "You must remember that this method also contains an important and humane and Zionist idea: to transfer parts of a people [i.e., the Arabs] to their own country and to settle empty lands [i.e., Transjordan and Iraq]..." (p.43) These are patronizing words (i.e. that Jews know better than Arabs where Arabs belong and where they should live). This phrase was even deleted from Ben-Gurion's later transcript.(p.44)

The deletion demonstrates a consistent theme within Israeli mythology: a constant attempt to seem humane or moral while considering immoral policies and committing immoral acts. This isn't specific to Israel. In the U.S. we have similar mythologies that justify our history of immoral acts (such as manifest destiny or the argument that slaves were actually better off with their masters). It's also important to note that this debate among the Zionist leadership was going on in 1937; and although Hitler had come to power, this was pre-Kristalnacht and before death camps were constructed. As Morris writes, "Ben-Gurion was very careful in speech and writing not to leave too clear a spoor in his wake." ( p.49)

Nevertheless, careful management of rhetoric does not the change the actions of the Jewish forces in the 1948 war. "...the refugee problem was caused by attacks by Jewish forces on Arab villages and towns and by the inhabitants' fears of such attacks, compounded by expulsions, atrocities and rumor of atrocities - and by the crucial Cabinet decision in June 1948 to bar a refugee return" (p.38) "From April 1948 on, Palestinian Arabs were the target of a series of expulsions from individual villages, clusters of villages and towns" (p.49). There were documented military orders to do so:

"On the morning of 31 October, Carmel radioed all brigade and district commanders: 'Do all in your power to clear quickly and immediately all hostile elements in accordance with the orders issued. The inhabitants should be assisted to leave the conquered areas.' On 10 November, Carmel added the following somewhat 'softer' order: '(B) [The troops] should continue to assist the inhabitants wishing to leave the areas conquered by us. This is urgent and must be carried out swiftly. (C) A strip of five kilometers deep behind the border between us and Lebanon must be empty of [Arab] inhabitants.' There can be non doubt that, in the circumstances, the brigade and district OCs understood Carmel's first order of 31 October (and perhaps also his follow-up of 10 November) as a general directive to expel." (p.52)

I'll discuss the historical legacy and its effects in a later post.


Chomsky, Noam. Fateful Triangle. Cambridge: South End Press, 1999.
Rogan, Eugene L. and Avi Shlaim. Ed. The war for Palestine : rewriting the history of 1948. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

our second speaker

Our second political speaker, David, got together with us today. Our guides felt somewhat guilty about our first speaker (which might have to do with his answer to my question). The second speaker was a lot different and also more upfront than the first. Not surprisingly, he was a reserve officer in the IDF and works for the Israeli strategic department. Obviously our Birthright organizer was intent on getting a speaker with the least amount of bias and personal stake in the status quo *sarcasm*. However, he didn't claim any special status for Israeli "purity of arms." He didn't take an obnoxious, and moreover, hypocritical moral stand.

He was an academic who spoke from a very specific theoretical framework:
International Relations Realism with an emphasis on Game Theory. This limited what anyone could directly challenge him on because this framework so powerfully narrows ethical debate. We sat there in what seemed like a college class for two hours listening to him. I looked back and forth over my shoulder hoping that the audience wasn't thinking, "we're all sitting at this lecture because of YOU!"

He prefaced his talk with the complexity of the situation in the Middle East and how it is a multi-level conflict. And therefore the lines are not so clearly drawn. He referenced the fact that in the 1980s, Maronite Christians, teamed with Shiite Muslims, supported by Israel, fought against Hezbollah. "Anyone who says they can explain what's going on in the Middle East is a liar," he said. There was potential here.

After that he got straight down to business defending Israeli security policy, stating that X number of possible attacks were thwarted by Israeli security forces each week. One member of the audience scribbled this down on a piece of paper, eager to collect ammunition. David would not talk in detail about how he came to these numbers because of military confidentiality. But it would certainly be interesting to know in what stage these "plots" were "thwarted." Were participants just talking about an attack? Planning logistics? Obtaining explosive materials? From what I know about police responses to demonstrations in the U.S. against the WTO and IMF, cops are eager to pretend that normally common household items like paint thinner, glue, paper-mache, and hammers are bomb building materials and weapons.

Certainly I'll admit that there are a handful of people planning to commit suicide attacks against Israel on a given week. But in a state that condones torture as an interrogation method (to be discussed in another post), I wonder how much Israeli security forces "cook the books" by extracting confessions out of people that haven't actually done anything.

Obviously David is a statist (otherwise he'd have nothing to study). He also bandied about the belief that most nation-states are based on a cohesive ethnic group and that when there is a single ethnic group in a nation, you're more likely to have peace. If there is more than one ethnic group then conflict is more likely. I think the theory is just too simplistic, a touch racist, and of course totally ignores any economic factors that may set groups of people in conflict.
It privileges the idea of ethnicity (itself a fluid term, usually categorized by common ancestry) over any other possibilities that might bring people together such as class.

also made a big deal about another theory: if Palestinians actually want a two-state solution they just need to "declare independence." He suggested that they draft a document similar to the U.S. Declaration of Independence. After drafting the document, he argued, Israel might formally recognize the Palestinian state, and then make peace with it. He seemed genuinely excited about this proposal, as if he were the first to make it.

The problem with this theory is that a Palestinian Declaration of Independence has existed at least since the 1980s. And one could see the resulting Palestinian Intifada as a war for independence.
He argued that Palestinian leaders are not interested in real independence because they would have to take full responsibility for the new state. These same leaders are probably so complacent because they are benefiting from the current arrangement with Israel either economically or by retaining their current power. This is something Edward Said had been suggesting for a long time before. And I agree with him. I don't think Palestinian leaders are representing their people (as it is impossible for a few people to make decisions for a mass) and more often than not sell them out. Which brings us to the simple but often forgotten distinction between criticizing leaders and criticizing a given cause.

He did get a few things right. First, he acknowledged that states can engage in acts classified as "terrorism." Second, he stated that each Palestinian is equal in value to each Israeli in his calculus. He also brought out two messy words that had not been uttered by an authority figure on the trip: "military occupation." I thought this might "break the spell" of the trip, though I didn't notice anyone flinch. He clearly stated that the West Bank and Gaza Strip were under a military occupation by the IDF. However, he later argued that a military occupation is acceptable under International Law.

He contradicted himself when saying that people should take statements from Iranian and Fatah websites very seriously and literally; but then later, that statements from Europe supporting the Palestinian cause should not be taken seriously. So, how do we know which public statements to take seriously? He also sidestepped the events of 1948, saying that there wasn't sufficient time to discuss them (though I suspect if he did our group may have also heard the term "Palestinian expulsions" for the first time in the trip).

Even more interesting were the reactions of other participants after the speech. They turned to me, dying to know what I thought of him. As if the right speaker could easily repair the fissure in the group. As if the state of Israel could now officially be considered a completely unproblematic, democratic, benevolent country as long as the opposition gets a chance to speak (then the substance of their argument can then be ignored). I sincerely hope this wasn't the case in their heads. Or perhaps they felt guilty that I had been feeling left out and hoped David's speech could change that?

I tried to explain that I didn't agree with his framework, how it simplifies our world into reductive and sometimes sadistic games, but there wasn't much more I could say. After all, it didn't seem like there was much more than that they wanted to hear.
Sometimes I don't think people realize the sheer amount of time and energy it can take to construct a new theoretical framework, especially if a given audience is not familiar with it. In a situation (like a lecture) that requires such concise statements from someone in the audience it's nearly impossible to present new ideas.

a poem

Birthright Israel Untitled #1

They're turning to me.
Looking at me.
Prying from me,
arguing with what they've pried.

I see myself as a tower,
the barracks of a thousand insurgents
who are pitched in battle within my walls;
the turret can't contain them all.

I can't give them what they want.

I don't want to give them the satisfaction.
I am not called "disaffection."
And as for me, I say to my name: 'let me be and get away from me.
I've been fed up since I spoke and since your adjectives grew.'

You have me playing that foul game of representation
and I play along because its better than the simple denunciation
the sanctioned point-of-view presents without so-much-as complication,
under the corner-crimped-smile that says, "we're here to answer every question"

Final Survey

We were given a final survey to fill out at the conclusion of the trip.  Here were my answers to the Open-ended questions:
1.  What, in your opinion are the goals of the [trip organizer]?
Goal 1) To create connections between young Jews and the state of Israel (to create a strong connection between Jewish identity and support for the state)
Goal 2) To create connections between trip participants (with an emphasis on heterosexual marriage bonds)
Goal 3) To serve the people of Israel through community service

2.  In your opinion, what part of [trip organizer] needs fixing the most?
[Trip organizer] needs to admit that forging a Jewish identity can create friction between a Jew and the State of Israel (diaspora Jews as well as Israeli Jews), and that this perspective is totally legitimate and merits further discussion.

3.  What was the one most significant "message" for you in the entire program? 
That we are free to practice any kind of Judaism we'd like, but that our identity is tied not only to ancient Israel but also to the modern state of Israel.

4.  Has this experience affected your Jewish identity? 
I feel that I have a greater understanding of pre-20th century Jewish history and how hard people fought to protect their traditions and their land.

Other Comments: 
Especially in the discussions of the political situation of Israel, I saw few examples what I think of as Judaism at its best: humanism, self-examination, and critical thinking, as well as a certain amount of egalitarianism.  I didn't see people in a deep existential crisis brooding over even the possibility that their state may be oppressing others.  Rather I felt defensiveness and I heard apologia which on occasion developed into an "us vs them" kind of narrative.  When certain group members reiterated this narrative it seemed as if their fires were only stoked.  It was a well-oiled propaganda machine where certain opinions were beyond the pale, or did not merit further discussion.  Perhaps on 2 or 3 occasions I heard soldiers speak critically, but that's it.  Perhaps it's almost insane for me to expect anything different from a Birthright sponsored trip?  And then perhaps I am a little bit insane, but also a little bit Jewish.

article in the forward

This recent article sheds some light on Birthright educational tactics and strategy:

Birthright Alumni Center Tied to Haredi Outreach Group “

Pluralistic? Birthright seeks out Jews from all walks of life for its trips to Israel. But some alumni of Birthright’s New York post-trip program have reported pressure to become Orthodox. (caption from the original article)

The article concerns the Jewish Enrichment Center in Lower Manhattan, a popular gathering place for Birthright Alums, staffed by Haredi Rabbis. The organization's interest seems to be making Orthodox Judaism palatable to twenty and thirty somethings. I can't help but see parallels between my experience and this strategy. On my trip, Birthright staff often took on a progressive guise while downplaying their orthodox beliefs to appeal to our group.

Most of the American participants I met on my trip would probably consider themselves socially liberal. They like the freedom to dress how they want, eat how they want, most want social equality for women, and people of all sexual orientations. This is all incompatible with Halacha (Jewish Law) as interpreted by Haredi Judaism, so these Rabbis must use a more clever strategy:
“If they had just said, if their whole mission statement was, we’re Orthodox Jews, we’d love to present this lifestyle to you and see if it’s for you, and then did the same exact things that they are doing, that would not bother me,” said David Siegel, who was involved with the JEC for two years and went on three of the center’s follow-up trips to Israel. “But they know they can’t do that. People will get scared.”
Haredi and Orthodox Rabbis cannot be upfront about their beliefs with most Jewish American youth because most of these beliefs would be rejected out of hand. This reminds me of a point on the trip where another participant asked a very direct question to one of our guides: do you personally believe that women and men should be separated while praying? It was a smart question because it made our guide squirm, trying not to take an actual position. He was a particularly hippie-ish guy who acted more like a spiritual guru. Ultimately he was forced to admit that he thought women and men should be separated. He danced around the question precisely because he knew an honest answer would conflict with the progressive image of this particular trip. He knew very well about the political beliefs of the average American Jew. He even went on to call a female Jewish sage one of the first feminists, which I would never say with a straight face given that she advocated rigid gender roles. An interview in the Forward article echoes this sentiment:
“They are ideologically ultra-Orthodox, but they would never identify themselves that way,” said Allan Nadler, a professor at Drew University who has studied the Orthodox world, referring to Ohr Somayach. “It’s the soft sell. Come for dinner, come for lunch, hang around, smoke some weed after Shabbos. But there’s always an element of deception.”
The deception strategy works for people with or without experience with organized religion. Birthright brings in people to try to sell Judaism (part of their own market analogy) without explaining its direct historical and continuing relationship to sexism, homophobia, and the legitimation of government. Our guides make it seem almost hip. They know exactly what they're doing. Someone who has spent little or no time in a synagogue may not understand the authoritarian experience it can be. In fact, they diligently avoided temple services.

Just to clarify: all Orthodox Rabbinical associations currently refuse to ordain female rabbis (although there are expanding roles for women in this sect of Judaism). If anyone is in doubt about the Orthodox community approach to homosexuality I suggest watching the movie Trembling Before G-d.

Birthright claims pluralism, but in my view, pluralism does not mean temporarily tolerating someone else's beliefs (and concealing your own) so that you can create the space to slowly impose your views on them later.

thanks for your letters and FAQs

Every couple of months I get an e-mail from someone considering going on a Birthright trip. I'm actually happy to get the mail (and will respond), but I thought it would be helpful to readers to post some FAQs and answers so that they don't have to wait for my responses:

I'm having doubts about going on a Birthright trip. Should I go at all?

I recommend taking advantage of the trip while you have the chance, but you might have a lower tolerance for these kind of experiences than I do. If you feel extremely uncomfortable in situations where most people disagree with you, you may not want to take the trip, but going with a good friend or family member might make the rough parts more bearable.   

I have not regretted making the decision to go.  I took the trip with my brother, and since we agree on a lot we could share our feelings of frustration with one another. In addition I have one friend that I made on the trip, whom I still see on occasion.  

 If you feel uncomfortable going on principle (ie. the hypocrisy of a Jewish "birthright" to the state of Israel while not extending a right of return to Palestinians) I'm not sure what to recommend, as I set those principles aside for the purpose of accepting a free trip.  

I'm not convinced that abstaining from a Birthright Trip is making a coherent political statement.  If you're on the trip you may have some perspective to add to the conversation while you and your peers are experiencing the same things. At least they won't be able to say "you wouldn't understand, you weren't there."  

You will have the opportunity to bring up discrepancies and points of criticism during what might be an otherwise placid session of propaganda. In some cases, speaking up may encourage others who agree with you to share their opinions. There are also ways to extend your trip, and others have used this extension for their own political purposes (see my post on "Birthleft").

Are all the other people on the trip going to be right-wing zionist assholes?

Almost certainly not. On my trip most people considered themselves politically liberal and had minimal exposure to organized Judaism and most knew very little about Israel, much less Israeli history (granted most of them had pretty conventional views on things, mostly cribbed from American media coverage on Israel). Most were also willing to listen, even to ideas that they didn't agree with. Young American Jews are also increasingly ambivalent about the state of Israel and its policies (see this article). The proportion of political radicals on your trip will be exceedingly low if there are any at all. Among the Birthright participants I didn't feel any more out of the place than I do in the larger American society.

The trip leaders, guest speakers and soldiers were another story as documented in this blog. Don't go in with any illusions about convincing everyone on your trip of your beliefs and you'll be fine. 

Can you recommend a specific trip organizer?

Since I only went on one Birthright trip, I cannot recommend any specific trip organizer. The number of trip organizers is overwhelming and they tend to obscure their politics in vague language. The trip I went on was with Livnot and they do not lead Birthright trips anymore.  The trip Heeb 'n Vegan went on (mentioned in the comments of the blog) was with the Union of Progressive Zionists in conjunction with Israel Experts. Many of the trips cater to secular Jews, but the organizers do try to inject religion into the mix. I didn't express this in the blog, but after the Birthright trip I actually became a stauncher atheist than before. 

Could you recommend some books or websites for me to read or look at before my trip?

Here are the books I recommend:

1. Beyond Chutzpah by Norman Finkelstein - You can skip the first section about antisemitism if pressed for time. I think Finkelstein overstates his case in this section. The real meat is in part two and the appendices where Finkelstein demolishes Alan Dershowitz's book The Case for Israel (a book Brithright recommends on their website)This is significant not because The Case for Israel is a great book, but because it serves as a stand-in for many of the myths people believe about the state of Israel, many of which you will hear on the trip.

Finkelstein's main thesis is that Israel's human rights record put forth by supporters of Israel (like Alan Dershowitz) does not match independent reports from several mainstream human rights organizations (including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and B'Tselem).

2. The War for Palestine: Revisiting the History of 1948 Edited by Eugene Rogan and Avi Shlaim -- This book examines the 1948 war from the perspective of the "New Historians" who want to challenge the conventional story of Israel's founding.

3. Fateful Triangle by Noam Chomsky -- An examination of Arab-Israeli conflict and the role of the United States in this conflict.

4. Uri Gordon's Thesis chapter 8 -- Israeli anarchist Uri Gordon presents his thoughts about anarchist solidarity with the Palestinian nationalist movements.

I also suggest you look at Anarchists Against the Wall website:  if for nothing else to show you there are radical Israelis putting their bodies on the line to challenge the military occupation of the West Bank. Their actions short-circuit the argument: "You wouldn't think that way if you actually lived here."

If you want to see the kind of conditions that Birthright wouldn't take you anywhere near go here:

Let me know if you have any other questions or you want clarification on any part of this FAQ. You can send e-mail to:

I am happy to personally respond to e-mails.

additional reading

Since I have recommended that people take the trip, I thought the impassioned plea of this Israeli citizen would be a good counterpoint: It's worth reading whether you decide to go on a trip or not.

In other news, straight from those who brought you Birthright Israel.................Here comes

In this article, Mairav Zonszein writes about why TBZ is an embarrassment. I'm working on a post to cover this new development, but in the meantime, I'm interested to hear what others have to say on the subject.

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