On Israel, Birthright, and Ignorance

I’ve recently cut ties with a lot of people with whom I grew up. Or, rather, in some cases, they’ve cut ties with me.

My family moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania when I was still young, and after some time living in an apartment, we moved into our first ever house. It was in Squirrel Hill. While Pennsylvania is a deeply Christian state, Squirrel Hill is a strong outpost for the North American Jewish community. Our neighbor was a rabbi, and there was a synagogue at the end of my block, and another one two blocks up in the other direction.

While many North American Jews are on the frontlines of the battle to free Palestine from Israeli occupation and siege, many others are material and ideological supporters of the Zionist regime. Those siding with Israel have the organizational and financial advantages of state-backing, one of the most tangible resources for reproducing Zionist support being birthright trips.

When I decided to take a solo trip to Paris after my junior year of high school, many of my friends’ parents heard about my plan from their children. One day, I stopped into a local administrator’s office. He, the father of my one of my peers, immediately tried to warn me away from my plans.

“I don’t know why you’d want to go alone somewhere so far away. It could be dangerous,” he remonstrated, pausing as if permitting me time to defend myself.

As I began to answer, he spoke again. “Why don’t you go to Israel instead?”

I stopped, caught off guard by the suggestion.

Stammering to get out the first of many reasons why that idea didn’t interest me, I responded.

“I’m not Jewish.”

“That doesn’t matter,” he answered, not missing a beat. This didn’t seem like the first time he had delivered this proposition to a student. “You live in Squirrel Hill. And you said your father is Jewish, after all. So, Judaism isn’t entirely outside of your upbringing. The birthright program will pay for the trip, and you’ll get to travel with other young people.”

I sat in silence. Seventeen years old and with no political knowledge about the region, I tried to imagine reasons a state halfway around the world, to which I had no connection, would pay for me to visit.

“I thought your mother has to be Jewish to make you ‘technically’ Jewish,” I offered. I’d learned this over the years in Squirrel Hill.

He smiled, “Israel would love to have you. I can write a letter on your behalf.”

I left in a fog. I definitely wasn’t going to take him up on the offer, but it was the offer itself that I couldn’t fit into my understanding of the world. I had saved a chunk of my paychecks for years in order to have enough money to travel to France for a month, and yet, a country of which I had no knowledge was willing to save me all that trouble, and treat me like a VIP. I didn’t yet know that this offer was not free. Thousands of Palestinians paid with their blood so that a high school girl from Pennsylvania could save her money for a different vacation. I was a VIP; my blood put me on a guest list which was guarded by tanks, guns, and bombs, the better to keep out countless exiled Palestinians from ever returning to their land.

As is immediately visible from browsing the websites of these birthright organizations, their mission is to tie the Jewish diaspora emotionally to land claimed by Israel, conflating Jewish identity with the Israeli state.

Browsing a sample itinerary from Mayanot, one such popular birthright group, the stops along the trip belie the oft repeated assertion of the “non-political” nature of a birthright trip.  The first day includes a “border tour,” a stop only described as centering around an Israeli army post.  The following day begins with a visit to a winery in the Golan Heights, followed by an afternoon listening to the stories of the “heroic defenders of the Golan.”  The exclamation starting off day three, that this is the day you’ll meet “your new Israeli friends – soldiers!” who will join you for the next eight days adds to the paranoia surrounding the entire experience.  Never mentioned by name in the itinerary, an ‘other’ is ever-present, so threatening as to require constant military escort.

Many young people leave these trips and return home, unless they exercise their ‘birthright’ and gain citizenship in Israel.  Those that return to their home nations are encouraged to share their experiences with their community, effectively reproducing a normalized Zionism amongst youth in the Jewish diaspora.  As is apparent in the strong reactions many of my Jewish friends from home have had to my pro-Palestinian views, this process works.  Many refuse to accept that I can critique the Israeli state’s policies without hating the Jewish people.  Their existence as Jewish people gives them a right to land claimed by Israel; how else do I explain their birthright trip?

It is this cynical manipulation of young people’s lack of historical knowledge by the Israeli state and its most prominent supporters that de facto drafts an unwitting demographic into supporting its colonial logic from a very young age.

This memory of my brief encounter with birthright terrifies me. Had I not been so attached to a romantic image of Paris drawn from novels and poetry, I would have taken that man up on his offer. I didn’t know any better, or, more accurately, I didn’t know anything about the region.  I would have returned knowing simply one perspective, and one day could have found myself supporting an ideology whose defenders shout encouragement at the bombing of children, as some Israelis have been doing since the start of the current siege on Gaza.

I saw that my old neighborhood, Squirrel Hill, had a pro-Israel rally a week or so ago. In the midst of massacres of civilians in Gaza, a few hundred people gathered in one of Pittsburgh’s nicest neighborhoods, meeting at my old hangout, the intersection of Forbes and Murray Avenues, to defend Israel’s right to bomb ambulances and power plants, and ultimately, to massacre children.

Children, no different than I had been when I was offered a trip worth thousands of dollars, in return for allowing my name to provide one more tally for Israel’s annual statistics presentations, in which it parades the number of young people who take the settler-state up on its offer for an all-expenses-paid vacation.  This data can then be used as justification for the Israeli state’s continued colonial logic.

Seeing the area in which I had grown into adulthood as a meeting site for a rally celebrating  what amounts to an ongoing massacre of children, hundreds of children who will never have the chance to experience adulthood, brought me to tears. While writing this, I learned that larger, more unapologetic gatherings have been held, with the latest event bringing together over 2000 people to stand “unequivocally with Israel.”

It’s events like these that normalize violence, minimizing the relentless bombing taking place in Gaza as I write. As an old Squirrel Hill acquaintance, who is now in Tel Aviv, commented on a photo, (posted below), I took of a recent rally for Palestine I’d attended in Boston,

“Massacre, wow! That’s strong language.”

It is. And I wish it weren’t true, but it is in just such cases that one has the obligation to name things as they are. The outpouring of images and words from Palestinians, and their supporters around the world, has forced the discussion of the Israeli occupation into the mainstream media in a way that has never been seen before, with the effect being that many who had never heard these long-silenced voices and long-hidden facts are now free to do their own research, form their own opinions. As more of us name the massacre, both in its current bloody form and its slower method of blockades and occupation, we diminish the possibility of ignorance amongst young people, who might otherwise be drafted into a Zionist perspective before having the chance to make up their own minds, as was nearly true for me.


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