Columns

Zacks ’15: Birthright: whose right?

By
Opinions Columnist

In less than a month, I will be going home to Israel. I was considerably more excited about it before the latest assault on Gaza. Still, home is home, even if home is a colonialist, militarized occupation state. So I’m going. I’m flying with Turkish Airlines, the cheapest airline I could find. My ticket cost a little over $1,000, which is approximately 115 hours of serving pizzas at the Gate. Honestly, working at the Gate is not as bad as it sounds. It can be therapeutic, and someone recently donated an excellent set of speakers to the Gate staff. But if someone offered me a free trip to Israel, I’d probably say yes and hop aboard the occupation wagon.

Israel does all sorts of things to whitewash its illegal occupation of Palestinian land and its disregard for basic human rights. It tries to justify these crimes by branding itself as a gay haven – pinkwashing – and by cultivating its image as an environmentally progressive state – greenwashing – as if Palestinian queers are not subject to checkpoints and the uprooting of ancient olive groves is just what the planet needs. Twice a year, it engages in a third type of laundering: brainwashing.

Since 2000, Taglit-Birthright Israel has flown more than 300,000 young Jews from 59 different countries to visit Israel. Its official website describes Birthright Israel as a “social experiment” designed to “ensure the continuity of the Jewish people by strengthening Jewish identity, Jewish communities and solidarity with Israel.” By bringing young persons of Jewish heritage to the only ethnocracy in the Middle East, the organizers seek to “foster understanding and identification with Israel,” to use Jewish identity – an identity that far predates the modern Jewish state and that will hopefully outlive its racist, colonial structures – to whitewash atrocities committed against Palestinians.

During their 10-day educational trip, participants are taken to the beautiful and occupied Golan Heights, climb up Masada at dawn and visit Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. They ride camels in the desert, visit the Western Wall in the stunning, historical – and occupied – Old City of Jerusalem and make friends with IDF soldiers that are assigned to their group. They experience Israel, and despite the undeniable realities of Palestinians living under brutal military occupation, they have a blast.

Tel Aviv is a fun city. In fact, it’s not very different from any European capital on the other side of the Mediterranean. It is full of nightclubs, cafes and markets. It shows no trace of its not-so-distant past, of Palestinian villages destroyed and erased in the ethnic cleansing of 1948. Throughout the country, Hebrew names replace the Arabic ones in a wildly successful campaign of collective forgetting. Kiosks sell falafel in a pita, a typical Israeli dish. Jewish National Fund forests silently mark the places where Palestinians once lived and worked and died. Invisible from the windows of the bus, occupation and dispossession are not part of the Taglit program.

Next month, when I go home, so will tens of thousands of Jews my age. Apparently, it is their right by birth, simply for being born Jewish. They will be welcomed in the airport by cheering Israeli youth chanting “Brothers! Brothers! Joy! Joy!” They will probably have the time of their lives. After all, according to independent research conducted by the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University, over two-thirds of participants feel much closer to Israel as a result of the trip. Meanwhile, nearly 1.4 million Palestinians will remain in refugee camps in Gaza, the West Bank and the neighboring countries. Born non-Jewish, they have no right to the land they and their ancestors inhabited for centuries. Born non-Jewish, they are not eligible for free 10-day educational trips to the state that expelled them from their home.

Birthright is “the selling of Jewishness to Jews” as a founder and financial supporter remarked. And they buy it. In fact, over the past 12 years, Birthright participants have spent $76 million on gifts and souvenirs. According to the organization’s web page, the program has contributed $535 million to Israel’s economy.

While I think this is a compelling reason to boycott Birthright, I did not decide to write this article to advocate for people to reject the offer of a free vacation to an otherwise unaffordable destination. But I do ask that they be critical and take the opportunity to see for themselves. Israeli and Palestinian groups like Ta’ayush and Breaking the Silence offer free organized tours to the Occupied Palestinian Territories, tours that fall outside “the tempo and rhythm of Israel.” They reveal a reality of systematic discrimination, segregation and injustice. They reveal a reality that anyone committed to the Jewish tradition of social justice and empathy must witness.

 

Mika Zacks ’15 does not believe that bombing civilians is inherently Jewish and can be reached at mika_zacks@brown.edu for more information about pro-justice, pro-peace organizations in Israel for prospective Birthright students.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you! Refreshing. Israel needs more of you, not the wingnuts!

  • Frequent Visitor

    Mika,

    Interesting post, but full of factual errors and emotional hyperbole. A few comments:

    * You may be Israeli, but to call the country racist and colonial right off brings into question your understanding of these terms and your associated judgements. There were Jews living in what is now Israel long before the country was founded… centuries back even. How does that make it “colonial”? Arabs are not any more indigenous than Jews to the area… DNA studies provides evidence of this fact. And since Israeli society is composed of many races (even the Jewish population is multi-racial), where in fact is it “racist”?

    * The occupation is not illegal, not even by international law; it is the settlement program that is considered illegal — this is a notable difference you have either ignored or misunderstood.

    * Calling Israel “the Middle East’s only ethnocracy” is rather inaccurate. How would you describe Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates which have the name of their ethnic group right in the title? And with Israelis coming from multiple ethnicities, including Jews from dozens of ethinic groups, how can you consider Israel an “ethnocracy”? You clearly do not understand that term, or choose to ignore or misrepresent it for your argument.

    * The 1.4 million Palestinian Arabs are not all decedent from people who “inhabited for centuries” what is now Israel. It has been proven time and again that a majority of the 1948 era Arab families in the area came only in the late 1800s and first half of the 1900s.

    * Not all, or even close to all, Arabs were “expelled” from their homes in 1948. As you know, many fled the fighting or were encouraged to leave by their fellow Arabs. Unfortunately, many were expelled as you have stated… the same, by the way, is true of Jews that in 1948 were living in east Jerusalem, the Gush Etzion area and other parts of the occupied Palestinian territories — a fact you seem fine to overlook in your editorial.

    * Israel being mostly gay friendly has nothing to do with its position regarding the Palestinian Arabs, whose society is about as anti-gay as one gets. Rather, the Israeli position shows tolerance which extends to the various sexual, religious and ethnic (yes ethnic) orientations of those that live in Israel.

    * The old city of Jerusalem may be considered occupied, but its official status according to the UN is not as a Palestinian Arab territory. Officially it actually is an international city with no specific assigned entity owning it; rather it is supposed to be under UN administration.

    For reference, I am not Israeli or Jewish but I do spend weeks each year in Israel and the occupied territories for work and also pleasure. So yes, I too have a rather decent perspective of the area and its challenges. I am against the occupation too, but I can fight that battle without resorting to incorrect statements, inaccurate and inflammatory rhetoric, or my own attempts to “brainwash” which I could argue you are trying to do to the Brown community with your editorial. It does indeed work both ways, chevra.

  • Anonymous

    I just read this and thought this was absolutely brilliant, thank you Mika for all the work, so glad these conversations are happening at Brown!

  • Anonymous

    Brilliant for its stupidity. Nothing like gross simplification and blatant ignorance of facts.

  • Free Famagusta

    In the interest of full disclosure, the author is (uncontroversially) an odious member of the local SJP brownshirts, a notorious terrorism-enabler and Hamas propaganda mouthpiece.

    On any given Friday, Islamo-supremacists are free to peacefully return occupied Constantinople and the desecrated Hagia Sophia (Christendoms 2nd most holy cathedral)– then and only then may victimhood cultists and assorted Hamas-huggers feel free to howl about the alleged “rights” of Fakestinians to Judea.

    Meanwhile, Russians crush Chechens. Chinese trample Uighurs. Real genocides unfold regularly in Africa. Iran pursues a nuclear bomb. Hamas is openly dedicated to the destruction of Israel. So is Iran. Nobody cares.

    And yet the only villains (as far as today’s Leftist SJP Hamas-huggers are concerned) are Israelis. Always Americans and Israelis.

    But none of these facts matter. Indeed, it’s tiring even to recount them in an environment where big lies matter more than obvious truths, where self-defense is “ethnic cleansing,” where restraint is “intolerance,” and where the heirs of Gandhi fling spittle and molotovs (both real and rhetorical) in support of al-Qaeda and Hamas.

    Those interested in exploring the phenomenon in a more scholarly manner may read “Unholy Alliance: Radical Islam and the American Left”
    [Library Stacks HN90.R3 H583 2004]

  • Anonymous

    Thank you, you give me faith in my people again.

    Free Palestine.

  • Anonymous

    Mike Zacks does not believe that bombing civilians is inherently Jewish. Okay. So what is inherently Jewish? Self-destrution? You Heebroos really need to get to act together. All this self-loathing and rejecting your homeland. You don’t see any Arabs writing columns in which they pour out their guilt over all the Jews that were killed and displaced. Ya’ll need to mensch up. The other option is to follow Helen Thomas’ advice and go back to Poland and Germany and just hand the keys over to the Arabs.

  • Anonymous

    It is hard for people not to get worked up about Israeli/Palestinian issue. But since this is an Ivy League school’s newspaper, I would hope that writers use facts to support their opinions. The post from Frequent Visitor is the only one that seems to have any facts at all.

  • Anonymous

    You know what, I would love not have Israel in the news every f##### day. I would love to focus on other areas of oppression. But why don’t we start with ending the oppression of our closest ally- Israel? The U.S. tacitly supports this insanity with billions of dollars for weapons and other programs.

    Frequent Visitor brings up important facts. However, his post is clearly politically motivated. For instance, the main reason why the UN does not acknowledge Palestinian Territory is because Israel and the U.S. block the acceptance of Palestine as a country. The overwhelming majority of the world thinks differently. And you can tell me all day long about DNA and alleged historical links to Palestine & the West Bank (I am surprised nobody called the territories by their biblical names yet). BUT you cannot deny that Israel is doing grave injustice to people by disenfranchising them of their civic rights and occupying territory. Frankly, annexing the territory and integrating Palestinians would be more humane, but then the great vision of a Zionist state would be in jeopardy. Israel is its own biggest enemy and I hope there are more Israelis like the author, who has not been brainwashed yet….

  • Anonymous

    “I hope there are more Israelis like the author, who has not been brainwashed yet…. ” Of course. All the easier to make the Middle East Judenfrei. “But why don’t we start with ending the oppression of our closest ally- Israel? ” It’s like the old joke between two college professors. One says “We need to stop all those Jews from cheating.” The other says “But not only Jews cheat”. To which the other says “Sush, we’re talking about the Jews here.” The overwhelming majority of the world could give a rats ass about Israel or Jews and would not give a hoot if every Jew disappeared tomorrow. “alleged historical links” exactly, “alleged” There’s no point in telling you about historical links because you really won’t care to hear them because “we’re talking about Jews” here. Here’s an idea, why don’t you Brown clowns just accept the right of Israeli to exist as a Jewish state within secure borders (even 1967) borders and tell your Arab and Iranians friends to do the same and abandon the armed struggle to push all the Jews into the sea. Get Hamas to stop lobbing rockets are civilians. BTW, is shooting missiles at Jews inherenty un-Arab or un-Muslim? Or is that okay? Anyway, stop telling the Jews that you’re going to kill them and maybe they’ll trust you more.

  • Anonymous

    Is Frequent Visitor a professor? One hopes not if he/she doesn’t understand what racism or colonialism means. Legality of occupation aside, nearly all nations of the world are against it and support withdrawal back to the 1967 borders. Only the U.S. (& its neo-colonies in the Pacific) consistently votes with Israel on this issue year after year. (But Canada voted with them this year to vote against Palestinian statehood in the UN.) Zacks’ point about pink-washing is not to argue that others aren’t homophobic, but that American liberals should not be convinced to support Palestinian oppression through a mistaken belief that Israel is unconditionally gay-friendly. No place is; that is not the point. No place is unconditionally democratic either; that is not the point. Wrongs elsewhere should not be propped up to justify wrongs anywhere.

  • Anonymous

    Is Frequent Visitor a professor? One hopes not if he/she doesn’t understand what racism or colonialism means. Legality of occupation aside, nearly all nations of the world are against it and support withdrawal back to the 1967 borders. Only the U.S. (& its neo-colonies in the Pacific) consistently votes with Israel on this issue year after year. (But Canada voted with them this year to vote against Palestinian statehood in the UN.) Zacks’ point about pink-washing is not to argue that others aren’t homophobic, but that American liberals should not be convinced to support Palestinian oppression through a mistaken belief that Israel is unconditionally gay-friendly. No place is; that is not the point. No place is unconditionally democratic either; that is not the point. Wrongs elsewhere should not be propped up to justify wrongs anywhere.

  • Anonymous

    Mika, thanks for writing this, for speaking out, and for your courage.

  • Anonymous

    agree, not only does israel need more of you, humanity as a collection of peace-seeking and loving people need more of you! perfect article, cuts through all the garbage to tell the truth.

  • Hippies Smell

    BDS (Birthright Derangement Syndrome): the acute onset of delusional or paranoid psychosis in otherwise sensible progressives in reaction to the history, policies, (nay) the very mention of Israel.

    For a more scholarly discussion of the phenomenon, try “Liberal Fascism: Tthe Secret History of the American Left, from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning”
    [ROCK Stacks JC481 .G55 2007]

  • Anonymous

    Thank you for your courageous voice. Maybe we can move past this us and them thing, it’s getting old.

  • Anonymous

    Judea and Samaria belong to the chosen people, now and forever. The Arabs will fall. America has a choice: support God’s will and his chosen vassals, or be left in the dust. Luckily, it appears that the majority have made the correct decision. For those that haven’t…you are on the wrong side of history. Better switch while you can.

  • Anonymous

    So refreshing to read! Brilliants minds at Brown!

  • Anonymous

    Mika, I APPLAUD you for writing this. It takes such courage to go against the grain. I was so pleased to see this written and posted in the Herald, and am so proud to call you a fellow schoolmate. As a Palestinian, I thank you for restoring some faith in me that things can change.