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 firstname.lastname@example.org for more information about pro-justice, pro-peace organizations in Israel for prospective Birthright students.