Makhlouf ’16: Where is my Birthright?

Guest Columnist
Monday, September 8, 2014

On Thursday, as I manned my post at the Activities Fair, I was interested to see students walking around with placards reading, “Ask me about a free trip to Israel.” Immediately I knew they were referencing Birthright, a 10-day, all-expenses-paid trip to Israel, run annually through Brown/RISD Hillel and offered to anyone able to demonstrate Jewish heritage. The entire Birthright program, exemplified by its name, is an attempt to engender strong connections between Americans and Israel based on the notion that the land is theirs by right.

On my end, I have no such privilege. In fact, demonstrating Palestinian heritage has radically different implications. When I arrive in Tel Aviv at the airport, I am not greeted by a welcoming committee who shuttles me by customs and chants with joy at my arrival. Rather, I am often detained for a few hours by gruff officials, interrogating my family and me as to the possible reasons why we would want to visit a country that my aunts and uncles and grandparents and their aunts and uncles and grandparents have been living in since long before the name Israel could be found on a map. The trek to my grandmother’s home in the occupied West Bank is complete with several military checkpoints — a reality that potential Birthright-ers need not fret over, as their route is strategically planned to bypass any road that meets a checkpoint.

That is a trivial example, a pinprick hole into the chasm of delight that the 10-day trip is supposed to provide. The sanitized, spoon-fed tour of the country is complete with beach outings, wine tastings and nightlife. The carefully planned itinerary hardly leaves any room for criticism, no entranceway for any skepticism that perhaps the situation might not be as glorious as it seems.

The hope is to foster continued relations between elite American Jews — Birthright is overwhelmingly attended by university students — and Israel. If generations of young Americans can continue to support Israel and legislate for military aid to the tune of $10 million a day, then the Israeli state can continue to get off scot-free with its apartheid policies, war crimes and racial segregation. After all, the young students who today are full of potential are going to be tomorrow’s congressmen, lawyers, academics and businessmen. Ensuring that the present generation has pro-Israel sentiment ingrained into its political DNA is necessary to maintain the status quo both in Israel and here in the United States, Israel’s greatest and most complicit ally.

Of course, Birthright-ers are oblivious to any of these happenings, in part because of the close relationship they form with the Israeli soldiers who lead them around the country — the same Israeli soldiers who gave 2,100 Gazans the right to a cold grave this past summer. At times, such discomfiting truth is avoided by maintaining that the trip is apolitical, simply a cultural experience. The Birthright website itself makes this eminently clear: “Taglit-Birthright Israel was born of a bold vision to make an educational trip to Israel an integral part of the life of every young Jew, in an effort to generate a profound transformation in contemporary Jewish culture and a connection between Israelis and their peers in the Diaspora.” This claim is misleading at best, insidious at worst and, crucially, simply wrong. Birthright-ers cannot claim to be apolitical when participating in trips that a religious center is fostering with a state 6,000 miles away. And more importantly, it is most certainly a political trip when their right to experience Israel comes at the cost of 66 years of ethnic cleansing and sociocide.

Also, since when is being Jewish synonymous with supporting Israel? As much as Birthright would hope to present that case, it is again an easily undercut falsehood. Some of the most powerful voices against Israel’s colonial endeavor have been Jewish, including Noam Chomsky, Judith Butler and Hannah Arendt. Groups of Jewish-Americans have started groups such as Renounce Birthright, a coalition that was founded, according to its website, “because (Jews) have no right to racism.”

So to those thinking about Birthright, perhaps it is time to think again. Perhaps it is time to awaken to the irony of sending bright, curious, insightful college students to a program that is tantamount to brainwash. Perhaps it is time to look at other options, at anti-occupation organizations such as Ta’ayush and Breaking the Silence that offer tours and more information about the country.

Remember, this free trip has costs: grave ones. Your ability to call Israel your “right” came at the expense of millions of Palestinian refugees; it came at the expense of lives and homes and villages and stories and memories. You have classmates at Brown who can never enter a land to which they have deep intrinsic ties. Others can enter only as guests, outsiders and foreigners, and we cannot forget one central question: Where is our Birthright?


Peter Makhlouf ’16 is a junior and insists that the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement be supported until Israel’s unjust regime changes. He can be reached at 

  • dcomplex

    Uh, long before 3000 years ago, when the united kingdom of Israel and Judah first graced bronze-age maps? Nice job trying to obliterate Jewish history. Maybe if so many of your relatives were not barbaric terrorists and perpetrators of massacres, we would not need such security measures.

    Islam is a lie, Mohammed was a criminal, and the Koran is poison.

  • Azram Marakesh

    Some countries just do not matter to the world. Belize, Paraguay, Liechtenstein, Jordan, Gaza, Sikkhim, North Korea. Imagine if these countries never existed. Exactly. It is very easy to imagine that. So what’s with this article anyway?

    • phewhomustntbenamed

      is u high?

      • Haywood Jablomie

        yeee boiii

  • Adam

    A few points.

    1. How do you know the birthright experience is “brainwash” if you have never gone on the trip yourself. Is it “brainwash” when a Russian individual visits Russia to visit friends and family, and to see the land of their ancestors? Is it “brainwash” for a French individual to visit France? A German, Germany? No, I don’t think so.
    2. Americans have, for a while now, been slipping away from the pro-Israel establishment that used to dictate our foreign policy.
    3. Jews and Israeli’s have been persecuted just as heavily throughout history, and are still persecuted just as heavily as Palestinians, Muslims, Arabs, and any other group that does not have round eyes and pearly white skin. It’s laughable that you speak of ethnic cleaning and sociocide, yet fail to mention that unspeakable crimes are committed by each side.

    The fact is, individuals like you, with their hearts filled heavy with hatred and hostility, with their minds so closed that they refuse to acknowledge the truth, are the ones that prolong this barbaric and abhorrent conflict. Only through understanding and cooperation can this problem ever be solved. I have hope that the millennials, when they come of age, will finally toss aside these closed views, and seek a true and lasting peace.

    • mxm123

      Steal someones land. Don’t u think they’ll hate u for it ?

      • Alum

        Are you referring to the UN partition plan or the wars initiated by Arab countries?

        • mxm123

          No. To “Judea and Sameria”. Sound familiar ?

          • Alum

            No, actually it doesn’t. Can you point me to which piece of international legislation you are referring to? The only land changing hands I can find seems to be the Europeans in 1947 carving out Israel (which was rejected by surrounding arab states who then declared war and lost) and then the Six Day war initiated by PLO attacks on civilian targets.

          • mxm123

            Shocker. Can u point out which piece of international legislation carved out Israel WITH Judea and Sameria in it.

            Oh and about the spiel about Arabs starting wars, you can give it a rest. Th record shows Israel was an active participant in starting such wars AND attacks on civilians.

  • Actually…

    Speaking from experience, Birthright actually does go through several military checkpoints during the trip.

  • talmid chochem

    umm.. you’re not persecuteded, you’re at brown, which incidentally, is built on land stolen from murdered native americans. how come you participate in this criminality?

  • raven89

    -You make it sound like a choreographed trip to N. Korea. Having been on a trip like this, where we heard from a Palestinian who described his life under occupation, I can promise you it is not.
    -After experiencing Birthright, people can go on to study issues with more depth. But you have to start somewhere. I think it is heavy-handed to tell Jews that every time they consider their own history or visit Israel, they must also consider everyone else. Sometimes Jews go to Israel and don’t think about Palestinians at all. But probably most do, they just don’t have to report back to you about it.
    -Arabs have many opportunities to visit lands where they can explore Arab history and culture – both modern and ancient. This includes Israel. isn’t that great for you? I’m curious, when you visit Egypt, do you go on a tour of the old Jewish quarter? Is it even there any more?
    -Jews just have Israel. Forget checkpoints, they are not getting into, or are unsafe in, some Muslim countries. Including some Muslim countries that their ancestors lived in for millennia. Oh well.
    -I understand why you would perceive “birthright” as a kind of supremacist privilege, but the fact that birthright exists is simply another manifestation of the highly organized nature of Jewish culture.
    -It may delight the Arab world to think of Jews becoming assimilated in the US, with no hope for reconnecting to their roots. But looks like people want to know where they came from. Just like you.
    -And btw, pointing out Jews who are not happy with Israel only highlights our ability to have critical thinking and question ourselves. It is an honor for us and an example of how we lead others to behave similarly in the world.

    • mxm123

      “Towards the end of our trip I asked Avram and our volunteer American guides why no Arabs were invited to speak to us. They responded like a chorus: “this is not the point of Birthright.” ”

      – Nice obfuscation.Makes it sound that the Palestinian perspective is part of Birthright. Nope.
      – “Jews just have Israel” – And u forgot “Judea and Sameria” – i.e. The West Bank land being stolen from Palestinians.
      – “looks like people want to know where they came from.” – Err, many Palestinians “came from” what is now Israel. Do you think Birthright addresses that ? Or provides free trips to their “Birthright” ?

      Lot of half truths. Birthright taught u well.

      • raven89

        I didn’t go on Birthright, as I said, I went on a trip that had a focus on the political issues. I chose that because it is was I am interested in. Birthright has similarly styled focuses ranging from agriculture to politics etc, though I doubt they dig that deeply in their week or so there. I’ll say again, that if people want to know more, that is available to them. Palestinians are an Israeli concern and there is no shortage of Israelis who think about them from every angle of politics. I am really just addressing a Jews’ right to explore their own culture and history without having to take care of everyone else, as Jews tend to do, actually. I suppose if Arabs wanted to create a similar birthright program, they would have the funds to do so… Do you really think Jews have the resources and responsibility to offer everyone else the same opportunities they create for themselves?

        • mxm123

          ” I am really just addressing a Jews’ right to explore their own culture and history without having to take care of everyone else, as Jews tend to do, actually.”

          Can’t resist – The Palestinians surely did get taken care of.

          Got no problem with any community “explore their own culture and history”. Just that some of us are pointing out the whitewashing that goes on.

          • raven89

            If you were going to talk about Catholic spiritually, would you bring up sex abuse first? I wouldn’t call this “whitewashing”. If all you are seeing is internet posts and media statements then of course it looks like whitewashing. But it’s really your fault, you are not doing your research or showing genuine interest in Israeli society. Because the unvarnished truth is there, and it is in Hebrew.

          • mxm123

            If you were discussing 20th century European History wouldn’t u bring up the Holocaust ? Your pretense about the fate of Palestinians is really sad.

          • raven89

            You are presumptuous to call my views on the fate of Palestinians a “pretense” without even knowing it. I have also been called disgusting, silly and sad in this brief conversation. What people do not understand as they try to score points with such delegitimizing rhetoric is that they are alienating the very people they need to bring closer in order to solve these issues.

          • mxm123

            No, its not presumptuous but rather accurate. Your whole attempt to whitewash their dispossession and then pretending otherwise is rather sad. And then u claim we need to “bring closer”. Pathetic.

          • raven89

            The Palestinians are a dispossessed people. Is that whitewash enough for you? When you have balls enough to take a good look at Israelis the way I can take a good look at Palestinians, then we might actually have something to talk about.

          • mxm123

            Huh ? Denying that Palestinians had and continue to have their land stolen to fulfill some fanatical fantasies like Judea and Sameria ? Take a good look at your own fanaticism in the name of religion.

          • raven89

            Wow, it’s like you are on auto-pilot. Beginning to wonder if I am engaging with some computer software. Last time I saw this was on craigslist.

          • mxm123

            I know, i know, trying to shake off pesky questions regarding Palestinians while portraying oneself as some kind of kind and caring vixen must be getting too embarrassing.

          • Smash

            Maybe the Palestinians would have been in a different situation, had they not taken an active role with Nazi Germany to eliminate the Jewish race. Read some history. I understand that its the popular thing these days to seethe with righteous indignation for the poor Palestinians, but WW2 carried punishment for all of those were complicit and active in the kind of ethnic cleansing that we have never since seen.

    • RebeccaCityofLadies

      There’s lots of Jews and Jewish history/culture outside of Israel, and it’s tiresome to see pro-Israel arguments that loop back around to the far-right nationalist “Jews aren’t REAL Americans/Germans/Russians.” “Arabs have history elsewhere, what do they need Israel for” is a silly argument.

      • raven89

        Jews can be Americans/Germans/Russians… but their history in most places is fragile, and when you go there to view it is usually in a museum. Israel offers most of the best examples of a thriving Jewish culture. Interesting that you use Germany as an example, when it was the Nazis themselves who collected Jewish artifacts with the intention of creating a Jewish museum. I guess that would have sufficed for you. AND I didn’t say “what do they (Arabs) need Israel for?”. You shouldn’t use quotations if you are going to paraphrase and serve yourself. I respectfully included Israel as a place of Arab history and culture.

        • RebeccaCityofLadies

          No, Jews still exist and have a vibrant culture in many other countries. It’s disgusting that you’re insisting that Jews only really belong in their own country and equating *opposition* to this argument with Nazism.

          • raven89

            Rebecca, I said none of what you just wrote. mxm123, You are putting the onus of understanding such complex issues as Arab/Israeli conflict on the back of what is essentially an introductory course. As with many other critiques of “Israeli Obfuscation”, you look at the surface and ignore the complexity and diversity of an Israeli society that includes a rigorous examination and criticism of its own history. Jews need neither your barbs as they explore their past nor your encouragement to criticize it.

          • mxm123

            No raven89, I can see past the “complex issue” and call it what it is, a land grab and the open denial of a peoples history. What you’d like to do is roll it up in goobledy gook and pretend otherwise. Its easy in an “introductory course” to state that Palestinians were screwed off their land.

        • mxm123

          “Israel offers the best examples of a thriving Jewish culture” – You and the Birthright kinda obfuscate that such “thriving” came , and continuous to come at the expense of Palestinians.

          • Smash

            mxm123- your lack of anything resembling an educated response speaks volumes about your obvious ignorance of this issue.

  • Voltaire

    Do well, and you will have no need for ancestors.

  • Gael Ben

    Your birthright disappeared with one of those gazillion rockets. It is not your fault. But that is the answer. Next question.

  • Sam Davidoff-Gore

    A well written article. I’ve been on Taglit, through the Brown-RISD Hillel, and I’m continually conflicted as to whether I should have gone. Because for many of us, it’s an opportunity for a free trip and I’m a firm believer that subsidized travel must be taken advantage of; however, I know that my participation is problematic, for many of the reasons you have mentioned. At the end of the day, I made my decision to go to Israel. It did not brainwash me, but it did make a statement, however small. Thanks for bringing this issue up because it’s important for us to understand the consequences of our materialistic actions.