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Birthright exposes Jews to diverse views on Israel, some ‘problematic’

Studies show Birthright attendees likelier to support, connect with Israel, but Brown students skeptical

Just a week before Brown/RISD Hillel arrived in Israel for Birthright this January, two young Israelis were stabbed in Jerusalem, reflecting a trend of violence in the Old City that has kept several Birthright trips from visiting the area’s historic monuments.

While it was not frequently mentioned, the security situation could not be completely ignored by students on Birthright, a free trip to Israel for Jewish youths aged 18 to 26. Brown/RISD’s Birthright trip did not cancel its visit to the Old City of Jerusalem, though they were accompanied by a security detail, said Elan Cohen, Israel Engagement Fellow at Brown/RISD Hillel. But a planned trip to the popular Ben Yehuda marketplace in Jerusalem was removed from the trip’s itinerary.

Despite the increasing risks, there are no plans to cancel the next departure, scheduled for May 29, Cohen added.

On the heels of three Israeli incursions into Gaza in the last seven years, Israel has been subject to increasing international scrutiny. This trend has affected how young Jewish people understand their place in the Diaspora, making Birthright a topic of potentially heated debate.

Students who go on Birthright are much more likely to support Israel than the general population. A 2014 study by Brandeis University showed that students who travelled to Israel with Birthright were more likely to condone Israel’s response to rocket attacks from Gaza and terrorist incidents in the West Bank.

Of students who attended Birthright, 46 percent qualified Israel’s response to Hamas in Gaza as “about right,” compared to 31 percent of 18-to-29 year olds in the United States. Sixty percent of those who went on the trip “very much” felt support for Israel, compared to just 45 percent of those who applied but did not go on the trip, because they either chose not to or were denied by the program.

Yet support for Israel does not presuppose anti-Palestinian sentiments. Students on the Brown trip expressed a diverse array of political stances.

Ben Gladstone ’18 is a member of Brown Students for Israel, and advocates for “a more fair treatment of Israel,” he said. He also considers himself pro-Palestinian, believing that peace is only possible through the creation of a Palestinian state.

The interplay between these views is reflective of the complexities inherent in any discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a geopolitical and religious flashpoint that has triggered heated debates on college campuses across the nation, including Brown’s. Gladstone and other students who attended this year’s Birthright trip acknowledged these complexities and the role of Israel in their lives in discussing the trip.

Zoë Gilbard ’18 said that growing up, her family expressed “a lot of pride” about the existence of a Jewish state in the face of adversity.

Emma Margulies ’18 also noted the significance of Israel to the Jewish people. She described Israel as “a place where Jews could go to be safe.”

The students also expressed a desire to educate themselves about the country itself.

“I was curious about what life is like in Israel,” Gilbard said.

Along with this interest in learning came skepticism. Participants realized Birthright’s connection with noted billionaire Sheldon Adelson and the American right wing.

“We were conscious of who the donors were and what kind of positions we might be exposed to,” Gilbard said. But, she added, “everyone was open-minded. Nobody forced anything on us.”

“The goal of the trip was not to teach us a certain perspective,” Gladstone said.

Gladstone noted the differences between Brown’s program and those that his peers had attended with other sponsors. His expectations of the trip were shaped by his own research as well as conversations with both “anti-Israel groups” and “liberal, pro-Israel” voices, in which he learned that there is generally “not a lot of critical thinking” among Birthright attendees.

The Brandeis study showed that most Birthright participants considered themselves liberal — 64 percent. The other 36 percent were divided among moderates — 23 percent — and conservatives — 13 percent. The group is, on the whole, more liberal than U.S. millenials, as indicated by a March 2014 poll by the Pew Research Group.

A liberal group themselves, Brown students confronted topics presented from a more conservative standpoint. Some programming that included pro-Israel accounts of history — which Gladstone termed “problematic” — was Birthright-mandated, he said. Still, he added, the accompanying Hillel staffers attempted to place the material in context.

“The staff gave it a very different dimension from the normal Birthright,” Gladstone said. For some of the more politically slanted material, students “were able to challenge (it) in a way that other trips couldn’t necessarily,” he added.

Yet in a September 2014 Herald opinion piece, Peter Makhlouf ’16 said that Birthright may “brainwash” its participants into pro-Israel behavior. “Your ability to call Israel your ‘right’ came at the expense of millions of Palestinian refugees,” he wrote.

Yet students on the trip said they engaged in debates regarding divisive policies such as Israeli settlements and areas controlled by Israel within the Green Line in the West Bank. Israel Defense Force soldiers accompanied the trip, offering students their unique perspectives on these key issues, Gilbard said.

The soldiers encouraged students to point out problematic and skewed narratives, Gladstone added.

Students returning from this winter’s trip confront what they see as a campus climate fraught with controversy around Israel and the conflict. Some of those who attended the trip expressed cynicism about the prospects of constructive dialogue amongst student groups.

“On Brown’s campus, it’s difficult to have a conversation about these issues,” Gilbard said. “Some people are unwilling to do their research.”

“It’s a really hard thing to talk about,” Margulies added. “You don’t change people’s minds by talking about it.”

Experts in the field volunteered similar thoughts. “There’s a combination of ignorance and a lack of understanding that goes beyond not knowing the facts,” said Omer Bartov, professor of history and German studies. He said both sides of the argument perpetrate a “great deal of misinformation.”

Bartov, who is Israeli, largely blamed the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the “bravado and jingoism” of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the current Israeli government for the continuing issues in dialogue. Nonetheless, he criticized those who question Israel’s right to exist and described academic boycott as advocated by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement as “counterproductive.”

Gladstone added that BDS emboldens the Israeli right wing. “A huge part of their narrative is that Israel is isolated and under attack, and only by leaning fully toward security and not at all toward peace can Israel protect itself,” he said. “BDS gives power to those voices.”

The only way to move beyond the stalemate that characterizes these discussions is for students to try to learn about all aspects of the conflict from many points of view, said David Jacobson, professor of Judaic Studies. “A university should be dedicated to exploring the truth. If you’re arguing one side, you’re not being true to the academic mission,” he said.

Correction: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this article incorrectly stated that "Members of Students for Justice in Palestine did not comment to The Herald for this article." In fact, no member of Students for Justice In Palestine was contacted for the article. The Herald regrets the error.

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