Views expressed in opinion columns are the author's own.
Last year at a protest outside of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference in Washington, I watched a Palestinian argue with one of the attendants. With exasperation, the Palestinian tried to explain that he, a doctor born in Jerusalem, is denied re-entrance into Jerusalem while a Jewish-American born in Brooklyn, New York, is offered a free trip there under the personally and deeply offensive title of Birthright.
There is another layer to Birthright, one which appears obvious to some but less so to others. Initially, the problem lies within the name itself: Birthright. It suggests that every Jew traveling to Israel through this program can claim, by way of being birthed into a particular religion or culture, a right to a land that is denied to millions of Palestinians, many of whom have been born within Israel and the occupied territories.
One may argue there is no need to politicize every event organized by the Jewish community, and I would be one of the first to agree with that sentiment. However, like Israel Fest, an annual festival held on McKeldin Mall, the name of this trip explicitly suggests a political agenda. One of the intended outcomes of this trip, as outlined on the Birthright website, is to "motivate young people to continue to explore their Jewish identity and support for Israel."
However, in order to speak critically and truthfully about the state of Israel, one must be able to separate the Jewish religion and culture from the country's politics. The way Birthright is arranged and promoted, it links the two so closely together that criticism against the country's policies is conflated as criticism against all Jews. The inability to sever the two in our discussions suggests that Birthright and other forms of political propaganda have been highly successful in their efforts.
Saul Schaffer, a sophomore mechanical engineering major who attended Birthright in summer 2016, agreed part of the trip certainly "advocated for being in favor of the existence of the state of Israel," but said he had never "experienced any overt push to support the current government of Israel." He went on to explain that the trip also focused on a "higher practice of Judaism" among Jewish students living in diaspora. Schaffer pointed out that the name of the trip in Hebrew is Taglit, which means discovery, a sure departure from politics.
However, a very politicized component of Birthright Israel remains. Outlined in the "trip's highlights" are "dialogue with top leaders in the Israeli government and [Israeli Defense Forces]." Even more concerning is that Birthright intends for those in attendance to be "inspired by IDF soldiers."
Mandy Stussman, a junior sociology major who attended Birthright in summer 2015, recalled the IDF soldiers spent "at least five days" of the trip with them. Schaffer, too, said the soldiers did accompany the visitors, and having soldiers on the trip certainly made students feel "pro-IDF." On the other hand, he went on to explain that these soldiers were themselves "kids" who were "not there to push any agenda." Schaffer stated that those who joined them were simply boys and girls who were frustrated with "having to deal with such a large bureaucracy."
Regardless, I cannot overlook what has been taking place for decades within the region. The IDF is responsible for numerous injustices against the Palestinian people, according to the U.N. The indiscriminate killings, imprisonments without trials of thousands of Palestinian children and adults, unbending occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, along with other atrocities committed by the IDF make their presence on this trip quite controversial and reaffirms that Birthright is indeed crafted with a great deal of political intent.
Yet the Palestinians seem to be a vague and distant component. Stussman recalled that in the entire trip, she never spoke to a Palestinian, a demographic which makes up a significant portion of Israel's population. The trip, as she remembered it, was "complete propaganda" and a "very one-sided presentation of what the conflict was."
Even the manner in which the events of the day are ordered suggests a particular agenda, Stussman said. She recalled traveling to the wall separating Israel from the West Bank right after visiting a Holocaust museum, as if there was some correlation between the two. The Birthright visitors were also briefly told the wall was constructed for "security reasons" while leaving unsaid many Palestinians' claims that the wall was built without any regard to the families it separated.
More importantly, in 2004, the International Court of Justice warned Israel that building a barrier "in the occupied Palestinian territory [was] illegal," and that its construction was to be halted "immediately." Israel brushed the warning aside. The Israeli government built the wall that would become one of the sights included on Birthright. But, as Stussman pointed out, "taking us there had nothing to do with Jewish culture." She went on to explain that "a wall built along the Mexican border would never be considered a sight of American culture."
Zein El-Amine, a lecturer in the Arabic studies department at the University of Maryland, has spoken with several people who have attended this trip. They, too, recall the "Palestinians were hidden," and that they "weren't meant to see them or talk about them." El-Amine explained how many "go as teenagers with this idealistic idea but then accidentally get a peek of the other side, and they're freaked out." He calls this "accidental exposure" and said some people return to the U.S. with the opposite sentiment to the one the organizers of the trip had intended.
Schaffer discounted this, pointing out that the trip isn't oriented around the country of Israel, but around the history of the Jewish people. Schaffer explained that excluding them from the history of the Jewish people is "less wrong than excluding them from the history of Israel." However, he also agreed that the "absence of Palestinians [on this trip] shouldn't happen."
El-Amine recalls one particular story he heard from an attendee who was told by the tour guide upon passing the wall, "That is where the Palestinians live, and they're multiplying like rabbits." Some of the Jews who remember the language of the Holocaust were shocked with what they recognized "as the language of genocide," he said.
I reached out to the office of Birthright Israel for a response to such concerns. I received a brief statement that acknowledged how the trip "engages sensitive issues" and that there are "different views of its treatment of such issues." However, in the statement issued, the spokesperson of Birthright Israel denied the "false claim" that "any political agenda" is behind the planning of this trip.
Of course, each person on Birthright experiences the trip differently. What remains ingrained in the memory of one attendee may be completely overlooked or dismissed by another. I have collected the narratives of a few and realize they are not all-encompassing, but they are nonetheless important narratives.
But the purpose of Birthright Israel remains clear: combine the Jewish faith with the state of Israel until each is viewed as a vital and inseparable component of the other. In the process, the two become one, and the defense and support for Israel is reinforced. But a country established by the forceful grab of land and a brutal manner of conquer forever rests on a weak foundation.
Aiyah Sibay is a senior English major. She can be reached at AK_Sibay@hotmail.com.