Rachel Shabi has done progressives interested in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a great service with her Salon.com article, Come, see Palestine!. The title misconstrues the actual contents of the piece which ranges over wide territory comprehensively covering both the Taglit-Birthright program and the Birthright Unplugged program.
But first let’s go back to the beginning:
Having identified Diaspora Jews as being hopelessly lapsed and in danger of intermarrying into extinction, two New Yorkers, Michael Steinhardt and Charles Bronfman, founded Taglit-birthright israel. Billionaire Bronfman inherited the Canadian Seagram’s liquor empire while Steinhardt made a small fortune as a Wall Street wizard. The latter, a self-proclaimed atheist, is nonetheless worried that Judaism is in danger of becoming obsolete.
What Shabi neglects to mention is that Steinhardt is an ardent supporter of George Bush and the Israeli right. A staff member of a Jewish organization wrote me today:
A…kid I know went in summer of ’04 and Steinhardt greeted the group when it returned to JFK. He told the kids that now that they care about Israel, they need to put that care into practice by working to re-elect GW Bush!
So essentially, what Steinhardt and Bronfman had in mind was creating the Aipac, Jewish Federation donors of the future. Young Jewish automatons programmed by their Taglit tour leaders to turn them into adamantly pro-Israel supporters of a peculiar Israel-can-do-no-wrong Zionism:
What worries critics, however, is not the “I love being Jewish” outcome of a trip to Israel but the underpinning political goals of Taglit. Susan, a 27-year-old Seattle student, took the Taglit tour last year. She was struck, she says, by…the prevalence of anti-Palestinian comments during her trip, organized through the University of Washington (campuses often coordinate birthright trips). She didn’t like the tour leader expressing his [pro-Israel] view as universal truth while leaving out facts that supported the Palestinian side.
The Taglit tour might encourage tears at the Wailing Wall, but the 8-meter-high, concrete separation wall snaking through the West Bank is rarely mentioned. When it is, says Susan, the context is dismissive. “At one point I saw what looked like the [separation] wall in the distance and asked our guide about it,” she says. “The guide gave a very terse response about how, yes, that was the wall and, see everyone, the Palestinians are trying to drive ‘us’ from ‘our land’ and so we must keep ‘them’ out.” Taglit trips do not go beyond the Green Line marking the internationally recognized border between Israel and Palestine. According to one former birthrighter, the Green Line was not even marked on the map he was given on the tour.
The Taglit trip, one former participant says, does a good job of “tugging at one’s Jewish heartstrings,” and then seeks to equate being Jewish with the need for Israel to “protect us and all the Jews.” According to Susan, her attempts to redress the pro-Israel slant were not welcome. Group discussions were zealously facilitated and stuck to a narrow script that excluded any conversations about how participants felt about Israeli policy.
Aaron took the trip in December 2004 when he was 22; he’s now back in Canada where he lives and works in community radio. He believes Taglit aims to encourage pro-Israel activism overseas. His trip leaders, he says, “kept emphasizing how much we could do to help on campus at universities.” He adds: “This point was driven a lot: that Israel is suffering from constant insecurity and a state of war against them, and the way we can prevent that is to try and promote Israel’s good image back home.”
Taglit of course denies the charges of being overly propagandistic:
Taglit bats off any accusations of having a political agenda. “I don’t think it’s political for Jews to support Israel,” says Mark. “It should be an integral part of every Jew’s identity.” [Gidi] Mark [of Tagli] draws a distinction between supporting Israel and supporting Israel’s policies. He adds that Taglit trips incorporate organizers and speakers from a variety of backgrounds and viewpoints. As to why Taglit trips don’t go to the West Bank, he first cites the security issue and then says, “We feel that people first of all should feel strong about their own identity and then know about other ethnic groups.”
That’s of course the answer one would expect from a somewhat sophisticated marketer for a pro-Israel project that needed to pretend to project an aura of non-partisanship. In fact, it’s the kind of smarminess we’ve all grown accustomed to from Aipac. But let’s ask a few questions about Taglit and its program. First, there’s this phrase: “incorporate organizers and speakers from a variety of backgrounds and viewpoints:. Very nice. But who precisely does it invite? At Jewschool, there’s a comment thread discussing a Taglit tour event which featured Bibi Netanyahu and Natan Sharansky as speakers. That certainly would be incorporating speakers from a variety of backgrounds and viewpoints. Netanyahu is a far-right leader of the Likud from an American-Israeli background and Sharansky is a farther-right Israeli pol of Russian background. That satisfies me. No propaganda here.
Just perusing the Taglit website, I see a page devoted to “The Disputed Territories.” Not the commonly accepted “Occupied Territories” because Taglit can’t bear to admit there is an Occupation and that the Territories in question are occupied. Too much sticky political explanation necessary to call them what the rest of the world does.
I also find somewhat pernicious Taglit’s deliberate confusing of the separation between Judaism and Zionism. This quotation is from Beyond Crisis Judaism, an article featured at the group’s website:
…We need a positive, relevant Zionist vision using Jewish nationalism and Israel to solve modern personal problems as well as “the Jewish problem.”
In truth, for Taglit Israel IS Judaism. It is what I call the fetishization of Jewish identity by turning Israel into THE core value of Judaism. While I am both a proud Jew and (progressive) Zionist, I recognize the distinction between the two. If you don’t, then you’re doing nothing more than replacing Judaism with Israel as your new religion. It is a convenient substitute for those like Taglit which seek magic bullets in combating Jewish assimilation. But nothing trumps actual study of Judaism in order to bring young people closer to it. By that I mean the study of Hebrew and the sacred texts which form the core of our identity. The Kotel, a mandatory part of the emotion-cranking Taglit experience, is not the core of Jewish experience. It is not a shortcut to, or magic bullet for feeling Jewish. It is but one of many aspects of our history.
Thankfully, there are other variants of Zionism–ones that call for real independent thinking on the subject. Ones that apprehend more than just the narrow interests of the Israeli right. Ones that posit an Israel living at peace with a neighboring Palestinian state and in which peace comes not from bullying or intimidation, but through negotiation and compromise.
Shabi also covers an interesting counter-tour sponsored by Birthright Unplugged which might be called the Jewish pro-Palestinian mirror of Birthright:
If Taglit trips gloss over the Palestinian experience, Unplugged trips live it. Traveling on Palestinian transport and staying in Palestinian homes, participants experience for themselves the difficulties of life under occupation…
Unplugged goes to Bethlehem and nearby Deheishe refugee camp, Hebron, Ramallah, the northern region of Salfit, and finally a destroyed Palestinian village on the Israel side of the Green Line. (The trips cost $350 excluding travel to Israel.) “Mostly, it just takes you to places and you see things with your own eyes, things that are self-evident and require no explanation whatsoever,” says one former Unplugged participant. It’s enough, he adds, just to see the effect of the separation wall and countless checkpoints on daily Palestinian life.
Taglit is also dealing with the relatively recent phenomenon of progressive Jews who take advantage of the free trip offered by Taglit to join a Birthright Unplugged tour:
To Taglit leaders, the birthright trips have had some unwanted consequences. Some participants have used the trips to either “birthleft” or “desert,” as they put it. Trippers ranging from a handful to hundreds, depending on whom you ask, have crossed the Green Line into the Occupied Territories after the Israel trip, to work with the International Solidarity Movement.
In fact, the organization recently expelled a Taglit participant who announced her intention of joining a Birthright Unplugged tour. This seems odd to me. If someone signs up for your tour and completes it what do you care what they do afterward? Unless that is, there is an ideological component to your tour and someone who attends a counter-Birthright program is somehow violating the ideological vision of Taglit. That couldn’t be what the expulsion is about now could it?
“It is taking advantage of the Jewish money that sends people to Israel, exploiting this money to promote an agenda which is not the agenda of the people who funded Taglit,” says [Gidi] Mark [of Taglit]. Potential candidates who are discovered to have a “hidden agenda” are not allowed onto the trips.
Ah, so now we’re getting closer to the real truth. Taglit does indeed have an “agenda” or political viewpoint and counter-Taglit runs, pardon the pun, counter to it. But why should it? The organization admits it deliberately refuses to deal directly with the issue of the Palestinians except when its tour leaders resort to the type of propaganda talking points mentioned above. Why do they blame Birthright Unplugged for taking up the slack? If Taglit doesn’t like what the other group is doing why doesn’t it present its own version of the facts of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Why doesn’t it visit both Israeli settlements AND Palestinian villages? Why doesn’t it introduce participants to both Natan Sharansky and Yaser Abed Rabbo? No doubt, they’ll argue that this isn’t the goal of the trip which is to introduce young people solely to Israel. But any trip to Israel that ignores the Palestinians ignores the 800 lb. gorilla in the room. Not to mention that by ignoring the Palestinian dimension they give Counter-Birthright a perfect opportunity to exploit their omission.
I want to make clear that while I’m in favor of young Jews meeting both Israelis and Palestinians on their trips to the region, I’m not necessarily in favor of the full political agenda represented by Birthright Unplugged. ISM, which it supports, is not my cup of tea. Anti-Zionism is also not my cup of tea. I’m not in favor of the propaganda represented by Taglit nor am I in favor of the mirror-image propaganda represented by Birthright Unplugged. I’d want tour particpants to learn about Israel AND Palestine.
Jewschool features an interview with the two founders of Birthright Unplugged in which they discuss their mission and how it relates to Jewish identity.
In fact, I’d love to see a smart Jewish philanthropist endow a progressive Israel tour program for young Jews that presents this conflict in a nuanced, balanced way. If they gave a nice chunk of change to the New Israel Fund, American Friends of Peace Now, the Israeli Policy Forum or Brit Tzedek to undertake such a project they’d be doing American Jewry a great mitzvah.