Op-ed: Birthright: Stop erasing Palestinians

Michael Berkowitz | Class of 2020

On Birthright last winter break, I had a conversation over breakfast with one of the soldiers accompanying us on the trip. When I asked about his experiences serving in the West Bank, he responded, “What is the West Bank?” I was shocked. Could he really not know? I tried explaining myself again. “The territories,” I said. He remained puzzled. I tried several more times to explain what I meant, but he wore me out. I replied, “Judea and Samaria.” He smirked, knowing he had accomplished his goal.

Using terms like “Judea” and “Samaria,” which is synonymous with the West Bank, is an important tactic for the Israeli right and its supporters in America. It affirms the Jewish connection to the territories while ignoring Palestinian claims. But there are also far more subtle ways that the Jewish establishment tries to erase the Palestinian narrative from public consciousness. By banning Palestinian speakers on trips, Birthright participates in the politics of erasure, which has grave political consequences in both the United States and in Israel.

Birthright began banning Palestinian speakers in 2017. They claim that they wanted time to examine the effectiveness of such meetups. The ban is in stark contrast to most of Birthright’s policies. In many regards, individual Birthright trips have broad autonomy to design their own programs. The speaker ban is a notable exception to this rule, with insidious consequences.

Birthright participants have a sweet deal; they go abroad for free and tour an incredible country full of rich history. However, due to Birthright’s speaker ban, they cannot get the entire experience. Participants receive a skewed view of the political landscape, being told only one story at the expense of another.

When Birthright ends, participants return home and become political actors in their communities where they engage in Jewish and political institutions. Since they only have one narrative and have only heard one voice, they naturally internalize political views consistent with that narrative.

In this way, Birthright’s multi-million dollar operation (funded in large part, unsurprisingly, by right-wing donors like Sheldon Adelson) functions as a political institution. Kids are sent to Israel, have fun and return home with a politically-motivated narrative that informs their personal politics for the rest of their lives. Birthright influences the ideological makeup of the Jewish community in America by prescribing a fixed and incomplete narrative on impressionable young minds, all while claiming to be apolitical.

This is not an accident. By excluding Palestinian voices, Jewish institutions get to pretend that Palestinians don’t exist. Doing so allows the Israeli government to pursue policies of settlement expansion and demolitions of Palestinian villages without fear of any reaction from the mainstream Jewish community. When Palestinian voices are absent from the public sphere, their experiences can be ignored and their humanity itself can be erased.

Birthright has an opportunity to provide Palestinian narratives that can speak to the lived realities of life under occupation. Doing so would expose Birthright participants to a more complete picture and allow them to see points of view that are usually hidden. Ending this exclusion is crucial to ending the narrative stranglehold that the right wing has over young Jewish people and creating an open, honest discussion around Israeli policy. This can, in turn, prevent the right-wing Israeli government from pursuing its most damaging policies.

Birthright was a great experience. I had a fantastic time. Birthright does a great job of strengthening people’s connection to their heritage and culture, but something has to change. The current situation is untenable if we have any authentic desire to make peace and oppose injustice.

This is why J Street U is working to add Palestinian speakers to Birthright trips. We are circulating petitions across the country to ask Hillels to add such speakers to their itinerary. If we want to fix the broken politics around the Israeli occupation, we have to stop erasing Palestinian voices and identities. Please join us in this work against injustice to help promote greater freedom and equality.