As Jews we say "Birthright" trips must end

29 April 2013

130423-refugees.jpg

Elderly woman sits in refugee camp

Israel claims all Jews have a “birthright” to the country, while Palestinian refugees are barred from return.

(Ashraf Amra / APA images)

As the summer months approach, thousands of young Jews from more than 60 countries prepare to participate in the Taglit-Birthright program. Since 1999, Birthright has brought 340,000 young Jews to Israel on free ten-day trips. In the midst of the fervor to sign up for this bi-annual program, we have launched the website Renounce Birthright (renouncebirthright.org) with the aim of providing a space for potential participants to engage with critiques of Birthright and of Zionism.

We are non-Israeli Jews who oppose the program because it promotes and supports Israel’s ongoing colonialism and apartheid policies, and marginalizes Jewish experiences in the diaspora. We are calling for the end of the Birthright program, and encourage individuals to boycott the trips.

Birthright was created in response to concerns over increasing rates of intermarriage, the perceived “crisis of continuity” and the weakening of Jewish communal ties. Over the course of the last decade, the program has worked to create and maintain commitment to Zionism and Israel on the part of non-Israeli Jews.

Exclusive ideology

Birthright’s mission, according to the organization, is to “diminish the growing division between Israel and Jewish communities around the world; strengthen the sense of solidarity among world Jewry; and strengthen participants’ personal Jewish identity and connection to the Jewish people.”

The idea of strengthening “solidarity among world Jewry,” “personal Jewish identity,” and Israel’s “connection to the Jewish people” through trips to Israel is based on a conflation of Judaism with Zionism. Judaism is a religion. Political Zionism is a movement based on the belief that Jews have a right to settle in modern-day Israel, to the exclusion of the indigenous Palestinians.

The term “Birthright” itself is telling. Like its American counterpart, the ideology of manifest destiny, it operates under the premise that all Jewish people have an exclusive “right” to Palestinian land. In both the American and Israeli contexts, the only way to secure that “right” is through violence, land theft and displacement.

Settler-colonialism must be opposed, no matter where it takes place. For non-Israeli Jews living in other settler-colonial countries, we must also be accountable to other processes of de-colonization. No group of people have the right to live anywhere that mandates the explicit exclusion of anyone else.

The establishment of the Israeli state, and the alleged Jewish “birthright,” involved the violent displacement of several hundred thousand indigenous Palestinians, and the destruction of hundreds of Palestinian villages. A Palestinian refugee population of nearly 7 million people is to this day excluded from returning to their lands by Israeli state discrimination.

In contemporary Israel — where approximately one-fifth of the population is Palestinian — the rights of citizenship (ezrahut) and nationality (le’um) are intentionally distinct. Palestinians born within the 1949 armistice line are considered citizens (and not nationals). Meanwhile a Jew born and raised in New York has a “birthright” to the Israeli state in Palestine, is considered a national, and can almost immediately become a citizen upon emigrating.

Maintaining a myth

Birthright in particular — as a part of the Zionist project — relies on the belief that non-Israeli Jews are national-citizens-in-waiting, a reality from which Palestinian refugees are forever excluded.

We would have no “Birthright” without Israeli occupation and apartheid — it is how Zionism sustains the myth of “a land without a people, for a people without a land.”

Birthright has spent more than $600 million since its inception in 1999. The organization has three major sources of funding: the Israeli government (which committed another $100 million to Birthright in 2011), wealthy donors such as Charles Bronfman, and Jewish federations across North America (“The romance of Birthright Israel,” The Nation, 15 June 2011).

In a 2012 speech delivered to Birthright participants, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: “So when you go out and people tell you things about Israel, tell them about what you saw. Make sure when you go back home, tell them about the real Israel” (“PM Netanyahu’s speech at Taglit-Birthright Israel mega-event”).

Convincing non-Israeli Jews to defend Netanyahu’s “real Israel” is an integral part of Birthright, and helps explain the government’s investment in the program.

The program’s largest financial supporter, billionaire Sheldon Adelson — who has provided $140 million to the program — was described in The New York Times last year as having “disgust for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” (“What Sheldon Adelson wants,” 23 June 2012).

Beyond individual donors, non-Israeli Jewish community organizations and institutions — such as the Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish Agency for Israel — support Birthright economically and politically.

Apolitical?

In the name of diasporic Jewish communities, these organizations invest millions of dollars into the promotion of Birthright’s political Zionism, rather than in local projects.

Despite all this, Birthright claims to be apolitical. In 2006, Birthright Director of Marketing Gidi Mark said: “I don’t think it’s political for Jews to support Israel” (“Come, see Palestine!” Salon.com, 5 June 2006).

However, the establishment and maintenance of an exclusively Jewish Israel — through forcible displacement, land theft, occupation, segregation, institutionalized racism and systemic discrimination — is political at its core, and is both supported and reinforced by the Birthright program.

For instance, during the trip, approximately 10,000 Birthright participants visit the Ahava cosmetics factory each year; Ahava is located in the illegally-occupied West Bank settlement of Mitzpe Shalem. Ahava directly profits from the exploitation of Palestinian Dead Sea resources.

Moreover, disturbing accounts of explicit racism have arisen in recent years; former participants often recount how the language used by Birthright personnel demonizes Palestinians. One past attendee said her Birthright tour guide told her group that “Arabs have wanted to kill Jews forever, that they are ‘like mosquitoes’ we must swat away” (“So you’re thinking of Birthright,” Mondoweiss, 20 December 2012).

Zionism is a political project, and Birthright is perhaps the most tangible manifestation of that political project outside Israel. As such, we must recognize our engagements with Birthright as a question of politics, and not just “a free vacation.”

Narrow confines

In reinforcing the belief that what it means to be Jewish is to be Zionist (particularly for non-Israeli Jewish youth), Birthright perpetuates a single narrative about what it means to be Jewish outside of Israel, and who can be a Jew.

Jewish people speak and have spoken an array of languages, live and have lived across the world, and possess different histories that extend beyond the narrow confines of political Zionism and the nation-state of Israel.

It is contemporary political Zionism that has “othered” Mizrahi/Arab-Jews, as New York University professor Ella Shohat explains, by urging Arab Jews “to see their only real identity as Jewish,” such that their “Arabness, the product of millennial cohabitation, is merely a diasporic stain to be ‘cleansed’ through assimilation” (“The invention of the Mizhahim,” Journal of Palestine Studies, Volume 29, No. 1, Autumn 1999).

Further, Israel’s policy towards Ethiopian Jews in recent years demonstrates how the limits of Jewishness are often defined through Zionism. There is a clear tension between Birthright’s claim to promote diasporic life, and the fact that it the program is so deeply rooted in Zionism, an ideology that homogenizes the experiences and identities of Jews.

Our alleged Birthright can only exist through the suppression and erasure of many Jewish identities, histories and experiences.

Liberation in Palestine is a question of land, colonialism and apartheid — not religion. The work of Jewish and Israeli organizations and collectives such as Zochrot, Boycott from Within, the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network, and Israeli Queers Against Apartheid attests to this fact.

As scholar Judith Butler has explained: “there have always been Jewish traditions that oppose state violence, that affirm multi-cultural co-habitation, and defend principles of equality, and this vital ethical tradition is forgotten or sidelined when any of us accept Israel as the basis of Jewish identification or values” (“Judith Butler responds to attack,” Mondoweiss, 27 August 2012).

No right to apartheid

We have founded Renounce Birthright because Birthright demands our complicity in two intersecting (but distinct) forms of violence: first, the occupation of Palestine and the Israeli government’s brutal regime of apartheid and second, the erasure and suppression of diverse Jewish experiences and communities across the world.

In organizing for Palestinian liberation, we are deeply committed to the belief that Jewish experiences and narratives — particularly North American Jewish experiences, including our own — should not be centered.

As Mezna Qato and Kareem Rabie explained in their recent article for Jacobin magazine: “the left often neglects these anti-colonial principles and seeks out Jewish voices to validate Palestinian claims. In turn, it privileges Jewish discourse, anxieties, and histories in ways that marginalize Palestinians in their own struggle” (“Against the Law,” Spring 2013).

We recognize that our struggles are greatly distinct yet related, and are engaged in this project first and foremost from a position of solidarity.

We call on non-Israeli Jews across the diaspora to join us in renouncing Birthright— and our privileged legal relationship to the Israeli state — because we have no right to apartheid and colonialism.

Aviva Stahl grew up in New Jersey and now lives in London; she is the US researcher for CagePrisoners and a collective member of Bent Bars. She can be followed on Twitter @stahlidarity.

Sarah Woolf is an editorial intern at The Nation magazine. Hailing from Montréal, she currently lives in New York City.

Sam Elliott Bick is from Montreal, Québec. He is a member of the Tadamon! collective, and organizes at the Immigrant Workers Center. He can be followed on Twitter @sam_Bick.

The authors can be contacted by email: renouncebirthright@gmail.com.

Comments

"Like its American counterpart, the ideology of manifest destiny, it operates under the premise that all Jewish people have an exclusive “right” to Palestinian land"

Can you offer some evidence in regard to your claim that it promotes a right to Palestinian land specifically?

Pregunta: when you ask, "Can you offer some evidence in regard to your claim that it promotes a right to Palestinian land specifically?" I think you are missing that the original poster put the word "rights" in quotation marks.

What right did English colonialists have to take land from native people, to demonize them, to call them barbaric, and to use deadly force against them when those people objected to occupation? What right was there to dislocate people onto land they did not want, to practice bacteriological warfare on them, to take their children away, to deny them the ability to learn their native languages or cultures?

Any such "right" was in obvious contradiction to the inalienable right of all people to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Manifest destiny (as also the practice of slavery) was a gross contravention of those inalienable rights, arrived at only by pretending that the people being stolen from, trafficked in, and murdered were not human beings; "a land with no people" (for a people with no land).

There is in fact never any right to treat the Native Americans of North America or the Palestinian people of Damascus country as they have been by usurping colonists. It is the antithesis of a right--it is might only; it is banal brutality.

You've moved to another topic and did not address my question. Whether or not the word 'right' is in quotation marks, that claim still needs to be backed up with evidence.

If you accept that Birthright is a method for espousing Zionism. Then this is where the "right" comes from as Zionism preaches that Jews, and only Jews, have a God given right to the land of Israel. Where that was in biblical times is unimportant, it now means the land of Palestine.
Zionism basically says that the Jews have a right “...to build an independent homeland for themselves on their ancestral land in Palestine.” page 26.

Israel and Palestine: Reappraisals, revisions, refutations
Avi Shlaim
New York: Verso 2009.

The question is what the author considers 'Palestine.' Some say that Israel is part of the land of Palestine and should not exist, others refer to Palestine as Gaza and the West Bank. So if the author is saying West Bank and Gaza then the author needs to justify the statement when referring to Birthright. There are variations of Zionism, and a diversity of opinions within the Israeli community. This is not a simple issue with simplistic labels.

In the way it is being used here the concept is not meant to make specific land claims but to indoctrinate offspring with feelings tailored for political exploitation. The issue with this instance of birthright is that it is not derived from universalism but from reciprocation. It is a mirror of a German policy in Eastern Europe which preceded the returning of the Jews to from where they once came into Europe. Poland and Czech still have lawsuits over this with Germans claiming birthright there. Since Israel in its entirety is a human shield of American military aggression, it seems plausible why such moral fault would be possible, but measured by its results the concept is counter-productive because it is an incentive for myopic aggression. Spraying toxins into the environment, if there are as many in the "chemical" targets as in the justifications of the attacks, is no suitable way to defend oneself against what one perceives as being surrounded by the revenants of IG Farben.

a great initiative, but why saying "diaspora" ? Jews across the world live in there homelands, not in diaspora

If only if this piece were verbalised at a conference and I could be there to clap for it.

Jewish Exile
Don’t confuse the hope of the Jews with the Zionist occupation of Palestine. I’m Jew and living the Exile each day! The promised return of the exiled Jews is for the future, and it is G’d who decides all things. To be in Exile means you are not at home, in the Holy Land. To be in Exile is a Divine decree. To live in Palestine in mass, and worse dominate it, is a transgression.
Zionists are a political movement who use certain aspects of Judaism. Everything they say is not valid; thus no “right of return”, nothing!
Justice is:
• the right of return of Palestinian Muslims the Zionists have expelled from their homes and help them to rebuild their lives
• that the Zionists return to where they came from, also the numerous Jews who are intoxicated by the Zionist ideology and don’t fulfill the conditions of the Torah to be authorized to leave in the Holy Land.
Solidarity with the Islamic Palestinian Resistance!

"As Jews we say ...". What would you say if you were *not* a Jew?

And please think about me: do I have to check my passport or something so to join this declaration?

I find this article really compelling and have found that these dissenting voices are never addressed in the institutional Birthright circles. Here is a link to something I wrote about Birthright, http://forward.com/articles/16...

No group of people have the right to live anywhere that mandates the explicit exclusion of anyone else.

Every country has laws governing people whom they consider foreign and domestic. Do you live in a place that has no such policy?

Which country other than Israel has laws denying residency and citizenship to the indigenous people of the land just because they are not Jews?

This article depicts unresolved issues. Can humanity be served by any effort that is aimed at more than finding our commonalities?

The historical reality is that lots of countries denied jews residency and citizenship BECAUSE they were jews - and hence deeemd they were not indigenous.

I am curious if the authors will be packing their bags and will renounce their right to live on the North American continent, since that huge land mass was stolen from the First Nations. And, all the more so since white Europeans had no historical or religious or cultural ties to North America, unlike Jews who have such ties to the Land of Israel.

I wonder what the authors say at the end of their Passover seders and at the end of the Yom Kippur service? Next Year in Jerusalem? Probably not, too "Zionist"? Do they fast on Tisha B'Av? Too "Zionist"? When they pray do they face Jerusalem, toward Zion? Or, is that too "Zionist"? When they get married, will they or did they break the glass in memory of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans? (Too "Zionist"?!?) It is customary to recite Psalm 137 at weddings: "By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion... If I forget you Oh Jerusalem, let my right hand wither..." That is Judaism. Or, is that too "Zionist"? When they pray do they do so in Hebrew, or is that too "Zionist"?

Do they have seders, daven on Yom Kippur, fast on Tisha B'Av?

My point is their distinction between Judaism and Zionism is artificial and forced. Jewish tradition, ritual, sources and culture is laced through with references to, and longing for, the Land of Israel, whether its what I stated above, or a myriad of other examples.

To deny the deep, intense Jewish connection to Israel is to deny the core and soul of Judaism.

"To deny the deep, intense Jewish connection to Israel is to deny the core and soul of Judaism." I don't think anyone is denying the Jews' deep connection to the land and the history associated with it. In fact by accusing people of such a denial ignores the connection other people have to it as well. In Islam the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven from the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. And Jesus Christ was born and crucified on that land too. So please don't claim denial of Jewish connection to the land while ignoring the connections of other peoples.

More importantly, since when does having a connection to a piece of land mean you have a right to it? How does the connection of Jewish history to the land of biblical Israel mean the Jews have a right to show up thousands of years later, demand it back, and force the modern inhabitants off of that land? Since when does a European born, or even Middle Eastern, or African, or American born, Jew have more right to a land than the Palestinian whose ancestors have tended to the olive groves there for the last millennium? It's like an 80 year old demanding that the family currently living in his childhood home vacate because he/she lived there first. A deeply rooted, historic, and religious connection does not equate to the right to displace the current residents.

As for North America, I am more than aware that the history of this continent, and South America too, is one of colonialism and the forceful removal of indigenous people. The land from which I type this was stolen from Native Americans. I cannot speak for the authors but I myself would pack my bags and leave were that the decision.

Zionist beliefs are beliefs essentially. They are changeable and are notsand can not be proven in any rational manner or even reasonable manner. They are essentially unreasonable and therefore unacceptable as a rule or law.

The historical reality is that lots of countries denied jews residency and citizenship BECAUSE they were jews - and hence deeemd they were not indigenous.