Come, see Palestine!

Upstart tours of Palestine are challenging fully paid "See Israel" holidays in a battle for the hearts and minds of young American Jews.

Published June 5, 2006 11:00AM (EDT)

The fight is on for the hearts of young Jewish Americans. The battlefield is Israel and Palestine. It's a hopelessly unequal battle -- one side has considerably more clout and cash and, currently, appeal. But this struggle hits the core of what it means to be an American Jew in a modern political context.

This summer, record numbers of young Jewish Americans will travel to Israel -- despite concern over security. Most of them will arrive courtesy of pro-Israel organizations that seek to reconnect Diaspora Jews to Judaism and Israel. They will be on a free tour of the Jewish state, presented to them as a gift, their "birthright."

But others will travel with Palestine solidarity campaigners who hold that being both American and Jewish (as are nearly 6 million U.S. citizens) brings with it a responsibility to at the very least understand the Palestinian position. They'll visit the West Bank and witness firsthand the effects of the occupation in Palestine. These latter tours are still in infancy but word about them is rapidly spreading through American campuses and Jewish networks. So, two camps with diametrically opposed intentions are targeting exactly the same audience of young American Jewry. And the cutting-edge cool tool on both sides of the terrain is a holiday. Well, of sorts.

The context is about six years old. 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. Both feature high up on a list of Israel's most generous philanthropists.

"The vision is to ensure the continued existence of the Jewish people because of the very high rate of assimilation," says Gidi Mark, Taglit's director of marketing. He admits that what might appear to be a severe stance against multiculturalism is a "bold and ambitious plan." But he believes it has "changed dramatically the attitude of Jewish young adults to Israel." Taglit offers Diaspora Jews between the ages of 18 and 26 a free, 10-day tour of Israel, their "birthright" or "homeland" country, courtesy of the Israeli government, United Jewish Communities and private philanthropists. Since 2000, Taglit has taken 100,000 young Jews, 75 percent of whom are North American, to Israel. That's an impressive figure, although one Israeli academic has noted that young American Jews might equally be interested in a free trip to the Bahamas.

But the Taglit organization is indeed a success story. Prior to it, around 1,500 Jews of the same cohort would come to the country each year. Now around 22,000 visit Israel annually on Taglit trips; places fill up rapidly and waiting lists are at bursting point. And these trips achieve what they set out to do. They are, says Mark, "the most effective Jewish educational project in the world." That's measured by polls that question former birthrighters on their feelings of connection to the Israeli state; those strong feelings don't diminish even six years after Taglit trips.

Birthright trips to Israel are many-flavored -- there are trek-focused, religious, secular or graduate and professional varieties. It's a packed schedule, socializing is a key component and sleep-deprivation is a given. Traveling in groups of 40 in security-escorted buses, birthrighters might take in the Dead Sea, Tel Aviv nightlife, a trip to Masada or a kibbutz visit. But the essentials are the same. All trips in some way cover modern Israel, Zionism and the Holocaust; all have Israeli escorts. And absolutely non-negotiable is a visit to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem -- the remains of the second Jewish temple and therefore the holy of holies for Judaism.

Posters to the Taglit Web site enthuse about the birthright trip as a life-changing experience that showed them the "gift of being Jewish" and led them to conclude, as one trip alumini writes, "Wherever I stand, I stand with Israel." They speak of the emotional charge and the effects on young Americans just beginning to define their own identity; for many, it is their first trip abroad.

But some former birthrighters say that there's no such thing as a free holiday. They question whether Taglit may be pushing them a little too hard to have a profound experience, particularly at the Wailing Wall. "Our tour leader got everyone to close their eyes and put their hands on the shoulders of the person in front of them," says one tripper. "He walked us all in a line to a spot where we could get a high-up view of the wall. Then he said something like, 'Your ancestors were praying towards this wall for generations.' And you open your eyes and there it is ... and there are tears streaming down everyone's faces."

One 25-year-old graduate student from Chicago describes the last day of the trip, on a Tel Aviv beach. "It's a really hot day and one guy from our trip runs into the water, and the sea's beautiful, at a perfect temperature for swimming and he says, 'OK, OK, I'm a Zionist!' It's facetiously said, but also ironic because that's exactly what [tour leaders] want." This graduate is still with the young Jewish woman he met while on the trip last summer. The matchmaking element is a key component of birthright trips, say past participants. After all, the idea is to stem the assimilation tendencies of Diaspora Jews.

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 levels of Zionism" and 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 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 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." Mark 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."

For those who want a different experience of the region, there's now an altogether different sort of trip on offer. Last year, around 30 young Jewish Americans took the first Birthright Unplugged trips to the West Bank. "It changed my world," says Jessy Tolkan, 26, a political consultant from Washington, D.C., who was on one of the Unplugged trips last year. "Everything I had learned as a Jewish person prior to the trip was turned totally upside down."

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.

"We are offering an opportunity for Jewish people to be exposed to a narrative and life experience that they would rarely encounter," says Hanna Mermelstein, an American Jew who co-founded the project with Dunya Alwan, an American-Iraqi of Muslim and Jewish descent. Both are members of the International Women's Peace Service, which supports the nonviolent Palestinian struggle against the Israeli occupation. An architect by training, Alwan became involved in social justice work prior to the first Gulf War, and by 2002 was engaged in human rights and education work in Palestine. Mermelstein has a degree in international and intercultural studies, women's studies, and peace studies; she turned her energies to the Israel-Palestine conflict during the second intifada.

The two women met in Palestine in 2003. They both led various international delegations in the West Bank. As a result of those experiences, they identified a need to set up opportunities for Jews who cannot otherwise visit the area or are simply too afraid to. The conflict in Israel and Palestine has many distortions, one of which is the perception that Jews are not welcome in the territories. "We planned the itinerary with Palestinians and asked them, 'Look, do you want American Jews to come here?' They said, 'Yes, these are exactly the people we want to come to our communities.'"

Starting with an orientation meeting in Jerusalem, 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. Many Unplugged participants take the trip directly after a Taglit tour of Israel and recommend doing so. Of course, at this point, with less than 100 participants, the Unplugged Tour's impact on young Jews is only a footstep compared to the stampede of the established Taglit 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. This organization defines itself as "a Palestinian organization committed to resisting the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land using non-violent, direct-action methods and principles." ISM delivers food and medicine to houses under curfew, supporting demonstrations -- currently against the separation wall -- and documenting violations of human rights. In March 2003, an American activist with ISM was killed by an Israeli bulldozer while trying to protect a home from demolition in the Gaza strip. The Israeli government accuses it of supporting terrorism and often refuses entry to its volunteers.

Jacob Rosenblum, a 22-year-old from Portland, Ore., traveled with Taglit in 2004. "I wasn't there for the birthright trip," he says. "It was just my vehicle to get to Israel and Palestine. After the trip, he participated in ISM training and volunteered in Nablus, Tulkarem and Qalqilya. Similarly, says Aaron, the Canadian radio worker, "My plan all along was to spend two months in the West Bank with the ISM." While in the West Bank, he tried "to do as much independent radio journalism as possible," while also involved with "general ISM things like accompanying farmers who face settler harassment and delivering bread and medicine to people under curfew." Lora Gordon, 24, from Chicago, didn't plan on taking such a course of action after her Taglit trip in 2002. But she ended up spending 10 months working with ISM in the then heavily invaded Gaza strip, engaging in media work, staying with families whose homes were threatened with demolition, and teaching English to high school students.

Taglit is not too thrilled with these developments, mainly because it funds the ISM volunteers' travel to Israel. "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 Mark. Potential candidates who are discovered to have a "hidden agenda" are not allowed onto the trips.

But "birthlefters" have no qualms over misused money. They say the idea of a blanket Jewish birthright to Israel is fundamentally flawed, given that countless Diaspora Palestinians are accorded no such right. "Billions of dollars are used to give free trips to American kids and if the Israel government funds it then that comes through the U.S., people's tax dollars," says Gordon. She sees anti-occupation work as a good use of that money. Others point out that in the P.R. battle between pro-Israelis and pro-Palestinians, the former has huge resources while the latter "has to do bake sales to fund our next event." Moreover, says Gordon, "If Birthright is going to weed people out according to politics, then it's not really about Judaism anymore."

And yet this emerging dynamic, between Birthright and those who seek to counter it or provide alternatives, is precisely about Judaism. It comes up time and again when speaking to birthlefters who say that, prior to visiting the region, they felt unable to find a voice in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Raised on Jewish Sunday school and years of Jewish summer camp, Jessy Tolkan says, "I purposefully stayed away from the Israel-Palestine argument, unable to reconcile myself with being a pro-Israeli Jew and also a left-wing person." After seeing the situation on the ground in Palestine, she says she felt "sad and angry that I had been lied to by the Jewish community that I was and continue to be proud of." Until that point, she says, she had been "using a different framework to view the Israel-Palestine conflict that I use to view everything else in the world."

Many of those who traveled in both regions say they left with a deeper connection to Judaism, challenging one very sacred cow: that a loyal relationship to Israel is fundamentally a part of Jewish identity. Gordon speaks of discovering the "joyful way of being Jewish, that Shabbat can mean dancing on the roof and singing songs and having a wonderful communal meal and then having a day working on your inner self." Jacob Rosenblum says he returned from Israel and the territories more committed to Judaism and engaged with more moderate Jewish political groups. "I got really into claiming Judaism as my own and finding the religious parts and practice that really speak to me as a political activist," he says.

By Rachel Shabi

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