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Birthright Blunders

Updated: Feb 25, 2019

Op-Ed by Rachel Black

In the previous post, I discussed my personal experience surrounding my Jewish education and knowledge of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and how I have come to realize that I had not been presented with a full picture of the occupation, and why that was harmful to not only my Jewish education, but to my depiction of Israel and Palestine.

[Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash]

For those familiar with Birthright, the typical association is with the program Birthright Israel, also known as Taglit-Birthright Israel, Taglit (תַגלִית)  meaning “discovery” in Hebrew.  For those not familiar with Birthright, it is a program started in 1999 that offers several different educational trips in Israel, and these trips are usually two weeks long and of no cost to the participants.  Those who are able to apply and partake in the trip are Jewish individuals ages eighteen to thirty-two  (the age cutoff was recently extended from twenty-six).  The goal of Birthright, as stated on their website is “is to give every Jewish young adult around the world, especially the less connected, the opportunity to visit Israel on an educational trip.”

[Photo by Robert Bye on Unsplash]

Birthright is able to send Jewish young adults on these trips, because they receive about $20 million a year from independent donors and foundations, and the largest donors being family foundations.  The family foundations of particular significance to this organization are the Shimon ben Joseph Foundation, the Marcus Foundation, the Schusterman Family Foundation, the Steinhardt Foundation, the one8 Foundation, as well as the Klarman Family Foundation.  However, the largest donor to the organization, is the Adelson Family Foundation, funded by Sheldon and Miriam Adelson.  The couple alone, has donated tens of millions of dollars to Birthright. Sheldon and Miriam Adelson are also notable for their strong political affiliations with the Republican Party.  The Adelsons donated $40 million to organizations supporting Congressional candidates in 2016.  Additionally, the couple almost donated nearly $100 million to groups supporting the Trump campaign in 2016, which would have heightened economic competition for the Clinton campaign.  The couple instead decided to donate $20 million to super PACs backing House and Senate candidates.  As of late, the Republican party has increased their support for Israel, and “there is now a historically unprecedented 38-point gap between Republican and Democratic sympathy for Israel versus the Palestinians” (Miller and Simon).

[Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash]

By not including Palestinian voices, it perpetuates an environment of erasure, and provides an idealistic and incomplete depiction of Israel. 

High-profile donors such as the Adelsons provide significant revenue and hold influence over Birthright, and how their programs are formulated, in regards to belief and political ideologies.  Due to the influence of such donors, and also from the way the programs were initially formed, Birthright portrays a singular narrative of Israel.  While it is important to highlight the aspects of Israel that make it great and connect Jewish communities, only showing a particular perspective of the Israeli experience ignores the people and country in which having been living in and next to the land Israelis now have control over; Palestine.  Birthright has been recognized and criticized for excluding Palestinian narratives from their program, and if narratives different from Israeli Jews are included, they are glazed over or are often misleading, or are narratives of individuals not living in the West Bank or Gaza.  By not including Palestinian voices, it perpetuates an environment of erasure, and provides an idealistic and incomplete depiction of Israel.  This is not to discount Arab-Israelis and their experiences, but the voices are not coming from Palestinians in occupied territories, continuing to promote an insufficient narrative of the state.

[Via ProfStocker on Shutterstock]

A collegiate Jewish, pro two-state organization, J Street U, is currently working on implementing Palestinian narratives into Birthright programs nationally, across American college campuses.  J Street is doing so, through petitions that would include Palestinian speakers in Birthright programs, to round out perspectives of Israel through the trips.  UC Berkley’s J Street petition was prompted on the grounds of that fact that “we expected, and in fact were told we would get, a fair and balanced education about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Instead, we got a short, biased and factually misleading narrative with minimal follow-up on the trip or back on campus.”  American University’s J Street Petition was created in order to “learn about the Israeli occupation and hear the voices of Palestinians living under occupation. As those of us who have been on Birthright and similar trips can attest, masking these truths creates a blind connection to Israel.”  

[Via AFP Photo / Abbas Momani © AFP]

The question being raised now, is what needs to be done?  What can you do?  It is important for more awareness to be raised not only for American Jews, but for the American population as well, to reach a greater audience and make more people aware of the issues at hand.  Reach out to your local communities and see what your Birthright programs look like, and if Palestinian narratives are being included and articulated, which will help to provide a full scope of what the occupation looks like through Palestinian perspectives.  If you are in college, see if there is a J Street chapter at your school, and sign their petition to introduce Palestinian narratives to Birthright programs that do not have such narratives.  If you are Jewish and/or American, try to make your non-Jewish friends cognizant of the problems that lie within Birthright, to better familiarize them with issues that can and do greatly impact people’s perceptions of Israel, and therefore influence policy and the nation’s perspective of Israel.  Through these methods, we will get closer to changing the narrative.

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