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Birthright Israel: Selfies at the Seam Zone Barrier

By: Denton Cohen

I went on Birthright this January. If I didn’t have so much time on my hands, I would churn out a cookie-cutter article about the majesty of the Old City, the stunning emptiness of the Negev, or the vitality of Tel Aviv. If that’s what you wanted when you clicked on this link, I’ll direct you to the Birthright Israel website (or any Birthright kid’s Twitter feed), where you can find plenty of such accounts. To be sure, I do not mean to diminish the beauty of our Birthright trip nor the value of these aesthetic and spiritual narratives. In fact, it’s for the very reason that my experience was so deeply powerful and so overwhelmingly spiritual that I wanted to write this short piece.

When we landed at Ben Gurion Airport on the last night of Hanukkah, our cheery Birthright liaison greeted us each with a warm hug and bright smile. We were weary after our painfully long flight, but I remember clearly what she told us: “You’re home. Everything you’re about to see over the next ten days—remember that it’s all yours.”

Over Birthright’s ten jam-packed days, we were presented with a genuinely diverse set of Jewish voices and perspectives. We met with Jewish thought leaders, Jewish tech experts, and Jewish artists, and formed lasting friendships with Jewish IDF soldiers and other Jewish-American students. We visited iconic Jewish sites such as the Western Wall and Masada, and visited important Jewish heritage cities such as Tzfat and Jaffa. Many students even chose to be Bar or Bat Mitzvahed in Jerusalem, a quintessentially Jewish experience. Birthright brought us all closer to our Judaism and closer to the land of Israel. It was easy to begin to see the two as synonymous. And it was disturbingly clear that most students on our trip did.

While overlooking the Seam Zone Barrier, a massive wall that serves as a line of Hafrada—separation—between Jews and Arabs by segregating East Jerusalem from West Jerusalem, kids took goofy selfies and talked over our tour guide’s futile attempt to educate us about the barrier’s tragic history. Throughout Taglit, the group eagerly engaged in discourse about ancient and modern Jewish history and the Jewish struggle, but discourse about the uncomfortable details of Israel’s bloody founding and its even bloodier history was almost nonexistent until late in the trip—and it was always reluctant.

A section of the Seam Zone Wall separating East from West Jerusalem, January 1st, 2020

When discussing Israel’s founding, we learned all about the “brave declaration of a Jewish state” and a “courageous effort by a young Israeli army to defeat its Arab enemies”—but we completely glossed over how this revolution was made possible by widespread Jewish terrorism and the brutal displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. In Tel Aviv, we marveled at Israel’s impressive collection of start-ups and the growing Tel Aviv Stock Exchange, but we did not address how both of these are intimately tied into Israel’s massive military-industrial complex, which thrives off of waging endless war with Palestinians while turning Israel into a segregated fortress state. We learned about Israel’s “thriving democracy,” but did not discuss at length how Israel’s democracy has been deteriorating under Prime Minister Netanyahu, nor how Israelis’ political freedoms come at the expense of Palestinian human and civil rights.

Our Birthright trip took us to exclusively Jewish areas, and we were carefully insulated—both physically and rhetorically—from the pain and suffering created by Israeli policies, both on poor Israelis (22%, double the U.S. rate, live below the poverty line as a result of Israel’s extreme neoliberal policies), and Palestinians (40% are unemployed and over half of Palestinian children live in poverty). It was easy to blind ourselves to the more unfortunate aspects of Israeli society; by design, our itinerary siphoned us into a narrow vision of contemporary Israeli society by guiding us through sprawling shopping malls and impressive modern infrastructure. Anything that might have resembled poverty remained comfortably out of view.

Throughout the trip, we freely and frequently used fun Arabic lingo—“Yalla!” “Sababa!”—despite not hearing a single Arab perspective until the eighth day of our trip. And when we did, it proved a dramatic shock to the system.

As part of our time in the North, we talked to a three-person panel of Palestinian Muslims. Self-described moderates, they talked to us about their experience coming of age in the land of Israel. What they described was harrowing—a broken welfare system, constant hostility from Israeli police and military forces, attacks on their civil rights and political freedoms, and, above all, the inescapable reality of living as Muslims in a system of Jewish supremacy. Despite this, the panel preached from the gospel of hope: they described their close friendships with Jews and their unshakeable dream of true equality under a single state.

Despite the relatively moderate nature of the panel’s remarks, witnessing intelligent, thoughtful Palestinian voices expose the violence of the Jewish state was too much for many to handle. The event reached a terrifying climax when one of our Israeli guides, apoplectic over our Palestinian friends having the nerve to speak their truth, went on a racist tirade, demanding that the panel answer whether they supported terrorist attacks and the death of Israel. The first and only Arab voices we heard on the trip were three highly educated moderates, and it was so out of sync with our Birthright trip’s Jewish hegemony that it caused a full-scale meltdown. I can only imagine what the reaction would have been if we had dared interact with less privileged members of the Palestinian community, who might, justifiably, hold far less moderate views on the legitimacy of the Jewish state, and who have been affected in far more horrifying ways by Hafrada.

The details of this day are painful, and dwelling on it any longer would distract from what I want you to take away from this short piece. So I’ll leave you with this: Birthright was a life-changing, profoundly enriching experience. If you’re Jewish, it’s crucial that you go. But when you do, I implore you to seek out your own path, to cut through the smokescreen of Birthright’s Judeocentric programming to search for truth. Ask tough questions. Demand full and honest answers. The nightclubs and startups in Tel Aviv are impressive, and the shiny jewelry shops in West Jerusalem are slick, but don’t delude yourself for a second into thinking that you’ll find even a shard of the true Israel in any of its Westernized upper-class neighborhoods. The true Israel lies in its bounty of religious heritage sites and rich topography, yes, but also in its shameful history of human rights abuses, illegal settlements, and cruel policies of segregation.

If Birthright did anything, it reinvigorated my commitment to embrace the great responsibility that comes with being Jewish. As Jews, we’ve been pillaged, displaced, and murdered for millennia. Over the past century, however, we’ve freed ourselves of the shackles of oppression, forming a Jewish state and, perhaps more importantly, incorporating ourselves into white power structures in America and abroad. It is this twoness—a history of oppression and uprootedness but a present condition of economic and racial privilege—that drives many Jews like myself toward the doctrine of Tikkun Olam. It’s why so many of us are naturally drawn to social justice, fighting for equality in our own communities in America while also speaking out for justice in Palestine—we have a moral responsibility to do so. As long as I am Jewish, I will continue to use my voice for the cause of freedom and justice. And I will always be Jewish.

Denton Cohen is a third-year senior at AU, studying Political Science and Spanish. After graduation, he plans to earn his MPP for Environmental Policy. Denton is originally from Akron, OH. He is a member of American University Chamber Singers, "On A Sensual Note" a cappella and the SPA Honors Program. Among more trivial pursuits, Denton enjoys choral music, reading, Major League Baseball, and listening to lots and lots of NPR.

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