Those without a Birthright

We are writing this piece as six students who identify as Palestinian. We were born into different religions: Christianity, Islam, Judaism and atheism, although none of this should matter. What matters is that all of us identify as Palestinian because our parents and/or our grandparents (and generations of our families before them) were born in Palestine. We cannot include our names because we fear being denied entry to the West Bank or Israel if we were ever to try to visit the lands where some members of our families still live.

Today we are asking you, our fellow Tufts students, to kindly read this with an open mind. Some of you may feel uncomfortable or angered by our actions during Israel Apartheid Week, and some of you may simply not care about a conflict so distant, but some of you may want to know: What were we thinking when we posed tough questions at the Birthright General Interest Meeting? Why do we wear kuffiyehs around our necks? Why did we join Students for Justice in Palestine? Why can’t we be “neutral” or “moderate”? We are writing to you, the curious, compassionate and questioning Tufts student. We hope that our words resonate with you and form a deeper understanding of what it means to be Palestinian on this campus.

Consider this:

None of us carry a Palestinian identification card. Because we do not have this ID card, we do not have the legal right to live in Palestine as Palestinians, just as our parents and grandparents did before the creation of the ID card and the state of Israel. Some of us are refugees because our families were expelled from the land in 1948 and never received an ID. Some of our families fled the wrath of what Noam Chomsky called, “the largest open-air prison in the world,” Gaza, and live as Palestinian-Americans in the diaspora. Meanwhile, some of us have lived in Palestine for our whole lives but still enter the territory as tourists with temporary visitor visas because some of those in our families had their identification cards taken when they were child prisoners.

However, if we did have Palestinian IDs, the chances of us attending Tufts would be slim. If you carry a Palestinian ID, you are not allowed to go into Israel without a permit, which means you don’t have access to the only airport in Israel and Palestine. There are ways around this, of course, but to be a Palestinian means that you have to get the Israeli government’s permission to leave your nations’s territory in order to travel to other countries.

So why mention this?

Well, imagine what it is like to walk by a Birthright poster on this campus, knowing that you have never, and perhaps will never see the very house your grandparents were expelled from in 1948. Yet, over one fourth of the Tufts population can see that house and they, simply by being Jewish, can eventually own that house, while their Palestinian fellow students cannot.

To us, Birthright is the erasure of our right to our homeland, and it promises our homeland to one in four students at this university. Birthright is marketed as apolitical. Participants are led to believe that it is an innocent trip of camel rides, hiking, clubbing and swimming in the Dead Sea. It offers tourists a chance to “reconnect” with a country to which they have never been, and often times, to which they have no immediate familial ties.

Yet for us, Birthright is not only political; it is violent. That may sound dramatic, but it is our reality. To make Birthright “fun” and “safe” means eradicating an Arab populace. It means erecting illegal walls and vanishing the Occupation. It means exiling our brothers and our sisters to refugee camps, prisons or worse. It is important that students at this university understand the implications of their so-called right. Kind reader, understand that our hearts ache when we see photographs of friends and acquaintances swimming in the sea our grandparents once swam in. Our hearts ache when we see photographs of classmates posing in front of the mosques and churches our grandparents once prayed in, but now pray to one day see. Our hearts ache when we see pictures of peers eating the fruits of the land we have grown up hearing of, but never tasted. Our hearts ache when we see our classmates posing next to exotic camels and mysterious Bedouins in a grotesque charade of our culture. Our hearts ache each time we are reminded that we do not share this birthright.

We hope Tufts students who go on Birthright realize the privilege and power they possess. Please, understand what poets Alok Vaid-Menon and Janani Balasubramanian refer to as “the violence of loving something that does not belong to you.” For you, these events may be innocuous, exotic and enjoyable. For us, your photos create a feeling we hope no one will ever have to endure, no matter where they are from. We feel the weight of our lives that could have been, but never were.

If you are not eligible to go on Birthright and are still feeling rather distant from this “conflict,” know this: This year alone, $3.1 billion of your tax money will be sent to Israel’s military courtesy of the United States. This money is not going to Israeli hospitals, animal shelters or orphanages. Your money is likely spent on tear gas canisters and guns. On this campus we are equals, but in the Holy Land we are on the opposite sides of the barrels of those guns. This is not an ALLIES military simulation or an abstract euphemism; these are our lives and yours too.

Nor can we forget that we are the “lucky ones.” Thanks to certain twists of fate, hard work, and dumb luck in our families’ histories,  we have the opportunity to attend a top-tier American university and live in a relatively stable environment. This privilege is a mere dream for millions of Palestinians living under the crippling effects of occupation, expulsion, and persecution. More globally than simply denying human rights to your fellow jumbos, “Birthright’s” foundational concepts deny human rights to your fellow humans.

So we hope that when you walk by a direct action that people call “extreme” or attend one of our events that will be reported as “polarizing,” you understand this: We are here to foster tension. As Martin Luther King Jr. once famously wrote, “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue so that it can no longer be ignored.[1]” We hope that our direct action brings discomfort, but does not cause harm.

All of us writing this have at some point questioned our involvement in Students for Justice in Palestine. We do not want to be seen as inflammatory by conveying the truth of our lives. We do not want targets on our heads. Given the choice most of us would rather learn to play a new instrument, take up rock climbing, write poetry, or fall in love. But for now, our primary passion and goal is to live as free people. So long as programs like Birthright exist, so long as apartheid exists in our homeland, we, as Palestinians, do not have a choice. We did not choose to be a colonized people. Our bodies are political, whether we like it or not — and so are yours.

When you see us building mock apartheid walls, asking difficult questions, and fostering discomfort in place of passive acceptance on this campus, please realize that we see it as our moral obligation: not only for us and our families, but for the silenced who cannot be here and for those who desire to live a life in solidarity with the oppressed. We are fostering this tension to build a community; a community in which we are truly treated as equals; a community where no student has a “birthright” at the expense of another person’s freedom.


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