This Op-Ed is written to frame the zine Whose Birthright, accessible at https://issuu.com/tuftsjvp/docs/sejda-3kl.
On the last day of Birthright, I trek through Mt. Herzl National Cemetery, accompanied by 40 other young Jewish-American peers and a handful of Jewish-Israeli soldiers. We walk past headstones of fallen Israeli soldiers, we hear of young Jews who fell in combat from 1948 into the present and we cry at the grave of a young American who sacrificed his life to the Jewish state. As we summit Mt. Herzl, we form a circle around the grave of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism and begin to sing the Israeli national anthem. Notes twist up past pine trees into the bright blue sky hanging over Jerusalem. The tune is foreign, yet the meaning stubbornly familiar: “Ode lo avdah tikvatenu Hatikvah bat shnot alpayim: L’hiyot am chofshi b’artzenu – Eretz Tzion v’Yerushalayim / to be a free people in our land: the land of Zion and Jerusalem.” “Keep this place in the back of your mind,” our Jewish Israeli tour guide urges us. “I know you have a home in the United States, but you have a home here too, this is your homeland.”
Each year, 40,000 young, mostly white Jews from the United States and Canada participate in Birthright Israel, a (relatively) free tour of a land sold to them as an “ancestral homeland.” Over ten whirlwind days, young participants map Jewish claims onto a landscape only recently named Israel. Groups of 40 or 50 tourists, accompanied by a handful of Jewish Israeli soldiers, pile into buses that wind throughout Israel proper, dipping into the contested Golan Heights and flying over highways snaking through the occupied West Bank, highways Palestinians are barred from using. They ride camels in the Naqab Desert, hike mountains in the Galilee, lounge on Tel Aviv’s beaches, pray at the Western Wall and round out the trip with a visit to the national military cemetery. As my tour guide’s words exemplify, the central tenant of the trip is that all Jews, by “birth-right,” are entitled to a strip of territory many of our ancestors never set foot in.
My own experience on Birthright Israel made visible the erasure intrinsic to the tour. I marveled at the Golan Height’s picturesque landscape while the history of illegal annexation and Arab eviction embedded in the soil remained unspoken. I planted trees in a “biblical themed park” just west of Jerusalem, oblivious that the stones nearby were the ruins of a demolished and depopulated Palestinian village. I whirled through the occupied West Bank on a segregated Israeli highway, passed gleaming illegal settlements perched on hilltops and drove through a checkpoint while most of my peers slept soundly and our tour guide, for once, did not name the sites of occupation we were passing by.
The zine “Whose Birthright?” is written to expose the politics embedded in each site visited. By writing histories of Palestinian ethnic cleansing and Jewish settlement into my own Birthright Israel tour, I aim to show the price Palestinian communities paid and continue to pay so that American Jews like myself can unquestioningly claim a “Birthright.” Today, while roughly 5.6 million Palestinians live in exile, barred from ever returning to their ancestral lands, Jewish Americans continue to assert a “birth-right” to the same lands; since it’s inception in 1999, Birthright Israel has brought over 500,000 diasporic Jewry to Israel.
“Whose Birthright?” is also an attempt to challenge the explicitly Zionist Jewish identity that Birthright Israel imparts. On Birthright, “exploring Jewish Identity” means blindly traveling over landscapes, whose Arabic names were only recently written over in Hebrew. On Birthright, “celebrating Jewish values” means glorifying wars that continue to kill, confine and displace thousands of Palestinians. On Birthright, “discovering the Jewish homeland” is predicated on the criminalization and persecution of those Palestinians who resiliently remain on their own ancestral lands. I write this zine to thus reaffirm, rather than disavow, my Jewish heritage — a heritage of migration, diaspora and generations of Jews striving for justice.
I urge any American Jew who is thinking about claiming their “Birthright” to face, rather than turn away from, the ongoing violence of colonial occupation and Zionist settlement that enable us to name Israel a Jewish homeland. “Whose Birthright?” is a small step in making this violence visible. And when this violence is made visible, is it so easy to claim a “Birthright”?
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