On my recent trip to Israel, I noticed a 400-foot mural spanning the length of a major corridor in Ben Gurion Airport. Titled “120 Years of Zionism,” the mural depicts the story of Israel from the first Zionist Congress at the end of the 19th century up to the present day. What the mural does not show is the history of the land on which the airport is located. During the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, the Jews needed this strategic land, located about halfway between Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv. The problem, of course, was that this land was not unoccupied, but rather the site of a major Palestinian city: Lod. Israeli soldiers forcibly removed thousands of Palestinians from their homes in order to gain access to it. Many died as they were marched away from their families’ homes on the land that Ben Gurion airport stands on today.
Every year, over 40,000 of the people walking by the mural in Ben Gurion airport are participants on Birthright, a program that offers free 10-day trips to Israel for young Jews. These young Jews are unlikely to notice the stories erased by the one-sided narrative depicted on the wall at Ben Gurion Airport. While they will spend the next 10 days hearing from dozens of Israelis, none will hear from Palestinians dealing with the realities of the occupation of the West Bank or life in Gaza. Without hearing directly from Palestinians, young Jews are far less likely to know or care about the dramatic actions being undertaken by Israel’s right-wing government, such as the demolition of Palestinian villages, incitement against Palestinian citizens of Israel and efforts to gradually annex the West Bank without granting Palestinians living there full civil rights.
In response to this erasure, dozens of J Street U chapters around the country released a petition last fall asking Birthright to add Palestinian speakers to their trips. More than 2,000 Jewish students signed the petition, and the Tufts petition alone received 246 signatures from Jewish students. We’ve emailed, called and texted Birthright to ask whether the organization will consider adding even a single Palestinian speaker to its trips.
Birthright declined to answer. As young Jews who care deeply about both Israelis and Palestinians, we know that engaging honestly with Israel requires listening to Palestinians.
That’s why J Street U chapters around the country are releasing a pledge for young Jews who are committed to participating only in organized trips to Israel that include meetings with both Israelis and Palestinians as well as meaningful discussions about the occupation and the status of minority groups in Israel. We want to show Birthright and other American Jewish organizations in America how many young Jews are passionate about grappling openly and honestly with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
But we don’t just want to point out what’s wrong with how the situation in Israel is taught in the Jewish community; we also want to offer a model for what a nuanced, complex engagement with Israel can look like. That’s why we’re offering an alternative trip this summer that actually engages with Palestinians and the reality of Israel today.
Young Jews around the country no longer want to be forced to choose between caring about Israelis and caring about Palestinians. We do not want to choose between engaging with and caring about the future of Israel and learning about the horrors of the occupation. We hope that someday, young Jews walking through Ben Gurion Airport have the opportunity to see the full history of the country they are entering, no matter how challenging it might be.