A few weeks ago, J Street U announced the culmination of its year-long campaign asking Birthright to reinstate the one Palestinian speaker on the trip that had been removed from itineraries as of November 2017. J Street’s national organization stated that it will offer an alternative trip to Israel, and they will ask its members to “only participate in trips that include meetings with both Israelis and Palestinians and that show participants how the occupation impacts the daily lives of Palestinians living beyond the Green Line.”
Similarly, this past Friday, 200 young Jews from the activist organization IfNotNow gathered at the Birthright headquarters in New York as the most recent escalation in their campaign demanding that Birthright “confront the crisis” of the occupation, asking Birthright to choose between their right-wing donors and the young Jews at their doors.
It is incredibly exciting to see so many people critical of Birthright and demanding change, but we want to reiterate that the very nature and existence of Birthright is unjust. To offer Jewish young adults free trips to Israel and imply that they have a birthright to land occupied by the State of Israel while Palestinian refugees are denied the right to return home is entirely flawed.
It is not enough to ask Birthright to be better. It is instead essential to reject Birthright altogether, focusing instead on building and advocating for collective liberation. We reject the idea that a racist and tokenizing program can fix itself by including one or a few carefully vetted Palestinian voices or rigidly structured dialogue about a ‘conflict’ — framed this way, of course, to ignore power imbalances and rewrite the narrative as one of two equal parties. Violence against Palestinians is funded by American tax dollars and university investments, and normalized by trips like Birthright. We must reject Birthright unconditionally and in its entirety, directing our attention and anger towards the right-wing donors that make these trips possible, the corporations that profit from suffering and right-wing governments that enact and fund these oppressive policies.
Since Jewish Voice for Peace’s launch of its “Return the Birthright” campaign in 2017, over 1,000 young Jews have signed a pledge committing to never attend a Birthright trip. For those of us who are eligible to go on Birthright trips, this birthright was never ours to begin with, and claiming stolen Indigenous land for an apartheid state, cannot be done in our name. Palestinians have been denied the right to return for more than 70 years, and it is reprehensible for a self-proclaimed “democratic” state to deny this right to five million refugees. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were forced from their homes in such a hurry that they still have the key to the door, and they keep these keys with them as a reminder of their eventual return home. It is so important to hold Israel accountable for its racist apartheid policies against Palestinians. Criticism of Israel must center Palestinians, who have been speaking for decades about the horrors of occupation. We shouldn’t need to see it for ourselves to believe it, and we should trust Palestinians and follow their lead.
In 2005, Palestinian civil society called for people of good conscience around the world to put economic pressure on Israel in protest of its countless human rights violations against Palestinians by recognizing how trips to Israel and the tourism industry must be part of the larger boycott. This nonviolent movement known as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement (BDS) is one of the most direct ways that people around the world can support Palestinians. There are similarities between the BDS movement and the struggle against apartheid in South Africa.
The group advocating for this campaign, known as the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), recently released a statement titled “Do No Harm: Palestinian Call for Ethical Tourism/Pilgrimage.” This statement argued that it is essential to boycott trips that bring participants to “present-day Israel or illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territory that include any links to the Israeli government or complicit Israeli corporations or institutions” and instead to “increase visits in solidarity with the Palestinian people as well as independent fact-finding missions that have no institutional link of any sort to the Israeli government, complicit institutions or lobby groups.”
The statement also quotes an Al-Haq article that describes the Israeli tourism industry as one that “benefits from and drives Israel’s unlawful policies and practices in the occupied West Bank, including the confiscation of Palestinian land and exploitation of Palestinian natural resources, unlawful excavations at archeological sites, the obstruction of the Palestinian economy, and the transfer of the protected Palestinian population.” The fact that PACBI’s central message in its statement is “do no harm” is very telling. It is essential that we recognize that trips to Israel that do not comply with PACBI’s suggested guidelines will not help Palestinians.
Meeting with settlers — colonizers — and contributing to the Israeli economy are only some of the ways in which these trips normalize and reinforce violence and oppression. Any trip that does so, therefore, cannot be considered neutral or harmless. These trips actively inflict harm, and it is important to recognize that supporting the Palestinian struggle for freedom, justice and equality requires following Palestinians and their leadership.