Religion & Beliefs

Birthright Revisited – The Politics Of Politics

Taking note of the politics of a Birthright trip Read More

By / December 2, 2011

In this post I hope to discuss the what I see as the dicey politics presented on Birthright.  The main problem in regards to all of the different political messages on the trip is their simplistic nature. This reductive tendency permeates throughout the trip. Let’s begin with a story. Two days stick out on the trip as the potentially emotionally transformative:  Praying at the Kotel (See my Shul Hopping at the Kotel), and our excursion through Yad Vashem to the Graves of the Mount of Herzl, the equivalent of Arlington cemetery. We start with the ashes of destruction, move towards the creation of the State, and end on a note of heavy toll on this conflict ridden society. We walk through the graves of the prime ministers, placing rocks as signs of respect, paying special attention to the assassinated Rabin. We walk past an edifice with the engraved names of all the terror victims in the country’s history. Many of the participants lightly touch the names as if touch could communicate to the dead that they did not die in vain, as if to say we will continue the fight. Suddenly, one of the counselors of the group breaks down into inconsolable tears because she knows the list personally. She tries to tell us the name on the wall’s story, but it saps her of all her considerable strength. To many, it feels like seeing a parent cry for the first time. Ultimately we end at a sculpture that memorializes the Ethiopians’ heroic mass immigration to Israel. There we stand in a semicircle, some of us placing hands over hearts, as we sing with a note of plaintive pride the Israeli national anthem. Despite mass emotional and physical fatigue, I see tears drop all around me. It’s hard to fight this kind of emotional onslaught.

The tour guide, realizing the need for some serious release, leads us to a shady nook, though still surrounded by graves, to engage in a group therapy session with regards to our feelings. We sit on the ground, many of us pulling out the grass in an unconscious act of emotional turmoil. One participant, a quiet but intelligent soul begins the discussion. “Well, coming here I wasn’t sure if Israeli soldiers felt resentment towards their service but after this trip, after meeting our soldiers I see that army service intertwines with their lives, they enjoy it, it provides meaning to their lives in a way absent in America.” Another participant responds to this saying, “Look how different they are from Americans. We don’t fight in our army, Israelis care much more about their country, about life.” Most of the participants nodded their head in assent, despite the obvious social differences between Americans and Israelis, the difference between an army that drafts and one that works with volunteers in wars happening far away to people we don’t actually know, that doesn’t really affect us on a day to day level. Neither do the they think about the possibility that perhaps our distaste for our wars speaks to some sense of moral sophistication rather than degeneration.

The leader then asks, “What do you think attributes to this difference in conscience,” and from there we devolve into some blatant bashing of American life: its materialism, hedonism, and general apathy towards matters of substance.   On the whole, the trip evinces a silent but strong anti-American sentiment (Some of our Israeli soldiers actually said, both while meeting us and in their dramatic goodbyes that they thought of Americans as shallow and superficial but we changed their 20 year old conceptions. Ironies of Irony.)

This story also represents so much of the other implicit undercurrents of this trip: all Israelis love their country, all soldiers love serving their country. Right wing politics prevail, and of course the lionization of the Israeli narrative and the villainization of all Palestinians. At one point in the cemetery the tour guide repeats that famous phrase of Golda Meir, “That we will see peace with our neighbors when their mothers care more about the lives of their children than the deaths of ours.” How can we not think of all Palestinians as sub-human, as monsters out for our blood to the extent that mothers willingly sacrifice their children just to kill the most Jews as possible? Interestingly enough, the Palestinian Poet Mourid Barghouti in his compelling memoir I Saw Ramallah writes that he remembers hearing a Palestinian mother shout at an Israeli soldier as that soldier dragged another person’s son away, “Yes, we’re like that. A boy here has a hundred mothers, not like your kids, every boy has a hundred fathers.”

We saw thousands of names, thousands of civilians killed by these blood-thirsty Arabs who only care about our death, even more than the life of their children, but what about the tens of thousands of civilian Palestinian deaths, the squalor of their lives, the degradation, the dehumanization, the fact that they cannot even properly mourn the death of the children with a memorial such as this? I don’t know enough politics, or history to claim expertise on this issue, but my from my experience most conflicts contain more sides than just one. We were the only side of this human story, as a nice minority of participants pointed out. While Birthright acknowledges that it can only provide hor-dourves of everything, it doesn’t tell you that, ironically, they actually serve a healthy offering of a strong narrative. At the same time that they educate the participants through manners more appropriate for children, what the participants end up learning entails a pretty convoluted specific, more right wing story. We hear nothing from the left, nothing of the occupation, nothing of the corruption of Israeli politicians, nothing of the strikingly restrictive social laws, and obviously, nothing in the way of some of the serious moral lapses in Israeli history.

Finally, on one of the last days we actually hear from a political pundit, who does though admit that his job entails combating the general perception of Birthright as a vacationized version of Israel. In the beginning I hope this lecture would prove me wrong about the reductive nature of Birthright. Neil Lazarus, a charismatic, British speaker plunges in, with expertise and a nice touch of self-effacement, to the confusing politics of the region. He welcomes all questions, arguments, and comments, and urges the participants to learn more whether at his website or just by reading. He is the first genuinely non-ideological person we meet on the trip. He proceeds to present an hour long presentation on the state of Mideast politics in a manner that appears fair, just, and rightfully morally ambiguous. For the most part he describes a realistic situation without the lens of ideology, but even he knows who butters his bread. Because then in true Birthright style, after a slightly grim series of descriptions and predictions for the Middle East, he ends on a video of optimism. Sixty three years of the Israeli state in sixty seconds he calls it. With an uplifting song in the background and a heavy use of certain weighted and associative words: family, hope, rebuilding, brotherhood, we move back into simplistic territory in which the Israeli state represents the culmination of a dream, of a miraculous climb to progress on the mountains of adversity facing this tiny, beleaguered nation. (Again, not that this is necessarily wrong, but it grossly simplifies the situation.)
Even with this speech, I still feel uneasy. The lecture comes after a day of Holocaust inundation and the Mountain of Herzl, a day full of religious and Zionist education and narration. At no point does Lazarus discuss the plight of the Palestinians, the hardships they face, the humanity of their claims. His speech, one practiced a thousand times entrances the audience, mostly because of the humor he feels necessary to engage this tired, emotionally drained group of Americans, which almost undercuts his presentation. I hope most people will remember what came before, but in my haphazard poll afterwards most of the participants’ remark on his humor and the beauty of the ending video’s vision of progress, of American and Israeli familial connection instead of the moral quagmire Israel finds itself in. A number of participants though, again a large minority, notice the slightly myopic nature of this speaker. In a sense, they tell me, they feel gypped.
In contrast to the intelligence and power of insight of this speaker, let’s take a look at the only other speaker we listened to on the weighty issue of the conflict. At the Lebanese border, listening to an Israeli extremist discuss with relish his desire to protect his homeland (read kill Arabs), a participant asked him what he thinks of America. Shockingly, this gunslinger bashed that Arab-lover Obama and then proceeded to explain about the precariousness of our safety, even in America. Some participants simply shrugged him off, but many found him oddly compelling both in his bloodlust and in his sentiments about our safety. (Then the speaker, nonchalantly, after he said he doesn’t care about our opinions, told us to go buy snacks and t-shirts from his store. Some Israelis still treat Birthright participants, and Americans in general, as breathing ATMs with no right to an opinion on a land they don’t live in.)

When I asked as to why we go hear this specific speaker I received the answer that participants find him entertaining, and that it’s good to hear a range of political opinions. You might as well lob it over the plate to Albert Pujols on steroids because if our justification of listening to this “extremist nut” stems from the idea of exposing the participants to a range of opinions, then why don’t we expose them at least to an “extremist” on the far left? Would that not serve as a balancing act?
To reiterate, though I tend towards pragmatic  left-wing Israeli politics, I believe the problems outlined in this series stem less from political issues and more from the veil we place over our participants;  A veil that again disrespects both the intelligence and the dignity of these adults. Espouse any political or religious beliefs as long as you do so with transparency and present the range of opinions to people who will take seriously every word you say. In the next post, I hope to deal with some of the criticism I received on these pieces, as well as put forward a plan for how to revamp certain aspects of Birthright. Stay tuned.