This article is part of a roundtable on the ethical response to Birthright. Click here to read the rest of the conversation.
IN 2018 AND EARLY 2019, activists with IfNotNow disrupted Birthright trips to protest the lack of programming devoted to the occupation. The website for their “Not Just A Free Trip” campaign lists four demands: that Birthright mark the West Bank checkpoints on every map; educate participants about the realities of life in the West Bank and Gaza; show a checkpoint from a Palestinian perspective; and tour the West Bank city of Hebron to see the impact of Israeli policies. IfNotNow has since claimed victory, as they argue that Birthright’s failure to accede to these demands exposes its true agenda. But by participating in the trips at all, this campaign undermined Palestinian activism and the demand for an international boycott. Instead of expressing solidarity, it reinforced Birthright’s claims to legitimacy in speaking over Palestinians.
In theory, any activism that seeks to loosen Birthright’s stranglehold on Jewish identity in North America is admirable. There’s merit in challenging the organization’s hegemonic status in our communities, and if Birthright’s public image has taken a hit, this may encourage people to rethink its ubiquity. Still, the shortcomings of this particular campaign should have been obvious from the start. There was no reason to believe that this kind of activism would have the capacity to change what is a fundamentally nationalist and reactionary institution. Mere disruption won’t alter this agenda—in fact, the emergence of “alternative” trips designed to show “both sides” only demonstrates the resilience and flexibility of the Orientalist narratives that drive such projects.
In Orientalism (1978), Edward Said argued that Western knowledge of the Orient is intimately linked with imperial authority: “To have such knowledge of such a thing is to dominate it, to have authority over it.” In the tradition of Western colonization and observation of the Middle East, Said wrote, “Orientalism . . . is knowledge of the Orient that places things Oriental in class, court, prison, or manual for scrutiny, study, judgment, discipline, or governing.” Essentially, to speak of the Orient is to silence Oriental voices. For a project like Birthright that seeks to “educate” Jewish youth, the Orient cannot speak for itself: it is only ever spoken of, by and for the West. Challenging Birthright to expand its educational lens, however well-intentioned the demand, reproduces this same colonial dynamic.
Since its founding in 1999, Birthright was explicitly designed to promote a definition of Jewish identity that is intrinsically connected to the state of Israel. Birthright’s stated aim is to “strengthen Jewish identity, Jewish communities, and connection with Israel and its people,” and the organization’s Israeli CEO Gidi Mark describes the trips as a better investment for Israel’s future than its military. Researchers have found that Birthright is extraordinarily effective in constructing Israel as the Jewish homeland, encouraging participants to define and express their Jewishness by building ties with Israel, and ensuring diasporic support for Israel’s security. Through guided tours, immersive activities, slumber parties, group bonding exercises, and a parade of sexy Israeli soldiers, Birthright encourages participants to see themselves as inherently connected to the land, able to travel it and consume it with freedom and impunity, at the unspoken expense of its indigenous inhabitants.
In this way, Birthright is an expression of the Orientalist claim to power. Through participating, Jews internalize an idea of ourselves as the rightful authorities on Palestine, the holders of its true knowledge. INN’s demands—and, by extension, the entire campaign—productively illustrated that Birthright’s vision is non-objective. But it nevertheless validated the claim to knowledge that Birthright advances, and treated Birthright as an inevitable Jewish rite of passage, albeit a biased one. The campaign retained and reinforced Birthright’s legitimacy as an authoritative source of knowledge, left untouched the Orientalist violence of these incursions on Palestinian land, and violated the consistent, explicit demands of indigenous Palestinian organizations to avoid Birthright and related tourist programs altogether. These demands were recently reiterated in a statement by the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) in March 2019.
Palestinians have been sharing stories, making films, writing poems, and conducting research on their own experiences for generations. Why not encourage young Jewish people to engage with these resources? Why defer instead to settler institutions and settler knowledge? What authority do we have as settlers to determine what Palestinians want or need, or to tell Palestinian stories without listening to their explicit demands?
The fact that INN ignores these Palestinian voices establishes it as a quintessentially Orientalist project. If Jewish activists were truly committed to ending the occupation of Palestine—from the river to the sea, not merely the West Bank and Gaza—then they could at least follow the example of Jewish Voice for Peace and reject Birthright entirely. But true solidarity starts by following the demands issued directly by Palestinian society, rather than only acknowledging Orientalist observers. This includes the 2005 call on the international community for boycott, divestment, and sanctions. Palestine can and does speak for itself; we would be wise to listen.