Tuesday, July 13, 2010


We had a lovely couchsurfer stay over for two nights. Leora is an American art student who's just been through a "Birthright" trip and needed to recuperate before heading on a journey through Europe.

Leora is intelligent. She's seen something of this world, having moved away from her New Jersey home to the very unJerseylike mountains of North Carolina. She's creative and special and she's here to explore and learn. I would expect a person like this to benefit from a Birthright trip, as uncomfortable as I may be with the concept.

What makes me uncomfortable? According to the organization's website "Taglit-Birthright Israel provides the gift of first time, peer group, educational trips to Israel for Jewish young adults ages 18 to 26." The youths are flown for free and journey Israel from a Zionist perspective. I have nothing against a Zionist perspective, its a legitimate perspective held by my very beloved parents.

Maybe it's just the name "birthright" that bothers me. A Jewish youth who's never been to Israel can arrive here and become a full citizen in a matter of weeks, while people born on this soil, whose great great grandparents were born here, are denied basic rights. Birth doesn't count for much in Israel, Ethnic background does.

Leora has the right Ethnic background to enjoy Birthright, yet she emerged from the adventure full of doubt. While having lunch together on Ben-Yehuda st. she asked me to give her my own angle to the history of this country. I started talking and soon found out I had to explain everything. She's never heard of the war of 1948, nor of the war of 1967. She did not know about the existence of the separation wall. They somehow managed to hide that eight meter tall atrocity from the eyes of the travelers.

At one point I brought up Bedouins. "Do Bedouins still exist?" Leora asked.

"They do." I said.

"We went into this tent and were served coffee by 'Bedouins', but I wasn't sure they weren't some kind of an historical people."

"Oh, they really exist, though the map won't tell you that. Most local Bedouins live in shanty towns in the desert, but these towns are "unrecognized" by the state, so they don't get connected to water or electricity." I asked to have a look at Leora's map, and pointed the area around Beer-Sheva, mostly blank of names. "This area isn't really empty. It's one of the most densely populated parts of the country, but the state wishes these people weren't there, so it pretends they're not there."

Oh, and if we have to admit they're there, why not present them as a Biblical-style people that pours coffee to Jews? I was beginning to lose my wits. Had Birthright been presented on the onset as an opputunity for Jewish girls to develop crushes on the armed bodyguards escorting them through the country, that's one thing. But the website does use the word "educational."

It's only "educational" if an effort isn't made to conceal any difficult truth, just as it's only a "democracy" if everyone gets equal rights.

"Do Bedouins serve in the Army?" Leora asked.

"They often do. They're considered excellent trackers."

"And yet they don't get water to their towns."

"Well, not to all their towns." I didn't want to fall into the Birthright trap and start telling things from a one sided perspective.

Nevertheless, I would love to see a birthright tour visit a Bedouin town like Rahat, pictured below, that is indeed connected to water. I would love to see the guide point out the poverty and decrepit infrastructure and then tell them this: "The money that could have made this place acceptable is used for the immigration grants of middle-class North Americans like yourselves."

I would love to hear him tell them to feel free and decide whether or not they wish to live in this country, but whatever the case, they must work to better it, to make it fair to all, because right now this isn't the case.


eyalm16 said...

well written..
it´s no secret to any soldier in the israeli army that taglit is just another codename for letting 18-21 year old israeli horny kids (AKA Soldiers) to have fun with the sexualy liberal north american\latin american jewish girls.
I was a soldier who escorted a group of taglit some 6 years ago, and what i remember from the talk the organizer gave us, prior to the group of canadians arrived, was his advice to bring condoms, because "these girls love you when you are in uniform. maybe you'll have some fun with them, and if WERE lucky, it could be a love story".
I had a girlfriend back then, so i didn't "enjoy" their sexual liberty, but all the other soldiers did. if the country want's to give it's soldiers some sexual experience, were headed in the wrong direction. (well not just because of that...)

The whole Taglit programs are a disgrace, public money is being spent on bringing youngters for a week of partying and unmeaningful sightseeing.
it's marketed as "taglit- a project with a purpose".
i agree it has a purpose, but the purpose, like so many things here in israel, is just the wrong one...

thebookmistress said...

It sounds like they are not even giving them a one-sided history, just no history at all? (I have cousins who went and still can't tell Lebanon from Jordan.)

I get the sense that describing ANYTHING from the last 200 years is so complicated, the organizers just throw their arms up in the air and take everyone to the Teva show store.

Tamar Orvell said...

I love reading your matter-of-fact posts. You state facts on the ground clearly, reflect on your own biases (example: you don't want to be one-sided as you say Taglit is), and you expose what you think is inconsistent or wrong, and have no blind faith in hasbara and more convenient, "higher" truths.

All youth I know who went on Taglit were happy to join the party, and so far none plan to move to Israel or to engage in working to improve it, at least now. It's a free trip on a feel-good mission. Oh, and many of these kids are from well-off homes, if that is relevant (to me, it is).

Savtadotty said...

Just one little fact correction to eyalm16, at least a fact as I understand it: the entire birthright project is funded by private money from some wealthy North American sources.

eyalm16 said...

I haven't checked it out lately, but i do believe that the isareli goverment is still definetly invested in the project moneywise. it was like that a few years back, for sure.

Anonymous said...

Taglit was how I first came to this country (in 2003). I also emerged full of doubt, because none of what they told me made any fucking sense, especially in the context of my very humanitarian upbringing. And my first step upon returning to the states was to sign up for a class called "Post-Zionist Idelogy and Literature" and then of course I got the real picture.

But I must say that on the trip I participated in, we had a few mandatory sessions before the trip in which we learned about Israel's geography and history (from a narrow perspective of course), and on the trip itself we were taken to see the wall (albeit from a distance). I'm used to hearing Taglit participants come out MISinformed, but I've never heard of someone post-Taglit being so UNinformed, to the point that it makes me wonder whether your couchsurfer was paying any attention. I mean, really, can you think of a Zionist narrative that doesn't include the 48 and 67 wars? Not just include, but cling to for dear life? -Cara

יובל בן-עמי Yuval Ben-Ami said...

Thank you all for your comments.

Cara, I believe there are several tour programs and perhaps some of them are more information-oriented than others. Our couchsurfer was on the "outdoorsy" program, which may mean less geographical-historical content than what you had.

There was a reason for my putting an emphasis on Leora's intelligence and curiosity. I don't think she failed to concentrate. I agree with you that it's impossible to speak of anything in this country without bringing up the wars, but there's a big different between saying "Israel took over the old city of Jerusalem in 1967" and saying "During the Six Day War the paratroopers marched in through the Lion's Gate, liberated these streets and then wept at the Wailing Wall."

Terms such as "six Day War" and "War of Independence" don't help create a timeline. Words such as "liberate" are confusing to young people who never had to deal with conquest or liberation, and superfluous emotional content makes history all, like, uh, blurry.