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.