“Really See, Not From a Bus Window”
This article is part of a roundtable on the ethical response to Birthright. Click here to read the rest of the conversation.
AMERICANS SHOULD VISIT Palestine and Israel for the same reason, and with the same sensitivity, that they should visit US prisons: to gain insight into the devastating consequences of the policies they support with their taxes and their votes. If you were visiting a prison, you might consult a prisoners’ support group, which would offer a different perspective than the prison’s own visitor program. But for a thorough understanding, you would also need access to the prisoners.
The approach you choose is equally crucial for visiting Palestine and Israel if you really want to understand the dynamics at play. Some trips might serve your entertainment needs but would add very little to your understanding of the issues at play. This is certainly the case with Birthright, which is designed to expose American Jews only to what right-wing donors like casino magnate Sheldon Adelson want them to see and hear. These trips showcase only one side of the story and reinforce what most Jewish Americans were brought up to believe: that Israel is a model of diversity, a beacon of democracy, and a protector of Jewish values.
Instead of Birthright or similarly motivated trips, American Jews should join one of the numerous professionally-run tours offering a wider perspective on Israel and Palestine. I am a Palestinian-American, born and raised in Youngstown, Ohio, who married a Palestinian woman from Deir Ghassaneh and relocated to my father’s home and birthplace in Al-Bireh after the signing of the Oslo Peace Accords in order to work on economic development for the emerging state. Given my background, I am often asked to address foreign delegations visiting Palestine, especially Jewish delegations. I can attest firsthand that Jewish-focused groups like Encounter, Extend, and Green Olive Tours have become indispensable assets in opening Jewish minds and hearts to the reality of the Palestinian experience under occupation.
Granted, some of these alternative trips-like the recent J Street trip-still insist on providing a “balanced” perspective on a very unbalanced reality, whereas others see their role…