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After Birthright, Bethlehem

Since the 10-day trip ended, I’ve explored Jerusalem’s Old City, crashed a wedding, and, most importantly, met with Palestinians.

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While there’s a lot of Israel to see on Birthright, there’s a lot more Israel left somewhere on the periphery, or completely obscured from view. Ten days, even at Birthright’s harried pace, leaves barely enough time for sights, facts and figures, and hardly a moment for political nuance. Experiencing Israel in the biblical and historical past tense all but overrides the unstable present. On-the-ground developments in the past week include the vandalizing of a mosque by Jewish settlers, the resumption of hostilities in Gaza, mass social-justice protests in Tel Aviv, and a New York Times op-ed declaring the inevitability of a third Palestinian intifada. These bulletins, all requiring context and explanation, were left understandably unaddressed by our trip leaders, and I imagine that most would surprise or confound fellow Birthrighters, many of whom knew little about Israel’s political situation. But one could argue that Birthright has a built-in solution to its obvious pedagogical limitations—at least for those who can delay a return to their desk by a week or two. It’s called The Extension.

Not every Birthrighter will feel comfortable (or financially stable) enough to extend, and many of those that do might not feel the inclination to leave Tel Aviv—and yes, full disclosure, I write this post from the balcony of a boutique hotel overlooking Dizengoff Square. But Birthright encourages this process, and makes it relatively painless to do so. For anyone convinced that Birthright’s full-speed-ahead mentality aids and abets the construction of a false consciousness, The Extension is the time to do the hard work of dismantling it. To borrow one of tour educator Yoav’s most suggestive malapropisms, Extension gives one the time and space to get “complexed.”

Given my particular idiosyncrasies and interests, this meant crashing an ABBA-enhanced wedding at the Mount Zion Hotel, searching for unexplored corners of Jerusalem’s Old City, a trip to the Kotel for Kabbalat Shabbat, breaking bread with a Haaretz editor, a few naps, and most memorably, a visit to the West Bank with the Jewish educational organization Encounter.

Traveling a few miles from our South Jerusalem hotel to Bethlehem and its environs, our small group of Tablet staffers and a few others met with a cross-section of Christian and Muslim Palestinians for a series of open, civil, and completely unrehearsed discussions about an occupation that many Israelis have permission to ignore. (Since Bethlehem is located in the West Bank’s Area A, under full civil control of the Palestinian Authority, Israelis are not allowed to visit.) We visited the offices and studios of the Ma’an Network, an independent news agency; a nonprofit fair-trade art collective run by a Christian Palestinian woman; and the home of a family who refused eviction in the face of Israel’s West Bank Barrier construction, and will now be connected to its village by a tunnel.

Some of our conversations were maddening; a few were poignant. From the hilltop of Al-Walaje Village, we saw Jerusalem’s Teddy football Stadium in the near distance, and our guide, Marwan, remembered the excitement of his only visit, 17 years before. Another interlocutor, a nonviolence educator with the makings of a transformative politician, dispirited us by claiming that any entry into politics would mean forfeiting credibility with his community. Palestinian political agency was uniformly minimized. “We have the righteous case,” he lamented, “but a bad lawyer and a rigged court.” Instead of pontificating amongst ourselves about the possibility of a third intifada or what the “right of return” might mean in practical terms, we got to ask Palestinians directly. We got different answers, zero conclusions.

At the end of the afternoon, our group reentered Jerusalem by walking through Checkpoint 300, an experience made no less disquieting by the fact that, with U.S. passports in hand, we sped along with ease. I know that Bethlehem—where our group had no reason to feel unsafe—is not Hebron, and it is not Gaza. But it also isn’t Tel Aviv. Everything I took in underscores the moral imperative to challenge the creeping “normalization” of an unequivocally abnormal situation.

The eight hours of Encounter deserve some decompression, some further research, and at least another week of reflection, but I know I will come to see this short and unsensational detour as a crucial point on my Birthright continuum. Toggling between the “two Israels,” with the suspicion that I was missing out on many more, is the only way I can plan to return home with a matured perspective. The way Birthright feels about Israel—and they’re right, of course—is the way I now feel about Bethlehem: Every Jew should see this.

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Why does the author consider it “unequivocally abnormal” that Middle Eastern groups do not get along? Jews, Arabs, Maronites, Kurds, Shia, Sunni, Druze, Copts, Persians — it is one long history of not getting along. Perhaps this tourist saw much but understood little.

Also, I wonder how many families of people who were murdered by Palestinian terrorists were involved in the Encounter trip. Apparently zero. Is the Encounter tour actually about learning, or is it merely an opportunity for moralizing about Israel? I suppose, though, that the author did encounter the silent community of people who might have a different take on all of this, although he probably didn’t recognize it as such — they are all the Jews who are alive today because of checkpoints and the security fence.

mbsocol says:

Thanks for sharing, Akiva, this was nicely worded. A more official partnership between Birthright and Encounter would be really exciting, notwithstanding Mr, Pollak’s predictably reactionary negativity, I hope the right people read your take.

I’d simply point out that, as Akiva mentions, as an Israeli I’m not allowed to visit Bethlehem.

So long as this is considered acceptable … indeed unremarkable … I have little faith that a future Palestinian government can be a trusted partner and neighbor.

Ten years ago, a young Palestinian from Waladje visited Jerusalem and met 12 local Jews, whom he proceeded to blow up. Maybe Mr. Gottlieb should be less dismissive of the Israeli security concerns as he frets about recreational options for Palestinians.

I read this article twice and have no idea what the author’s point is.

julis123 says:

What I find lacking during this entire blog of the birthright trip is any reference to the fact that while you were in Israel, there were approximately 100 missiles fired at civilian targets from Gaza and an Israeli (who happened to be Arab) was killed in a terrorist attack from Sinai. Of course both of these areas that were evacuated by Israel in the hope that it would bring peace. What it did was just bring our enemies closer. Anyone contemplating a withdrawal at this point from the “occupied territories” should keep it in mind. As to your criticism about the checkpoints. It’s too bad you didn’t live here during the 2nd intifada when you didn’t know if you would return alive when you left the house in the morning. It would have helped to bring things into perspective

Akiva,
After viewing the Encounter website I’m wondering if you went into that environment with the same ‘arched eyebrow’ that Tablet’s writer’s claimed to do with the Birthright trip.

It is not the PA which forbids you from entering, it is Israel.

While I understand your sentiment, the facts in this case are that Israelis can “visit” area A when in the army, but can’t visit socially because Israel doesn’t want to have to rescue you. There is some logic to this, but it means that average Israelis and Palestinians can’t interact in a positive manner.

Alfred Mutungi says:

What I fail to comprehend is the authors lack of comment on the fact that Israeli’s are not allowed to enter Bethlehem, and can only do so at mega risk to limb and life, and yet palestinian’s daily enter Israel. DOes that not speak volumes to us?

Why mb?
BIrthright has nothing to do with Encounter nor should it be. Birthright is about being a Jew. Encounter is about the Palestinians trying to intervene in that communal gathering.
After looking at Encounter’s website something was glaringly absent and that was an attempt to get the Palestinians to view and appreciate the Jewish and Israeli narrative.
I’m sorry, but a forced guilt trip tacked on to the Birthright experience doesn’t seem like a positive to me.

mbsocol says:

It doesn’t matter to me, but since it seems to matter to you: Encounter was founded and is run by Jews, working closely with Palestinian partners. No Palestinians were “trying to intervene.”

Here is your problem: “after looking at Encounter’s website.” Is that enough for you to make a conclusive judgment?

I have been on an Encounter tour. It is nothing like how you characterize it. Perhaps you should speak to some people who have been on the tour before you draw your conclusions.

Encounter brings Palestinians and Jews into direct, personal contact with one another. If you thought about it for a moment more, I bet you’d realize that getting Palestinians “to view and appreciate the Jewish and Israeli narrative” is a core and inherent part of this process.

Encounter doesn’t force a guilt trip on anyone. The trips are structured to allow intentional, open conversations, with plenty of opportunities for frank disagreement and reflection. I hope the next time you’re in Israel you’ll considering opening your mind and attending a trip.

I’m working of Encounter’s own words and mission – to bring the Palestinian narrative to Jews.
There is no mention of a co-discussion. Indeed, the Jewish travelers are meeting with Palestinian officials, who I assume are presenting the party line on the Palestinian story.
Indeed, from the FAQ, you have this “Encounter trips are not a forum for formal dialogue between Jews and Palestinians. We call our trips “listening tours,” oppor­tu­ni­ties to fully under­stand and explore the Palestinian perspec­tive.” Further, from Encounter’s mission statement “By simply listening and by forgoing the usual route of raucous debate, partic­i­pants expose them­selves to view­points that they formerly may have disdained. The expe­ri­ence enables them to inte­grate these new perspec­tives rather than defend against them.”
More than that, when one looks at the itinerary, there is a discussion about participating in “Non-violent activism with Issa Amro, Youth Against the Settlements” as well as a revisionist discussion about the Hebron massacre. Sorry, but to me, that doesn’t sound like an interactive discussion to me.
In short, the Palestinians declare what they believe to be true, and the Jews sit there and absorb it. I’m sorry, but that’s not dialogue and it’s certainly not a discussion among equals.

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After Birthright, Bethlehem

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