April 5, 2016

HABR | Whose Right? The Question of Birthright

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Many organizations promote Birthright, a free 10-day trip to Israel for Jewish young adults, with the mission of “build[ing] a lasting bond with the land and people of Israel.” These trips are offered in many themes, ranging from hiking trips and art trips to LGBTQ trips. They offer tours of Israel, allowing participants to explore the country, meet Israeli Defense Force soldiers and visit the rapidly expanding settlements. Birthright trips have become extremely popular, attracting more than 400,000 participants since the program’s creation in 1999. Birthright has inspired many similar trips, some of which also focus on creating solidarity between historically oppressed people such as Armenian and Irish communities, and others that focus on bringing certain groups together to their homelands, such as Greek, Hungarian and Icelandic birthright trips.

It is a noble and important idea to unite and foster connections between groups that share a certain identity, especially ones that have been historically oppressed, but it is important to consider the implications of such trips and the people they affect.

Many people who have attended Birthright trips have spoken highly of the experience, arguing it has given them a chance to explore Israel for themselves and deepen their connection with their religion. However, Birthright has faced criticism for multiple aspects of the program, including alleged propaganda efforts. Along with pushing rhetoric that conflates Judaism with Zionism, Birthright trips allegedly shield participants from the realities of life in Gaza and the West Bank and aim to convince participants to relocate to Israel and join the IDF (Birthright does not keep track of how many participants go on to join the IDF but estimates that 20,000–30,000 of its participants have moved to Israel). The program has also received attention for its unapologetic promotion of relationships on the trips, which mix young adults with alcohol and the company of each other for 10 days with predictable outcomes. These efforts are seen as a part of a plan to promote marriage within Birthright participants that will lead to eventual relocation to Israel to reproduce and repopulate in order to remedy the trend of intermarriage, which  founders see as a threat.

Many young people choose to go on Birthright, and understandably so. Not many people would turn down a free vacation, especially when it provides a promise of building connections with others that share a common identity and often feel out of place elsewhere. But possible issues with the trip are often not considered, and any cognitive dissonance is quickly justified and explained away, referencing the irresistibility of a free holiday.

In 1948, when the state of Israel was created, about 800,000 Palestinians fled or were forced from their homes. In the six-day war of 1967, around 350,000 more Palestinians were forced to flee. As of 2015, there are over 5 million Palestinian refugees registered with the UN, and one in three refugees worldwide is Palestinian.

In 1948, the United Nations General Assembly passed Resolution 194 which states that Palestinian refugees “wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible.” The UN General Resolution 3236 passed in 1974 declared the “right to return” an inalienable right. Furthermore, Article 13(2) of the Universal Declaration of Human rights, passed in December 1948, states that “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.”

The Israeli government has, however, on multiple occasions denied the right of return to Palestinian refugees, suggesting that Palestinian refugees relocate elsewhere.

In this context, the name of the trip seems to have some implications worth considering. It seems odd that the trip participants, 80 percent of whom are from the USA and Canada, have more of an inherent “right” to a land than do the 5 million refugees, whose families lived in Palestine for generations until they were expelled. The notion of a birthright is neither right nor wrong, but is troubled when it entails the exclusion and expulsion of certain other groups.

Whether or not people choose to go on Birthright is a decision completely up to them, but it is important to evaluate and critically engage with the consequences and possible intentions of the trip that affects other populations in ways bigger than a free vacation. When one of the co-founders of Birthright, Michael Steinhardt, has explicitly denied the existence of the Palestinian people, it is important to open up the discussion surrounding the trip and consider whether or not the issues raised are worth a free vacation.

In response to issues raised with Birthright, some pro-Palestinian groups have offered a counter trip: Birthright Unplugged, which allows Westerners (often Jewish youths) to explore Palestine and meet with civilians living under the occupation. This program does not pretend to be objective, but provides an alternative to Birthright trips for those that wish to see the other side of the story that is almost never told.

Katy Habr is a sophomore in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell. Comments may be sent to kh547@cornell.edu. On the Margin runs alternate Wednesdays  this semester.