Saturday, February 10, 2007

Unplugging Rights of Birth

Two unabashedly giddy Palestinian children toy with a massive padlock that hangs from a bulky steel gate. The boy, about six years old, throws his younger sister a nonchalant gaze as he removes the lock. The two pass through the gate, which is placed between an eight-meter high section of concrete security barrier and a seemingly endless stretch of barbed wire fencing.

The upbeat youngsters emerge on the other side of the barrier to welcome a group of eight Jewish Americans and their guides to Mas'ha, the village from which the forlorn abode is now cut off. The IDF strategically rendered their grandfather's house isolated on a small slice of land between the separation barrier and the exterior fence of the Jewish settlement of Elqana. The children's grandfather, Hani Amer, has entrusted his grandchildren with the keys to the village.

This curious group of Western visitors cannot fathom the arrangement. Two unsuspecting youths hold the keys to a fence between civilizations.

"These kids are living in a literal cage, yet they're so good-natured. It's hard to believe that so much money and energy are wasted barricading one family between concrete and steel," said Aviva, one of the participants on Birthright Unplugged's February 2007 trip.

Alas, for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. For every ostensible right of birth, there are those who seek to deny the validity of such a birthright.

In an age of soaring Jewish philanthropy directed towards programs that bring young Diaspora Jews to Israel, there is a contest brewing. A freshly minted iconoclastic organization aims to undo the near monopoly that Birthright Israel has achieved in the homeland exploration industry.

Founded in 2005, Birthright Unplugged has pulled the rug out from under the comfortable, Zionist, and impressionable young souls who venture to the Holy Land. Through educational trips to Palestinian villages hemmed in by the separation barrier, discussions with nonviolent Palestinian activists, and workshops with refugees on both sides of the Green Line, this group explores the humanitarian costs of Israel's existence.

"We aim to promote awareness of global power inequalities," says Dunya Alwan, one of Birthright Unplugged's two founders, who is a veteran Iraqi-American human rights activist of mixed Jewish and Muslim parentage.

In addition to exposing the quotidian reality of military occupation, the organization also strives to consume only Palestinian-made goods, as a part of a broader divestment effort.

The organization's six-day trips are geared towards Jewish-American young adults with leftist tendencies, who have already been exposed to the conventional, pro-Israeli narrative. "Birthright Unplugged is like a counter-weight to a plethora of Birthright groups that offer little to no information from the Arab perspective," said Mike, another BU participant.

Like Mike, many other Birthright Unplugged participants join up with the group after first doing the free 10-day Birthright trip. Birthright Unplugged currently costs $350, which covers meals, lodgings, transportation, and information sessions.

Birthright Unplugged is up against the mammoth Taglit-Birthright umbrella institution, which has sponsored over 120,000 trips to Israel for 18 to 26 year-olds from 51 countries since 1999.

Unplugged is also partially subsidized by private Jewish philanthropists, who sustain the group’s ongoing social justice work in the territories. "Jewish people often face obstacles of fear and lack of knowledge, which can deter them from pursuing this kind of experience on their own," declares the group's mission statement.

While intended to reinforce the core Jewish value of tzedukah, some suggest that Birthright Unplugged is anti-Zionist propaganda.

Hannah Mermelstein, the other co-founder of BU, said that Birthright Unplugged does not pretend to tell the whole story.

“We expose people to narratives that have mostly been hidden from them in Jewish communities and by western media,” said Hannah. “Hebrew School and Birthright Israel are unfortunately not the only ways to get an unreflective pro-Israel perspective, so we are a counterweight not only to those forces but to all the forces that work to silence Palestinian voices.”

Unsurprisingly, Birthright Unplugged has received a cease-and-desist letter from Birthright involving alleged copyright infringements on the "Birthright" name.

Another notable controversy raged between the two Birthrights in 2006, when a 26 year-old California resident was pulled from her Birthright trip after Birthright learned that she was planning to stay on for a Birthright Unplugged tour.

The so-called "birthlefters" are part of a burgeoning alternative tourism industry that took off right after the start of the 2nd Intifada in 2000, as internationals flocked to the territories to show solidarity and gather information about the treatment of Palestinians.

The February 2007 BU trip's participants seem to agree that even the more progressive Birthright trips exist in somewhat of a bubble, promulgating a tightly controlled narrative on Israeli history and culture. BU extends the Birthright narrative beyond 1967 into today's murky postmodern situation, which Birthright generally doesn't address in either the ideological or geographical dimensions. However, some of the BU participants noted that their particular Birthright trips had done a decent job of including divergent perspectives in educational sessions.

Birthright itself declined comment for this article.

Another major Birthright Unplugged point of contention is that Palestinian refugees are not afforded any birthright of ancestral homeland exploration.

“This hypocrisy is precisely the issue we are trying to address with our programs, both symbolically and practically,” says Hannah. “We want to “unplug” the concept of a Jewish birthright while “re-plugging” the concept of a Palestinian birthright to their land. We reject the notion of a “birthright,” as embodied in Jewish-only fully funded trips to Israel. Israel has ignored the internationally recognized right of return for refugees but has created a “Law of Return,” which extends citizenship benefits to any person of Jewish heritage, excluding millions of Palestinians born in the land that has become Israel.”

Meanwhile, “Birthlefters” are loath to hear accusations that they refuse to praise Israel or to condemn terrorism.

For its part, Birthright Unplugged states that it always makes clear to Palestinian hosts that its groups consist almost entirely of American Jews, and the hosts appear comfortable with this fact.

"I don't even know what to tell my parents about my experience. I wasn't even supposed to ride public buses in Israel," said Nova, a February 2007 participant who says that BU was an eye-opener.

The group is warmly welcomed to villages such as Haris, in the Salfit region of the northern West Bank, where dozens of Palestinian children greet them salutations of "Hello, shalom, how are you?"

While it is apparent that the majority of Palestinian hosts are delighted to bring these particular American Jews into their communities, perhaps it is difficult for some Palestinians to differentiate between the actions of individual Jews and the actions of the Israeli government.

The February 2007 trip's itinerary included a sojourn with the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions and a meeting with a top aide to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Birthright Unplugged's connections with local groups allow the participants to stay overnight in Palestinian homes and explore refugee camps such as Dheisheh, just outside Bethlehem.

On day 5 of the February trip, Hannah recounted passionately how many Israeli settlers have seized old IDF outposts, where electricity and water lines are already established. Traveling northward on Highway 60 towards the Za'atara checkpoint, the group discussed the phenomenon of economic settlements in the northern West Bank and how many Israelis have been attracted by the bedroom communities in and around Ariel. Cheap homes, easy access on Highway 5 to Tel Aviv, and looser business regulations have swelled the settler population in the Salfit region.

From the bottom of the hill, Ariel appears more kempt than the Palestinian towns surrounding it and is identifiable by the white rooftop water tanks, yellow streetlights, and characteristically reddish roofs. This settlement is part of the Israeli plan to control a vital high-altitude ridge twenty-two kilometers into the West Bank at approximately the same latitude where Israel is at its skinniest - a mere seventeen kilometers. This part of biblical Samaria is also perched atop one of the most plentiful aquifers in the region.

The group notices how the scramble for geopolitical domination is nearing completion. An extensive system of permitting, land confiscation, and checkpoints cloisters Arab populations in discrete villages, typically identifiable by flat-roofed cinder-block homes, white-lit streets, black rooftop water tanks, and neon-green lit minarets.

The participants react to the segregation with incredulity. Yet, the group is informed of how the Israeli occupation sometimes meant better services for the Palestinians, while now the Palestinian Authority barely manages to stay afloat. The group finds that in many cases, there is currently a complete lack of basic government services.

"You'll learn that with occupation; there aren't many rules involved," said Aviva, a participant from Winnipeg, who also did Birthright prior to doing Birthright Unplugged. She recounts the profound effect that the wall, checkpoints, and tear gas in Hebron have had on her impressions of the conflict. Aviva browses through the Arabic phrasebook included in her trip folder, amongst maps, articles, and brochures that highlight the activist group's program.

Birthright Unplugged always travels with Palestinian transport and believes that this is the safest way to conduct explorations in the West Bank. Driving by a Sonal gas station adjacent to the Palestinian village of Yatma, the group discusses how a suicide bomber blew himself up there in 2002, killing 3 soldiers. Consequently, Palestinians can no longer fill up their tanks there. The group next discusses how some roadblocks have been removed in an easing of civilian hardships.

Next on the itinerary is a jaunt in the village of Biddya to enjoy a delectable meal and conduct a cultural exchange of music and dance. The participants revel in the opportunity to hear traditional Arab melodies. During the festivities, one participant picked up his phone and said "Shabbat shalom," resulting in some awkwardness with the otherwise matronly and effusive hostess.

Saria, a Los Angeles native on the trip, said, "I honestly feel more comfortable on this side of the Green Line."

She says that this feeling was reinforced by the testimony of Issa Suf, a nonviolent activist shot by the IDF in 2001 during the 2nd Intifada. As his eldest son reaches into a sack affixed to the bottom of his wheelchair to pull out a toy car, Mr. Suf painstakingly rattles off the horrific details of the shooting.

"I don't think the suffering has served anyone," says Mr. Suf. "Justice and equality are for all human beings. We also need to end the semantic warfare that renders all who oppose Israeli policies 'anti-Semites' and 'terrorists.' It's impossible to found a Palestinian state with the shape of this wall…neither side can clap with merely one hand."

The group also has the opportunity to stay overnight at the International Women's Peace Service house in Haris. Anna Meltzer, one of the group's leaders, says that they are "perceived not as settlers but as internationals who are both observing and aiding Palestinians." She added, "We are also more palatable helpers as females since the soldiers perceive us as less threatening. We can also relate successfully to both Palestinian men and women."

One BU participant asked if IWPS would be open to settler-Palestinian peace mediation. Ms. Meltzer responded that such a role would be endearing but that IWPS would always be deferential to the Palestinian host community's desires.

"We have no relations with the settlers, and Israel continues to take more, more, and more," says Hani Amer, the Palestinian grandfather whose home is now trapped between the concrete wall and metal fence. He moved there in 1973, and the settlers arrived shortly thereafter, in 1978. Though he is cut off from both his village of Mas'ha and his olive grove, he will not leave. “I feel like I'm walking around in a foreign land," he says.

Ironically enough, he says the army is content with his possession of the key for the gate adjacent to the separation wall, which allows him to enter his village. "Regardless of whether my actual government is British, Jordanian, or Israeli, I'm connected to this land, which is purely Palestinian. I am Palestinian. I don't care what color my passport is. I will stay on my land regardless of whether it formally becomes Israeli."

It is likely that his land, though behind the Green Line, will indeed be annexed by Israel as part of a permanent peace deal, since it is located on the Israeli side of the fence.

Hani’s translator, Ra'ad, discusses how Palestinians must pay for both demolition fees and permits when their homes are destroyed by the IDF. Since Hani holds a permit on his land, this fate is unlikely to befall him. Yet, the IDF has already demolished a chicken shack, sunroom, and greenhouse that he built without permit.

During the BU group's final talk, amidst news of riots on the Temple Mount over alleged Israeli attempts to destroy Islamic holy sites, Simcha suggests the establishment of "3rd temple of peace in order to build a pluralistic framework for justice and end the al-Aqsa troubles."

Dunya concludes the talk with some advice about how to use the knowledge gained from Birthright Unplugged. She says, "The international community is a valuable means of support for the Palestinians." Dunya adds, "We must learn to take responsibility for harms done to people and for the harsh inequalities that exist. With the soldiers protecting settlers and allowing them to oppress Palestinians with impunity, there is a gross imbalance here."

Birthright Unplugged is charged with the challenge of human rights documentation, despite the temptations of disaster tourism and quasi-humanitarian voyeurism.

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