Last week I toured the Israeli communities surrounding the Gaza perimeter with the Holy Land Trust, a Palestinian non-profit founded by Sami Awad, the nephew of non-violent resistance guru Mubarak Awad, whose Gandhian tactics were rewarded by the Israeli government in 1988 with an expulsion order.
Our guide for part of the day was Eric Yellin, an Israeli-American resident of a community near Sderot, the Israeli city that has borne the brunt of rocket attacks from Gaza. Since the conflict escalated, Yellin has organized dialogue groups between residents of his city and Gazans through the group Other Voice. Despite his good works, Yellin is not likely to win Sderot’s next mayoral election. His neighbors were furious with him, he recalled, when he attempted to convince them that carpet bombing the Gaza Strip would not have a positive outcome for either side.
“For most Israelis, what I’m doing is insane,” Yellin said. “For them, Gaza is the ultimate evil.” He spoke to us inside a hall in Sderot named for a local girl killed in a rocket attack. The girl’s bereaved father, who owned the hall, told Yellin he could use it for free at any time if he thought his work would prevent a single loss of life.
Afterwards, Yellin took us to a hill above the Gaza Strip that served as one of the lookout points Israelis used as picnic grounds during Operation Cast Lead. While two ton bombs crashed into buildings in Gaza, some Israelis watched the assault with glee, lending the viewpoint the name, “The Hill of Shame.” While Yellin described conditions inside Gaza and discussed the rocketing of nearby communities, a bus filled with students from Argentina on a Birthright Israel-style tour pulled up to the hill.
The students rushed out of the bus and began taking photos in front of the Gaza landscape as though they were at the Grand Canyon. I asked a group of them what they thought of the people living inside the Gaza Strip. A girl looked at me, then at our group, then remarked about us in Spanish to her friends, “They’re Palestinians. Let’s get out of here.” Strangely, there were no Palestinians in our group; it consisted mostly of white people from the United States.
All of the sudden, a group of soldiers from the Givati Brigade motored up the hill to meet the Argentinian students. As soon as the soldiers emerged from their jeeps, they were surrounded by giggling girls eager to climb all over them and their jeeps. The guys, who were wearing the IDF t-shirts and hats sold in Jerusalem tourist shops, lined up for photos with the troops, who enthusiastically obliged.
I stood to the side and talked to a young soldier named Jan. He told me that even though Givati wasn’t the most prestigious unit to serve in, he was living out his dream to become a warrior. Of patrolling the refugee camps of Gaza, Jan said, “I like it. I’m defending my country and that’s what I’ve always wanted to do.” Though he said his service is rewarded with great respect by his family, “These days [serving in the IDF] is not as honorable as it used to be. We don’t have big wars anymore, just little actions here and there.” I asked him about the Occupation, the siege of Gaza, about keeping 1.5 million people in a virtual cage. “I think someday we could work it out,” he remarked, “but I have to say that today they are acting so barbarically. Really, there’s no other way.”
On June 28, Peter Beinart came to Jaffa to deliver an address about the failure of the Jewish Establishment. His speech, which was the highlight of a major New Israel Fund symposium with the somewhat trite title, “The Battle for Israel’s Soul,” was followed by a discussion between liberal Zionist icons including Israeli philosopher Moshe Halbertal, who has been a fierce critic of the Goldstone Report. Beinart’s speech consisted of a recapitulation of his widely circulated essay in the New York Review of Books, lots of concern for disillusioned young American Jews who are leaving the tent for non-Zionist social contexts, and a lamentation that liberal Zionism — “a Zionism that loves Israel not just because Israel is a Jewish state, but because it’s a liberal, democratic Jewish state” — is dying. I wondered what the dozen or so Palestinian Israelis seated in the back of the auditorium thought of Beinart’s discussion of the Jewish crisis as an inter-ethnic conflict between good and bad Zionists.
During Q&A, Beinart was asked what he thought about Birthright Israel. While admitting that he didn’t know much about the program, he volunteered his opinion that “the work they’re doing is great.” I found this statement unusual if not slightly disturbing. Beinart had lambasted the ossified Jewish establishment of Abe Foxman, Alan Dershowitz and David Harris for selling young Jews on an anti-democratic, occupying and increasingly racist Israel, turning them off to Zionism in the process. Then in the next breath he offered high praise for Birthright Israel.
Over 250,000 Jews — an astoundingly high number — have passed through the Birthright program. During their tours, they are told as I was by an official guide at Dizengoff House during a Birthright trip in 2002 that, “one day there will be a wave of anti-Semitism in the U.S. and Israel will be here to defend you.” Besides learning fanciful and discredited notions about the usefulness of fortress Israel in a dark, Jew-hating world, Birthright tourists are taught to worship the power of the IDF and are told that the army is in fact defending “the Jewish people” from an assortment of swarthy threats. Meanwhile they learn nothing about the culture of Palestinians and are expressly forbidden from meeting them. Instead of meeting Israeli peace activists like Eric Yellin, they receive a lecture from an Orientalist huckster (check out one of Birthright’s favorite speakers here) about Palestinian “incitement” and the threat of radical Islam. In their free time, Birthright tourists are urged to enjoy a Goldstar-sodden, Porky’s-style bachannal in the hope that they will someday contribute to a spike in the Jewish birthrate. Sleeping with a soldier, whether male or female, is especially encouraged.
Birthright is indeed doing a “great job” in selling young Jews on Israel and Zionism. But what is the impact of the program’s salesmanship? Are young Jews really being turned off by the eliminationist form of Zionism embodied by the Israeli government and promoted by figures like Abe Foxman, as Beinart claimed, or are they being indoctrinated by Birthright-style programs into embracing extreme nationalism without even knowing? If the photos I’ve posted from the Hill of Shame are any indication, Birthright Israel and programs like it have guaranteed a substantial pool of young recruits for the alter cockers of the Establishment to deploy as they like until well into the future.