Emotionally Divesting from Israel
- Zionist Indoctrination: Birthright Israel "Unplugged"
Corey Balsam - AIC Report
There are few international educational trips that can boast a higher
participant rate. In just under 10 years, Birthright Israel has flown
over 200, 000 young Jews to Israel for a 10 day adventure of touring,
partying and a good dose of Zionist indoctrination.
Despite a significant drop in funding this year, that number is sure to
grow by the thousands again in 2009.
How do they do it? For starters, it's free. So long as you identify as
Jewish, have never been on an organized tour of Israel, and are between
the ages of 18-26, you qualify.
What's the catch? Well, there really isn't one. Participants are not
required to buy anything or move to Israel and join the army, nor are
they force-fed with political lectures and religious tirades. All they
need to do is accept an all-expenses-paid "gift" of a seemingly
apolitical, non-religious tour. Who wouldn't accept?
Beneath the surface, however, these "gifts" are indeed politically
motivated. Funded by the Israeli government, the Jewish Agency for
Israel and wealthy Zionist philanthropists like Charles Bronfman and
Sheldon Adelman, the trips are intended in large part to foster support
amongst Diaspora Jewish youth for the continued existence of Israel as a
"Jewish state" and to ensure a new generation of Israel supporters who
can take over the reins from their parents and grandparents.
The logic goes like this: Jews in the Diaspora are more likely to feel a
strong attachment to Israel, and therefore support and defend it, if
they have travelled there.
This theory was given further credence after a study entitled Beyond
Distancing: Young Adult American Jews and their Alienation from Israel
was released in 2006. "Absent any trip to Israel," say the document's
authors, "most Jews score on the lowest rung of Israel attachment, and
only a few manage to harbor warm feelings toward Israel." Furthermore,
"as important as Israel travel may be for fortifying commitment to
Israel and preventing alienation," the document's authors stress that
"it is even more important and most important, for younger Jews."
Birthright Israel therefore plays a significant role in the
infrastructure of Zionist indoctrination in the Jewish Diaspora, which
includes Zionist schools, camps, youth groups, and so on. Most
significantly, what Birthright Israel trips are able to do is bring more
young Jews, regardless of their level of affiliation with Jewish
institutions, into the Zionist fold.
Whether it's to make aliah (move to Israel), give money to Zionist
organizations such as the Jewish National Fund, become lobbyists in
their respective communities and countries, or at the very least, give
tacit moral support for Israel, ensuring that as many young Jews as
possible become supporters of Israel in one way or another is extremely
important for the future of the Zionist project.
Yet given the growth in public consciousness around the world regarding
the Israeli government's ongoing oppression of the Palestinian people,
boosted considerably by the recent Israeli massacres in Gaza, the
Zionist project is facing somewhat of a crisis.
As Israel is becoming more and more difficult to defend, a growing
number of young Jews are expressing staunch opposition to the Israeli
government and Zionism, shouting "not in my name!" for all the world to
Hannah Mermelstein is one of these young Jews. Together with co-founder
Dunya Alwan, Murmelstein created an organization called Birthright
Unplugged in 2005, in part to counter Birthright Israel and the skewed
picture it paints in the minds of young Jews.
Open to both Jews and non-Jews, Birthright Unplugged takes participants
to see the devastating effects that Zionist colonization and occupation
have had on the Palestinian people in the West Bank and within what is
now the state of Israel.
"Zionism is failing. It's on the decline." says Mermelstein. "Our role
is to speed up the fall of Zionism," she added, "while at the same time
standing in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle to survive and
resist Zionist policy."
Rosi Greenberg, alum of both Birthright Israel and Birthright Unplugged,
agrees. "To me, Judaism is about ethics and values about human
rights," says Greenberg.
Upon witnessing the suffering of the Palestinian people first-hand and
understanding more about Israel's abhorrent human rights record,
Mermelstein and Greenberg's opposition to Zionism and involvement with
the Palestinian solidarity movement are hence not surprising.
Crucially, as an increasing number of young Jews like Mermelstein and
Greenberg are standing in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle and
working to separate Judaism and Zionism, one of the most important
tactics of the Zionist movement, namely the unreflective charge that all
criticism of Israel is equivalent to anti-Semitism, loses much of its
So while Birthright Israel continues to bring thousands of Jews around
the world on their "birthright" each year, the mounting frequency of
Diaspora Jews to unplug from Zionism and emotionally divest from Israel
is emerging as a serious challenge to the Zionist project and its
infrastructure of indoctrination.
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