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In Defense of Birthright

IfNotNow's charges that the Israel trip hides tough political realities are just not true -- I ought to know
Participants celebrate Taglit-Birthright Israel's 15th anniversary, Tel Aviv, June 2015. (Courtesy)
Participants celebrate Taglit-Birthright Israel's 15th anniversary, Tel Aviv, June 2015. (Courtesy)

“Why is Israel building settlements?” asked one Birthright participant. Another blurted out, “Wait, what’s a two-state solution?” They also wondered about the rise of Anti-Zionism in social justice circles and the impact of Israel’s Occupation on Palestinian human rights.

These were just a few questions posed during three different geopolitical lectures I gave to Birthright groups last week, something I’ve been doing since December 2011 as an independent educator, and an activity Taglit-Birthright has mandated be a part of every trip’s itinerary.

Despite IfNotNow claims that participants on the free 10-day trip do not learn the truth and are indoctrinated with Pro-Israel tropes, Birthright participants do learn about the Palestinian story, settlements and the dilemma of collective security vs. collective rights.

I believe Birthright invites educators like myself to speak in order to provide the participants an opportunity to independently engage with many of the complex issues Israelis grapple with on a daily basis.

During these geopolitical sessions, we discuss the competing narratives of two nationalist movements over the same homeland.

We talk about the roots of Zionism and Palestinian nationalism, how the same place can equally mean so much to two peoples, and how each can experience the same events in different ways and what that means for both sides.

We explore Israeli government policy in both a positive and constructive light.

We delve into why the Jewish people have a right to self-determination in their historic homeland, and legitimate Palestinian reasons for rejecting the Zionist idea.

We debate Israel’s right to build settlements and why Palestinians and many in Israel and the international community legitimately oppose such actions.

We grapple with how Israel was willing to compromise and acquiesce to international peace proposals or offer maps for a two state solution on their own in the past, and the impact of the Nakba and the Naksa on Palestinian life and identity, the dynamics of power vs. powerless, and the legitimate rights for Palestinian claims of justice.

From my experience speaking to Birthright groups all these years, Taglit-Birthright Israel is a Zionist-Jewish educational body committed to facilitating an autonomous educational experience exposing their participants to contemporary Israeli reality. Far from shying away from it, the organization wants their participants to come to their own conclusions with regards to the Arab-Israeli Conflict, and to do that in a space with an educator presenting numerous and contradictory perspectives.

My friends in IfNotNow protesting American Jewish institutions for failing to expose them to the Occupation and the Palestinian story may not be wrong that many Jewish educators shy away from having an honest geopolitical conversation with their students because of a fear talking about Occupation and intractable conflict could hinder many from feeling positive about being a part of the Jewish people and their connection to our shared homeland.

But that’s just not the case with Taglit-Birthright and many of the Jewish institutions IfNotNow finds abhorrent in their Israel Education.

The very fact that myself and many others have been running this geopolitical program with Birthright trips for years shows the umbrella organization believes its participants can emotionally connect to their Jewish story while having an honest, intellectual engagement with modern Israel. This means it’s not just about the Cherry Tomato or Tel Aviv Pride, but its also about debating Israel’s moral failings, challenges with statehood and sovereignty, and debating Israel’s role in Palestinian life.

To my friends in IfNotNow, I really admire your passion. But some of your activism seems irresponsible and may be harming what I think you would want your peers on Birthright to do, just as you have done over the years, which is come to their own conclusions about Israel.

Birthright gives their participants the chance to explore the issue, at the very least in the geopolitical sessions I’ve been invited to lead over the years. I applaud the organization for doing so, and I look forward to being a part of this important educational experience with more groups this summer and the years ahead.

About the Author
Originally from Los Angeles, CA, Benji Davis is a Jerusalem based Jewish Educator and Professional. He holds a BA in Middle East Studies & History from the George Washington University and an MA in Jewish Education from the Hebrew University.
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