Birthright: A Half-Truth

Samuel Spitz

Two weeks ago the Israeli Government announced a $100 million pledge to the Taglit-Birthright program, money that will provide thousands of Jewish youth the opportunity to tour Israel for “free.”  Having recently returned from a Taglit-Birthright trip, it is imperative that I share the following reflection with fellow alumni and those considering taking advantage of this opportunity:                                                                                   

During my time on Birthright I went through a range of emotions that I’ve since been trying to understand. At times I was proud and at others ashamed. I was elated at the sight of beautiful Jerusalem, but frightened, angry and ashamed to see checkpoints, fences and walls imprison those with whom we share the land. I think that this conflict of emotion is reflective of Israel’s tumultuous nature. It is a place of great meaning and hope for the Jewish people, but also of tremendous pain and suffering.

Though Israel’s flaws are hidden from Birthright participants during their tours, I assure you that they do exist as in any other country. Regardless of whether or not one agrees with Israel’s politics, it is important that my generation understand that there exists another facet of Israel to which Americans are seldom exposed: the Arab perspective. Allowing young people access to both sides of this complex issue is requisite for progress and the only hope for a future peace. A fair judge cannot reach a verdict before he hears the defense, so how can my generation expect to understand this conflict if we know only half the story?

I do not write this piece for the purpose of persuading anybody to adopt my personal beliefs. Rather, I send this as encouragement for all of us to seek out a divergent opinion, left or right, so that we may open ourselves to the concerns of our ideological adversaries. Closed mindedness creates misunderstanding, which in turn breeds the hatred that nurtures violence.

I urge you to examine an objective history of the conflict, to speak about Israel’s troubles with friends, family and teachers, and to reflect on these issues so that they may remain fresh in your mind. Let us all generate meaningful dialogue with like-minded people, but also with those who will challenge us. If Israel is to be the “home” of the Jewish people and America’s greatest ally in the Middle East then we must give it the attention that it deserves. We must act to ensure that it is a land of justice and prosperity for all of its inhabitants, so that it may endure peacefully.

In order to make my generation capable of fighting for a better Israel, programs such as Taglit-Birthright must change. They need to respectfully acknowledge alternative perspectives, nurture hope for peace and speak of Arabs as human beings, not as callous barbarians and worse. On my tour, speakers, guides and soldiers made abhorrent, Islamophobic claims such as “peace in Israel will happen when the Arabs learn to love their children more than they hate the Jews,” “the Lebanese are a s— people,” and “Muslims cannot accept a Jewish state because Islam preaches that Jews are an inferior race.” Messages like these hamper open-mindedness and receptivity. Birthright’s dissemination of malicious fictions to a largely uninformed audience is irresponsible because it nurtures dangerous misconceptions that sow the seeds of hatred.           

This is unacceptable.

As young leaders we cannot afford to maintain a position of indifference. We cannot remain on the sidelines while our Jewish and Palestinian brothers and sisters tear each other apart. Peace in Israel will not arise from any nation’s military might. This conflict will not disappear with the construction or destruction of walls. It will not come to an end by tightening sieges or removing ethnic populations. And most importantly it will not be resolved by any one of us individually … but by a generation of proud Jews and Arabs collectively.

To those who see peace in Israel as naïve, I ask you to remember Martin Luther King, Mohandas Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. I ask you to open your mind to a better tomorrow for the people of Israel: Jewish, Muslim and Christian. I ask you to contemplate the other side of the story, not for myself, but for the children who suffer on both sides of the settlement walls, so that they too may one day live in peace. A better Israel begins with us.