By Right of Birth

From the archive (legacy material)

Martin Lukacs | McGill Daily | 2004

This summer, Martin Lukacs travelled to Israel and Palestine in search of answers
Welcome home.
Its odd to hear this as you enter a country you have never set foot in. These were the words I heard as I passed through customs at Ben-Gurion Airport and found my hand clasped in a warm, strong handshake by Schlomo Momo Lifshitz a paunchy, muscular former Army Colonel, and current director of Oranim Birthright.
As you are a Jew, this is your rightful homeland, he finished saying to me in a thick, Israeli accent, before moving on to greet another person with similar words. He would reappear over the next days, completing his message: I could, if I wanted, claim my Israeli citizenship at any point. I would be issued a passport, given an envelope full of cash, and the keys to a subsidized flat. Most importantly, I was here, in his words, not to support us, but to be supported.
I had arrived in Israel for Birthright, a joint venture by the Israeli government, North American Jewish Organizations, and a dozen Jewish philanthropists. It was created to forge connections with the DiasporaJewish community by strengthening, in their eyes, the image of Israel.
Since its inception, it has brought 70,000 Jewish North Americans between the ages of 18 and 26 who have never been to Israel on an all-expenses-paid ten-day discovery tour.
I chose to go on the trip because I wanted to join the thousands passionately seeking a just and peaceful resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Because I had no previous emotional or religious connection to Israel, I genuinely felt that I might be able to uncover the humanity behind the narratives of both peoples. On my return, I hoped to speak of the realities excluded by those narratives.
The ten days were a whirlwind. We saw beautiful, religious relics, walked through ancient cities, and enjoyed the Israeli nightlife. Crisscrossing the country, we watched from bus windows as the surrounding geography transformed into a world populated by biblical heroes and modern warriors. We visited Kibbutzim, climbed Masada at dawn, saw beautiful Haifa and modern Tel Aviv. We were made privy to that unique achievement of the Jewish people, an active remembrance of history.
For many, the most exciting part was meeting and bonding with the eight Israeli soldiers who joined us for five days. In Israel, soldiers are held up like gods in what amounts to a civil religion. Customs, stories, and legends combine to create a battle mythos, sustaining their image across the world. Throughout the trip, we were regaled with stories of their miraculous triumphs.
Birthright came to a close with many people taking the opportunity to extend their flight date. Most went to party in Tel Aviv, or in the resort city of Eilat. Some went to work on a Kibbutz. A few went to join programs where they could serve in the army for a few weeks. Most, however, went home, in a daze, convinced that Israel was well and good.
The majority of those on the trip unlike me had been raised religiously, or, at the least, had not been estranged from secular Jewish life. They were reared on stories of the ancient glories of the Jewish people in the holy land. They were infused with a sense of their 2,000 year exile, of religious persecution, inquisitions, blood libels, pogroms, and a near total annihilation during the Holocaust.
For them, the organizers had ensured Birthright was a powerful, emotional affirmation of everything once learned about the redemption of that history of suffering Israel. The majority left celebrating a version of Israel a mythology, really they had known all their lives.
Sins of omission
I was moved to tears during Shabbat services one serene Friday night. It happened in front of the Western Wall, the last remnant of the Second Temple. For the first time in my life, I understood the beauty of a dream for a nation that in its nobility would give dignity to the suffering and death of millions.
Birthright and its narrative embody this dream. In so doing, however, it perpetuates a hypocrisy seething under our understanding of the Israel/Palestine conflict. Israel is not just a nation of victims, but now a nation that also victimizes. Birthright does a disservice by refusing to acknowledge that Palestinians and Israelis are fully implicated in each others lives. Their past, present, and future are intertwined. Their shared nightmarish course can only be altered if they awake together.
In its ten days, Birthright does not acknowledge this fact. We learned nothing about the growing Refusenik movement, made up of soldiers refusing to serve in the West Bank or Gaza Strip. And we were not informed about how, after their mandatory two to three years of service are finished, many former soldiers travel the world to cleanse their memory of their military years. We were not told that Israel, funded by the U.S., with an armed forces unlike any in the
Middle-East, has not felt militarily threatened in decades.
During the trip we heard nothing of Palestinians, save for a power point presentation actually entitled The Middle East in 30 minutes, during which an expert reduced the problems of the region to the fact that a tiny nation of helpless Jews is perpetually set upon by sanguinary, irrational Arabs.
I sank into despair when I realized the entire Palestinian-Israeli conflict seems to be marred by this failure to reckon with the presence and needs of another people – with its land, its history of suffering, and emotional and political investments in that land. We were never provoked to chant, Kill the Arabs. Nor were we told in so many words, Hate them. Yet, for ten days, I was taught a subtle discounting, a not-seeing of the other people.
When we feel threatened, we define our enemies as less than fully human. It is only when we shed the rationalizations and justifications that deny us the capacity to see the other as fully human can we meet them as partners.
I believe it is vital for anyone who cares to see an end to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict Jew and non-Jew alike to acknowledge the Birthright experience, engage themselves with the modes of perceiving, knowing, and feeling into which I was initiated, and finally grasp how, if one remains mired in these worldviews, all that will ever be possible is continual stagnation or mutual annihilation.
The Story of Sadaam
In Palestine, I discovered the side of Israel that I was not shown or told about during Birthright. Working with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) and Taayush two groups who support Palestinians in non-violent direct action I expected to meet one child after another whose only ambition in life was be to become a suicide bomber.
Instead, I befriended children who were, despite suffering so much so early in life, full of that natural buoyancy you find in children everywhere. I met future-soccer players, engineers, and politicians. I only met one young boy who wanted to become a suicide bomber.
I took an instant liking to 13-year old Sadaam. When ISM passed through his village, his family took me in for the night. I had not seen him at that days protest, where all the young boys had been throwing stones at the soldiers. I asked him why, and he shyly confided that he was too scared. I enjoyed his sensitivity and mature disposition. He had an endearingly serious way of speaking English. Often he would search for minutes in his Arabic-English dictionary forthe exact word he wanted.
I asked him about his plans for the future, and at first he told me he would like to sell fruits and vegetables in the market. But that night, as we both tried, unsuccessfully, to fall asleep, I caught him reading a small piece of paper. On it was written: We do not sing the praises of death but the hymns of life. I made him promise to tell me what it meant in the morning, despite the fact that I had already surmised its nature.
Near dawn, we both gave up trying to fall asleep. We joined his uncle for a glass of hot, sugary tea. At my request, Sadaam and I walked behind his house, past a braying donkey tied to a fig tree, and down into a valley. Not more than 500 metres away was the so-called security fence, which I wanted to take pictures of. His father had told me the night before that, since the barrier was built, he had lost his job in Israel, which he had held for 25 years (he was always on good relations with his employer), and the olive groves that had been passed through generations of his family had been confiscated and the trees uprooted. Now, he was finding it hard to feed his family.
I asked Sadaam what he thought the barrier would do to Palestinians.
In a voice wise beyond his years he replied, We know how it is in Gaza. Carefully, I began questioning him about the Hamas pamphlet that I had caught him reading. Finally, he confided that he dreamed about becoming a suicide bomber. I told him I was Jewish. He thought for a little, and then shrugged. He pointed at the barrier and said that it was at the people who had built it that he was angry.
I have no doubt that Sadaam can fulfill his dreams. I see him exploding his frail body among Israelis, fulfilling the dictates of a twisted Hamas creed. I can see him imagining himself rousing the consciousness of Israel and the world about the utter injustice of his situation. Sadaam is the terrorist I was taught to fear and hate during Birthright, a mindless agent of hatred. In fact, he is a mere boy, whose life is so painful that it does not seem to him to be worth living. His desire to be a suicide bomber is not borne of an intractable hatred but in direct response to an occupation that does not give him a chance to live.
Unpacking anti-Semitism
The morning after an open discussion with some men about Jewish opposition to the occupation, a relative of one of the men brought her sobbing child to meet me. The boys father was in jail. Being extremely scared of the Israeli soldiers as a result, the mother had thought contact with a good Jew might alleviate his fright.
There are many other similar incidents that bring to light the shaky claims made by apologists for Israeli aggression: Palestinians are intractable enemies of the Jews; Palestianians refuse to live with or by the side of Israelis; Palestinians raise their children to feel likewise.
I dont relate these stories to whitewash the anti-Semitism that does exist. Rather, I want to show that if we speak of a hatred of Jews, we should not speak about the fanatic, irrational hatred to which Jews are so well accustomed a hatred of Jews as Jews. The anti-Semitism that exists in Palestine is motivated by a hatred of occupiers and colonizers who happen to be Jewish.
Words for two peoples
Where should we go after the last frontiers?/ Where should the birds fly after the last sky?/ Where should the plants sleep after the last breath of air?/ We will write our names with scarlet steam./ We will cut off the hand of the song to be finished by our flesh./ We will die here, here in the last passage./ Here and here our blood will plant its olive tree.
What Jewish person could not emphasize with the lines of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, which express the reality of a people driven into perpetual exile, who carry in their hearts an agonizing longing for a homeland, a dream as worthy as any other of a birthright? But, according to Ehud Barak, former Prime Minister of Israel, his country is not yet ready for this poetry.
Before I said goodbye to Sadaam, I told him about a prayer Jews fervently recite at the end of Passover, the holiday commemorating the liberation of Jews from Egypt, in which they faithfully pledge to meet next year, in Jerusalem. Although I have never seriously made thisprayer, I promised Sadaam I would in the upcoming year. My prayer, however, will be slightly different: it embodies the hope of two peoples, not just one, a hope of two homelands, existing peacefully without concrete walls between them. It is, I admit, a prayer founded on infinite optimism, which can only be sustained by a refusal to give in to despair. Even so, I will say it with faith: Next year, in Palestine, side by side.