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Birthright should Promote Human Rights not Occupation

August 12, 2010 – 11:25 am126 Comments

By Larry Stillman

In July, Coteret, an Israeli news site, reported that Australian young people were taken on a tour of central Hebron by Birthright/Talglit, a program that has brought hundreds of thousands of young Jews to Israel.  The video featured interviews with some of the participants and an Orthodox, American organiser.   The tour was run by Chabad, who have a long history in Hebron, in conjunction with Israel Express and the Zionist Federation of Australia.

The video, which is still available on Coteret even though it was removed from it’s original source at WeJew.com, probably when it twigged that the visit was controversial, is particularly scary because of the naïveté of the young people – who think they are in Israel. The interviewer and organiser share a pumped up view of eternal rights in Hebron, despite the reality of extraordinary injustice to others to achieve this. I’d love my son to go on ‘Birthright’, but not on such propaganda tours that dehumanize Palestinians.

That ‘downtown’ Hebron, around the Tomb and Mosque of the Patriarchs or the old Casbah is a flashpoint, is an understatement.  Of course, Hebron has a sorry history in modern times, going back to the massacres of 1929, but this is no excuse for current behaviour by ‘settlers’. The Goldstein massacre in 1994 only intensified the tensions between the communities. The Israeli army has to maintain a very large presence to secure the safe passage and complete dominance of a few hundred settlers who make life hell for the Palestinian residents and have no compunction in taking over homes.  Economically, the locals have suffered enormously. Acts of vandalism and violence by settlers including their children are well-documented. Checkpoint abuses are frequent and monitored by organizations such as Mahsom Watch.

The tour was conducted in clear breach of  ‘Birthright’ policy.  Their website has the following stipulation: ” Our tours do not travel to or through areas of the West Bank, Gaza or East Jerusalem, other than the Jewish Quarter of the Old City (changes are possible when permitted by the security authorities).”   It’s pretty scary that these tours are being hijacked for pumping kids full of the most extreme form of  ‘birthright’ Zionism. Alignment with current Israeli politics of repression or an absolutist view of religious history are not a very good example of respect for the rights of other people.

It also appears that Birthright kids have done other exciting things like visit an outpost overlooking Gaza and use it as a ‘photo opportunity’.  How nice. Nothing like an Arab refugee encampment in the background. Of course, technically, such visits are within Israel, but it gives the impression that Birthright is about short-term brainwashing of young people with the hope that they become strong converts and unquestioning supporters of Israel.

Palestinians are real people whose rights are trampled on, and an example that has hit the headlines has been the   destruction of a  ‘unrecognized’  shantytown of  very poor Bedouin in the northern Negev.  High school volunteers took part in this destruction.   A hard line is being undertaken towards such settlements to make way for JNF forests and later on, Israeli housing  ( some call this ‘greenwashing’ of Palestinian presence). One Israeli critics calls such actions ethnic cleansing and forced urbanization .  I find that kind of language painful to use, but it appears accurate.

It needs to be remembered that the Australian JNF has a special association with the Negev as well, and supports community development for the Bedouin, though the effects of such community development are disputed.  Whatever the case, we are vicariously linked with what goes on.  Of course, I am not associating Taglit-Birthright or the Australian JNF with such extremism, but they are all part of a disturbing pattern that can be no longer ignored as Israel embarks on an all-out campaign to ‘explain’ itself.  Such things can’t be easily explained away.  We should stand up for the underdog in Israel.

My opinion of the presence of young Australians in Hebron and others having photo ops over a community in a state of siege, or the presence of Israeli kids in the destruction of a village may make you very angry because I take the view such acts they are antithetical to human rights by Israel and in the Occupied Territories.

Of course, vehement anti-Zionists argue that these activities and attitudes are inherent in  Zionism.  I actually think that Zionism is far more heterogeneous but it is undeniable that something is fundamentally wrong in the examples I have cited.

Where do we go from here?  If the solution is ultimately to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinian people, then what should Birthright be doing to promote peace making and the fulfilment of a peaceful and democratic dream for all communities?  There are many other organizations in Israel (and even on the West Bank) which could both provide impressionable young people with exposure to identity the meaning of  human rights and democracy for both communities.

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