The façade of the birthright tour as exposed by a college friend and his photographs

It’s ‘travel abroad’ season again and an ethnically Jewish friend of mine recently took part in one of this years’ birthright trips. I managed to preview some of his photographs.

It’s disheartening to see how easy it is for a white American college student to visit Israel whereas the indigenous natives of Palestine can’t even approach the borders for fear of being turned away, shot at, or simply made to wait in limbo, spending days and even weeks in crowded cabs just 500 feet from the final destination. Here we are, reading blog posts on our computers thousands of miles away from the homes many of us grew up in. While a group of eccentric, excited, and non-Israeli students get a free ten-week stay in the shiniest parts of Tel Aviv, Palestinian grandparents are left to experience life in their homeland through slanted news broadcasts and distressing documentaries. Refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, or Egypt can almost smell the gardens of their pre-Nakba homes but Israeli-imposed limitations keep them on the other side of the border. The photographs bring memories but they bring more frustration than anything else.

In one of the photos, giggling students riding on the backs of camels look off into the sandy and serene distance. I remember my first time seeing a camel in Palestine. I was nine years old and getting what I call the typical Arab macho haircut when a camel trompsed past the windows. I couldn’t stop laughing at seeing a camel in an urban environment, but that sense of enjoyment has since evaporated. The worst feeling is knowing that you might not see an out-of-place camel like that ever again — not because you’re incapable, not because they don’t exist anymore, but simply because your heritage, your culture, your identity stands in Israel’s way.

In another photograph, a resort with crystal blue waters sits on the beachfront. The dense, salty seawater keeps my friend and his tour mates afloat. I remember jumping into that very same sea seven years ago, probably just a few hundred meters away. The jellyfish that would wash up on the shore always gave me a scare, forcing myself to promise that I’ll never get close to the water again. But the jellyfish no longer hold me back. Israel’s occupation, which lies in direct contravention of human rights law, such as the freedom of movement, is.

A third photo is of the Western Wall. Just meters away is the Dome of the Rock which I visited only once in the past and am now forbidden to enter the structure or even the city. In a following photograph, my friend poses with the Dome of the Rock in the background. Why has the Israeli government relegated this holy site to just a tourist photo-op? And if he can visit it, why can’t I?

Picture #125 was of an armed Israeli citizen. Picture #163 glorifies Israel’s military history. Picture #167 shows my friend smiling and clenching a mounted machine gun on a tank. In a few other photographs, his tour mates pose with Israeli soldiers.

These photographs are part of the greater façade behind which the true Israeli identity lies. After the students finish touring historic military compounds, I doubt they’ll tour the slums inhabited by Ethiopian Jews or Asian foreign workers who’ve been so stigmatized from the rest of society that the Israeli government has already begun plans to deport them to their countries of origin. After they freely worship at the Western Wall, their tour guides probably won’t take them to the East side of Jerusalem where Israeli police officers randomly choose Arab men and women and deny them entry into al-Aqsa Mosque on the basis that their language doesn’t sound Hebrew enough. I bet they’re told to look away from the West Bank when walking on hilltops. I’m sure the soldiers they posed with didn’t tell them about how often they used phosphorus weapons on the civilian population of the Gaza Strip. Glorious indeed.

Since accepting reality isn’t part of the birthright itinerary, I wonder what the purpose of going actually is, especially if you have absolutely no connection to the land whatsoever. Besides being a heavily-funded PR attempt to convince people that Israel is a happy place, this tour definitely exemplifies the inherent hypocrisy on which Israel was founded: we will practice our form of heritage and even steal some of theirs, but we won’t allow them any chance to experience theres. I’ll be sure to suggest some new destinations for the birthright tour for a more wholesome, realistic, and objective view of Israel as it exists today.

Sami Kishawi

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