At the airport, we kept looking around for more people to join us, but the clock was ticking and eventually we had to get through security. Of the 40 people who had registered for the trip, just 15 had shown up, the rest presumably deterred by what Israelis call the “situation” in Gaza.
I was going on Birthright, a free 10 day trip to Israel for Jewish young adults ages 18-26 funded by wealthy donors including American casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and heavily subsidized by the state of Israel. The day our flight left for Tel Aviv, Hamas had stopped shooting rockets into Israel and Israel had ceased air strikes in the Gaza Strip. While we were there, the ceasefire was extended once and then crumbled. More than 200 rockets and mortars were shot at Israel from Gaza over the course of our trip – killing a 4-year old and injuring eight. Retaliatory airstrikes carried out by the Israeli Air Force killed dozens of Palestinians and leveled countless buildings to rubble in the Gaza Strip.
Birthright has a reputation for being a propaganda machine, hellbent on having its participants see Israel in a strictly positive light, having them marry Israelis, and encouraging them to move to Israel. Early on, I realized the Birthright agenda was going to have a hard time portraying Israel as a utopia given that these days, the first thing that greets you upon arrival at Ben-Gurion Airport is a large sandwich board-style sign that reads “SHELTER”, with a stick figure sprinting in the direction of a bomb shelter.
With that being said, on the bus from the airport, I was convinced that Birthright was going to chalk up a win with our bunch when I caught a glimpse of the group’s apparent disinterest in the plight of Israel’s Palestinian neighbors. We drove a stretch of highway that ran parallel to the eyesore security wall that was built to stop suicide bombers coming from the West Bank from entering Israel. Though suicide bombings have slowed to a halt since its construction which began in the early 2000’s, the hideous concrete partition zig-zags through Palestinian land, snaking through olive groves that were razed for its construction – and cutting Palestinians off from their loved ones on the Israeli side of the wall. Every person on the bus was too busy fiddling with Israeli SIM cards, flirting, or sleeping to notice it. I fumed at the scene and slouched in my seat, grumpy after 36 hours of sleepless travel and at the indifference.
Sleep fixes many things, though, and I was pleased when the next day, a fellow Seattle-ite posed a question about the treatment of Palestinians under Israeli occupation in the West Bank. My group’s open-mindedness appeared again when a handful of folks snuck into the Muslim Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem (explicitly forbidden by Birthright – only sightseeing in the Jewish Quarter is allowed) during our lunch break and deemed it “awesome”. During a lecture given by a staunch Israeli advocate about the current state of affairs in the Middle East, ten minutes were spent peppering the lecturer with questions about how Gaza is supposed to build a sustainable economy if its borders with Egypt and Israel are closed the majority of the time.
Then I learned that like me, our Israeli tour guide “Dov” had majored in Middle Eastern Studies as well (and was also a singer-songwriter to boot!). A true renaissance man, he could give you the architectural rundown of a column in the midst of some ruins and also what kind of bird had just perched atop it.
Dov was able to wax poetic on both the merits and drawbacks of the Israeli Law of Return and the Palestinian Right of Return. He took us to see the Tomb of King David, a Jewish holy site, but also to the Cenacle, the site of the Last Supper, built directly upstairs from the Tomb, which has functioned as both a church and a mosque over the past thousand years. He pointed out where Arab villages were before the establishment of Israel. He, like all other non-Ultra Orthodox Israelis served his time in the military but also subscribes to Ha’Aretz, Israel’s leading left-wing newspaper. Having a tour guide who was fluent in Arabic as well as Hebrew and English made me realize that our trip was a bit different than others I’d heard about.
On Birthright, there are five activities around which every trip is structured: Yad Vashem – Israel’s Holocaust Memorial, The Western Wall, The National & Military Cemeteries, King Herod’s desert palace of Masada, and David Ben Gurion’s grave. Ben-Gurion is buried in his beloved Negev Desert in Israel’s south which was scratched from our itinerary (along with two days in Tel Aviv) given that they were within range of rocket fire from Gaza. Though missing those quintessential Israeli experiences may have sheltered us temporarily from rocket fire, it ultimately didn’t matter.
On the seventh day, in Jerusalem, the rocket sirens started howling. I was outside our hotel with a couple of friends and Dov, listening to Israeli singer-songwriter Meir Ariel and discussing his music. Above us three Blackhawk choppers roared mere feet above the surrounding buildings. We knew the ceasefire had collapsed a few hours prior and the military helicopters were an ominous sight (later I learned that they were carrying the Israeli negotiations team that had been pulled from ceasefire talks in Cairo). In the middle of one of Ariel’s songs the sirens started their roller coaster drone. Dov looked defeated and sighed. “Alright guys, go in.” In Jerusalem, you have three minutes to get to a bomb shelter before a rocket from Gaza hits. In other parts of the country, it’s as little as 15 seconds. The shelter was in the basement of our hotel, had a door like the ones you see guarding the vault at banks, and had 18 inch thick concrete walls. It also doubled as the hotel’s synagogue.
As I sat down there, the rockets ceased being an abstract thing and “firing indiscriminately at civilians” took on a very new and personal meaning. After 10 minutes in the bomb shelter with families, people shirtless, my roommate with a toothbrush in his mouth, we went upstairs with a better idea of what it means to be Israeli, but not quite in the way that Birthright intended.
Birthright certainly has an agenda, but sometimes the groups are well informed enough to realize that the situation on the ground in Israel isn’t as cut and dry as they present it. Sometimes a brilliant tour guide who can quote the Qu’ran as easily as the Torah slips through their screening process. Sometimes a rocket falls to remind groups that Israel isn’t a utopia – it’s an occupying nation that is despised by its neighbors. For now, there’s a long term ceasefire in place, though most people foresee another Gaza war in the coming years.
Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated 19 years ago today by a Jewish extremist. Peace died with him, some say. As a founding father of the Jewish nation, he was the only political figure with the legitimacy to make concessions to the Palestinians in return for peace. Since his death, Israel has witnessed a government that has moved farther and farther to the right, a West Bank occupation that is slowly strangling the possibility of a two state solution, and peace talk after peace talk that have crumbled.
In August, I picked an olive leaf off a tree in Rabin Square, the site of his assassination in Tel Aviv. I keep it in my wallet to remind me that Israel needs level headed people who believe in peace, not in a handful of Israelis and thousands of Palestinians being killed every few years. Israel needs people who believe in a solution, not the status quo. So off I go.