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Birthright Program Comes Under Sharp Criticism as Five Participants Walk Out to Visit Occupied Palestinian Area

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
August 2018

In June, five participants in the Birthright Israel program, which brings young people on expense-paid visits to Israel, walked out on the program to take a tour of the segregated West Bank city of Hebron, led by dissident IDF veterans from the group Breaking The Silence, which opposes Israel’s 5l-year occupation. They wanted to see what the Birthright program, which is financed by such supporters of the occupation as casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, wanted to keep from them.  
In an article, “Walking Out Was The Right Thing To Do” (The Forward, July 3, 2018), Avram Burg, who served as speaker of the Knesset and chairman of the Jewish Agency, but now supports separation of religion and state, an end to the occupation and equality for all those under Israeli control, regardless of background, provided this assessment: “They saw the checkpoints, the streets Palestinians aren’t allowed to walk on and the caged windows that protect Palestinians from settler violence.”  
The five female Birthright participants who visited Hebron urged their fellow American Jews to refuse to cooperate with pro-occupation propaganda enterprises like Birthright: “It is morally irresponsible to participate in an institution that is not willing to grapple with reality on the other side of the wall. That’s why we’re on our way to Hebron now.”  
In Burg’s view, “These five brave women seem to have realized something that I failed to see … Israel doesn’t have a public relations crisis, it has a moral crisis. Instead of being drawn into Sheldon Adelson’s free trip, these women insisted on acting according to our Jewish values. As Jewish women, they could have indulged their privilege and enjoyed a fun week in Israel. But instead, they chose to acknowledge their responsibility for the oppression of the Palestinians living under the occupation and heed their moral obligation to oppose it. Birthright, like every Hasbara project, is a practice in augmented reality. It is Israel’s attempt to talk without walking the walk, to be perceived as a liberal democracy while imposing a military regime on Palestinians in the territories and expanding settlements in the West Bank, all to get the international community and world Jewry to support — or at least not interfere with — what Israeli conservatives see as Israel’s birthright: controlling the lives and future of millions of Palestinians.”  
In April, Sheldon Adelson gave Birthright $70 million, its largest single donation. Adelson, who once said that he wished he had served in the Israeli military rather than the U.S. Army, opposes the creation of a Palestinian state. Birthright seems to be falling under his influence. In November 2017, the Reform movement was notified that it had been dropped as a certified trip provider. Also in November, Birthright stopped including meetings with Palestinians. One Palestinian who had spoken to Birthright groups, wrote in Haareta that, “Birthright is going to be exactly what it’s always been expected to be, a sterile Utopia which reflects the reality in Israel-Palestine even less than it used to.”  
Avram Burg, speaking of the young women who abandoned Birthright, declared: “These brave young people are fixing the relationship my generation has insisted on breaking. This is a sign of hope for an Israel without an occupation based on equality and justice for both Israelis and Palestinians.” •  
Israeli Intellectuals Call for the World to “Intervene on Behalf of the Palestinians”  
More and more Israelis are lamenting the policies of their government. In an article in The Guardian (June 29, 2018), Ilana Hammerman, a respected writer and translator, and David Harel, vice-president of the Israel Academy of Sciences, call on the world to “intervene on behalf of the Palestinians.”  
They write: “The State of Israel is facing a catastrophic situation which could, alarmingly soon, lead to extensive bloodshed. … We represent a group of intellectuals and cultural figures central to Israeli society.,. We are patriotic Israeli citizens who love our country … We are horrified by the situation and fear deeply for our lives and the lives of our offspring and for the lives of the 13 million Jews and Arabs who live here. … Ever since 1967, not a single Israeli government has put a stop to the expansion of settlements in the occupied West Bank. Moreover, in recent years, the official and openly stated ideological policy of the elected Israeli government has it that this land, from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River, belongs in entirety to the Jewish people, wherever they may be.”  
Hammerman and Harel argue that, “In the spirit of this ideology, the processes involving oppression, expulsion and ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians living in the West Bank are broadening and deepening... Israeli courts are in the process of legitim­izing the destruction of entire villages and the Knesset is passing new laws that steadily decrease the ability of the courts to have a say at all. Others legitimize the additional expropriation of private Palestinian land in favor of the settlements built on them. These acts of one sided expropriation violate those parts of international law that protect civilians of occupied territories, and some are even in violation of Israeli law.”  
Fifty one years of military rule on the West Bank has seen Israel take over large quantities of land and has placed more than 600,000 Israeli citizens there in hundreds of settlements. It supplies them with roads, water and electricity and has financed their health, education and cultural institutions. It has given these settlers the same civil and political rights enjoyed by citizens living within its own sovereign territory. At the same time, Israel is squeezing the living space of Palestinian residents, who enjoy no civil or political rights.  
In calling for international intervention, Hammerman and Harel declare that, “Since all the actions are being carried out in violation of international law, the resulting situation is no longer just an internal issue. The international community have taken many decisions intended to curb these actions, but none has ever been accompanied by enforcement mechanisms … And so a destructive violent and exploitive reality is becoming the norm in these areas. We, who are located in the midst of this reality, believe the international community must help, since that community alone is responsible for enforcing compliance with its treaties and with the decisions of its institutions … If peace is not established in this part of the world very soon … there will be no future for us and the Palestinians.” •

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