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Belen Fernandez

Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, published by Verso. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin Magazine.

The Birthright project: relocation and procreation

A "birthright" programme that sends youth to Israel promulgates a sense of "fabricated entitlement".
Last Modified: 02 Feb 2013 07:42
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu addressed a Birthright rally in Jerusalem, encouraging them to stay [Getty]

Over the last 13 years, the Taglit-Birthright Israel programme has escorted over 340,000 young Jewish people on 10-day, all-expenses-paid excursions to the Jewish state. During the trip, which costs approximately $3,000 USD per capita - ie five times the annual per capita income of Gaza in 2009 - youth are presented with a thoroughly airbrushed, fantastical version of the country and are encouraged to immigrate.

Eligibility requirements for the tour include possession of one Jewish grandparent and the ability to pass an interview without raising suspicions as to potential ulterior motives for participation in the project, such as determination to use it as a platform for pro-Palestinian activism.

The first irony that should come to mind when contemplating the programme is, of course, that persons who possess no physical connection to what is now Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories are magically endowed with a "birthright" not available to persons with, say, four Palestinian grandparents - or who were themselves born in the land in question.

The structuring of the Birthright programme around a fabricated entitlement exonerates the policy of ethnic cleansing upon which the Jewish state was erected and underscores the difficulty with which any sliver of unadulterated reality can penetrate the 10-day itinerary.

Vigorous dancing and hormonal encounters

The Birthright Israel Foundation's annual report for 2012 specifies that programme participants "discover themselves, in person and in spirit, as part of our homeland":

They befriend their Israeli peers, civilian and military, connecting with the day-to-day life of contemporary Israel. Distances shrink. Cultural differences fade. In laughter and reflection, a friendly embrace and a vigorous dance, they discover the meaning of Jewish community.

The centrality of the "friendly embrace" and "vigorous dance" - both understatements - to the experience has been discussed in numerous venues, among them US journalist Kiera Feldman's indispensable report for The Nation on her own Birthright trip in 2010.

Titled "The Romance of Birthright Israel", the report details the shrinking of distances between visiting Birthrighters and the Israeli soldiers assigned to accompany them to such educational destinations as "a fake Bedouin tent, where participants sleep crowded together, a setup conducive to first kisses".

In a conversation with Elan Ezrachi, a chief strategist in the implementation of "the mifgash - the encounter - between Jewish Israeli teens and their diaspora counterparts", Feldman is told that meetings between American youth and IDF soldiers "move very fast to what we call 'hormonal mifgashim'... Things happen".

Indeed, a January 2013 article in Haaretz on the frequency of Birthright hookups portrays the tour buses used during the trips as veritable pressure cookers in terms of amorous and sexual inclinations. Israeli soldier "K" is quoted as describing the bus arrangement as "a caricature": "I sat down on the bus, and one girl sat next to me. Another stood beside me and the ones in front turned around and leaned over me."

"According to Steinhardt's calculations, the Palestinians were invented at some point between 1968 and the present."

He also remarks: "[T]hese Jewish programmes are very well thought out. They really know what to do to get Americans emotional and excited."

Lynn Schusterman - billionaire Birthright donor, AIPAC veteran, and funder of illegal Israeli settlements - meanwhile informs Feldman that mifgash bonding enables Birthrighter insights into the soldiers' "moral and ethical standards". Feldman elaborates: "After the 2006 Lebanon war, Brandeis [University] researchers found that Birthright alumni were more likely than other young American Jews to view Israel's military conduct as justified."

This would seem to indicate that, with the right amount of hormones, justification can be found for close-range helicopter attacks on trucks loaded with children fleeing South Lebanon under orders from said moral and ethical military.

Characterising the essence of Birthright as "pleasure as a medium for Jewish nationalism", Feldman quotes sociologist Shaul Kelner's assessment of the political expediency of the focus on "fun and good feeling": "[T]he group's hedonism is... one of the most effective checks against a determinedly critical politics."

Inventing the invention of the Palestinians 

Other hormonal contributions to justice were on display at a recent Birthright rally and dance party in Jerusalem, infiltrated by journalists Lia Tarachansky and Max Blumenthal. Their video report for The Real News Network on the tragicomic scene features Blumenthal's suggestion to hedge fund manager Michael Steinhardt, Birthright's cofounder, that "it looks like these boys and girls like each other a lot... You might have a lot of Jewish babies coming out of this trip, eventually. A lot of marriages, a lot of relationships".

Steinhardt's response - "It doesn't have to be eventually; it can be tonight!" - is followed up by other endearing sound bites like: "[F]orty-five years ago, there was no Palestinian people... There was none. So this is a, a new phenomenon."

According to Steinhardt's calculations, then, the Palestinians were invented at some point between 1968 and the present. This arithmetic conveniently makes a non-issue out of Israel's ethnic cleansing of Palestinians and occupation of Palestinian land, symbolised most prominently by the years 1948 and 1967. After all, it is difficult to perpetrate such crimes against something that does not exist.

While the post-1967 era has seen continued massacres and territorial dispossession of creatures purporting to be Palestinian, other demographic groups have been treated to more subtle methods of population control. The recent admission by the Israeli government that Ethiopian Jews in Israel were injected with birth control drugs, often against their will, is presumably another topic that won't find its way into the Birthright curriculum.

Hinting as it does that the supposedly universal Jewish birthright may fluctuate in accordance with skin colour, this news might spoil the party.

Birthright Saudi Arabia?

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, whose government has pledged 100 million additional dollars to the Birthright programme, addressed the rally in Jerusalem as follows:

This is what we haven't seen here for thousands of years: the majority of the Jewish people living in the Jewish state, and I hope many of you will come and join us permanently.

As anyone with access to an encyclopedia can verify, the state of Israel did not exist thousands of years ago and was instead invented approximately 20 years prior to Steinhardt's estimated onset of the invention of the already-existing Palestinians.

The importance of the proliferation of an ahistorical and whitewashed narrative to the Zionist project is underscored in Netanyahu's instructions to his audience: "So, when you go out, and people tell you things about Israel, tell them about what you saw. Make sure when you go back home, tell them about the real Israel."

Judging from the interviews Blumenthal conducts with the euphoric revelers, the folks back home will soon be hearing about how Israel's illicit settlements are "just so cool", how the Birthright programme can make previously apathetic Jews feel "just like, overcome with, like, connection" to the "homeland" as well as high on "Zio-juana", and how the involvement of Israeli soldiers is "probably the best part of the trip".

Other sample lessons for those unacquainted with the fabricated "real Israel" can be found in Feldman's description of her Birthright guide:

Several times a day he said things like, "Arabs are those who originated from Saudi Arabia". Everything we saw out the tour bus window was "in the Bible", reinforcing Zionist claims to the land. He used "Palestinian" interchangeably with "terrorist".

It thus appears that the logical next step for billionaire Jewish philanthropists and likeminded souls might be to organise all-expenses-paid Birthright Saudi Arabia tours for Palestinians in the hopes of wooing them into permanent relocation to the kingdom.

As for the romanticisation and eroticisation of militarism occurring in the context of Birthright Israel, this is something that has also been witnessed in Israeli army social media campaigns that deploy nudity and sexuality as arousing facades for the state's criminal bellicosity. In 2007, a Maxim magazine spread offered scantily clad female soldiers as a means of enhancing Israel's approval rating in the US market.

If only justice for Palestinians were as sexy.

Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, released by Verso in 2011. She is a member of the Jacobin Magazine editorial board, and her articles have appeared in the London Review of Books blogThe BafflerAl Akhbar English and many other publications.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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