Jews telling other Jews what Arabs feel

Indoctrination on the Zionist Birthright programs is legendary (witness my 2009 report that details the Jewish role-playing of Arabs to “understand” the occupation).

Now a new book, Tours That Bind: Diaspora, Pilgrimage, and Israeli Birthright Tourism, expands this ideology further but certainly explains the reasons many Jews return home with a fundamentally distorted view of the Middle East (and the Zionist teachers are fine with that):

At the heart of Kelner’s inquiry is a suspicion that must be shared by many people who hear about Birthright, and probably many people who go on it: Is it a kind of indoctrination? The very fact that the program is free for participants—funded by individual philanthropists, community groups, and the Israeli government—makes the question plausible. [Editor’s note: Tablet’s parent organization, Nextbook, Inc., has partnered with Birthright in the past and may do so again in the future.] Everyone knows there is no such thing as a free lunch: Is the price of this one adherence to a particular political line? “In light of the common assumption, shared by proponents and detractors alike, that state- and community-sponsored tours of Israel are a means of enlisting Diaspora Jews as partisans in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Kelner asks, “should we not expect the [tour] guides to ignore Palestinian points of view, to present only the Israeli government’s perspective, and to discourage tourists from expressing dissent?”

Kelner’s answer is no, and for several reasons. First, he shows, the program guidelines emphasize that Birthright trips—which, though funded by Birthright, are organized by other groups, especially Hillel—are meant to be educational experiences, not political ones, and the tour guides seem to take this seriously. In fact, Kelner shows, much of the value of a student’s experience depends on the personality and principles of the guide she is assigned. He tells the story of one guide, Ra’anan (all the names in the book are pseudonyms), who takes a group of young people to the “separation wall” that divides Jewish and Arab areas near the Gilo neighborhood of Jerusalem. The Israeli guide goes out of his way to explain both the Israelis’ perceived need for the wall, to stop suicide terrorists, and the Palestinians’ justified resentment of it. “The reality today [is] that if I’m an Arab farmer,” Ra’anan explains, “I want to go to my plantation, I need to go through a security checkpoint because of the security fence that those Israelis built to me.” (Here, as throughout the book, Kelner reproduces speech literally, both Israeli grammatical mistakes and the torrential “likes” used by the Americans.)

Still, Kelner observes, this admirable even-handedness exists within the fundamentally Jewish and Israeli orientation of the tour. The students hear about Palestinian grievances from Ra’anan, not from a Palestinian who is actually affected by the separation wall. In general, Kelner writes, they are introduced to many facets of Israeli life—nature preserves, army bases, discos, restaurants, beaches—but hear about Arabs only in the context of “the conflict.” As he puts it, “even in the most balanced of scenarios ”¦ when the discourse paints both Israelis and Arabs in shades of gray, the experience of Israel, and Israel alone, occurs in 3-D Technicolor with Surround Sound.”

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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