What exactly is Birthright Unplugged?
Birthright Unplugged is an educational project that primarily seeks to expose young Jewish people to the realities of Palestinian life and to humanize the situation through encounters with a variety of Palestinian people. In six days, we visit Palestinian cities, villages, and refugee camps and help participants develop an understanding of daily life under occupation.
Why do you think it’s important for young Jews to meet Palestinians and see what’s happening in the Occupied Territories?
It’s important for human beings to be compassionate about other human beings everywhere, and to expose themselves to as many realities and experiences as possible. We have chosen to work mostly with young Jewish North Americans because this is a group that is constantly targeted for trips that fulfill Israeli state objectives and have an allegiance to an unquestioned Zionism. People who go through these programs, and many Jewish people who never go to the area at all but who have grown up in the US, are missing much of the picture. We want to help people develop a fuller sense of what is happening in Israel/Palestine, and in order to do this, it is essential to understand the experiences of people who have been living there for centuries.
Clearly this is a trip for Jews, but do you also see it is a Jewish trip?
While Birthright Unplugged is designed for young Jewish North Americans, we welcome participants of all ages and backgrounds. So we are not necessarily exclusively a trip for Jews. Is the trip a Jewish trip? Well, the cofounders and facilitators of the trip are Jewish, and while the two of us have very different relationships to Judaism and Jewishness, we both would not be doing this project if we were not Jewish. Our inspiration comes partly from the commitment to social justice found throughout Jewish history, tradition, and community. Our history has taught us that we must work for justice for people everywhere and at all times. To that extent, yes, it is a Jewish trip.
We recognize also that events and interactions depend on the people experiencing them. We both lead other delegations that are not mostly Jewish people, and we follow very similar itineraries. The trips have different characters because the participants are different.
How did you two come to do this work?
We met while doing human rights work with the International Women’s Peace Service (there are many factors and experiences that brought us each to that work, but we won’t go back that far right now). With IWPS, we led short delegations (mostly day trips) for many different people who passed through the area, and we each started to work on other longer delegations as well. We found that it was virtually impossible for people to come to the West Bank and not have an incredibly moving experience, so we started to expand our work to include more of this educational/encounter piece.
In the summer of 2004, Dunya’s aunt went on a free trip to Israel for Jewish educators. Dunya tried relentlessly to get her to bring her group for just a few hours into the West Bank, just to see a little bit of how Palestinians move (and are restricted from moving), what settlements are doing to Palestinian communities, and how the Wall is affecting Palestinians’ daily life. Her aunt refused. Dunya told Hannah about this, dismayed that people who call themselves educators would consciously stop themselves from knowing an essential piece of the story. Hannah told Dunya about the many people she knows who have been on similar trips, especially young people who don’t know any better but are enticed by “free trips to Israel.” We decided we were uniquely positioned to engage this reality, and Birthright Unplugged was born.
Having spent time in the West Bank, I know from experience that it’s safe. But all people see on the news is the violence so they can’t help but have reservations. What do you say to someone who has safety concerns about going on the trip?
We have traveled with over a dozen delegations throughout the West Bank. We are conscious of the risks and have designed Birthright Unplugged trips to be educational journeys, making every effort to avoid violence.
The greatest risk of injury in the West Bank is for Palestinians and comes from aggression on the part of the Israeli army and settlers. Participants should not expect to be targeted in any way – quite the opposite. Visitors to the Palestinian territories are quite distinguishable from the local population, which soldiers and settlers tend to be responsive to, and foreign passports offer a high level of mobility. In addition, Palestinians tend to be very protective of visitors and to treat them as honored guests. They are extremely attuned to negotiating risk levels for themselves and communicative within their communities about managing risk.
Throughout the trip, participants can expect us to be proactive and vigilant in keeping those we are traveling with out of harm’s way. We have a wide network of contacts in and around the towns and villages we will be visiting and will be checking the situation in these areas regularly, avoiding situations where the possibility of violence may be increased.
When are the next trips?
The next trips are January 1-6 and January 10-15. We still have a few spaces left on each trip, so we are accepting applications, but apply soon! Trips run every winter and summer.
How can people get in touch with you?
Everything you could possibly want to know is on our website at birthrightunplugged.org. If there’s anything more that people are wondering about, they can e-mail us at info [at] birthrightunplugged.org.