An Interview with Birthright Unplugged Founders Hannah and Dunya

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.

22 thoughts on “An Interview with Birthright Unplugged Founders Hannah and Dunya

  1. So it’s safe for visitors but not for Israelis. Is that the reality he’s going to show the people on their trips?
    The Palestinians averaged 5000 attempted attacks through most years since 2000. That number has diminished somewhat, but to claim that most aggression comes from the Israeli army and settlers is preposterous.
    I think to really round out the trip, he should take the guests to meet some Islamic Jihad members and then to visit some of their victims in Israel. Heck, if he doesn’t want to meet the families of their deceased victims, he can always go to visit maimed and burned Israelis. Another side of the region indeed.

  2. What an excellent idea. But to make sure that the program actually meets its goals – giving participants an objective view of the Palestinians – may I suggest the following additional features:
    * Each participant will travel freely and independently, accompanied at all times by a translator. The identity of the participant as part of the group will not be revealed to anyone, and participants will attend no pre-arranged events or encounters.
    * Participants will attend services at a West Bank mosque, chosen at random. Speakers and clergymen at the mosque will not be made aware of the presence of the participant.
    * Participants will be encouraged to buy newspapers and turn on the radio at random. The accompanying translator will immediately render an accurate translation.
    * Participants will be encouraged to strike up random conversations about Middle East politics and events at groceries, coffeehouses, or on the street.
    * Participants will attend political rallies, with their translator.
    * Participants will randomly audit classes teaching political subjects at West Bank universities and grade schools. Instructors of these classes will not be notified of these audits in advance.
    * Car service equipped with radio will be supplied to each participant. Should a terrorist attack occur, participant will immediately drive to the terrorist’s hometown or any large urban center, in time to attend festivities and receive celebratory candy.
    * Participants will visit various formal and informal shrines to terrorists.
    * As a bonus, participants will, following a terrorist attack, race to the scene and join Zaka in scooping up the body parts scattered and embedded in the street. Following this, participants will inform the new orphans and childless parents of their loss(es), along with a lecture on their failures to empathize with the Palestinian cause. Any resulting medical and hospital bills will not be covered by the program.
    Now THIS is a program I can endorse.

  3. I’m all for balance in an argument and for being intellectually honest during debate, so I do wonder if Birthright Unplugged will also take the kiddies to meet survivors of terrorist attacks and the families of terrorist victims. I’m going to guess that they won’t, considering the fact that they view ‘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.’ So you see, folks, Birthright Israel is nothing more than a conspirational brainwashing factory to serve the Zionist masters! Glad they were able to sort that out for me.
    The piece of the picture that these young impressionable kids are missing is the world according to your view. G-d forbid they should come into contact with something you don’t agree with that would warp their young impressionable minds!
    Get real. Take them to the Territories if you like, but make sure that they get exposed to Israel as well. Six days in the Territories alone is hardly what I would consider helping to create a balanced view.

  4. From the birthrightunplugged.org website FAQ:
    ҉ۢ Does Birthright Unplugged take political positions?
    Birthright Unplugged is not a political organization. It takes no political positions and has no party affiliations.
    We feel that the terms for a just and therefore peaceful solution to the Palestinian/Israeli conflict must come from Palestinians and Israelis themselves in accordance with international law. As Americans, we feel an imperative to learn all we can, to offer a nuanced understanding of the issues, especially with regards to their human impact, and to support the inclusion of Palestinian voices in any conversation about their lives and futures.”
    Good, glad we’ve cleared that up. They don’t take any political positions, but as regards the Israeli/Palestinian conflict the only voices which we should be hearing are those of the Palestinians.
    Hey, I have a question. If it’s imperative to learn all I can so that I can present a nuanced understanding of the issues, are there any balanced programmes for me which present both sides? Or do you just accept that I am just brainwashed already?
    How bloody condescending this concept is.

  5. From BU’s website: “Birthright Unplugged is in no way affiliated with birthright israel.”
    Wow, I guess that settles that. No connection whatsoever, and if there is, it’s just one big coincidence.
    Doesn’t this sound kind of familiar?

  6. brilliant comments. “why doesn’t this group with politics we disagree with do things that the other group, which we do agree with, already does?”

  7. “…to support the inclusion of Palestinian voices in any conversation about their lives and futures.”
    That’s not in my understanding saying that Palestinians should be the only ones whose voices we hear. It reads to me quite clearly as saying that Palestinians should be involved in making decisions that affect their futures, for example, whether or not a chain-link fence, concrete barrier and/or potential future border will separate them from their relatives across the street – Barta’a, A-Ram etc…
    This programme is, to my understanding, aimed at people who have taken part in Israel programmes, such as various Zionist programmes, university or yeshiva study, or other tochniot such as as Birthright or the Shnat Hachshara offered by youth movements like B’nei Akiva, Habonim Dror, Yehuda Hatzair, and many others.
    The agenda of such programmes is almost always Zionist, and generally in the context of a very mainstream form of political Zionism context -> Herzl through to Jabotinsky as opposed to the more utopian alternatives such as the Cultural Zionism of Martin Buber and Echad Ha’am. I think the fact that these programmes are focussed on giving a perspective on Jewish affairs in Israel – ie: meeting people from many walks of life be they settler, soldier, or bereaved by suicide attacks – which they do well. However, the problem with these programmes, which I believe necessitates schemes like Birthright Unplugged, is that they don’t often take a particularly hard or balanced look at Palestinian life in Israel and the territories. This is concerning because, like it or not, our existence in Israel is often one of a sort of symbiosis with our Palestinian neighbours. This is something the Zionist programmes have a tendency to neglect and this is the gap I think Birthright Unplugged can help to fill.

  8. From their site:
    Israel has ignored the internationally recognized right of return for refugees, but has created a “Law of Return” which extends citizenship benefits to any person of Jewish heritage, excluding millions of Palestinians born in the land that has become Israel.
    In other words, Birthright is about showing a Jewish homeland to young Jews while Birthright Unplugged is about showing to young Jews how to eliminate a Jewish homeland. Right? I mean, the suffering Palestinians whom they’ll be meeting are not really supporters of a two state solution, are they? After all, we know they subscribe to the “internationally recognized” “right of return.”
    When they introduce and show these Palestinian “victims” of the Jewish state to the young Jews, will they place their “victimhood” in the context of the history that created the Jewish state and destroyed their homes? Will it be the version of history where Israel is to blame for the victims and the Zionists are evil, interloper, foreigner, colonialists while the Arabs are the decent, peace loving, sedate, all accepting, historical residents of the area? Hmmm, I wonder.
    When they go to east Jerusalem, will they discuss the desperation with which Palestinians are trying to end up on the West side of the fence or the historical Jewish presence in the area, or will they pretend that because of the eradication of Jews by Arabs in 1948 and until its recapture in 1967, it is an Arab town under Jewish occupation? Hmmm, I wonder.
    Seems to me that despite the claims here made to the contrary, the genuine trip is Birthright. The trip that distorts the truth is the one where Jerusalem is called Al Quds and people use the term Palestine to refer to a state that never existed and has not come about because most Palestinians still hope for the demise of Israel as a Jewish state. A true Birthright Unplugged would reveal that aspect of Palestinian views and perhaps then their suffering and hardships might be better understood by these poor young Jews inculcated with the horrid mainstream Zionist views tattooed into their innocent brains by the evil Birthright program.
    Enough already with the bullshit. It’s one thing to claim to be progressive and wish for a just solution to a complex problem, but it’s another thing entirely to take Jewish history and the idea of a Jewish state and turn it into Palestinian victim history.

  9. Hikurangi:
    I desperately hope that your analysis is correct, but I’m far more cynical about these things. I tend to look at the whole picture and then try to disseminate from there.
    “…aimed at people who have taken part in Israel programmes, such as various Zionist programmes, university or yeshiva study, or other tochniot such as as Birthright or the Shnat Hachshara offered by youth movements like B’nei Akiva, Habonim Dror, Yehuda Hatzair, and many others”
    Yeah, okay, but that’s a huge assumption to make and Birthright Unplugged seems to be attempting to deligitimise all of these programmes as being nothing more than brainwashing factories. Read the Application and the Participant Agreement and then tell me if you still feel the same way. My concern is that, if one is trying to introduce balance into the eductation of youths as it pertains to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict it would make more sense to present both sides of the argument equally. That isn’t happening in Birthright Unplugged, and this point alone remains my central reservation.

  10. “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.”
    “In six days, we visit Palestinian cities, villages, and refugee camps and help participants develop an understanding of daily life under occupation.”
    Sounds to me like anyone going on this trip is going to be missing part of the picture as well.
    You know what it’s called when you pick and choose parts of the information available and present it as the truth? It’s called propaganda, and Joseph Berman, the one one who posted this, is an expert:

    If human rights workers really cared about getting a balanced view, they would recognize how little empathy human rights community really has for Israelis and they would organize trips to help them understand that there is more to the picture than six days in the West Bank could provide.

  11. Maybe we need some sort of ‘Birthright’ Israeli and Palestinian trip which takes kids, Jewish and non-Jewish, to get an ‘unbiased’ (no such thing really) perspective and meet both Palestinians and Israelis, Jews, Arabs, Muslims, Christians, Druze etc… If that’s the sort of thing you’re suggesting, Matityahu, then I think it’s a great idea!
    “Birthright Unplugged is a program designed primarily for young Jewish people to visit the Palestinian occupied territories. We realize that this experience is largely missing from most Jewish-led trips to the Middle East. ”
    “The participants are generally people who are already in the country, either having just completed a conventional Jewish-led tour in Israel or studying in an international program at an Israeli institution.”
    That’s what I’m basing my analysis on, as well as my having been on Birthright and a long term Israel programme… I mean they could be telling complete lies, then I’d be wrong, but otherwise…
    I’m not saying that none of the Zionist programmes present a balanced perspective. A lot of them really do present a good balanced perspective. However, it’s a balanced Jewish-Israeli perspective. If kids go on those programmes, and if they want a balanced perspective on the whole conflict then a programme with a Zionist/Israel orientation should ideally be accompanied by one that shows first hand Palestinian perspectives too…
    I read the Participant Agreement and the Application. I don’t see anything there that delegitimises the Jewish programmes in Israel. Should we be do harm(#5) to the group we’re with or the Palestinians we visit? Should we show flagrant disrespect for the cultural norms of the areas we visit(#1)? Eat a bacon and cheese sandwich at the Kotel, smear pig innards over the Haram ash-Sharif? I’m not feeling that suicidal…

  12. Hikurangi:
    You have some very valid points, and I make need to tone down my cynicism just a notch as a result of your argument.
    That said, my primary objections to the Participant Agreement and the Application really centred on the fact that, at the end of the day, we’re all adults aren’t we? We’re not talking about taking little nippers into the Territories, so I would expect someone who wishes to go on this trip be responsible for their actions without having to sign something explicitly stating it. Rather, the Participant Agreement and Application could be construed as introducing a sanitising element to the whole trip. So if I ask something that I feel is important but that the organisers think is a flagrant disrespect for the cultural norms of the area, I could be forcibly removed from the programme.
    I don’t know, that just didn’t sit well with me. In any case, yes I do suppose that a more balanced Israel programme is required and this just doesn’t seem to be it in my humble estimation.

  13. also, btw, this is called “birthright unplugged” because it is a post-birthright trip, primarily intended for folks who come on birthright israel to stick around for another week afterwards and get “deprogrammed.”

  14. I’d love to go, and I have to give a shout-out to Hannah as a fellow Goucher alum, but the website gives me significant pause. For one thing, people who keep tzniut and kosher are basically told to shove it–they will have a “hard time,” and “no skirts” are allowed. What the? Even if they believe that Orthodox Jews may be part of the problem, then shouldn’t they be ever-more accommodating to this segment of the population who needs to be on this type of tour? Doesn’t make any sense to me, especially compounded with the fact that they would probably cry foul if a Muslim-Jewish trip to Israel basically told religious Muslims that anyone who keeps halal would be screwed.
    And if the problem with Birthright is one-sidedness, which it undoubtedly is, then you combat that with further one-sidedness? What kind of stupidity is that? Can’t you arrange a trip that shows the nuances and complexities of both sides? Is the goal to produce peacebuilders or ideologues, for God’s sake?

  15. I like to think that I have my left-wing credentials, which I am more than willing to discuss in a non-“on-the-record” manner… but this program is just absurd.
    Look at their little passive-aggressive comments about skirts and kashrut… I mean, the anti-religious tone of the program is disgusting. Seem like one’s culture and ethnic traditions are respected, unless one happens to be a religious Jew, in which case one’s traditions threaten my interpretation/bastardi zation of Judaism, and therefore threatens my identity.
    There is certainly a need for balanced programs where one can see both sides of the situation, but this is just as one-sided as most birthright programs. If it’s not ok for birthright to do it, why is it ok for birthright unplugged?
    Eliyahu McLean, a much greater peacemaker than I, offers a comparison. He says that both the left as well as the right have their ISM’s. For the left it’s the International Solidarity Movement, and for the right it’s the Israel Solidarity Missions. Both do more harm to the peace process than good.
    ‘nuf said.

  16. this thread is essentially over, so this is a wasted post, but in a world where a sizable portion of the jewish world hates israel, favours divestment, and join virtually every anti israeli rally, and the jewish world in general favours a 2 state solution and will call for full rights for palestinians (and where the israeli state is the only middle east country that provides religious freedom), isn’t the need for a project unplugged for ARABS to visit israel? the truth shall make you free, right?

  17. From their website:
    “On the first day we met in the Old City of Al Quds/Jerusalem…”
    “On day three, we visited Khalil/Hebron…”
    Why do they even bother with the Hebrew names?
    “Palestinian hospitality is known worldwide, and for good reason. ”
    “Traveling this way is also safer and much more affordable than traveling in a privately hired Israeli bus or van.”
    Apparently because of some of that good old Palestinian hospitality.
    On another note, I’m curious:
    “… many of us have chosen not to speak about our sexuality with our Palestinian hosts…”
    How come heterosexuals don’t feel the need to “speak about their sexuality?” Why do some people choose to primarily self-identify by what they choose to do with their genitalia and with whom?
    Welcome to Palestine.

  18. Agreed with the above. This is a condescending programme which infantilizes Palestinians and presents them as a theme-park culture from another era — it in fact takes the worst parts of some of the Birthright programmes, and accentuates them. Want peace? Promote knowing those on the other side of the conflict, not the continued propagation of the romanticized native-savagism of the Ashkenazi-American “Left”.
    It’s downright embarrassing.

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