Culture, Global, Identity, Israel, Politics

Tabling Under Duress

Chanel Dubofsky
birthright
This week I am embarking on one of the most awkward aspects of my job- tabling for Birthright. At its worst, I feel like a kid wandering around the cafeteria, wondering where to sit, and at its best, surrounded by people who stop by to say hello, I feel like the most popular kid in school.
Yesterday, as I arranged my colorful poster board with pictures of my smiling students riding camels, smearing Dead Sea mud all over each other, and looking with amazement out over Jerusalem, I noticed that the student group who had been sitting there before I showed up was the International Socialist Organization. I looked around for someone who could appreciate the irony of this with me, but found no one. Then, with trepidation and shame, I looked around for the Socialists, and with relief, also found none.
This semester, much of my work has been about Israel. Some of it has been pro-active, creating programming for left leaning students who are nervous about entering what they believe to be a right wing environment. A lot of it has also been reactive, which makes me feel like I’m throwing myself in front of a speedily moving train (not to be melodramatic or anything).
Part of the tightrope I walk in supporting my progressive students around Israel requires that I demonstrate my own lefty credentials: feminist activism, an organizing fellowship after college, years spent working on a campus where shoes are considered superfluous. I have to build trust, which is difficult when on the Left, Zionism, a movement I also align myself with, is most often seen as “racist, imperialist, insert incendiary political adjective here: ___________.”
So what am I doing behind this Birthright table, trying to rally Jews and only Jews to go to Israel with a program whose agenda is to make them rabid, unquestioning supporters of its actions? What am I supposed to say to my students who identity more with Palestinian solidarity than with a Jewish state? What would I do if I was confronted by an activist who challenged me on the seemingly “racist” nature of Birthright? Would I smile and offer them chocolate and hope they go away? Would I engage them? Would I acknowledge their confusion and indignation? Would I haul out the classic Israel advocacy tractates that I have (knowingly and not) absorbed from years of working for Hillel?
What I want to believe is that it’s complicated, and I want to be able to say it with a strong voice, while looking this person in the eye and knowing that I’m living my convictions in that moment. Birthright, in spite of its flaws, can serve a function to even the most skeptical Jewish student. It places a person on the ground, albeit in a bus and far away from conflict zones, but on the ground nonetheless, and this is where the work, to a certain degree, begins. I believe it takes the right person, perhaps one who is wrestling with their own questions and identity and politics, who can see this through the eyes of one who is changing and struggling, because they are as well, and because they believe in authenticity more than indoctrination.
Campus activism around the war in Gaza (I refuse to use the term “anti-Israel,” or “pro-Palestinian,” unless presented with a specific situation) has resulted in a tense atmosphere at best. It’s difficult to recruit for a program that not only asks students to travel to a conflicted region at the center of controversy, but markets itself as a birthright to the people who are seem to many as holding all the power in the situation, the undeniable aggressors, the blood thirsty oppressors of a people they occupy for no good reason. As I write this, my own confusion seems overwhelming, and I’m reminded that to expect my students to be any less is not only unfair, but an enormous disservice, especially in light of the trust and community we continue to build together.
Earlier this week, I attended a lecture by a noted Columbia professor with the students I’ll travel to New Orleans with in a few weeks. He spoke to the difficult issues around cross cultural coalitions, institutionalized racism, and movement building. “How can we do this right?” one student asked, referring to the coalition our group is attempting to forge between Jews and People of Color. “How can we make sure it’s a success?” The professor eluded the question, to the frustration of the group, and over the course of the evening, proceeded to do so many more times, with other questions. As I watched this play out, I realized that one negative result of being entrenched in the world of academia is that we always expect an answer to our questions, or at the very least, an allusion to one. I’m guilty of the same thing-except on this end, I want to be the one who provides the answers, and I feel like an inadequate educator when I can’t. Ultimately, I want to encourage my students to not be afraid of grey, of complexity, of the exhilaration and fear that comes with not knowing the answer.
This is the kavannah, the intention, with which I seek to go to work everyday, but it is quite another to live it, especially given how fragile Jewish identity and community can feel, in these times in particular. In spite of all this, tomorrow, I’ll return to the table.
Chanel Dubofsky is theTzedek Hillel Coordinator at Columbia/Barnard Hillel,
The Kraft Center for Jewish Student Life

25 thoughts on “Tabling Under Duress

  1. You should be proud of what you’re doing. Birthright worked for me – brought me closer to Israel and then Yiddishkeit. If you’re organizing with them, you should have gotten the pep talk already. Don’t try to frame or shape perception, it won’t work and it will ruin the experience. Just let young Jews go and develop their own ideas, their own identity, it doesn’t have to be the path you or I followed. This is their heritage. Let them explore it.
    If I signed up in the middle of the intifada, then there is no reason for young Jews today to not sign up – the situation is completely safe. Young Jews aren’t cowards. Remind them of how young people build Israel with their bare hands, drained the swamps, fought for independence and worked the arid dirt until it gave fruit.
    As for the Socialist International, MSA or any other groups or individuals that come to fight, don’t engage them. You are not there to defend Israel. This is a cultural experience, not a political one – don’t allow others to fuzz those lines. There is no lack of political diversity in Israel – from Communists, to Fascists, Islamists and even normal people. You are there to give young Jews a chance to go home, a place that transcends politics. The less political you make it, the more successful you will be.

  2. I say take them to the peaceful demonstrations in villages like Bil’in to see how they are constantly dispersed by force, to let them decide for themselves if such is a birthright.

  3. I’ve seen your “peaceful” demonstrations. There is nothing peaceful about throwing brick sized rocks and molotov cocktails at people’s heads. It’s always the internationals who start shit. They talk to the photojournalists beforehand and ask what kind of provocative shots they need and then they send Palestinians to act them out.

  4. This piece should also be part of the story. I always think it odd, when people expect that a loud discotheque is what kids like. I guess I liked all kinds of things when I was Birthright aged (though at the upper end of that I was already oleh hadash), but I would think it odd if someone sent me on a free organized trip that included that sort of thing. Lectures, now that’s another story.
    But I think Victor’s comments above are apt.
    The problem, as I expect the Gorenberg piece linked in one of the posts here says, is that when dealing with our critics, we tend to let them frame the argument. The issue isn’t “Israel yes or no” – that was settled in a number of wars, the number being one, in 1948. It wasn’t pretty, but Israel has been ever since. So that fight is really over. Now the next issue is whether our enemies’ human rights abuses excuse our behavior, to which the answer is of course not. For which we’ll have some karma to pay off. Just a teeny bit…

  5. Victor, I can see what sort of “cultural experience” Birthright imparted on you.
    The point made in this blog is not that young people are afraid of going to Israel, it’s that they are conflicted about going to Israel. They see the horrors of the recent war in Gaza, are pressured by peers to oppose Israel’s actions. They ask “How could I, as a supposedly enlightened person, excuse these actions as simply a right of self-defense?” and then they ask “How could I, as a Jew, not stnad in solidarity with the state of my people?” This is a conflict I unfortunately don’t think most young Jews today are experiencing. We have been taught to view Israel in a certain overwhelming positive light and thus regard anything to the contrary as blind antisemitism.
    I agree that the writer should continue what she is doing for Birthright. As you said, young people built this state, and only young people will ever be capable of continuing to “build” it.

  6. victor, there is no way you have been there. you have no idea what you are talking about. if you want people being provoctive, i suggest you read this-
    http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/pages/ShArt.jhtml?itemNo=570288&contrassID=2&subContrassID=1&sbSubContrassID=0
    i always knew that information wasn’t part of the Birthright “experience” but you’ve got to be kidding me.
    in Bilin(and other places as well) it isn’t the iternationals (which you are one of BTW), but the ISraeli military who “start shit”.

  7. Victor, poppycock. I’ve been at dozens of protests in the territories, with differing mixes of Israeli Jews, Palestinians and internationals. They’ve always been well-behaved. And usually there *isn’t* press.
    Meanwhile, I totally advocate visiting the territories and dialoguing with Palestinians while on someone else’s dime. The best places to go for a substantive alterative tour are as follows:
    Breaking the Silence’s tours of settler Hebron (only every couple weeks, not to be missed, a tour de force of settler extremism from the Israeli soldiers who were stationed there)
    Ir Amim’s tours of East Jerusalem settlements (next tour on Saturday)
    Fred Schlomka’s tours of the territories (daily to different places)
    I highly endorse all three.

  8. KFJ, I don’t know where you’ve been, of what you’ve seen, but Bilin is regularly the site of the worst protests anywhere. The only place I have seen more rocks thrown is Balata.
    I tried posting a response earlier… it doesn’t seem to have been posted… I’ll wait a while and try it again.

  9. I tried posting below comment several times… not sure if it will go through this time. For some reason when i press submit it just reloads the page and doesn’t post it. Anyway, this was originally for yael.
    Yes, the mistaravim are responsible for everything, how convenient. I have been to ISM meetings where they show videos of how they rile up the Palestinians and encourage them to throw stones, and talk about how they can get them to do more dangerous things. They love to get the kids out in front because if something happens to a child they can call Haaretz the next minute. I feel ridiculous even posting links because everyone already knows what happens there.
    Are these also mistaverim, yael?
    Or maybe these?
    Or these?
    Or these?
    Or maybe this one?
    Tires on fire and everything…
    Yes those blood thirsty IDF guys are always starting shit
    Even Santa gets in the act
    Look how many nice pictures there are. I wonder where all the photographers came from. Maybe someone sent a press release that they need to be at the fence with high telephoto lenses around 1400?
    If you are going to the protests say hello to Mika for me. I hope his skinny English behind is blue and green.

  10. KFJ, I can’t seem to get a comment to submit. Is it snagging any comment filters you have? The only difference between this one and my other comments is that I included maybe 10 links. Maybe you have like a spam filter that auto rejects when there are too many links?

  11. Try a few links per-post. Regardless, the argument that Israel is just peacefully trying to wall a village off from their farmland and internationals are the ones there to make trouble is just absurd.

  12. interesting victor. what were you doing in balata? what protests did you see in balata?
    and still waiting for your answer on the fact that the idf sends soldiers dressed up as palestinians to throw rocks in bilin… (as has been proven in Israeli courts)

  13. This is a conflict I unfortunately don’t think most young Jews today are experiencing. We have been taught to view Israel in a certain overwhelming positive light and thus regard anything to the contrary as blind antisemitism.
    Actually, I think that this isn’t the case – I think many many young Jews are conflicted, and this is in part the source of the number of Jews who are drifting away from us. Granted, a lot more of it is parents whose priorities are/were elsewhere (vacation and a very fancy house is more important then Jewish education, community or observance, for example)but many Jews are saying to themselves, “why is the American Jewish community refusing to allow any kind of discussion on the moral implications of the conflict?”
    It is unfortunate that even when they go on these trips, they are protected from hearing that debate in Israel, since the discussion there, while perhaps not where it could be, is certainly richer and more complicated than in the USA.

  14. I don’t understand why my tax shekels are financing trips to Israel to allow people with no Jewish connection to continue having no Jewish connection.

  15. Victor, yes, posts with more than two links are held for moderation (anti-spam measure) and when you submitted it over again it assumed you were really spamming.
    Victor, your credibility is hard to believe because many of us have also been to ISM meetings or are close friends with people who have, have been to these protests, and have been (I dare say) shot at. Very little of what you say is lining up with my experiences, so I’m going to posit a few possible explanations:
    Is it possible that you were just a one-time or two-time visitor to these protests? As in, not an active participant or a regular goer? Depending on what was going on in politics, protests can be nasty — when were you there?
    I ask all this without encouraging you to give away identifying information, but so far it sounds like you have a disaparate impression of a limited experience.

  16. “I don’t understand why my tax shekels are financing trips to Israel to allow people with no Jewish connection to continue having no Jewish connection.”
    It’s that “demographic issue” thing some people have been all worked up over since long before any of us were born.

  17. “It’s that “demographic issue” thing some people have been all worked up over since long before any of us were born.”
    Is that all you think it is? Although I can’t disagree with Amit.

  18. Obviously it is much more to many people, but the demographic issue has been the primary hurdle of the Zionist movement since it’s inception, and it remains so to this day.

  19. Victor:
    My experience of Israel (yes, I have lived there, on and off since I was a child) is that nothing is ‘just cultural’. There is no line, there can’t be, between politics and everything else. I think if you’ve missed that then you have missed pretty much everything there is to know about the country. Nobody gets to have a peaceful apolitical existence in the context of the conflict, when they live in a country that is occupying another people. This is what is to toxic about it. To present a white washed, americanized version of the country, as most birthright trips seem to do, is a disservice to the kids who go on it.
    We should be uncomfortable about what is done in our name. I think that we have a moral obligation to bear witness to it in some way, at the very least, not to mention work to stop it. If diaspora Jews wish to disconnect from Israel, more power to them. They should not be required to claim or reject a country that is not theirs. But for people to claim an attachment without dealing with the violent reality of the country is a little obscene. It’s insulting to me when American Zionist tells me that they are the better Jew, that they are more loyal, because from their 10 day trip in the holy land they have seen how beautiful it is and they will defend it to the death. They have no idea the magnitude of the beauty of my country, and until they see its ugliness, its flaws, the cracks in its foundations, they will never know, and it will not be theirs.

  20. This is an interesting post, but I’m entirely unconvinced about the poster’s justification for birthright. If one of your goals is to get young people to question their knee-jerk affiliation with Israel, you can’t seriously believe that birthright is an even partially effective way of doing that. In fact, the whole “putting people on the ground” thing seems to solidify their unreflective Zionism (or just Israelism?), since now they can claim to “really know” what the State is about.
    I agree, I suppose, that there could be the very rare student whose experience, in all its shallowness, actually does inspire him to begin asking questions or whatever, but that doesn’t account for the 99 percent who, for whatever reasons, aren’t inspired that way.
    So for my part, I guess I think you should overturn the table (talmudic double entendre unintended). Birthright’s stated intentions seem entirely different from yours.

  21. If we’re talking about 18 year old kids, I’d much rather have them go to Israel, see the land, and emotionally and spiritually reconnect with it however best they can, than to send them on an ideological crusade and stuff their heads with propaganda (even if it’s “my” propaganda).
    To those who see politics in every breath and ray of light… what a sad existence. Are you so bitter and jaded you’ve forgotten that its core, the land of Israel – regardless of who rules over it – is an immutable spiritual inheritance and extension of the Jewish people? Reclaim your innocence for a moment and let them have an experience, a positive Jewish experience. Then you can propagandize them with your brand of truth.

  22. The concern that Birthright fills kids full of propaganda and turns them into unreflective knee-jerk Zionists doesn’t seem very well-grounded, based on the trip I went on. I can’t think of anyone on my trip that seemed strongly influenced in that way. In fact, a decent chunk of them (myself included) were harshly and loudly critical during the whole trip, refused to stand for Hatikva, etc (In retrospect, I’m embarrased by our behavior–typical rude, self-righteous American college students). There were also some people on the trip who were strongly Zionist, but those people arrived that way.
    I find it hard to imagine that many Jewish college kids will be encountering Zionism for the first time. On the contrary, most will have had a good many years to digest it and probably already have some strongly held opinions.
    Personally, I’m glad I went, because I’ve always been fascinated and confused about Israel, but due to my ambivalence I would probably not have gone on my own. I can’t say it changed my opinion politically (other things have, since then), but I did see a lot and learn a lot, especially during the discussions with the Israelis.

  23. “My experience of Israel (yes, I have lived there, on and off since I was a child) is that nothing is ‘just cultural’. There is no line, there can’t be, between politics and everything else.”
    This was the same case with my own BRI trip. Right when I got off the plane I got the “it’s just a fence” lecture (and yes, it was “just a fence” there, but that doesn’t mean ALL of it is). The richest of all is that we’re interacting with SOLDIERS (albeit in plainclothes most of the time) as a “cultural experience”. Yes, the soldiers are our peers in a country with mandatory military service, but then politics is by definition injected in the mix. You can’t draw the line between a purely “cultural” experience and a “political” one, because those two are by definition intertwined. Hell, I could make the exact same case here in the United States.

  24. I come across many people who come back from Birthright trips thinking they got the complete picture, constantly denying things like Israeli-only roads with claims like “I didn’t see anything marked Israeli-only” and other such willfully ignorant arguments to dismiss any evidence which contradicts their claims.

  25. If you are Jewish, but ashamed by the actual aggressive politic of Israel against the Palestinians, you may sign this Jewish (internet) call to the new Israelian government. The appeal was issued mainly by academicians teachers and researchers living in Israel, Switzerland, Austria and Germany.
    Then you can forward this call to other Jews you may know :
    Dear xxx
    I invite you to join the following appeal to the Israeli government:
    Out of a sense of shared responsibility and in the spirit of Jewish tradition – because the Occupation is destroying the lives of the occupied and the souls of the occupiers we make this appeal to the Israeli government:
    We the undersigned Jews want the Israeli occupation, settlements and blockade of Palestinian territories to come to an end. We call for humane living conditions and security for all the people in Israel and Palestine.
    YYYYYY

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