Whose Birthright? A Conversation with Tufts Students for Justice in Palestine
Recently, Tufts University Students for Justice in Palestine created, published and distributed a Zine called “Birthright? A Primer” for folks contemplating going on a Taglit-Birthright Israel trip. The primer includes testimonies from previous trip participants, as well as resources for exploring Israel/Palestine after the trip. Tufts SJP organizers Matthew Parsons, Anna Furman and D.M. spoke with Jewschool about the primer, how and why it happened, and what impact they hope it will have.
Jewschool: What was the impetus for creating the primer? What’s the goal?
Anna Furman: The goal of our zine is to equip students who have chosen to go on Birthright with a body of knowledge that they will not find otherwise. I think the most important section of our zine may be the section that encourages students to extend their trips and to go with various groups to the West Bank. If I had a zine like this when I had gone on Birthright 3 years ago, I am pretty certain that my whole understanding of the region and my relation to it would have been very different.
There have been efforts recently within Jewish student groups on campus to engage in discourse that may be more open and more accepting of different viewpoints. Still, there is a huge lack of conversation about and understanding of what it means to be an American Jew selected to go on a Taglit-Birthright trip. It seems to me that many students who go on Taglit-Birthright trips are unaware of the position of power that they are occupying, and unaware of how uninformed and misguided they are. I, for one, was! I think this can be attributed in large part to a lack of exposure in American Jewish communities to a Palestinian narrative. The zine attempts to address this!
Matthew Parsons: Taglit-Birthright heavily recruits on our campus and typically is met with a lot of interest from Tufts students. However, there has never really been a conversation about the problematic implications of the trip. Most people see this as a free trip to Israel, but very rarely do people recognize how offensive a trip like this can be to our Palestinian peers. They fail to realize that this trip implies that it is their birthright to travel to a country to which they have never been simply because they are Jewish, whereas a Tufts student who was born or whose parents and/or grandparents were born on the very same land is not afforded this same right. There are, of course, students who have been on Birthright before and who definitely took issue with it, but they generally had some previous knowledge of the conflict and are unfortunately in the minority. As such, we wanted to introduce students who plan on going on Birthright, or are registered for a trip, or who went on a trip in the past, to a counter-narrative to that of Birthright. Our intention is not to dissuade our peers or anybody else from going on this trip. We simply want them to approach this trip critically and to understand that they will be provided with an incomplete image of Israel.
D.M.: I was driven to design, write and distribute this zine because I found the information and messages permeated and propagated during these trips to be consciously skewed, calculated and at times misleading to an alarming extent. Ideas, engagement and conversation such as those that we spark in our zine were discouraged, avoided, or ignored. I felt manipulated, but mostly frustrated with the complete lack of safe, open space for critical inquiry or counterpoint once I returned home to Tufts. Birthright’s mission, popularity and presence on campus have, until now, gone unquestioned and unchallenged—and this phenomenon is not unique to our university. The zine’s creation was strongly motivated by sentiments that resemble mine and Anna’s: a desire to balance the dominant, normative acceptance of Birthright as a neutral, free, apolitical organization by arming students with the resources, information, and support necessary to inspire critical, active contemplation and discussion before, during, and after the trip. Until now, nothing of the sort existed. Like Anna said, I would have been so grateful to receive a zine like our own before my Birthright trip and before my semester in Israel. I am confident it would have changed many of my peers’ and (certainly) my own experience, perspective and future engagement with Israel significantly.
The tactics of the on-campus Birthright promoters during winter trip registration in September served as the immediate impetus that sparked our sense of urgency and drive to produce and distribute the zine this semester in particular. Grand, bright signs lined the lawns advertising “FREE!” “Israel!” “Birthright!” The promoter associated with Hillel stood outside of dining halls, calling to students who looked Jewish as they paid to enter, asking if they wanted to claim their Birthright for FREE, experience the “time of their lives,” etc. Pamphlets were distributed everywhere. Birthright was a dominant, overwhelming presence for a number of weeks. Many students were offended, felt targeted, discriminated against, or excluded, and rightly so. The word “birthright” is inherently problematic, and yet the implications of its broadcast across campus have gone unanalyzed and uncriticized for years. We took it upon ourselves to fill that void. We decided the best line of action was not protest, or the destruction of signs, but rather the promotion of knowledge, the presentation of important facts and realities to which students are typically unexposed on organized Jewish trips. We hope this zine will arm people with the tools to engage critically with their experience, the information, and support necessary to seek out other narratives and perspectives outside of Birthright and Israel proper, and the motivation to analyze and think actively about their trip.
Jewschool: What’s been the response to the primer, both on campus and in the larger Jewish community?
DM: Students on campus—including those with Birthright trip prospects and/or previous experience, and those who’ve had minimal exposure to the trip and its mission—have been extremely receptive so far, both in response to the hard copies and especially the online version, which circulated with impressive speed! We distributed a number of hard copies to students attending the trip this winter, and thousands of people viewed the online version in the first few days of publication. Because we distributed the zine so late in the semester, it is difficult to garner how the Jewish community, Hillel, or Tufts Birthright leaders felt about it. I spoke to many Jewish students and past Birthright attendees who were grateful to read the Zine, and supported our distribution to future Birthrighters. Some Jewish students were less supportive. However we are proud that so many students—zine supporters and criticizers alike—have taken the time to read through the pamphlet and discuss it in depth. This level of dialogue and critical thought surrounding Birthright was previously (and problematically) absent on campus.
MP: Until Tufts Students for Justice in Palestine was started in the fall of 2010, discussions surrounding Israel were largely kept within the confines of Tufts Hillel and its significance to Judaism. However, there was little interaction with the occupation or the Palestinian narrative. Over the past two years, Tufts SJP has worked tirelessly to bring a more nuanced conversation about the occupation and the Palestinian-Israeli occupation to our campus. The spring of last year was really when we saw the most success in terms of sparking debate about the topic. We held our first Israeli Apartheid Week and brought speakers such as Diana Buttu, Judith Butler, and Max Blumenthal to aid us in our endeavors. We wrote op-eds all semester about various aspects of the conflict, held movie screenings, and staged direct actions. By the end of the semester, almost everybody on campus had heard about the conflict and many had begun developing opinions. Our goal was to at least get people talking and introduce campus to the Palestinian perspective. We definitely achieved that goal.
(In regard to the zine) The response, so far, has been varied. We’ve mostly heard and seen positive responses, especially from the activist community. We have tried our best to give every Tufts student who is going on the Birthright trip this winter a copy of the primer, and many seem excited to read it. Most of the negative response has been directed towards bits and pieces of the primer, and not towards the publication as a whole, which is great. Through word of mouth, we have heard that there are some people who are quite upset about it, but nobody has confronted us directly.
Jewschool: Is there anything you would have liked to include in the primer that didn’t make it in? Is there anything you’d add?
MP: I think the primer is comprehensive; we tried to make it as simple and direct as possible so that people would actually read it. We also tried to include as many testimonies from past Birthrighters as possible so that people understand that there is actually a necessity behind a primer such as this one, and this necessity has been identified BY people who have gone on the trip before. Of course I would have liked to include a brief history of the conflict, because that oftentimes seems inaccessible to somebody who hasn’t studied the region before. However, we did not have space, so we opted for a reading list in the end of articles that don’t exactly give a good history of the conflict but do touch on a variety of issues. People tend to think that this conflict comes with a lot of baggage and don’t want to spend the time learning about it. I’ll admit, it is an incredibly complex issue and it has taken me three years of study to feel like I have a fairly good handle on the main points. That being said, I think there are some very black and white issues off which people can start to form some opinions, and these are the issues that we tried our best to weave into the zine.
DM: We would have liked to include a more in depth discussion about the terms “birthright” and “taglit” and their implications. We were also hoping to include a few more quotes (and their counterpoints) that I remembered hearing frequently on my own Birthright trip in the “What You’ll Hear on Birthright” section. We would also have liked to include longer list of alternative West Bank tour options at the end, and more detailed descriptions of those tours.
Jewschool: What do you want people to know about the group of folks who made the primer?
AF: In terms of the group of us working on the zine, it actually came about pretty organically. D.M. and I are close friends and were in Israel this summer together and so shared some formative experiences, like traveling to the West Bank (for me, for the first time) and discussing the conflict with Jewish students in Tel Aviv. At SJP meetings we discussed how Birthright trips are advertised to students on campus, and how the mission of the organization is not questioned or really looked at critically. D.M. came up with the concept of a dis-orientation zine, to educate students about the issues with the organization and the trip’s mission. Tamara and Matt have been active in SJP for some time and both worked hard on this zine, writing and compiling entries for it.
As students, we realize that the production of knowledge is an incredibly powerful thing. Who produces this knowledge? What knowledge is being produced? When I went on Birthright, I was hardly given any information about the political situation in Israel or the historical context for its creation from the organization itself. Before the trip and throughout the trip, I was under the impression that I was going on an apolitical, experience-of-your-life trip. I think this is very common. The experience-of-my-life was realizing that this trip’s mission is very political and is presenting me with only one side of a narrative.
DM: Many of us went on Birthright, many of us have long histories of engagement with Israel. I have cousins in Israel, I’ve lived there for months at a time. We are your peers, and our intentions are not accusatory. Rather, we hope to illuminate the harsh, silenced realities from which many of us have been unfairly sheltered for so long. We are a RESOURCE to everyone and anyone considering a Birthright trip, or who wants to analyze the implications of their experience, or who cannot decide whether a Birthright trip is right for them. We are a SUPPORT SYSTEM for those ready to engage with the truths of Israel/Palestine and seek out information independently through conversation and travel to the West Bank and other areas not covered by Birthright trips. We hope to INSPIRE students to explore the realities of Israel/Palestine, not just those strategically presented to them.
MP: I suppose what’s most important to keep in mind is that our target audience is students who are (thinking about) going/have gone on Birthright. These are our peers and we tried to approach them as respectfully as possible. We also recognize that some of the information in the zine is over-simplified. Unfortunately we were limited to eight pages and could only do so much. I’m very happy with how it turned out, and I truly hope that it makes people think about the implications of Birthright.