Birthright: solely for the Jews

Birthright: solely for the Jews
3 min read
12 May, 2015
Comment: The Zionist Birthright programme gives young Jews a racist and biased perspective about life in Israel, says Amjad Nasser.
Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert, promoting Birthright [AFP]

Birthright is a very successful Zionist programme that aims to strengthen "Jewish identity", and connect young non-Israeli Jews to their "roots" in the "land of Israel".

It does this by organising a free 10-day trip in which participants visit the imagined "geography" of the Torah in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Birthright is promoted as being exclusively for Jews, which is the equivalent of their automatic right to Israeli citizenship and residence in Israel. It is a right granted by nature at birth just as only a mother can grant Jewishness to her children.

Since starting in 1999 the programme has taken approximately 400,000 young Jews to occupied Palestine. A total of 80 percent have come from the US and Canada, indicating the strength of the relationship between Israel and Jewish organisations and lobbies in north America.

The programme has mobilised an elite group of historians, educators, ideologues and tour guides, and is funded by Jewish businessmen from around the world, especially the US.

Sheldon Adelson, a US Jewish billionaire who owns the Israeli newspaper Israel HaYom has contributed $250m to the programme. 

     If I had to choose between saving the lives of a hundred non-Jews or a Jew, I would choose the Jew.
- Guide on the Birthright programme
It is also funded by a number of Zionist organisations, including the Jewish Agency for Israel that actively brings Jews to the "land of Israel".

Other donors include food and drink companies that have a large market share in Arab countries. They have been able to maintain a strong presence despite Arab activists' unsuccessful call for boycotts.

Do those who take part in this programme, especially from "democratic" countries, realise it is wrapped in Palestine's sun, olive oil, and Mediterranean weather?

Participants are not allowed to visit the West Bank or Gaza Strip. They can only see the Jewish district of east Jerusalem. This is a condition of the trip that creates a Jewish geography and does not recognise a non-Jewish "other", even in recent history.

A story published in Israeli newspaper Haaretz suggests there are some who think outside the narrow, racist box of the Birthright programme. The story is about a participant from the US who overheard a guide making shocking remarks while they were on Mount Masada.

The guide was talking about the superiority of "Jewish life" over all others. According to the American, the guide said: "I have Italian neighbours I grew up with and they are great. But if I had to choose between saving their lives or the life of a Jew, I would choose the Jew. If I had to choose between saving the lives of a hundred non-Jews or a Jew, I would choose the Jew."

The American said that not a word was uttered about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during the whole trip. In a meeting with an elite Israeli army unit, he asked about relations with the Palestinians. A woman conscript replied: "I don't understand, are you on the Arabs' side?"

This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.