ISM activists use Birthright to get to Israel

Daphna Berman of Haaretz, 8/4/2004

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Max, a volunteer for the International Solidarity Movement and a student at Bir Zeit University, is hardly a poster child for birthright israel - a program that offers young Jews a free trip to Israel in an effort to strengthen Jewish identity and a connection with the Jewish state.
But as a 21-year-old Jewish university student who had never been to Israel on an organized trip, he qualified, despite the fact that his goals clashed, to put it mildly, with those of the program's organizers.

"I was afraid that they would uncover my intentions," Max, who wears a bracelet of the Palestinian flag, admitted this week over hummus and Coca Cola at a restaurant just outside of Damascus Gate. "But the interview was short, and there was no way of them knowing about my activities on campus."

During winter break last year, Max went on birthright israel and spent 10 days touring places like the Western Wall, Safed, and Massada. Afterwards, he stayed on another two months attending rallies and protests as an ISM activist in the West Bank village of Budrus. The free birthright trip, he admits, presented him with an opportunity to continue his pro-Palestinian activism.

Max is now back with the ISM for the summer and spends his mornings studying Arabic at Bir Zeit and his afternoons in the ISM media office in Ramallah, doing interviews, researching, and disseminating information.

He is just one example of a trend among young Jewish pro-Palestinian activists, who see birthright israel as their free ticket to ISM headquarters in the West Bank. Both birthright and ISM openly concede that young Jews have used the Zionist program to get to Israel. Birthright officials say they know of at least six cases in which participants have come on their program and then joined up with ISM. Max says he knows of a dozen such cases, but believes the number is considerably higher.

Max and Jessica, another recent birthright graduate who volunteers for the ISM in Az-Zawiya outside of Salfit in the West Bank, asked that their family names be withheld, for fear of trouble from Israeli immigration officials and harassment from right-wing activists.
According to the Israeli Foreign Ministry, the ISM, which was founded in 2001, is "at times... under the auspices of Palestinian terror organizations." The ISM, which describes itself as a non-violent resistance group against the Israeli occupation, denies the charges.

Volunteering for ISM wasn't an easy decision for Max, who comes from an upper middle class family with a traditional Jewish background. "My parents told me that what I was doing was dishonorable," he says of the decision to apply to birthright with the intention of using it to facilitate his ISM work. But after weighing the options, he explains simply, he came to the conclusion that "not going would have been more dishonorable."

Max says that he was reticent to "assert" his political views on the trip, simply because he "didn't want to hurt or offend" the participants or some of the soldiers that had accompanied their tour bus. On one night, though, during a question-and-answer session with the soldiers who had recently returned from an operation in Gaza, he asked if they had ever thought about what it was like to be a Palestinian. "The soldier didn't answer because he said that the question was political," the philosophy major recalls. "But the whole trip is political."
Jessica, a recent graduate from Duke University and one of the leaders of her campus' divestment campaign, was so nervous that birthright would uncover her activist past that she applied through a Chicago office, rather than on her North Carolina campus, where her name is well-known. But she insists that "no one ever said you have to be a Zionist or that you have to agree with the program's politics."

Like Max, Jessica qualified for each of the program's three prerequisites; she is Jewish, is between the ages of 18 and 26, and has never participated in an organized trip to Israel before. "I asked if it was okay to volunteer after the trip and they said yes," she adds.
Jessica, along with a friend who also went on to become an ISM activist after the free 10-day trip, was one of 11,000 birthright participants to visit Israel this summer alone. "For the first few days, we played undercover," recalls the 22-year-old, who helped erect a mock wall on campus last year as part of a protest activity against the separation fence Israel is building in the West Bank. "We listened, took notes, and got to know people. One day on the bus, they asked us about anti-Israel activity on campus. We talked about it, but we didn't say that we were also behind it."

"When we felt comfortable, we began to ask critical questions, and they saw where we were coming from politically," she says. "They talk about birthright as a family, and at the end of the trip, we were very much part of that family." The leaders of her trip, she adds, "were very encouraging."

For Jessica, who says that she joined birthright for a window into "Jewish nationalism," the free trip was a perk, but certainly not the driving force behind her decision. Also, unlike Max, she came to birthright knowing she wanted to do volunteer work, and though ISM was a definite option, she says she was exploring other options as well. Knowing her political inclinations, one birthright leader encouraged her to look into working with the Israeli political left, but ultimately, she says, ISM "offered the most useful role." The Israeli jobs, she explains, consisted mostly of office work.

And so, instead of faxing and photocopying, Jessica spent her summer attending protests and demonstrations. She says she's been chased, harassed, and called a self-hating Jew, but she says that it's her Jewish identity that brought her to the region in the first place. "Israel tries to speak for me and for all Jews," she says, "and so it's my responsibility to be here and be active."

The ISM Web site advises potential volunteers "to have a really good story about why you are coming... [and] play it as though your visit is for other, Israel-based reasons, like tourism, religion, visiting an Israeli friend, etc." But Huwaida Arraf, a spokesperson and one of the founders of ISM denied that the organization was actively encouraging its Jewish activists to go on birthright. Nevertheless, she said, "I don't see anything wrong with it, because if birthright is supposed to show the state of Israel, occupation is a part of that." Arraf is also the wife of Adam Shapiro, the Jewish New Yorker who made headlines last year after being holed up in Arafat's Ramallah compound for 24 hours.

According to Gidi Mark, the international director of marketing for birthright israel, the program's selection process has already denied applications which they deemed unfit. "Our goal is to strengthen Jewish identity, the connection with Israel and its people, and to show solidarity, and if we suspect that people are applying for impure reasons, we do a thorough check," he says. "Birthright is a Zionist program and we want the students to go back to their campuses and be able to answer questions from a Zionist perspective. There's a lot of gray area, because we want to be pluralistic, but at the same time make sure that people aren't taking advantage of us."

His estimates put the number of birthright ISM volunteers at some half a dozen of the program's 70,000 birthright participants. "It's important to keep this in perspective," he added.
In the meantime, both Max and Jessica admit that the birthright experience affected them deeply - even if it wasn't what birthright officials may have hoped for. Max, for one, says he saw the soldiers as human beings, not simply as "symbols of militarization and occupation" as he had viewed them before. And Jessica says that she developed a "greater sympathy for Jewish nationalism."

They joke about starting a new program for young activists like themselves: "We're thinking of calling it birthleft."