Two weeks ago, I was invited to an event on Facebook hosted by Tikvah: Students for Israel — UC Berkeley’s Zionist student organization — called “Why we love Israel.”
In theory, I should be more equipped than ever to answer that question. Just last month, I got back from a trip to Israel designed to induce me and my fellow travelers to fall in love with the Jewish state. The trip was organized and paid for by Birthright — an organization that sends tens of thousands of American Jews on free 10-day tours of Israel every year.
For many of the other students on the trip (who tended to uncritically accept the information presented to us by speakers and tour guides), Birthright was wildly successful. A few students were even brought to tears by what they said was a powerful emotional and spiritual connection to that narrow strip of land, its culture and its people.
But for me, the most pronounced effect of the trip was to expose the ignorance of the Israeli right and its American backers.
To be clear, I am deeply impressed with many aspects of Israeli society, particularly its spectacular intellectual and economic achievements. Israel has the third-most educated workforce in the world and the second-highest per capita book-publishing rate. As David Brooks wrote, “Israel has more high-tech start-ups per capita than any other nation on earth, by far … It ranks second behind the U.S. in the number of companies listed on the Nasdaq. Israel, with seven million people, attracts as much venture capital as France and Germany combined.”
And I recognize that, for 65 years, that tiny nation, born out of the ashes of the Holocaust and a courageous war for independence, has fought perpetually for its survival.
But the trip made shockingly clear the degree to which Israeli right-wingers are recklessly obstructing the peace process with the Palestinians.
On one of the first nights of the trip, we were shepherded into a room to watch a presentation about modern Islam. I expected this to be an objective and informative presentation, perhaps delivered by a Muslim, in an otherwise heavily biased trip — a type of defense against charges that Birthright has an ideological agenda. I was wrong. The cover slide of the presentation bore the words “Modern Islam” — and a picture of the twin towers collapsing. The presentation was as offensive — and racially charged — as the cover slide suggested. The speaker, an Orthodox Jew, showed us clips of radical Islamic clerics on anti-Semitic diatribes while suggesting that those opinions were held by most Arabs and that Jihad against the West is part of mainstream Islam.
Our guide, a former settler in the Gaza Strip, described himself as farther to the right than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party. He made a point of never referring to the occupied territories or Jewish settlements; he just mentioned “so-called occupied territories” and “so-called settlements.” He suggested that the idea of land for peace is an ignorant fantasy of the far left.
This treatment of Israeli-Palestinian issues should not surprise readers who know where Birthright gets its funding. At Birthright’s headquarters in Jerusalem, we were reminded to be grateful to Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire casino magnate, for donating $30 million to make our trip possible. Adelson is an inveterate extremist on Israel policy: He has said that “the two-state solution is a stepping stone for the destruction of Israel and the Jewish people” and called the Palestinian prime minister a terrorist.
Not one to shy away from debate, I engaged some speakers, our guide and some other students on the trip who defended Israel’s continued settlement construction in the West Bank. I asked what Israel sees as the resolution to its policy of indefinite settlement expansion. Will it annex the West Bank and make about 2.5 million Arabs Israeli citizens? Will it continue to settle without granting citizenship to the Arabs and create an apartheid society? Or will it perform ethnic cleansing and forcibly drive Arab residents out of the West Bank?
Clearly, none of these solutions is politically or morally plausible (though the latter two might be acceptable for Adelson-types). The only response I heard was that God had given all of the land to the Jews. You can’t argue with that. Except to point out that it’s the exact same argument the other side makes. Go figure.
So did the trip make me love Israel? In some ways, yes. It’s hard to resist the rugged beauty of the desert landscape, the warm beaches of Tel Aviv, the stunning city of Jerusalem and the remarkable accomplishments of Israeli society.
But more than love, the trip filled me with fear. Fear that the far right, driven by intolerance and irrationality, will squander Israel’s achievements by leading it down the path to international disrepute and eternal conflict.