Birthright: Ten days in apartheid Israel

A half-Arab, half-Jewish perspective

I laughed out loud when my mother, a Reform Jew of Russian and Ukrainian descent, told me I should go on Birthright. She, as a third-generation Jewish-American with little to no knowledge of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, couldn’t understand why the thought of going on Birthright was such a joke to me.

I told her I’d go if she wrote my application, including the essays, which she did.

I dreaded the phone interview after receiving the confirmation email that I was a candidate for the trip. I had picked the most secular trip offered, something called “Israel Outdoors,” which promised hiking, kayaking, and camel rides. Even then, I was sure that the fact that my father is Algerian and his family members are practicing Muslims would disqualify me from the trip.

The call finally came. I was walking across campus from my Arabic summer course when a woman called from Washington D.C. to ask me how I felt about Judaism. She started out slow, inquiring if I was taking any Jewish Studies courses at my university and if I celebrated any Jewish holidays. She then asked about the origins of both my parents, starting with my mother. That was easy. My mother’s family originated from Odessa, a port town in either Russia or Ukraine, depending on the year. They were all Jewish, although not particularly religious. My ancestors immigrated to Michigan through Ellis Island in the late 19th century.

The woman on the phone then asked about my father. I told her he was an atheist. She asked about the religion of his family. I told her my father’s family is Muslim. She replied with a deadpan “Oh,” that I still can’t quite decipher. Her response should have been a huge red flag for what was to come.

Somehow, despite my Arab father, I was offered a spot on the trip. I was to leave for Israel mid-August, during the hottest part of the summer, to visit the country for ten days.

My reality growing up was entirely a Jewish one. After moving to the U.S. from France, where I was born, I was enrolled in a Jewish day school. There, I learned the Hebrew alphabet alongside the English one, and spent hours of my day praying in Hebrew and studying the Torah, as well as learning math and science.

At Jewish day school, we were taught to love Israel like it was our mother, or the most precious thing in existence that needed to be defended at all cost. Israeli Independence Day was celebrated with more zeal than the Fourth of July. I only stayed for four years before leaving due to anti-Arab sentiment, but during those four years, I never saw a map that delineated Gaza or the West Bank – the Israel I loved didn’t include Palestine.

Around this time, I stopped believing in ‘god.’ I still considered, and consider myself to this day, ethnically Jewish. My time at the Jewish day school educated me about our traditions and the lore surrounding them. I carry that mythology with me wherever I go, just like someone who grew up with another religion carries theirs.

My father never talked to me about Islam.

I awaited my trip with trepidation. Days before leaving, I had asked a few members of McGill Students in Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights to point me in the direction of some readings to do about the conflict. But after a week of reading, I still felt drastically uninformed about the region I was about to visit for ten days.

After landing in Tel-Aviv, my group was given paper passes instead of stamps on our passports to enter the country. We swiftly passed through customs and were shuttled two hours north to a hotel in Tiberias, a small town on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.

The first hike we took was to Mount Bental, a mountain in the occupied Golan Heights and “a key strategic point for Israel” during the Yom Kippur War of 1973 due to its proximity to Syria. Upon arrival, we immediately descended into the long halls of a military bunker, and crowded into a dark and smelly room as our tour guide regaled us with the tale of a group of Israeli soldiers holed up in a bunker “half the size of this one” during the Yom Kippur War. We were told that 1 per cent of the Israeli population died in the Yom Kippur war, which we were told would be the equivalent of three million Americans if 1 per cent of the U.S. population died in the same war. Because that’s how equivalents work.

“At Jewish day school, we were taught to love Israel like it was our mother, or the most precious thing in existence that needed to be defended at all cost. Israeli Independence Day was celebrated with more zeal than the Fourth of July.”

While in the Golan, there was no mention that of the territory being occupied. All of the violence discussed was couched in the tone of “aggression against the State of Israel.” This would be a common theme throughout my trip.

On my way back to the bus, I stopped at a fruit stand selling apples and jams. A Druze man let me sample his fig jelly and told me that he was a former Arabic teacher. I told him, in my awkward Modern Standard Arabic, that I studied Arabic at university. He then quizzed me on my vocabulary and taught me some new words. At one point, he pointed to his heart and said a few sentences I couldn’t understand. I wish I had. I nodded, he smiled, and I got on my bus. Immediately, people from my group asked me what language I was speaking. I told them I was speaking Arabic. They thought it was pretty cool.

Back in Tiberias, my group was told that a famous Israeli musician was coming to sing to us after dinner. He sang us a few songs and told us his life story – his military service, his subsequent debauchery in Thailand (full moon parties, anyone?), and his road trip across the U.S.. He then tangentially launched into a shockingly racist diatribe on how dealing with Israel’s Arab neighbours was impossible because “it was like dealing with different tribes, not nations.” He took five minutes to explain to us his conception of the difference between Sunni and Shiite Muslims – which was concerningly the only ‘analysis’ my group received on the subject during the entirety of the trip – and at one point, mockingly ululated and spoke jibberish Arabic to qualify his point.

The next morning, we were bussed to the mountain village of Tzfat, the centre of Kabbalah or Jewish mysticism. There we were led to a building called “Ascent,” a Chabad, or Orthodox Jewish hostel and learning centre. After listening to the incredibly charismatic, yet analytically shallow, spokesperson tell us about his experience with Orthodox Judaism, the floor was opened to questions. I asked him about the role of women in Orthodox Judaism and what I heard in returnwas the scariest justification for sexism I had ever been faced with.

According to him, Orthodox women are inherently spiritual and holy. It’s the men who need to constantly work on attaining religious perfection while the women have the ‘privilege’ of exercising their divine right to bring life into the world. The women also need to be protected – because they are treasures – and cover themselves to help men overcome their “predatory instincts” toward physical beauty and allow men to get to know the “soul” of the women. When we left Ascent, a few of my group members commented on how “nice” the answer to my question was.

After the illuminating experience at Ascent, we were allowed to roam freely down a street toward our bus. I was later told that a guy on my trip named Daniel*, who was of Chinese and Jewish descent, was asked by an Orthodox Jewish man at an outdoor table, if he was interested in putting on tefillin, an item traditionally used by men in prayer. While Daniel was being wrapped, the man asked if his mother was Jewish. Daniel’s mother isn’t Jewish, and when he told him so, the man told Daniel he wasn’t Jewish either and started taking the wrappings off. Our tour guide told us this story a few days later, stating that the Orthodox Jewish man in Tzfat was not ‘acting Jewish,’ as Judaism is a state of mind, not solely the result of your matrilineal heritage. Apparently, the Orthodox man would beg to differ.

After Tzfat, we were bussed to Jerusalem, where we headed to a park for icebreakers. Along the way, four police officers on horseback galloped through a red light toward an intersection a few streets away. Police vehicles were blocking the intersection. No one acknowledged what had happened. It wasn’t until later that someone told me that a huge demonstration had occurred that night by Orthodox Jews of the neighbourhood in protest of a movie theatre staying open on Shabbat. That was the first time I truly realized that the everyday Israeli experience was being purposefully hidden away from us.

“While Daniel was being wrapped, the man asked if his mother was Jewish. Daniel’s mother isn’t Jewish, and when he told him so, the man told Daniel he wasn’t Jewish either and started taking the wrappings off.”

The next day we visited the Western Wall. Immediately after being dropped off in the Old City, I was on edge. There was an indescribable tension in the air that prevented me from standing still. In the Jewish Quarter, I struck up a conversation with Sam* one of the Israelis who joined our trip, about something I noticed on a sign. I had talked to him the night before and discovered he was fluent in Arabic because he had worked in intelligence during his military service, where he spent his time listening in on Yemeni phone conversations.

I asked him why the sign for the Sephardic Quarter in Jerusalem was written as “the neighbourhood for Spanish Jews” if Sephardic encompasses the Jews of North Africa and the Middle East as well. He explained to me that because the Sephardic Jews originated from Spain, that’s how they were labelled in Arabic. He asked me if I was Sephardic. I said no. I told him my mother was Jewish and my father was Algerian. He asked me if my father was Jewish. I said no. I told him my last name was Larbi-Aissa. He didn’t understand so he asked to see my ID. I showed it to him. He told me I should change my name – many Sephardic families do once arriving in Israel – because I was Jewish.

Before I could ask him why I couldn’t be Jewish and have an Arab last name, we had to move. My head was reeling as we reached the Western Wall and I couldn’t share in the group’s excitement at a lively Bar Mitzvah parade that approached us as we prepared to separate into the gender-segregated sections. I stood in the shade and watched as the rest of my group danced and clapped along to Bar Mitzvah songs, and couldn’t stop thinking about that alienating conversation. According to Sam, my two ethnicities were somehow mutually exclusive.

The funny thing is, the most Arab part about me is my last name. I’ve only visited Algeria once and the only Algerian food I’ve been exposed to at home is my family’s couscous recipe. If it were up to him, my father would identify exclusively as French. He never spoke Arabic to me when I was a child, on purpose, and to this day, he encourages me to perfect my French and forget about my Arabic language studies.

That night, we gathered in the dining area of our hotel in Jerusalem for a seminar on the geopolitics of Israel. I had noticed that the majority of the hotel workers, including the waiters who cleared our dishes after meals and the concierge who worked the front desk, spoke to each other in Arabic. During the seminar we’d find out that some of them were Palestinian.

The man who gave the seminar was an Israeli PhD student who attempted to present us with a ‘balanced account’ of Israel’s history. Overall, the speaker accurately reported (as far as I know) what the ‘non-Israeli narrative’ was for each event he discussed, but was highly defensive to questions. Almost immediately, when discussing “where the Palestinians of today came from,” someone raised their hand and asked if it was true that some Palestinians came from Lebanon. The speaker retorted sharply with a jarring “Is that a question or a statement?” and sidestepped the subject. I raised my hand to ask why the Golan Heights was highlighted as non-Israeli territory in the Oslo Accords map the speaker was projecting. It was bothering me that no discussion of the occupation of the Golan Heights, somewhere we had been taken to.

I wanted my group to hear about it, even if only briefly. The speaker went on to say that while the Golan is considered occupied land, the European Union does not label the origin of the food produced in the Golan for export as originating from occupied land, which according to him, “is very telling.”

“He told me I should change my name – many Sephardic families do once arriving in Israel – because I was Jewish…. According to Sam, my two ethnicities were somehow mutually exclusive.”

What interested me more than an Israeli PhD student’s summary of 100 years of history, was watching the very politics in question play out in front of us. Throughout the seminar, the hotel workers that had been taking down the buffet from our dinner were causing a bit of a commotion, quite purposely from my interpretation. They talked loudly and irreverently during the seminar. I couldn’t understand what they were saying, but tensions were high. From time to time, a worker would have to cross between the screen and the speaker to pick up something on the other side. On a trip back to the kitchen, one worker loudly sucked his teeth, a gesture meant to signal disrespect. At one point, our trip leader entered the kitchen to ask the workers to be less disruptive, and emerged a little flustered, uttering a firm “todah,” which is thank you in Hebrew. The speaker then sarcastically commented that “any conversation ending in Todah is good.” Immediately after, what sounded like a tray of dishes crashed to the floor.

After another day in Jerusalem, we returned to the hotel for yet another seminar. This time, we were herded into a side room of the hotel – which I later learned was one of the hotel’s bomb shelters – to talk about anti-Semitism. No recognition was ever made of the different privileges – including but not limited to class privilege, white privilege, heterosexual privilege, male cisgender privilege, and educational privilege – which those in my group, including me, enjoy to varying extents.

At one point, the statement “Any comment against Israel is anti-Semitic” was discussed in small groups. One of the more militant attendees asserted that this statement was true because Israel is a Jewish state that does amazing things for Jews around the world – including saving all the Ethiopian Jews when they were facing prosecution. He backed up his claim by saying that the state of Israel involves itself in the affairs of all Jews, not just Israelis, to make sure that they aren’t discriminated against. Bringing up the Jewish bakery shooting in France following the attack on the Charlie Hebdo office, he said that Israel encourages French Jews to move to Israel, because living in France is “like living in a Muslim country now anyways.”

After the seminar, I was interested in hearing what Sarah*, an American-born Israeli who had moved to Israel to do her military service, had to say on the topic. She had joined our trip with the other Israelis and quickly asserted herself as the most nationalist of the bunch. To be blunt, talking to her felt like talking to a mouthpiece of the State of Israel. I sat down with her and another Israeli and asked them if they considered criticisms of the state of Israel to be anti-Semitic statements. They weren’t sure what I meant, so I related to them the following:

I had read a first-person narrative of a Jewish Iraqi family’s immigration to Israel in the early 1940s. The author detailed how her grandmother had arrived in Israel pregnant. The Israeli hospital told her that her child had not survived the delivery. Later, the family discovered that the child had indeed survived, but was given to an Ashkenazi family to be raised. The author discussed the two-tiered society she grew up in, where official government policies like the kidnapping of Sephardic babies goes unrecognized to this day. Naturally, no acknowledgement of the difference between the Ashkenazi and Sephardic experiences in Israel occurred on my trip.

After listening to the story, Sarah immediately launched into an account about how the Israel Defense Forces was currently in the process of ‘rescuing’ injured Syrian fighters and rehabilitating them, in a weak attempt to portray Israel as a humanitarian state. I had to wrangle her back to our original discussion and pin her down on the Sephardic kidnapping story. I asked her point blank if I was being anti-Semitic by saying that the Israeli policy in question was abhorrent. I got the sense that this was the first time she had ever contemplated the thought, or heard criticism of an Israeli governmental policy at all. In the end, the other Israeli involved in the conversation said, “I don’t know;” and we moved on.

The next day, we went to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust remembrance centre in Jerusalem, and the national cemetery immediately after. The visit to the museum was extremely powerful. The centre had a massive amount of information about the North African Jewish reality, which I had never seen in a North American Holocaust museum. The tour lingered on the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and we learned about the civilian insurrection that the Jewish community organized against the Nazis. The irony was staggering in light of the way ‘civilian insurrections’ occurring daily in occupied Palestine were framed as ‘aggression and terrorism against the state of Israel’ throughout the trip.

I especially enjoyed when our tour guide, an aging British man, stopped at the last installation of the tour and asked us, “Why is this here?” He was referring to an information plaque about the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. The question was phrased rhetorically, with heavy overtones of disdain. I got the sense that our tour guide didn’t like the emotional linkage of the Holocaust to the State of Israel any more than I did.

After the emotional experience at Yad Vashem, we were bussed to the national cemetery. There, we listened to first-person experiences of the Israelis in our group whose family members or friends had died fighting in Gaza or policing the streets of Israel. People cried. As we walked through the graves, which were predominantly of young adults between 18 and 25, someone on my trip expressed interest in finding the grave of a friend of a friend – someone who died fighting in Gaza when “Hezbollah came out of those tunnels like rats.” I corrected him and said that if it was in Gaza, it was more likely to be Hamas, but didn’t address the rat comment. How could I humanize a group of people so othered by the American and Israeli narrative that they merited being compared to rats?

After staying at the graves for quite some time, we started up the hill to the grave of Theodor Herzl, a major figure in modern Zionism. While desperately trying to recall what a friend and I had discussed about Herzl before my trip, James*, an Israeli who had spoken earlier that day about a deceased friend, approached me. This is when I learned that having that discussion with Sarah about anti-Semitism was a mistake. James asked me if I still felt the way I felt about Israel “after today.” I was thrown. I never had a conversation with him about Israel. He must’ve been referring to the conversation I’d had with Sarah, a conversation he was nowhere near and must have heard about through her. I feigned misunderstanding and hurried up a set of steps. James was a heavy smoker and struggled to keep up with me, so once we reached the top, he was too out of breath to rephrase his question. By the time he had caught his breath, we were already standing in a circle around Theodor Herzl’s grave. Our tour guide spoke of Herzl’s ‘dream for Israel’ and then we sang the national anthem. I thought I didn’t know it, so I stayed silent, but the song coming from my group was something I was intimately familiar with – in a prayer setting. Every morning from kindergarten to third grade, I sang this song in the middle of my prayers. Not once was I told it was the Israeli national anthem. At best, I knew it as Hatikvah, or ‘a prayer for Israel.’ If I had never gone on Birthright, I would have never known that I unknowingly sang the Israeli national anthem for four years of my life. My skin was crawling.

The overarching assumption of Birthright is in its name – that you, as a Jew, have a right by birth to the land of Israel. Within that assumption is another, more subtle, one. It assumes that the State of Israel is a legitimate nation that ‘deserves’ the land it’s on. Israel is an exclusive state, by Jews and for Jews. No matter how many times I heard that ‘Israeli Arabs enjoyed the same rights as Israeli Jews,’ the lived experience of the average Palestinian seemed scarily similar to my understanding of the lived experience of a South African of colour during Apartheid. The colonized minorities of Israel living within its borders are treated as second-class citizens and forced to endure humiliation after humiliation as Zionist settlers weave narrative after narrative justifying their presence. Birthright goes an extra step – it showcases the shiny side of Israel to tourists so they return home with only positive memories of their time there. Anything can be legitimized if you try hard enough, and Birthright tries really, really hard.

“Every morning from kindergarten to third grade, I sang this song in the middle of my prayers. Not once was I told it was the Israeli national anthem.”

Hearing racist comments on my trip about Arabs, while unsurprising, hurt me deeply. It hurt me not only because I felt personally affronted, but also because I was watching history repeat itself before my eyes. The Israeli state has hijacked a rhetoric of Jewish oppression in order to perpetuate the very crimes it claims to guard against. Birthright is an exclusivist program designed to glorify the construct of the Land of Israel, while simultaneously erasing and disinheriting Palestinians from their land.

This ‘free’ trip is a privilege enjoyed by those who can sufficiently ‘prove’ they are Jewish and can afford to take ten days out of their lives to play tourist. In exchange, they have to sit through seminar after seminar aimed at making them fall in love with the Israeli state. Take it from me, the tradeoff is not worth it.

I went on Birthright because I wanted to be able to critique the Israeli state from within. Would I recommend it to Jews who share my political beliefs? Absolutely not. I regret letting my mother sign me up for this trip. I regret occupying space on contested land. I regret putting myself in a position where I had to endure microaggression after microaggression against half of my identity. And to answer your question, James: no, I haven’t changed my mind.

*Certain names have been changed in this article.