By Niko Block
I was not enticed, per se, by birthright’s web pages inviting me to Experience Israel! adorned consistently with photos of youths huddling happily together, advertising how incredibly intimate they had become over the course of their ten days together – in fact I suspected these were amateur models posing to receive generous stipends from Taglit’s overflowing coffers. I was more attracted by the free airfare.
Before arriving at the airport I knew that my ten days on birthright would have to be an exercise in self-control, in the face of political beliefs entirely at odds with my own. After all, I didn’t even agree with the idea of having a right, by birth, to a free trip of roughly $4,000 value – certainly not moreso than any diaspora Palestinians. But considering that I wasn’t giving Taglit my money – just the opposite was effectively the case – it wouldn’t make sense to boycott.
In the terminal we played an acquaintance game, drank coffees together. On the plane I sat next to a girl who defended Israel’s right to incarcerate Palestinians without fair trial because, “Don’t they all want kill us?” I cut the conversation short in the politest way possible and went to sleep.
As we recovered our luggage in Tel Aviv and began carting it toward the exit sign, a portly Israeli man in a kipa materialized and vigorously began taking pictures of our weary faces. He energetically pushed the button, yelled something to someone in Hebrew, laughed, and repeated.
Our tour guide’s name was Erad – a fit and outdoorsy man in his forties or fifties. Over the bus’s PA he informed us that we were driving down into the Negev, where, at a canyon formed by thousands of years of flash floods, David Ben-Gurion was buried. We were also introduced to Yaniv, our official medic and bodyguard, IDF alumnus, who would accompany us throughout the trip, and wore a rifle around his shoulder at all times. The gun felt grotesquely inappropriate – indictable, like indecent exposure. But I would have to get used to it, since my plans were to volunteer in Palestine for several months after birthright.
We became acquainted at an incredible pace. Boys and girls talked about how they love it here, how grateful they were to be out of their parents’ house, or wherever they were two days prior. They would take deep drags on a cigarette, and maybe share it with a member of the opposite sex. Zionist, angst-ridden teenage love was in the air. On the first night at our hostel in the desert one of my assigned roommates accomplished his apparent mission of getting laid. I slept right through it, but my other roommate filled me in on the details the next morning.
A group of ultra-Zionist lubovich boys was in my cohort. We were passing around shots of whisky in our dorms when one of them offhandedly said that the land “should belong to the Jews,” I asked him what makes him think we deserve it more than Palestinians.
“We were here first,” he said.
“You live in Montreal. Were the Jews there first too?”
I can’t remember how he responded, but the discussion continued until they all lost interest and one of them tried to end it by saying, “Look, we don’t want to share the land; they don’t either. If I were them, I would hate us too. That’s just how it goes.”
The night of Shabbat we were told to dress nicely, and we were introduced to Rabbi Tsvi. We were given pamphlets about the “Israel Shabbat Experience”, which read more like single’s profile on J-date: “Tzvi enjoys snowboarding, winter sports and running. A great lover of the Jewish people, Tzvi has conducted Shabbat Experience-esque programs in Des Moines, Iowa and in South Carolina. A former public school teacher, he is also a talented breakdancer and public speaker.”
After the candle-lighting he got the room clapping and singing, then let loose and started moonwalking, roboting, doing the wave, and so on. The girls laughed hysterically and their faces changed colour. The boys asked him what other moves he could do. After that he sat down and probably started talking about the meaning of the Sabbath: I started dozing off. My head and eyelids sank down towards my chest, every now and then jerking epileptically upwards – to reveal our group leader frowning caustically at my impudence – before sinking into slumber once again.
When it was finally over, we all brought our Duty Free liquor to the precipice of the ravine, got hammered and made out with each other.
Buffets of halva, cottage cheese, boiled eggs, and instant coffee quelled our headaches in the morning.
Our next overnight was in a Bedouin outpost somewhere in the Negev. On the bus ride there somebody asked Erad if boys and girls would be sleeping in separate tents.
“No,” he said, “because, as everyone knows, birthright is all about making Jewish babies.” We giggled at how earnestly we were adhering to its agenda.
The camp was designed more or less to satisfy our limited and exoticised assumptions about Bedouin culture; we sat on the floor and ate dinner with our hands; the following morning we went on a camel ride.
After supper we settled in the massive tent. A small group had gathered in the corner to listen to Yaniv espouse his political analysis of the situation: “Do I hate them? Of course I hate them, but I don’t go and kill them at every opportunity I get; that’s the difference between us and them,” he said. The birthrighters nodded sympathetically. I bit my tongue.
The following day we assented Masada, we were told about the heroic massacre that the Sicarii1 committed against their families and themselves before the Romans breached their fortress the following morning. We swam in the Dead Sea, and then were driven back to Tel Aviv to hear a lecture on “the political situation.”
Our orator was a sharply dressed British Israeli whose English accent seemed to lend him greater credibility. He introduced himself as Neil Lazarus, a British-born Israeli. He told some self-deprecating Jew jokes, then sombered the tone with stories of people he had known who were killed by Arabs. Were watched a video presentation which included clips of an al-Aqsa TV’s2 children’s show – in which a ten-year-old girl speaking to a bumbling character in a Mickey Mouse suit called for the extermination of the Jews – and a Hezbollah propaganda video boasting of civilian deaths in Haifa. Everyone squirmed in their seats, gasping and making desperate motions with their hands. He went on to explain that a Palestinian state would be problematic, more or less, because Jerusalem and Tel Aviv would be vulnerable to Palestinian rocket attacks. Finally he dispensed his card around the room, directing us towards AwsomeSeminars.com, and bid us adieu.
The vast majority of time on birthright the group spends being herded from one landmark to the next. We sat on the bus, the group posed while our tour guide snapped picture after picture of us, with clusters of digital cameras dangling from his elbows.
In Zefat, a bespectacled rabbi in crocs and a threadbare gabardine distributed stickers of one of the numerous moshiachs of the past half-century, we were shown the coffin-sized cave where Kabbalah was born, we climbed things and were told to come down while we waited for girls who had run off to the bathrooms to confess sexual misadventures to each other like Catholics between the stalls. We were briefed on the significance of the next stop on our itinerary.
It was never explained to us what the idea was behind having a group of IDF soldiers accompany us for five days of our trip, but in any case, we were introduced to them the next morning, told to make friends. We got on the bus and drove to a kibbutz in the Golan Heights.
I had trouble sleeping the first night there, and wandered into the mess hall to read. As soon as I entered, I heard the voice of a soldier yell, “Don’t turn on the light!” I looked over, and through the darkness saw the ghostly outline of naked bodies.
“Shit, sorry,” I said, and quickly retreated.
Jerusalem was our next destination. This would be my home base for the next few months. The old city was plagued with pedestrian traffic jams of orthodox processions and groups of tourists wearing identical yellow baseball caps. Neon signs celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Six Day war decorated the corridors of downtown West Jerusalem. Ultra-orthodox who walk around averting their gaze from women, post-traumatic pack-a-dayers, and despondent security guards on every corner. In the old city we were instructed to stay out of the Arab quarter “or else Yanis will shoot you. Hahah… But really guys, don’t go there, it’s really dangerous.”
After spending an afternoon at Yad Vashem, and listening to a speech by a holocaust survivor, one of the girls told the group that she had decided she wanted to serve in the IDF and make aliyah. We were drawn into a discussion about whether or not we have an obligation to come to Israel and defend it.
A few people asserted that non-Jews and non-Israelis have no right to question or oppose the Israeli government. The moral superiority of the state was a given. I was getting pretty agitated and I wanted to stir things up anyway, so I put my hand up and went on a little diatribe about the fact that every racist state in history has faced violence, that ethnocracies themselves rely on violent forms of coercion. I ended it by asking, “When a population is displaced by war, and denied reentry, while others are granted citizenship only because of their ethnicity, how is that not ethnic cleansing?”
I felt like a dick dropping those two words on a group still recovering from images of emaciated Jewish corpses getting pushed into trenches by bulldozers.
“Excuse me – Are you comparing this situation to the Holocaust?” asked our group leader.
“There are different types of ethnic cleansing,” I said. “Transfer is one of them.”
One of the IDF girls suggested that the important thing is that Israel is a democracy. Another birthrighter later said that regardless of whether or not this was a case of ethnic cleansing, it’s just not helpful to use terms that get people wound up like that.
We spent our second Shabbat at the Kotel. There were men with IDF kipas, Cannabis kipas, kipas with Spongebob on them. Hassidics swarmed towards the holiness lying somewhere behind the stones. Dozens of other birthright groups had convened in the plaza. None of us had any idea what the appropriate prayer was.
There were at least five hookups in our group and three people said they wanted to make aliyah. If three out of every 31 birthright participants make aliyah, Israel’s population will grow by an extra 14,226 every eight years; a fragment of an ongoing campaign to defuse the “demographic bomb” in Palestine. The rest consists of house demolitions, the Wall, the Palestinian ID system, and the settlements.
When we returned to Ben-Gurion Airport the JAPs burst into tears and we all promised to facebook each other. I shook hands with everyone officiously; they said goodbye and good luck with whatever you’re doing.
Leaving the airport gave me space to think neutral, wordless thoughts. The country suddenly became less micromanaged, analysable, well-packaged. Buses identical to the one that had carted us around zoomed around Jerusalem for a couple weeks, taking kids to and from the shopping complexes and holy sites, putting them in touch with their Jewish identity.
Living in East Jerusalem brought with it a completely new plain of reality – neighbourhoods just steps away from spots we had visited that aren’t afforded such basic services such as garbage collection, decent roads, or functional public schools. Unlike birthright, East Jeruaslem was a world that confirmed that I would only ever be a tourist here.