Wednesday, February 14, 2007

a very cynical rant on birthright, Israel and American Judaim (zionists, skip this one)

Tomorrow morning, registration opens up for this summer's birthright trips. For those of you who don't know, birthright is a program that allows American Jews to go to Israel for free for 10 days. What do I mean by "free"? Well, they give you a plane ticket, a hotel, meals--and they also pay for tours. The idea, I suppose, is that rich American Jews will go on this trip and feel a "connection" with Israel, as a result of which they will invest in the Israeli government, support neoconservatives at home, move to Israel, etc. Plus, the rumor is that if you get engaged on the trip, they pay for your honeymoon in Israel. In short, it's hard to imagine anything more nauseating than birthright Israel.

But nevertheless, I will be one of the people signing up tomorrow. Why? I do not consider myself a "Jew." Let me make sure not to qualify that: not only am I not a "practicing" Jew, but I don't believe there is any other kind. In other words, I don't believe one can be "culturally" or "ethnically" Jewish, and I think people who do sound very silly when they try to explain it; "oh, you can tell he's a jew because he's so hardworking," or "he's definitely Jewish, because he's so neurotic." how preposterous, and racist too! What's so astonishing about the zionist movement in this country it has little to do with religion, and, as little as I understand the religious, I have an even harder time trying to understanding those who see themselves as having some sort of metaphysical connection to Israel. It's astonishing how many people say things like, "but your ancestors are from Israel," which, for one thing, may not be true (many russian jews descend from converts) and even if it is, couldn't be more irrelevant. Indeed, I don't think I'm the first person to be offended at the notion that, now that we know some people in Ethiopia are Jewish, all of the sudden Israel considers these suffering people worth helping. I also want to stress that I am not only allowed to say these things because I am 'actually' Jewish; my whole point is that I'm not Jewish--so please don't interpret it that way!! But I digress.

So back to my question: why go to Israel if you are so offended by all this stuff. But to me, the more fitting question is, Why not? After all, I hear Israel is amazing, and if some sucker wants to pay for me to go check out the Roman ruins, by all means. Plus, by taking up the space, perhaps I'm saving some impressionable youth from being converted to zionism. One less person will have a "life changing" experience in Israel (translation: they come home at talk about how the middle east is trying to destroy Israel, and so we'd better destroy them first). Unless, of course, I become that transformed child...? Well, if that does happen, it'll make for an interesting book. And perhaps I'll blog on my trip while I'm there, so, if a transformation does come, you all can feel the power of the homeland along with me.


Nancy D., Girl Detective said...

I'm kind of astonished by this. I think I have very different view on Jewish identity than you do, but I would never do birthright. I first of all object to the idea that American Jews have a "birthright" to the land of Israel--for many reasons, but not least of which is that America has been just as much of a homeland for Jews as Israel has, maybe a better one. I also have a problem with the way they parse who is and is not Jewish--I had a friend who was in the process of converting to Judaism, and they wouldn't let her into the trip until they saw her conversion papers. I just wouldn't be comfortable going on a trip they were paying for.

That said, you paint a very closed picture of Zionism ("they come home and talk about how the middle east is trying to destroy Israel, and so we'd better destroy them first") and there are a lot more models out there. Peace Now has been one of the strongest Israeli pacifist voices for a two-state solution for years, and they are Zionist. It just doesn't make sense to sideline the moderate voices. I wouldn't call myself a Zionist per se, but I think being anti-Zionist is counterproductive, seeing as there is a Jewish state and it's not going anywhere.

Little Hun said...

I think it's good that you're going on the trip, Mags. Please do blog while you're there and keep us updated on all you're seeing, doing, thinking and feeling.

While I'm not at all qualified to comment on Zionism as an idea or a movement, I do think it's silly and inappropriate for the Birthright people- or anyone for that matter - to try and set limits and rules on anyone else's idea of their own ethnicity. If people recognize themselves as Jews, then they are Jews, with whatever ramifications that distinction means for them. If they don't view themselves as Jews, that's fine too. If they feel somewhere in between, that is also fine. This seems a simple enough formula to me.

One question: As Nancy D. says, Isn't being Zionist OR anti-Zionist kind of counterproductive in 2007, when the world has known a Jewish state for 60 years now? I think there are finer problems to be tackled at this juncture - like figuring out the difference between a Zionist Jewish homeland and a Jewish state (a complicated distinction many historians, philosophers, and policy people have written about), figuring out how Israel could operate more democratically, and figuring out how the forces that want to see the state of Israel destroyed can be stopped and de-clawed. All of these questions are severely difficult to answer, but that doesn't mean than we - Jews and non-Jews - all of whom are affected by the current conditions in the Middle East - should stop searching.

That's my two cents, anyway.

Betty & Bimbo said...

Oops! I accidentally logged in as Little Hun! Sorry Little Hun!

That last comment was written and posted by me, Betty.

Blame the drugs.

magwitch the gruff australian said...

I agree with you Bimbo, and actually, with you, too, Nancy D: I do not consider myself anti-zionist, and I think that, given the fact that the state is 60 years old, "anti-zionism" is not a productive idea. As a matter of fact, the notion of one peoples having more of a right to be there than another really makes no sense to me; that view, however, though not "anti" zionist, is definitely not zionist; that is, I do not believe Jews should (or should not) have a "homeland." As far as Jewish identity is concerned, I have a hard time with Betty's notion that you are a jew if you want to be, you aren't if you don't want to be. The problem with it is that no one really believes this; ie., I can't say, I think of myself as black so now I'm black (I can't convert for the jokes, in other words). Also, Bimbo can't say, I think of myself as a Jew, so let me on birthright. If she could, then I'd have different feelings about identity. But the whole premise of things like birthright (as well as things like the black caucas in congress, etc) is that we can't really choose our identities--and that, I think, makes them often times sinister. As far as Nancy's point about Peace Now, etc., she's obviously right that I it is somewhat unfair to characterize all zionists as hawkish. But that isn't really my point; rather, what I find offensive is the notion of zionism in itself: the notion that certain people belong to certain groups due to their bloodline or culture. In other words, I think that, in a perfect world at least, our notions of right and wrong in Israel--and in every other region (africa, for instance) will have nothing to do with our identities. In this respect, the identity of Judaism can be really counterproductive. The other day, for instance, I got into a huge argument with a friend over Israel; he ingeniously thwarted all my arguments by saying "well, you don't understand, because you aren't a real jew. go to israel and then we'll talk." as if we couldn't discuss politics like rational human beings because he's a jew and i'm not. That makes me crazy.

Betty & Bimbo said...


I think your friends' comment would drive many people crazy, including myself. I agree with you that rational people of any persuasion can and should talk about ways to stop the violence - much of it literally tragic - in the Middle East.

HOWEVER - I want to backtrack and advise you not to go to Israel with Birthright. Definitely go to Israel, but go on your own or with a less narrow-minded organization. All a trip with Birthright will do is reinforce your existing perceptions of annoying, narrow-minded, cultural-identity-obsessed people. But go.

Nancy D., Girl Detective said...

Now I feel bad about the strident nature of my first comment, though it is nice that we have come to a consensus. Rest assured that I know many good people who have gone on birthright and had a good time. As you probably know, they have different kinds of trips, and at least a few years ago, they had a kind of lefty progressive trip you could choose where you dialogued with Palestinians, or some such thing. I'm not sure that's what I'd want to do on my vacation, but just to say that birthright has offered these things.

This stuff is so sensitive because it is more and more difficult to talk about Israel, even among people who usually agree about things. While it's certainly wrong to call someone an anti-Semite for criticizing Israel, more and more you see people masking virulent anti-Semitism with Israel criticism (like Holocaust deniers in Iran and synagogue bombers in France), and it's scary. We are so lucky to be shielded from it here. My feelings about Israel change all the time: I used to defend Yassir Arafat to the ground, but then when he died, I looked at him and saw nothing more than someone whose life had been a failure. It seems like no one in the Middle East is an honest advocate for the people they claim to represent, and that's what people on all sides of the issue deserve more than anything.

Betty & Bimbo said...

you're right, nancy d. these are tough waters to navigate. i feel like i barely know how to do this sometimes, because you are totally right - neither side of the israeli/palestinean conflict has leaders (or high-profile advocates) that do their own side *or* the other side any justice.

the waters are tough and ignorance is widespread, too, which is why we should talk about it and try to separate things out until they are clearer than before.

while i agree with you that i feel lucky to be shielded here in the u.s. (which *unlike* many european countries like france, spain and germany as well as israel very few people can actually claim a "birthright" to - we killed 99% of them), i feel that my protectedness from exposure to some of the ugliest expressions of anti-semitism is attributable to american ignorance about the israeli-palestinean conflict overall. in other words, our fellow citizens' massive apathy and ignorance on the matter shields *us* not just from repugnant expressions of hate, but from having to engage in a conversation about israel/palestine at all! which is all the more odd given that israel is a major beneficiary of u.s. aid and arms, so the conflict is relevant to american citizens at large. still, i'm sure the majority of americans can't tell you anything about israel or the circumstances of its founding, or who supports whom on the world stage, or who the leaders on each side are, or what america is doing about the conflict today. european anti-semitism and anti-arab sentiment is deplorable and wrong, but is it possible that these extreme expressions are just the regrettable side effects of actually engaging with the conflict in a public conversation? maybe, i'm not sure.

on a side note, i'm glad to hear that you have friends who have enjoyed birthright trips. i know nothing about the program except for stories from one friend of mine who got really annoyed at always having to listen, defer, and answer to the birthright trip leaders. i encourage magwitch to go with another free or low-cost group because he already seems to hold preconceived views of the kind of trips birthright runs and i think it would be more educational for him to not have these views just constantly reinforced while he's there, even if not all birthright trip are as annoying as my friend's was.

Betty & Bimbo said...

just to clarify...

i reread my last comment and realized people might think i believe in the idea that i think some ethnic groups("the french", the non-castilian spanish, aryans, native americans, jews, palestineans) have more right to specific parcels of land than do others. i don't think this. i'm realize how american this belief is, too.

Anonymous said...

the really interesting question that none of you have touched on is why US policy on the Middle East is driven by a very small group of Americans, is it the same reason that US policy towards Cuba (for 10 US administrations) is driven by a very small group of people?
and that both of this policies are counter to the larger US interests in both regions

Nancy D., Girl Detective said...

Good point about a small group setting policy--and AIPAC is scary.

Betty, I think it's a good point about Europeans engaging more in Israeli policy more than the US. But honestly, maybe it's cynical, but they have been rabid antisemites over there for hundreds of years and I don't think Israel has anything to do with it. And they treat Arab immigrants like garbage. Whatever the US does badly, it is the best example of a functioning pluralistic society that I know of. Maybe we have the luxury to make it work because we are well off and sheltered by our borders and our oceans. But in spite of everything--including slavery and fences at the Mexican border and Jim Crowe--we make it work a lot better than most other places.