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After Birthright, Bethlehem

by Akiva Gottlieb | Published on June 26, 2012 in Tablet

Since the 10-day trip ended, I’ve explored Jerusalem’s Old City, crashed a wedding, and, most importantly, met with Palestinians.

While there’s a lot of Israel to see on Birthright, there’s a lot more Israel left some­where on the periphery, or completely obscured from view. Ten days, even at Birthright’s harried pace, leaves barely enough time for sights, facts and figures, and hardly a moment for polit­ical nuance. Experiencing Israel in the biblical and histor­ical past tense all but over­rides the unstable present. On-the-ground devel­op­ments in the past week include the vandal­izing of a mosque by Jewish settlers, the resump­tion of hostil­i­ties in Gaza, mass social-justice protests in Tel Aviv, and a New York Times op-ed declaring the inevitability of a third Palestinian intifada. These bulletins, all requiring context and expla­na­tion, were left under­stand­ably unad­dressed by our trip leaders, and I imagine that most would surprise or confound fellow Birthrighters, many of whom knew little about Israel’s polit­ical situ­a­tion. But one could argue that Birthright has a built-in solu­tion to its obvious peda­gog­ical limitations—at least for those who can delay a return to their desk by a week or two. It’s called The Extension.

Not every Birthrighter will feel comfort­able (or finan­cially stable) enough to extend, and many of those that do might not feel the incli­na­tion to leave Tel Aviv—and yes, full disclo­sure, I write this post from the balcony of a boutique hotel over­looking Dizengoff Square. But Birthright encour­ages this process, and makes it rela­tively pain­less to do so. For anyone convinced that Birthright’s full-speed-ahead mentality aids and abets the construc­tion of a false conscious­ness, The Extension is the time to do the hard work of disman­tling it. To borrow one of tour educator Yoav’s most sugges­tive mala­propisms, Extension gives one the time and space to get “complexed.”

Given my partic­ular idio­syn­crasies and inter­ests, this meant crashing an ABBA-enhanced wedding at the Mount Zion Hotel, searching for unex­plored corners of Jerusalem’s Old City, a trip to the Kotel for Kabbalat Shabbat, breaking bread with a Haaretz editor, a few naps, and most memo­rably, a visit to the West Bank with the Jewish educa­tional orga­ni­za­tion Encounter.

Traveling a few miles from our South Jerusalem hotel to Bethlehem and its envi­rons, our small group of Tablet staffers and a few others met with a cross-section of Christian and Muslim Palestinians for a series of open, civil, and completely unre­hearsed discus­sions about an occu­pa­tion that many Israelis have permis­sion to ignore. (Since Bethlehem is located in the West Bank’s Area A, under full civil control of the Palestinian Authority, Israelis are not allowed to visit.) We visited the offices and studios of the Ma’an Network, an inde­pen­dent news agency; a nonprofit fair-trade art collec­tive run by a Christian Palestinian woman; and the home of a family who refused evic­tion in the face of Israel’s West Bank Barrier construc­tion, and will now be connected to its village by a tunnel.

Some of our conver­sa­tions were maddening; a few were poignant. From the hilltop of Al-Walaje Village, we saw Jerusalem’s Teddy foot­ball Stadium in the near distance, and our guide, Marwan, remem­bered the excite­ment of his only visit, 17 years before. Another inter­locutor, a nonvi­o­lence educator with the makings of a trans­for­ma­tive politi­cian, dispir­ited us by claiming that any entry into poli­tics would mean forfeiting cred­i­bility with his commu­nity. Palestinian polit­ical agency was uniformly mini­mized. “We have the right­eous case,” he lamented, “but a bad lawyer and a rigged court.” Instead of pontif­i­cating amongst ourselves about the possi­bility of a third intifada or what the “right of return” might mean in prac­tical terms, we got to ask Palestinians directly. We got different answers, zero conclusions.

At the end of the after­noon, our group reen­tered Jerusalem by walking through Checkpoint 300, an expe­ri­ence made no less disqui­eting by the fact that, with U.S. pass­ports in hand, we sped along with ease. I know that Bethlehem—where our group had no reason to feel unsafe—is not Hebron, and it is not Gaza. But it also isn’t Tel Aviv. Everything I took in under­scores the moral imper­a­tive to chal­lenge the creeping “normal­iza­tion” of an unequiv­o­cally abnormal situation.

The eight hours of Encounter deserve some decom­pres­sion, some further research, and at least another week of reflec­tion, but I know I will come to see this short and unsen­sa­tional detour as a crucial point on my Birthright continuum. Toggling between the “two Israels,” with the suspi­cion that I was missing out on many more, is the only way I can plan to return home with a matured perspec­tive. The way Birthright feels about Israel—and they’re right, of course—is the way I now feel about Bethlehem: Every Jew should see this.

Akiva Gottlieb is a writer living in Ann Arbor, Mich.

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