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Jewish Journal

Do ISM Activists Exploit Birthright?

by Gaby Wenig

January 20, 2005 | 7:00 pm

Birthright Israel participants look through postcards at a souvenir shop in Jerusalem last spring.

Birthright Israel participants look through postcards at a souvenir shop in Jerusalem last spring.

 

When Vicki Kaplan's Birthright Israel trip finished, the Los Angeles native wasn't sure what she wanted to do. Kaplan definitely wanted to stay longer in Israel, so she extended her ticket, but the politically active college student wasn't sure where she should take her activism.

"I had expected to only stay about one extra week in Israel and spend the summer at home," said Kaplan, 21, a former student at Duke University. But then she met with different human rights organizations, and connected with the International Solidarity Movement [ISM], a group that claims to practice "non-violent resistance against the occupation."

Kaplan wanted to interact with Israelis and Palestinians and Internationals, and ISM could help her. "I had the chance to speak to people living in the village and learn about the affects that the construction of the [security fence] was having on their village," Kaplan said, noting that she attended demonstrations against the security fence."

Kaplan's Israel trajectory -- starting off on Birthright, ending up with the ISM, a group that the Israeli government charges with trying to undermine Israel's fight against terror, both passively and actively -- is a path that is slowly being encouraged among Jewish pro-Palestinian activists.

Birthright, a program that wants to foster allegiance to Israel among young Jewish Americans, gives free trips to any Jew between the ages of 18-26 who has not been on an organized trip to Israel before.

On the other hand, people wanting to join ISM have to pay their own way, which is why Birthright's generosity unwittingly provides them the perfect entry into the Middle East.

ISM volunteers come to the territories from all over the world, where they engage in activities such as sleeping in the homes of terrorists that are slated for demolition, acting as "human shields," participating in protest demonstrations and even cutting down the security fence. One ISM volunteer, Rachel Corrie, a 23-year-old from Washington, got killed almost two years ago when she acted as a human shield before a house slated for demolition. (Corrie was not a Birthright participant.)

While at least 30 percent of ISMers are Jewish, it is unknown how many start off in Birthright. Birthright officials say the number is negligible -- less than 10. Some ISM volunteers think it is much more than that.

According to Front Page Magazine, at the Third Annual National Student Conference on Palestine Solidarity at Ohio State University in November 2003, ISM leader Adam Shapiro told the participants that most ISM volunteers fly to Israel for free through the Birthright program. Now the phenomenon even has a name -- at the Palestinian Solidarity Conference at Duke University in October last year, in a workshop "From Birthright to the ISM," in which Birthright was pilloried for a skewed view of Israel, it was called "Birthright Unplugged."

Kaplan said that her Birthright experience made gave her "an understanding of how the political climate in Israel worked."

"For example, we visited a Jewish National Fund [JNF] forest which is a big part of American Jewish life -- supporting Israel by supporting the land and the trees, but then afterwards I was speaking with an American Palestinian friend of mine and he said the village where his family had come from before 1948 was now covered with a JNF forest," said Kaplan.

Both Kaplan and another ex-Birthrighter, Jessica Rutter, told The Journal that when they joined Birthright they were not necessarily thinking of extending their trip to join the ISM. However, Rutter purposely did not disclose her pro-Palestinian campus activism when she applied to join Birthright.

Since Birthright's aim is to get young Jews to love Israel, it does not stop them for extending their tickets, nor does it monitor what participants are doing when the program ends.

"It's a very insignificant number of people who do it," said Rhea Basroon, a spokesperson for Birthright in New York. "We have sent 70,000 people on Birthright, and now there are two or three applicants for every space."

Basroon said that Birthright requires every participant to sign a waiver stating that they will not use drugs or engage in violent activity, but it does not try to curtail their political actions.

"It just has not been an issue," Basroon said.

But others think that Birthright needs to scrutinize its participants and their actions more carefully.

"I think they need some type of follow-up of where the kids are after they leave the program," said Allyson Taylor, the associate director of the American Jewish Congress, Western Region. "I think they have to be aware that the ISM is taking Jewish students into the West Bank to help dismantle the security fence. If [Birthright participants engage in those activities], they should made to pay back the trip."

 

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