Alsheikh: Hillel, End Birthright
The Birthright trip is far-right, anti-Palestinian and anti-peace. Why does Hillel continue to sponsor it?
To the far-right billionaire Sheldon Adelson, “the Palestinians are an invented people'' and Muslim student organizations are “taking over” college campuses. This bigot wouldn’t typically matter to Dartmouth students — but his money funds a program on our campus.
As they do every year, Hillel at Dartmouth organized a contingent of the Taglit-Birthright Israel trips, sending Jewish students on a week-long tour through the country in order to “explore their Jewish identity and support for Israel.” While the trip claims to be politically neutral, in reality it is funded by state institutions that play an active role in the violation of Palestinian human rights. Indeed, Taglit-Birthright Israel, the nonprofit organization that funds the trips, is financed by the Israeli government and quasi-governmental agencies, such as the Jewish Agency and Keren Hayesod.
Alone, the Israeli government’s numerous war crimes against Palestinians would be enough to call the trip into question, yet to add to this, the Agency and Hayesod have also been intimately involved in the dispossession of Palestinians. The Jewish Agency was historically known to be “involved directly in establishing and maintaining settlements,” according to the United Nations. Beyond the Israeli state and its apparatuses, funding is also sourced from far-right American donors like Adelson, one of Trump’s biggest supporters in 2016 and Birthright’s largest single contributor in the history of the program. Up until his death in 2021, Adelson actively promoted the Orientalist conspiracy theory that “the purpose of the existence of Palestinians is to destroy Israel.” Unsurprisingly, he has also expressed disdain for democracy: “So Israel won't be a democratic state, so what?”
These funding sources ensure that the trip serves to further the Israeli right’s political interests. In the past, when Birthright determined that an individual has a “hidden agenda” (e.g., a difference in opinion), they have been prevented from participating. If they somehow manage to be admitted to the trip anyway, they face harassment and intimidation from Birthright: Former trip participants report having been singled out from the tour for interrogation by security after bringing up the Palestinians, as well as having been completely “banned…from asking political questions to speakers.”
The most alarming part about Birthright by far is the tour activities. Trip participants may spend a night in West Bank settlements — usually without the participants’ prior knowledge or consent, and despite the fact that these settlements are in explicit violation of international law, according to the UN. It should be noted that this year’s Hillel Birthright trip did not visit the West Bank, but that this has occurred on other trips is nonetheless problematic. Trips also routinely patronize businesses run by settlement organizations such as Elad, a far-right settler organization that seeks to destroy Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, bringing the settlers both revenue and positive publicity. And to top it all off, “the most important component of the Taglit-Birthright Israel experience” is the mifgash (encounter) between the trip participants and active-duty Israel Defense Force soldiers, in which the trip participants befriend individuals actively enforcing the world’s longest illegal military occupation.
Racially, the Birthright itinerary is also carefully planned so as to paint a homogenous picture of Israel. Trips don’t make contact with any Arab citizens of Israel, despite the fact that they make up 20% of the citizenry and about 40% of the population Israel governs. Arab citizens of Israel have no representation whatsoever on the tour — instead, Jewish tour guides speak for Arabs, with one announcing to his group that “Arabs have wanted to kill Jews forever… [Arabs] are ‘like mosquitos.’” On another trip: “Just go to Palestine…you’re going to get killed, you’re going to get raped [by the Arabs].” Further, the maps that Birthright hands out to participants, as of 2018, include the West Bank as part of Israel (“Judea and Samaria”), notwithstanding the fact that the West Bank is internationally recognized as belonging to a future Palestinian state (yet, in the words of another tour guide, “Israel sees the West Bank as part of Israel”).
Birthright’s itinerary is transparently far-right, anti-Palestinian and anti-peace. While there is nothing wrong with celebrating Jewish culture, there is something horribly wrong with making the occupation a part of it. To participate in Birthright is not to experience Jewish culture; it is to acquiesce in the ongoing violation of human rights law, the settlement of the West Bank and the denial of the Palestinian right to exist. In short, to participate in Birthright is to stand for the opposite of the values that Jewish culture teaches.
That Hillel approves of and organizes a Dartmouth Birthright trip is thus unacceptable, for all students and especially for our Jewish community. Having their cultural trip be biased in favor of Israel’s far-right serves to alienate liberal Jews on campus and implicitly prioritizes the politics of some Jews over others. It bases someone’s “birthright” to Israel on their will to dispossess Palestinians and violate international law. As a result, Jewish college students from across the country have come out in opposition to Birthright: JStreet, Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow are just a few examples of Jewish organizations that have condemned the trip.
Hillel has a multitude of options at its disposal. Ideally, it can cancel the Birthright trip altogether and replace it with any of the many choices that aren’t funded by the Israeli government and uber-conservative donors: Green Olive Tours, Breaking the Silence, Let Our People Know, Birthright Unplugged, among others. On the other hand, if Hillel is unwilling to cancel Birthright, they should at least offer alternatives or add-on options to the normal Birthright trip, so as to give students uncomfortable with Birthright the chance to see both sides. One potential option is Extend, which was founded by Birthright alumni to provide a bipartisan view of Israel. Jewish Voice for Peace has prepared a list of 38 alternative trips to Israel or Palestine that can supplement a Birthright trip; Hillel ought to pick one and make it available for our Jewish community.
Birthright goes against Dartmouth’s values of tolerance and authentic discourse. For the sake of Dartmouth, morality and our Jewish students, Hillel must end its association with Birthright.
Ramsey Alsheikh is the president of the Palestine Solidarity Coalition of Dartmouth Students
Editor's Note, Jan. 31, 11:20 a.m.: Discussion of events occurring on Birthright trips in this column concerns the Birthright program generally, rather than the trip organized this year by Hillel at Dartmouth. This column has been updated to specify that Hillel’s 2022 Birthright trip did not spend a night in the West Bank.
Editor's Note, Feb 2, 11:20 p.m.: This column has been updated to specify that the columnist is the president of the Palestine Solidarity Coalition of Dartmouth Students