By Elizabeth Shulman
My Birthright trip arrived in Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport, where we were greeted by our Israeli guides. The first thing they said was “welcome home.” It was easy to see that the next ten days were dedicated to instilling in us a strong connection to Israel. Starting in the North and working our way down to Jerusalem, we learned about the creation of Israel. The tour guide had many stories and quotations about Israel. One of the lectures consisted of quotations by two different people at two different times speaking about Israel, one saying that it was a barren desert that was dry and unpleasant, the other saying how wonderful it was and how life was thriving there. The tour guide explained that the first person had seen Israel when there were no Jews living in it, and the second person was speaking of Israel with many Jews. The tour guide was trying to convince us that Israel only flourishes when it is inhabited by Jews.
Halfway through the trip five Israeli solders joined our group. We went together to a cemetery in Jerusalem where soldiers are buried and heard about many of their amazing feats in the wars. We also saw a documentary commemorating a young American boy who desperately wanted to, and did, join the Israeli army. The American boy died in an attack, and the documentary showed countless Israelis crying around his grave. The documentary emphasized what a hero he was for fighting for Israel. When politics came up, our group leader explained that when Israel is attacked, it reacts with greater force than it received to illustrate that no one should ‘mess’ with Israel. Birthright made it seem that it was a great honor to partake in the army and that Israel was always in the right regarding its military actions because they were means of security and protection.
For one night we stayed in a Bedouin tent for tourists, and our guide spoke a bit about Bedouin lifestyle. We did not talk to any Palestinians or even about Palestinians and their lives in Israel and the West Bank.
I stayed in Israel after my trip because there was an option to extend our Birthright tickets and I wanted to travel more. When looking for Post-Birthright experiences, I came upon a Windows tour and decided that it would be interesting to go to the West Bank. It was much more than just a tour of the West Bank. Emily, my Windows tour guide, explained a different side of Israel, the side of the Palestinians. She spoke of the different problems that the Palestinians were facing, such as housing demolitions, lack of equal citizenship, barriers coming into Israel, unemployment, refugee camps, Jewish settlements, etc. I was shocked; I had never heard the other side of the story, and Birthright made me feel as though all of Israel’s actions are completely legitimate and purely in the name of security. Now I see that the issues are much more complicated than that. The tour took us to a refugee camp near Bethlehem, where we saw how many Palestinians live. On the way out of the Bethlehem checkpoint, I saw a Palestinian woman beg an Israeli soldier to let her return to her home in East Jerusalem. The soldier refused. For the first time, I started to feel that there was really an occupation.
My tour with Windows showed me an unbiased view of the situation; it showed me the Palestinian’s lives and then let me experience them. Emily was merely offering the view of Palestinians and letting us see for ourselves a different side of Israel. After my tour with Windows, I am able to look at the conflict from both sides, something that Birthright did not offer. This is important because the process of peace cannot begin if it is not based on justice. I did enjoy my time on Birthright, but now I also see the different ways it tried to influence me to join its own beliefs. I highly recommend Windows’s tour to anyone that has been on Birthright so that they can become less biased in their thoughts on Israel instead of being put on a one-sided mission in favor of a Jewish state. As an American Jew, it is a challenge to know Israel’s whole story because of the distance between it and the United States. However, Americans, especially American Jews, have political influence on Israel, so it is extremely important that they are properly informed. Otherwise, their actions could hurt a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. After all, real peace comes from lawfulness, fairness and understanding from everyone, something that Windows truly hopes to accomplish.
pictures from the tour here