“Tear gas canisters, BDS Stickers and hope: What I Saw on My Trip to Palestine/Israel This Summer”: a response

The most-commented article right now on the Daily Pennsylvanian’s website (and therefore highlighted alongside the right-hand margin) is a guest column by rising Junior Clarissa O’Conor titled Tear gas canisters, BDS Stickers and hope: What I Saw on My Trip to Palestine/Israel This Summer.

In the column, O’Conor describes her recent visit to the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and elsewhere in the company of “two other Penn alums, a larger group of Presbyterians from Atlanta, Jews, Muslims and secular folks, and one alumni of Birthright Israel.” [The editorial oversight that allowed this sentence to be printed as is simply boggles my mind. Thank you, “Summer Pennsylvanian.”] In any event, O’Conor believes that this field trip qualifies her to hold forth on the complex Israeli-Palestinian conflict because she’s gone where no American visiting on Birthright has gone before:

Throughout the entire trip, I could not help but think of my fellow Penn students who have taken a Birthright tour of Israel or are there now on Birthright Excel. I know that they do not go where I went. I know that they are told nothing about what they are seeing outside their bus windows through Palestine/Israel. For example, although Israeli soldiers accompany Birthright groups to encourage the identification of young American Jews with the Israeli army, these groups do not visit the more than 600 military checkpoints, roadblocks and barriers that are symbols of Israel’s control over Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.

O’Conor seems to know a lot about what people do on Birthright for someone who — I’d wager — never went on such a trip herself. Having staffed two in the past [full disclosure: I staffed two Birthright trips in the past, and what people do on Birthright is hook up], I would dispute that the American visitors are “told nothing about what they are seeing outside their bus windows through Palestine/Israel” — though I would agree that they probably don’t often experience checkpoints like O’Conor did.

But I’m not writing to defend Birthright; I’m writing to o’ffend O’Conor. The ironic thing about her description of a Birthright trip and all that it omits from the itinerary is that her own seems somewhat far from complete. Here is a list of her experiences on this recent trip — the locations, people, and organizations she writes of having visited:

  1. “Palestine/Israel” generally.
  2. The West Bank community of Bil’in.
  3. “Emad Burnat, who filmed ‘5 Broken Cameras,’ his family and other Bil’in residents and heard the stories of what they and their families have been through at the hands of the Israeli military.”
  4. “Fantastic Palestinian human rights organizations and NGOs that we met that are doing work on the ground and documenting their oppression.”
  5. “Israeli organizations working in solidarity with Palestinians to end the system of oppression and apartheid carried out in their names.”
  6. The best falafel place in Bethlehem.
  7. A hotel in East Jerusalem (one where the cleaning cart sported a BDS sticker).
  8. Palestinians who generally requested she spread the message of BDS upon her return to the United States. [More disclosure: I’ve written about BDS in the past, and I’m rather proud of my contribution to that discussion. Check it out.]
  9. The Qalandia checkpoint, one of the largest checkpoints in Palestine/Israel [“It is imperative for Birthright’s aims that participants are kept from this reality”].

O’Conor leaves off with some helpful advice for people moved by the plight she describes: “Consider taking a trip like I did or if you’re going to Palestine/Israel, talk to Palestinians. Travel around East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and ask the people that you meet what is going on and what is happening to them . . . Seek out alternative media that privileges Palestinian voices and experiences. Check out the work that Palestinian organizations and NGOs are doing. Feel free to reach out to me if you want any suggestions of good places to start.”

It’s probably occurred to you by now that O’Conor’s itinerary is at least as unbalanced as anything dreamed up by Sheldon Adelson. I’m not going to argue that Birthright doesn’t have a particular ideological mission or that it is not generally single-minded in its focus on Jewish identity and solidarity with Israel. But I also don’t need someone just back from her trip to “Palestine/Israel”, where she toured a laundry list of Palestinian villages and NGOs, to lecture me on accounting for both sides of the story.

Of course, that’s not O’Conor’s real agenda. She isn’t interested in neutral media sources; she insists on ones that “privilege Palestinian voices.” And she doesn’t really want you to visit “Palestine/Israel”; she wants you to drop by Palestine — and more specifically, the West Bank and East Jerusalem (and certainly not West Jerusalem or even Gaza).

Her bias isn’t just evident in her concrete suggestions, but in the very language she uses to describe place names. One example that stuck out to me as particularly telling was her name-drop of “the best falafel place in Beit Lahm (Bethlehem)”. O’Conor called it by its Arabic name, and even went out of her way to include the English spelling of the predominantly-Muslim village, but did not deign to include its Hebrew name, Beit Lechem. Nevermind that the city is home to Rachel’s Tomb, an important pilgrimage site for Israelis, or that the name originally derives from the Canaanite for “Temple of the God Lakhmu [the Akkadian God of Fertility]”, meaning that neither of the names she cites — nor the one I’d have liked to see included — is technically correct in any sense.

It’s one thing to argue that Israel ought to cede control over Bethlehem because it lay outside that country’s borders following the cease fire of 1948, or because it is currently inhabited by Palestinian Christians and Muslims and not Israelis. It’s another thing entirely to pretend that Israel, Israelis, and Jews in general have absolutely no claim or connection to any of the land under any circumstances whatsoever.

I want to be clear: I’m not trying to make the case — nor do I believe — that Israel is wonderful and flawless and perfect and should annex the West Bank and expel the Palestinians and everything will be hunky dory. But I do think that the only way this conflict is ever going to be finally resolved and the two peoples will live in actual peace is when members of each nationality [and their supporters] are willing to recognize that the other side has some claim to the land, that concessions will be painful for both sides, and that the people living on the other side of that wall are not actually all that different from themselves.

In short, I find O’Conor’s approach somewhat less than helpful. But I wouldn’t tell her to head back to “Palestine/Israel” and talk to some different Israelis. Instead, here’s my suggestion for her: go find out what your relatives have been up to over the past century. More specifically, travel around Belfast and Dublin, and ask the people that you meet what is going on and what is happening to them. Ask them what took so long and cost so many lives to get to where they are today. And then come back and let me know whether peace is easy, and whether exploring and validating the claims of only one side of a conflict is going to help anyone get there.

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12 thoughts on ““Tear gas canisters, BDS Stickers and hope: What I Saw on My Trip to Palestine/Israel This Summer”: a response”

      1. Your reply is just a word salad. No cogent argument is offered… because there isn’t any.

        And replying with “Thanks!” to me or other doesn’t change the racist and colonial and ethnic cleansing essence of your ideology.

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    1. Birthright Israel is Zionist indoctrination. The writer helps staff it. The Palestinians don’t have such an organization in the USA. Nor do they get $8.5 million daily from USA’s hapless taxpayers as Israel does. BDS will win. It’s only 8 years old. It took 30 years of BDS to end the apartheid regime in S Africa.

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  1. I am grateful for Clarissa’s excellent and insightful report. It’s impressive that it’s “The most-commented article” on the website as you pointed out.

    As for her knowledge of Birthright, she has probably some familiarity with it because she has studied the issues at hand in depth. Further, her comments are not so far from articles I read about the program and a presentation I heard by two participants. In the presentation, the participants felt that in fact Birthright gears itself to make participants strong supporters of the State’s political and nationalist system. One Birthright participant went on the “Multicultural” category of Birthright, hoping to delve into the various cultures of the Holy Land. Unfortunately, she was severely disappointed, as the multiple cultures presented to her were only those of the ruling religio-nationality.

    If I remember correctly, they also said that they were given little direct information on Palestinians’ situation, and were strongly discouraged from questioning the dominating conditions in a critical way. Thus, when Clarissa says they are “told nothing about what they are seeing outside their bus windows through Palestine/Israel”, she naturally doesn’t mean that they are told absolutely nothing beyond when they see. Rather, she means that they are not taught the reality of what people are living under on the other side of the imposing Separation Wall, and out of sight of their windows.

    Regards.

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    1. By the way, your comment “what people do on Birthright is hook up” fits what the Birthright participants mentioned in their presentation.

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