Tel Aviv — Mohammed Dawarshe had been lecturing visiting Birthright Israel participants on Arab Israelis for the last two years, meeting them in off-the-beaten-track places like the city of Umm el-Fahm in northern Israel. But in September, the Israeli coexistence activist was informed by Birthright officials that meetings for the remainder of 2017 had been cancelled.
“The decision was so sudden … I don’t know how to explain it,” said Dawarshe, the co-director of the Givat Haviva Center. “I think it was a big mistake.”
The cancellations were part of a decision by Birthright to suspend all educational tracks focusing on Israeli Arabs, stirring up confusion and criticism in the U.S. and Israel about what was meant by the move. Critics allege that the organization is trying to present a prettified picture of Arab citizens’ lives while papering over issues of racism, discrimination, social inequality and the Arabs’ Palestinian identity.
What is clear is that the future of the Jewish identity trip’s recently added mandatory educational module on Arab Israelis remains in temporary limbo and tens of thousands of participants scheduled to arrive later this year won’t be meeting with any members of Israel’s one-fifth minority.
The controversy has also highlighted the tension between twin goals of Birthright: to awaken the cultural and spiritual awareness of young diaspora Jews while also connecting them with Israel and all of its thorny realities — like the tenuous status of the country’s Arab citizens.
Birthright, which has brought hundreds of thousands of Jewish youths on free 10-day visits to Israel, says the suspension is a result of the regular evaluation process that other educational tracks have undergone in the past with little fanfare.
However, beyond a statement released last Thursday after the initial report of the suspension in Haaretz, an Israel-based spokeswoman for Birthright said the organization wouldn’t comment.
Gil Troy, a history professor at McGill University who is the volunteer co-chair of Birthright’s Education Committee, told The Jewish Week that Birthright received criticism about the Arab Israeli modules. Some participants, Troy related, felt they were being lectured to without getting the chance for dialogue, and others felt the presentations were “song and dance” that had been taken out of context. Still others, he said, complained about presenters’ English or the length of the talks.
A Birthright educational meeting set for Wednesday in New York was to consider ways to improve the module. The meeting will include Gidi Mark, Birthright’s chief executive, who has been visiting the U.S. to meet with donors and participate in a Birthright alumni event. (Mark and Zohar Raviv, Birthright’s international vice president for education, did not respond to emailed requests for comment. An employee of Galai Communications, a public relations firm that represents Birthright Israel, also declined to comment.)
Troy said he would like Birthright participants to understand the complexities of minority existence in Israel — an experience that American Jews should be able to empathize with.
“I don’t want to reduce the Israeli-Arab experience to hummus in Abu Gosh,” he said, referring to an Israeli-Arab village that’s a popular tourist destination. “But I also don’t want to reduce it to extremists who ignore the expanding Arab middle class. … I would love for Birthright’s participants to walk away with an understanding of the multidimensional nature of the Israeli-Arab life.”
Troy said the evaluation issue was a “speed bump” in the development of Birthright’s curriculum, rather than one motivated by politics.
In the last two years, Birthright Israel has sought to introduce for the first time an educational module for interaction with Arab Israelis that every participant would be exposed to, instead of leaving it up to individual educational tour contractors.
Dawarshe said that his organization had been receiving an increasing number of requests from Birthright tour operators in recent years — suggesting that the organization was interested in deepening its educational focus on Arab citizens.
The coexistence activist said his lectures focus on the social gaps and geographical separation between Arabs and Jews in Israel. He’s met groups visiting at an Art Gallery in Umm El Fahm — a city infamous in Israel as the headquarters of the outlawed northern branch of the Islamic Movement — about the social and economic disparities between Jews and Arabs. He said students also visited Barta, a village of Arab citizens of Israel that was severed by the Green Line in 1948.
However, in September, he was initially told by Birthright staff that the program had reached a quota for meetings with Arab Israelis. Dawarshe speculated that the real reason for the suspension was critical feedback from Birthright students and Israeli soldiers that have accompanied the visits with Arab citizens.
“A small percentage of participants have been brought up with an unrealistic image of Israel, where they think of it as above criticism. … Most of the objection we get is from some of the accompanying Israeli participants that join them, especially Israeli soldiers who often present a rosy and militaristic approach to Israel. They themselves have never been exposed to Arab citizens,” he said.
Dawarshe speculated that the decision on suspension came from diaspora sponsors of Birthright rather than the professional staff in Israel, which has been committed to expanding exposure to Arab Israelis.
“I understand the organizers’ desire to create empathy with Israel, but I think that empathy should not be based on an unrealistic picture, or by showing extreme points of view that portray Arab citizens as part of the enemy. … It needs to be shown in complexity,” he said. “The visits shouldn’t be just to a Bedouin tent.”
Bedouin hospitality and a camel ride figured as the sole scheduled exposure that Alicia Glick, a 22-year-old human capital consultant, received during a summer trip organized by Cornell Hillel in the summer of 2014. “There was no formal programming in terms of meeting or interacting with Arab Israelis,” she told The Jewish Week. When she returned as a U.S. trip leader for Birthright this past summer, there was no formal interaction with Israeli Arabs either. She noted, however, that most of the 2014 trip was devoted to strengthening the Jewish identity of participants, rather than politics.
Faisal Mahagneh, a resident of Umm el-Fahm, said that for more than a year he met with Birthright programs during visits to an Arab-Jewish ecological center at Kibbutz Ein Shemer, but a little more than six months ago organizers stopped inviting him. He was told that his presentations were considered too focused on discrimination rather than Arab-Jewish coexistence.
Mahagneh, a coexistence activist in northern Israel, said his lectures focused on the story of his family, which was uprooted from land and property in a destroyed Arab Palestinian village in northern Israel following the 1948 Israeli War for Independence. He said he highlights the situation of Arabs who were displaced after the war inside of Israel. Mahagneh said he would tell participants that he considered his identity as an Arab-Palestinian citizen of Israel, but above all a human.
“They want to bring someone to say, ‘Israel is good for me,’” he said. “They don’t want to bring a genuine picture of the Arab population.”
Anton Goodman, head of development at The Abraham Fund Initiatives, an Arab-Jewish group focused on equality and a shared society, told The Jewish Week that he met with a Birthright official several years ago who was researching the Arab-Israeli curricula. Goodman said he was left with the impression that organizers wanted to emphasize only positive Arab-Jewish interactions rather than delving into the challenges that Arabs face. He alleged in a Haaretz opinion article this week that organizers would only accept Arabs “who accepted the Zionist narrative.”
Birthright should come up with a mission statement mandating “equal and balanced” encounters with Arab citizens, Goodman said. “I know that Arab society would react very positively to that. The message should be that Arab citizens can be both Israeli and a member of the Palestinian people, and that they can go together.”
On Thursday, after this story went to press, a Birthright spokesperson issued the following statement about the group’s visits with Arab-Israeli citizens:
“Birthright Israel temporarily postponed programs focusing on co-existence projects, including the important exploration of the joint society between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel, to ensure they are as productive as possible. Ever since our inception 18 years ago, Birthright Israel has always been committed to exposing participants to the full spectrum of Israeli society. We constantly evaluate how to improve our programming in order to maximize the experience for the thousands of young adults who participate in our trips. It is our goal and expectation to restart the programs as soon as possible and likely in the first quarter of next year.”