Questions of identity and Birthright

The peace process, such that it ever was, is obviously stuck, but it is wrong to place all the blame for that on Israel, whichever government is in power.

THOUSANDS OF young people from around the world attend a Taglit-Birthright Israel mega event in Jerusalem on January 1 (photo credit: JANE PEIMER)
THOUSANDS OF young people from around the world attend a Taglit-Birthright Israel mega event in Jerusalem on January 1
(photo credit: JANE PEIMER)
It wasn’t the $60-million question and it wasn’t a question of a zero-sum game, but the phrasing riled me. I recently participated in a panel at Limmud UK with the title: “Is the Israeli government doing enough to promote the peace process with the Palestinians?” In accordance with a longstanding Jewish tradition, I answered the question with a question: “Shouldn’t we be asking what the Palestinians are doing to promote peace – or even stability or economic viability?”
I have been asked variations on this theme regularly in recent years and I have come to the conclusion that it embodies two significant problems: The first, that the onus for somehow creating peace lies only on Israel and the second, that the conflict with the Palestinians should be what defines Israel.
The peace process, such that it ever was, is obviously stuck, but it is wrong to place all the blame for that on Israel, whichever government is in power.
During the election period, the question of security is usually high on the agenda, but Israel, at 70-plus, like most normal countries, also has other things on its collective mind. There are a lot of social issues to deal with – the widening socioeconomic gaps, a medical system that is not working as well as it once did, tension and division between different sectors.
At least we are holding elections. Democratic ones. Those urging Israel to reach an agreement with Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas are willing to ignore the fact that the 83-year-old PA president was elected to a four-year term this week – 14 years ago. It literally doesn’t add up to democracy.
Similarly, despite his age and poor health, Abbas has appointed no apparent heir, leaving the vast majority of Israelis and Palestinians wondering who will come next. The “two-state or one-state” mantra has been out of date for years. While Abbas’s Fatah movement continues to clasp on to power in the West Bank, its archrival, Hamas, is in control of Gaza. The two-state solution is already a three-state solution; four, if you count Jordan, where there is a Palestinian majority.
The international obsession with the Palestinian narrative has done nothing to bring about peace. On the contrary. Every time pressure is put on Israel to reach an agreement, the Palestinians feel they can sit back and enjoy. Until it all blows up.
The main reason Israelis are not focused on a so-called “peace process” is because ever since the Oslo Accords more than 25 years ago, experience has taught us that the process leads to another wave of Palestinian terrorism rather than peace.
The process should not be an aim in itself. If the goal is peace – or at least quiet – there are other ways of achieving it, starting with economic ties. But here lies the other huge obstacle to peace with the Palestinians: the anti-normalization movement and BDS, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which is anti-normalization’s ugly sibling.
IT IS disingenuous for those who don’t want ties with Israel – or “the Israeli-controlled occupied territories” – to insist that Israel give up almost everything that defines it in order to reach an illusion of peace.
As recently as January 1, Abbas, according to Iran’s PressTV, announced “Jerusalem is not for sale,” and added: “The continuation of the colonialist settlement and the occupation of the land of the State of Palestine will not break our willpower, nor will it harm our resolve, because our people will not kneel but to Allah, and this is our land and holy places, and this is the land of our forefathers and grandfathers.”
The insistence of seeing Israel as a colonialist enterprise is an essential part of Abbas’s mindset, but it is not the worldview of someone who has come to terms with Israel’s right to exist or the millennia-old Jewish ties to the land, predating the birth of Christianity and Islam (in that order), let alone the Palestinians.
And this brings me to another topic that has been in the local news lately: The Taglit-Birthright Israel program celebrating its 20th anniversary year. Birthright, founded by philanthropists Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt and now enjoying the support of Sheldon Adelson, was the brainchild of Olso Accord architect Yossi Beilin. Many consider it Beilin’s redeeming quality. The idea was to give young Jewish adults from around the world a free 10-day trip to Israel to help them learn about and explore their Jewish identity. A record 55,000 people visited Israel via Birthright in 2018.
Far from the “colonialist” trope, there have always been Jews in the Land of Israel. (The Jews who were expelled from Hebron, the Old City of Jerusalem, and the Etzion Bloc during bloody Arab riots and wars are among the most overlooked refugees in history.) It is here that the story of the People of the Book was written – in Hebrew.
Last summer, a few Birthright groups were infiltrated by members of the If Not Now movement who disrupted tours, demanding to be taken to “the occupied territories” and hear about Palestinian lives and affairs. The movement has adopted the slogan “Not just a free trip” to call on future potential Birthright participants “to tell the truth about the Israeli Occupation to the thousands of young American Jews that will participate in its programming.”
THEY ARE deliberately redefining the concept. No longer is Birthright about Jewish identity (as its name suggests); it is about “The Conflict.” Members of If Not Now have every right to set up – and fund – their own tours, but brutally hijacking the Birthright project goes beyond chutzpah.
“Birthright calls itself a free gift – but what is the cost for our generation, the Palestinian people, and the entire American Jewish community?” asks Emily Bloch on the If Not Now site. I’d like to ask “What is the price of deliberately framing Israel solely in relation to the Palestinians?” But the answer is evident: literal and figurative distancing from Israel and the Jewish community as a whole. And getting not one step closer to peace.
Those who insist on seeing Israel as an interloper that for some reason decided to settle down in the Middle East are missing the much broader picture – the picture that comes with a historical perspective. Israel is truly at home here, on the Mediterranean, no less than the Greeks across the beautiful blue waters.
The year 2019 marks 40 years since Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat signed the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, bringing hope to the whole region and proving that Israel is willing to make significant territorial compromises for true peace (even though it turned out to be a cold one). It is also the 40th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution, which had the opposite effect, encouraging Islamist fundamentalism, turning the Shi’ite-Sunni split into a chasm, and promoting anti-normalization and terrorism against Israel.
For me, this year marks the 40th anniversary of my aliyah from Britain. Last week, following the announcement by Jerusalem Post columnist Caroline B. Glick that she was joining Naftali Bennett’s and Ayelet Shaked’s New Right Party, Yediot Aharonot writer Ra’anan Shaked kicked up a storm by tweeting: “You really think that there is some electoral force to the always-amusing sub-stream of scattered Isramericans that came here from their homeland – where there is a doubt if they would have gotten a job that doesn’t includes the question ‘Do you want fries with that?’”
The jibe was too much to swallow. Ra’anan Shaked is one of those satire and comedy writers who themselves become a parody and a (bad) joke. There’s a one-word answer to the question why Jews – of different religious streams and political ideology – leave comfortable lives to move to Israel, where they usually earn less, downsize housing and cars, and periodically come under rocket attacks or yet another wave of terrorism. It’s called Zionism. It’s not a rude word – but it is a defining one.