In a continuation of a small but troubling trend that was revealed last year, young diaspora Jews again are using popular youth programs like birthright israel and college fellowships as a vehicle to volunteer for a Palestinian-run group the Israeli government considers a danger to national security, The Jewish Week has learned.
Others are capitalizing on their dual Israeli-American citizenship and entering the country on Israeli passports to volunteer for the controversial International Solidarity Movement, which works actively against Israel’s policies in the West Bank and Gaza.
The fact that several of the nine Jewish ISM volunteers known to have arrived during the past few weeks have come under false pretenses is noteworthy given last summer’s revelations that a handful of participants enrolled in the birthright program, the subsidized trip for college-age students, with the intention of joining ISM.
Their arrival comes at a time when Israel has enacted a policy to deny entry to ISM activists.
A New Yorker, Ann Petter, was detained recently by Israeli officials at Ben Gurion Airport and asked to leave the country. She refused and as of Wednesday remained in custody.
Jessica, a 22-year-old from Plainview, N.Y., spent the first part of her summer touring Israel on a birthright mission. When the trip ended, the Duke University graduate went to a travel agent, extended her birthright plane ticket and became a volunteer with the International Solidarity Movement.
Now Jessica, who like the other ISM volunteers interviewed spoke on condition that her last name not be published, spends her days trying to prevent Israeli soldiers from allegedly destroying Palestinian homes and fields, and from building the security barrier that will soon encircle this and other Arab villages west of the Jewish settlement of Ariel.
Like the other 50 or so ISM volunteers now residing in the West Bank, she routinely acts as a human shield by standing in front of bulldozers and between Palestinians and Israelis.
“I don’t think that I, as a Jew, have a claim to this land”, Jessica said, gazing at the replanted stump of an olive tree uprooted from an Az-Zawiya field by the Israeli army during its preparations for the barrier. “Why should I, as a Jew, have a right to live in Israel while Palestinians expelled in 1948 and 1967 don’t have this right”??
Jessica’s decision to join ISM, which Israel considers a danger to national security because it prevents soldiers from carrying out their duties, wasn’t some last-minute inspiration evoked by birthright. Rather, she came on birthright largely because it provided free transport to the region.
“When someone arrives at the airport and declares that he is part of an anti-globalization or anarchist group, it’s the right and obligation of Israel not to let him enter”, said David Saranga, the Foreign Ministry’s deputy spokesman.
While Saranga said he has no knowledge about whether such groups are actively trying to recruit Jewish volunteers due to the ease with which they can enter Israel, “it is important that the family of the young person be aware of this possibility”.
Asked whether ISM encourages young Jews to utilize birthright and other subsidized programs to become volunteers, ISM spokeswoman Huwaida Arraf replied that “it hasn’t been an ISM policy to do so. I wouldn’t say we actively focus on recruiting Jewish volunteers over any other volunteers opposed to the occupation, but it so happens that a lot of our volunteers have been Jewish”
Journalist David Bedein, who has written extensively about ISM’s recruitment tactics, insists the organization says openly that “it prefers to have Jewish volunteers because it’s easier to get them into the country”.
Bedein, the founder of the Israel Resource News Agency, sent a reporter to cover ISM’s annual meeting in November.
“The participants were told to say they were coming as tourists at a time when Israel needs tourists”, Bedein said. “They were told to wear a Jewish star and to talk about their Jewish family and friends in Israel”.
ISM’s Web site similarly provides tips on how to dupe Israeli officials.
Paul Patin, the press liaison for the American Embassy in Tel Aviv, acknowledged that people come as tourists and have other plans when they get here.
Patin stressed that “we have a State Department travel advisory urging American citizens to avoid travel to the West Bank and Gaza”.
“We don’t think Americans should be traveling there because it’s too dangerous. If American citizens want us to help them get to the West Bank or Gaza, we can’t help them. No matter what their job is, we think we’re helping them by not helping them get there”, he said firmly.
To dissuade young Jews from utilizing birthright as a “free ride”. Bedein has urged the program to require participants who join anti-Israel organizations to reimburse the program.
Gidi Mark, birthright’s marketing director, said he knows of “only a handful of participants who fit this description, out of 70,000”.
“At most we’re talking about one person in 10,000”, he said. “During our screening hundreds of applicants were disqualified this summer, for a variety of reasons”.
As for imposing penalties, Mark said, “We don’t think it’s wise to mention organizations that participants have never heard about and then give them ideas. As it is, our waiver says that if a participant’s information is found to be false, they will have to pay for the trip. In five years we’ve sent back three who were found to have a different agenda”
Jessica may soon be added to the list. A basic Internet search using her full name revealed that she was one of the leaders of Duke’s divest from Israel movement, a fact that she reportedly failed to disclose on her birthright application.
Smoking a cigarette in the garden of the simple house ISM rents in Az-Zawiya, a hilly village whose 6,500 Muslim residents will be separated from most of their fields once the security barrier is constructed, Jessica insisted that “I wasn’t an activist in college”.
Asked why she came on birthright, she smiled and said, “The free trip was a definite positive, but I was also interested to see how Judaism is connected to Israel, and how young American Jews are told they can be citizens of Israel. The sign when we arrived said, ‘Welcome home”… “
Jessica said she and another friend who later joined ISM took copious notes during their birthright trip.
“I’m in the process of writing an e-zine about birthright”, she said, referring to the mini-magazine she plans to distribute “informally”.
“It will be targeted toward Jewish and left-wing organizations to help them understand how Jewish nationalism works”, Jessica said.
Clearly, the New Yorker sees birthright as a powerful Jewish nationalist tool.
“It creates a family and makes that family Israel. American Jews become part of that family. It affects their lives, their politics, how they spend their money”, she said with a hint of disapproval in her voice.
Raan, an intense young Israeli expatriate whose grandfather was Hanan Bar-on, Israel?s one-time ambassador to Ethiopia and Holland, used his Israeli passport to enter the country. On summer break from his doctoral program at a prestigious American university, Raan advocates “a single democratic state for all citizens of this country”.
“I don’t believe it is necessary to be a Jewish majority in this country”, he said.
Raan’s definition of “this country” is the country known as Israel plus the Palestinian-ruled territories. A self-described “radical”, he believes that “as an Israeli, I bring to ISM some understanding of the socio-political and historical aspects of Israeli society”.
Raan believes that his illustrious grandfather would be proud of him.
“He was on the liberal left”, Raan said. “I think that I?m carrying on his legacy”.