It is probably not what the founders of Birthright Israel - the program that brings thousands of young diaspora Jews to Israel each year - would have ever imagined: That within months of arrival, a Birthright participant would become a spokeswoman for the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), a pro-Palestinian activist group operating in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Laura Gordon, 20, from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, arrived in the country last December with thousands of Jewish students from some 30 countries on the Birthright program.
"I didn't have any money and I did want to come and see Israel," she told Anglo File this week.
Told originally about the program by one of her professors at Grinnell College in Iowa, Gordon signed up and was interviewed by telephone by a Birthright organizer in New York. "I was asked if I was Jewish and if my level of religiousness was appropriate for the program," said Gordon, whose family are Reconstructionist Jews. She saw the program as an opportunity "to learn about the conflict and talk to people on both sides. I hoped as an outsider that I could have a more objective understanding of the situation and help bring peace to the region."
Within three months, Gordon would become one of the nine foreign activists working with the ISM in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. In recent months, the organization has attracted world attention after one member, Rachel Corrie, was killed and two other members were seriously injured while attempting to stop Israeli bulldozers from levelling Palestinian homes.
During the 10-day Birthright program, Gordon visited a young Israeli who was seriously wounded in a Palestinian suicide bombing. "At that point, I was learning about that side, and now I'm learning about this side," she said.
After Birthright, Gordon became even more curious to visit the Gaza Strip, having received e-mails from an American friend in Rafah.
"I was being told by really sweet 18- or 19-year-old boys in the army that it was a really honorable thing, what was going on in the territories," she explained, adding that contrasted greatly to her friend's e-mails about the "Palestinians' daily subjection to fire and violence."
Gordon made a quick trip to Rafah just days before Corrie's death in March but after hearing of the incident, decided to head back to the Gaza Strip for a longer visit. "Initially, like everybody who comes here, I thought it would be a month but it's turned out to be much longer," she said in a phone conversation this week. "Here in Rafah, I already have many, many families who I consider as my own family. They have been so welcoming, thanking us for bringing world attention to their plight."
While her own family back in the U.S. supported her work, she said, they "were scared to death" about her safety.
Asked how people reacted to a Birthright participant being involved in such activities, Gordon responded: "Some people, when they heard back in the States, said I had betrayed Birthright by doing this, but Birthright does not come with a stipulation that you must espouse certain values."
The revelation about Gordon comes in the wake of government cuts to the funding of the Birthright program which until this year, was split equally three ways between a group of North American philanthropists, diaspora Jewish communities and the Israeli government.
When informed of Gordon's role in the ISM, the international marketing director for Birthright Israel, Gidi Mark, told Anglo File that the criterion for accepting participants is that they have to be "Jews between the ages of 18 and 26 who will be coming to Israel on their first peer-group educational trip."
"In the event of irregular behavior, including incitement against the State of Israel, participants are sent back to their homes," he said. "Some of the participants choose to extend their stay in Israel on their own. We do not follow the whereabouts in Israel of participants after they have completed the 10-day program that Birthright Israel provides."
However, Mark stressed that "in the brief time that Birthright Israel exists, tens of thousands of Jewish young adults have become Israel's ambassadors on campuses throughout the world."
Meanwhile, life for Gordon and other ISM activists has become even harder in the last week with the Israel Defense Forces announcing tough new regulations for foreigners operating in the Gaza Strip. Foreign nationals entering the Strip are now asked to sign a form in which they pledge not to enter military areas along the Israel-Egypt border or other areas of conflict. They are also being asked to sign a waiver exempting Israel from any responsibility in the event of injury or death.
For its part, the IDF has charged that many of the self-proclaimed peace activists are "provacateurs" and "riot inciters" who deliberately interfere with the army's work in an effort to blacken Israel's image.
In addition, last Friday the IDF raided the ISM's offices in the West Bank village of Beit Sahour, arresting a Palestinian secretary, Fida Gharib, and an American, Christine Razowsky along with an Australian human rights worker, Miranda Sissons, who was visiting at the time.
The organization is now changing its direction, Gordon said, as "clearly, it has become dangerous to do direct actions, so we're refocusing our efforts on community development - such as writing papers on the water situation in the region."
She added that "the situation has become more and more difficult, but we don't feel that by any means that it is the end of ISM. More and more people are e-mailing us and offering their support."
In addition, the group launched an e-mail campaign this week calling on those activists who had been in the region to return.
"We are a nonviolent group and we maintain neutrality," Gordon stressed. "You try to distance yourself from the factions here while understanding that this is the result of the occupation. I would be thrilled to see the day when there are no more suicide bombers, but I don't see anything in place [that shows that] Israel is serious about reducing the violence here. Sincerely, I do believe that I am furthering the safety and long-term stability of the Jewish people by being here."
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