The first time I was invited to speak in front of a group of Taglit - Birthright, almost 12 years ago, I was 18 and didn’t even know what the Birthright program was.
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My brother was married back then to an Argentinian Jewish woman who made aliyah a few years earlier, and a friend of hers was guiding a Argentinian Birthright group of young adults. I was asked to meet with the group for a couple of hours and speak about my experience as a Palestinian from East Jerusalem living in Israel, so they could hear another point of view. As I am also a native Spanish speaker, I was well-suited for the job.
I agreed to meet with the group, even though I didn’t know what I was signing up for. I spoke for an hour-and-a-half about my personal experience and about the Palestinian cause in general.
The Argentinian teenagers had a lot of questions, most of them ignorant, but they tried to be polite. In the end they told me they were very satisfied, and thanked me for meeting with them. As we parted, I realized I still didn’t really know what this Birthright thing is all about. During that summer, I met with another half-a-dozen Spanish-speaking Birthright groups.
Fast forward 10 years, and I’m much older and mature, and more importantly, I'm much more politically aware and active. Being a social activist and trying to raise awareness for the causes that are important to me (the Palestinian cause and LGBT rights) became a big part of my life. Being an outspoken, gay Palestinian who lives under the occupation has led me to being invited to many panels, conferences and media interviews and to writing op-eds for Israeli newspapers.
My political stance was and is very clear. I speak about the Israeli oppression against the Palestinian people, about the occupation and the Nakba, and also about the oppression of the LGBT community in Israel and in my society as well. I’ve never shied away from saying it all - including the ugly things.
I know now what Birthright is and what it represents, and it represents almost everything I’m against. Every time I even read the word 'birthright', I get nauseous. Who are these privileged kids who get to have an all-expenses paid vacation here? People who get to visit here so easily, even if they don’t have any apparent affinity with this land, while hundreds of thousands of Palestinians are denied the right to visit their homeland?
Even my brother, who was born here in Jerusalem, who studied and worked in Israel, cannot come to visit his own family anymore. My brother used to be a citizen of East Jerusalem, but since he left the country for more than three consecutive years he lost the few rights he had in this country – because he’s an Arab, because he is not Jewish. Arab residents of East Jerusalem who leave the country for too long are deprived even the right to come visit their family in Israel.
That’s why I was very surprised when, recently, someone from Birthright contacted me over Facebook. This time, they asked me if I could meet with English-speaking groups, much bigger groups.
I wondered if they knew what my political stands are, but they said they wanted me because of my views, and not in spite of them. They were looking for "someone from the other side", someone who doesn’t shy about showing the ugly face of the conflict. They’ve been following my posts online and appreciated my narrative and point of view. They promised I would be able to conduct an open discussion with the group that wouldn’t be censored in any way.
That’s what exactly happened, and many more times since. In the past two years, I have spoken with hundreds of American, Canadian, British, South African and Australian Jewish teenagers. This round I was more experienced, more politically inclined, but I always used my life and personal experience as examples to help them relate to the Palestinian narrative. I would lie if I said that I didn’t enjoy seeing those poor faces drop as I burst their bubbles.
Ultimately, it doesn’t surprise me that Birthright decided to cancel all meetings with Arabs. We are living in the era of Trump and Netanyahu, where extremism and anti-political correctness are praised and idolized. It also makes me sad, because those meetings were literally the only good thing I could say about Birthright as an organization. Those meetings showed an effort to expose those kids to other points of view, and to teach them to be more open towards self-criticism.
Even today I still don’t know why I was repeatedly invited to meet with Birthright groups. I represent everything they’re against and everything they’re trying to hide. Erasing the Palestinian narrative is the whole point of the organization. Now Birthright is going to be exactly what it’s always been expected to be, a sterile utopia that reflects the reality in Israel-Palestine even less than it used to.
Zizo (Ziyad) Abul Hawa is a Palestinian journalist and LGBT rights activist. Born in Barcelona to Palestinian/Syrian parents, and raised in East Jerusalem, he currently living and working in Tel Aviv - Jaffa