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How Israel's 'birthright' denies Palestinians their basic rights

More than 16,000 Jewish Americans return from Israel each year equipped with the latest and greatest pro-Israel talking points

Whenever I visit Israel, I try to speak to as many Jewish American "birthright" visitors as I can, and they're easy to spot. Look for a large pack of 18-25 year olds in and around the malls located nearest to the Jaffa Gate, Old City; listen for one of the many flavours of the American accent, and you've found yourself a tourist who is travelling on both the Israeli taxpayer's dime and a Las Vegas casino magnate's winnings.

To be eligible for an all-expenses paid guided tour of Israel, one must be a high-school graduate under the age of 26 and of Jewish ancestry. Of the 20,000 annual birthright visitors, more than 80 percent are American.

Put another way, more than 16,000 Jewish Americans return from Israel each year equipped with the latest and greatest pro-Israel talking points, which is precisely the politically motivated goal of the predominately right-wing Jewish American billionaires who fund the programme.

This making "birthright" an integral component of what is a broad coalition of groups and organisations that actively work to shift US foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction – otherwise known as the Israel lobby.

I have interviewed, both formally and casually, dozens of birthright visitors, and have particularly sought conversations with those at the end of their 10-day propagandised tour, which again is an easy feat given most itineraries conclude in Jerusalem – after taking in the Galilee, the Dead Sea and Tel Aviv.

Notably absent from the itinerary are Gaza and the West Bank. These American tourists are denied the realities of Israel's brutal occupation and segregation of the West Bank, and the human catastrophe that has befallen upon nearly 2 million caged Palestinians in Gaza – for these realities pose inconvenient truths to Birthright Israel's overarching message: that America and Israel are cultural cousins and thus have shared values and thus Israel's interests are American interests.

When it comes to pro-Israel propaganda, Birthright Israel is where the rubber meets the road. Young Jewish American adults return to their communities and campuses with their heads filled with Israeli lobby-generated narratives and talking points.

Birthright Israel is another reminder that in a contest of competing narratives – Israeli versus Palestinian – the former invests hundreds of millions of dollars every year to ensure its contorted narrative is heard far and wide – while the latter relies only on the hope that justice may prevail.

Based on my interviews with Birthright Israel visitors, the following are some of the more common propaganda narratives woven into the 10-day itinerary:

1 'Jewish State'

Nearly all expressed support for both a peace agreement and a two-state solution, but all accompanied that with the following caveat: "Palestinians must first recognise the 'Jewish State'," which is word-for-word Israel's non-negotiable demand for a peace settlement.

Israel uses this pre-condition to keep the peace process on hold, knowing that no Palestinian delegation would ever recognise Israel as a "Jewish State" given it would officially brand the 1.8 million Palestinian citizens of Israel as fifth-columnists, would forever deny diaspora Palestinian refugees the right to return to the homes they were driven from; and would end any hope of East Jerusalem becoming the capital of a Palestinian state.

2 'Arabs', not 'Palestinians'

Not one of more than a dozen interviewees referred to Palestinians as Palestinians, it was always "Arabs". In fact, several made a point of "correcting" me when I referred to the indigenous population as Palestinians. "There was never a Palestine here, thus there are no Palestinians, only Arabs," was the common refrain. The implication being that the land occupying the Jordan Valley to the Mediterranean Sea has always been the land of the Jewish people, and thus the "Arabs" are from somewhere else.

This remains a longstanding pro-Israel propaganda trope – one that posits Palestinians as an "invented people" – and one that makes a mockery of history. At the time of the Balfour Declaration (1917), a colonial pact that effectively turned the land the indigenous population had held for more than 1,500 years into a Western settler-colonial project, the Jewish population totalled less than 9 percent.

The mass influx of Jewish immigrants from Europe, Africa, and Europe under the British Mandate increased the Jewish population of Palestine from just 80,000 in 1922 to more than 450,000 in 1940 – as opposed to 1.2 million indigenous Palestinians. Mass Jewish immigration resulted in the wiping out of more than 500 Palestinian villages. "Jewish villages were built in the place of Arab villages….There is not a single place built in this country that did not have a former Arab population," boasted former Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Dayan in 1962 - a boast that has been confined to the dustbin of history.

3 'What occupation?'

When asked about Israel's occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, nearly every single Birthright Israel visitor I have interviewed has responded like they were reading from a cue card. "Whose land is Israel occupying, Jordan's?" is the near-universal retort.

When asked to elaborate, interviewees pivoted to the 1967 war and gave an almost carbon copy explanation of how Arab armies were plotting to invade Israel and Israel therefore had every right to seize Arab lands.

Despite this ahistorical account of the 1967 war, and despite the fact Israel's occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem is a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention and defiance of multiple UN Resolutions, all interviewees referred to these land appropriations not as occupied territories but only as "disputed lands".

Other Birthright visitors have spoken out about how their guides neglected to mention the Palestinians, obscured existing segregation and apartheid laws, and even threw "the term dirty Arab around quite a bit".

The synchronicity of responses to questions as they relate to contentious elements of Israel's history and occupation leaves one with little doubt whether or not these responses are drilled into Birthright visitors by their "guides". And as mentioned earlier, these canned responses give an insight into where and how the Israel lobby is massaging old tropes into new slogans.

- CJ Werleman is the author of Crucifying America (2013), God Hates You. Hate Him Back (2009), and Koran Curious (2011), and he is the host of Foreign Object. Follow him on twitter: @cjwerleman

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures as he speaks during the Taglit-Birthright annual event in Jerusalem on 12 January, 2016 (AFP).

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