JERUSALEM // Banners strung from lampposts across Jerusalem welcome the winter participants of Birthright, a programme that brings college-aged Jews, most of whom are American, to Israel for a free 10-day tour. Funded by wealthy Jewish philanthropists and the Israeli government, the trip takes participants to sites that have historical importance to Jews, such as the Western Wall, in hopes of strengthening their connection to Israel.
Meanwhile, near another wall - the concrete barrier that separates the West Bank from Israel - critics of Birthright are conducting a tour with a similar name, but a very different goal. Twice a year, Birthright Unplugged brings college-aged Americans on a six-day tour of the West Bank, given from the Palestinian perspective. Participants, who pay up to US$850 (Dh3,100) depending on their financial background, visit sites that are flashpoints in the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict such as Hebron, the separation wall and the olive groves where Palestinian farmers are sometimes attacked by Israeli settlers.
They also pass through checkpoints, visit refugee camps and spend their nights with Palestinian families - offering them a first-hand look at life under Israeli occupation. The intention, according to Dunya Alwan, the founder of the programme, is to break from the view that Israel is a country that belongs to Jews. Ms Alwan, who was born in the United States to an Iraqi-Muslim father and an American-Jewish mother, believes Israel and Palestinians should share the land and that those who left have the right to return.
She also hopes that those who attend her tour will take something away with them when they return to the United States. "The goal is to bring education and motivation to the States," says Ms Alwan. At Ms Alwan's Ramallah apartment, there are 17 Americans, all of whom are students at Boston College and have just completed a term-long course entitled Building a Just Peace in Israel/Palestine. Their professor, Eve Spangler, says they have spent the term studying the conflict from a human rights perspective. "I start with human rights, and let the chips fall where they may," she says.
Prof Spangler, a founding member of American Jews for a Just Peace, says that, like Ms Alwan, she hopes to see her students become active. "We are trying to make Boston a place for justice in Palestine." The students' trip, which has been partially funded by Boston College, has proved to be a crucial part of their studies, as their most vivid lessons have come during their time in the West Bank. Joanna Klekowicz, a 20-year-old sociology and psychology student, who grew up in Chicago, says that she while was "angry and upset" at the things she learnt in class, her experiences in the West Bank have put a face to the atrocities she has only read about.
In Hebron, she visited a Palestinian family whose roof was "occupied by soldiers because it was across from an illegal settlement". On their first day, the group visited Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem. There, they met a Palestinian family that now lives in a tent next to their home because it has been occupied by Israeli settlers. Ms Klekowicz says this was the most powerful moment of the trip as it was then that she realised, "the international community isn't doing enough".
Ms Klekowicz says that when she returns to the US, she hopes to set up a chapter of Students for Palestinian Solidarity; she also plans to be more active in Boston's Israeli Apartheid Week. The grandson of a Holocaust survivor, David Willner, 20, one of three Jews on the trip, says Birthright Unplugged has made the Nakba, the expulsion of Palestinians that occurred when the state of Israel was founded in 1948, particularly vivid for him.
In a small Palestinian village near the border, Mr Willner stood with a man who was born and raised in a refugee camp in the West Bank. Mr Willner's host pointed to a small house, over hills topped by Jewish settlements and beyond the path cleared for the separation barrier. "It was his grandfather's home," says Mr Willner. When he returns to America, Mr Willner wants to "try to advocate to change US policy" towards the region. While he does not have a specific plan of action, he feels committed to the cause.
"Politicians," he says, "are blindsided by the fact that Israel is a democracy. They don't know what's happening on the ground." But the students anticipate they will have trouble getting this viewpoint across. Ashley, 21, says Americans are "beaten over the head with the Israeli narrative" from an early age. The result, she says, is a public that is overwhelmingly "pro-Israeli". Although she admits that there is still a lot of anger on both sides, she believes programmes like Birthright Unplugged will sow the seeds of change.
"What I picture is a new generation, coming from mixed schools. There, they'll learn Arabic and Hebrew; Jewish students will study the establishment of Israel as the Nakba, while Palestinian students will be urged to understand the Nakba as Independence Day." * The National