Birthright Unplugged Communiqué – Winter 2009
Birthright Unplugged’s winter season was dominated by Israel’s war on Gaza.
Israel’s attacks started on a Saturday. The following Monday morning, Dunya called Sumer in Beit Lahia, a village in the north of Gaza. Sumer has been a regular presence on our trips, doing her best to “host” us in Gaza through the phone lines. Because Israel has denied entry to visitors to Gaza for many years, Birthright Unplugged has arranged conference calls between Unplugged participants and residents of Gaza in an effort to include Gazans on our trips. While Sumer lives in Gaza, like most Gazans the rest of the members of her family are refugees. In 1948, Sumer’s family fled al-Masmiyya al-Kabira, a village about twenty miles north of Gaza. The village she now lives in is adjacent to the pre-’48 Palestinian city Isdud (now the Israeli city of Ashdod). When Dunya spoke to Sumer, her voice was shaking and she found it difficult to speak. She tried to be reassuring but she was clearly frightened. Later that day, Hannah phoned Sumer only to learn that her family had sought refuge with other extended family members because their home had been shelled by the Israeli army and destroyed. The United Nations estimates that some 50,800 Gazans were made homeless as a result of Israel’s attacks on Gaza. Sumer’s family is still homeless, and, like most of the tens of thousands like her, it is not the first time this has occurred at the hands of the Israeli state.
Despite the war, our Unplugged program was undeterred, and our trip this winter was comprised of students from Boston College. The group spent their fall semester on campus studying Palestine and Israel and then joined Birthright Unplugged for a trip during their January break. They are now back on campus developing social justice projects related to their experiences. The group arrived one week into the war on Gaza, a situation that understandably generated some trepidation on the part of the students about their trip. They soon understood, however, that – as with all of our Unplugged trips – the danger our groups face is from Israeli settlers and soldiers, and that our Palestinian hosts will do everything in their power to protect us as friends and guests.
Although the first portion of our trip took place in occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank, we spent the rest of our nine day trip in Israel (or “’48” as it is called in Arabic). This is a change for us, since in years past we have spent only a single day of our Unplugged trips outside of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. We made this shift in order to better highlight the racist structures, policies, and attitudes to which Palestinian citizens of Israel are subject, constraints that are often neither understood nor acknowledged in the West. However, we will continue to ensure that the oppression and disenfranchisements faced by Palestinians living under occupation in the West Bank and as mere residents of East Jerusalem are made clear on the trip.
Our day in the Naqab (or Negev) was particularly striking. We spent an afternoon sitting in a tent with an elder of the Bedouin community of Wadi el-Na’am, approximately thirty miles east of Gaza. This village, the largest unrecognized Bedouin village in Israel, is sandwiched between Israel’s main hazardous waste disposal facility, numerous chemical factories, and a power plant. As we listened to the stories these Palestinian Bedouin Israeli citizens face, we could hear Israeli fighter jets flying overhead. These were the planes that were firing missiles and chemical weapons on Gaza, the same planes that also dropped messages entreating residents to flee ongoing attacks. These messages came as ghoulish advisories to an incarcerated population who could hardly escape the massive, simultaneous Israeli assault from the land, sea and air. As we listened to the jets we also learned from our hosts about how their once nomadic community of Bedouin shepherds have been corralled into a limited area flanked by evaporation pools that pollute the air and leach cancer-causing chemicals into the soil and water. Our hosts explained that cancer and miscarriage rates are high in these communities due to the toxins in the environment. While there were no bombs falling on this particular airspace and no advisories falling from the skies, it was clear that here, again, the attacks on Palestinian people are multidirectional and, in this case, waged against the very cells and wombs of the people of this community.
The students in the group had varying and wide-ranging experiences on the trip, but it is worth noting that early on the group began discussing the possibility of a partnership between Boston College and Bethlehem University, both of which are Catholic universities. We are pleased with these students’ efforts in this regard, for as segregation is increasingly imposed by Israel on Jewish and Palestinian residents throughout ’48 and Palestine, it is important to counteract this trend and forge relationships with Palestinian people and academic and cultural institutions. In addition, in light of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) http://www.pacbi.org/, it is as important to build relationships with Palestinian institutions as it is to break ties with Israeli academic and cultural institutions until they are in compliance with international law.
In the past weeks, there has been an international groundswell for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS)against Israel.
A historic stand has been taken in South Africa, where dockworkers have refused to offload Israeli ships, and British and U.S. college campuses are being occupied and by students demanding full disclosure of university investments. These students are calling for divestment from corporations that benefit from occupation, and demanding that their schools develop relationships with Palestinian academic institutions and send humanitarian aid to Gazans. In Massachusetts, Hampshire College became the first U.S. institution of higher education to officially divest from companies that do business with Israel. This development is significant both for the precedent it sets and also because Hampshire was also the first college in the United States to divest from South Africa. We are proud to say that two alums of Birthright Unplugged’s first BDS Institute worked on this effort for the past year. This is an important moment and we urge you to focus your work in this area. For more information about BDS or to join the Global Day of Action for BDS in Solidarity with the Palestinian people, check out http://www.bdsmovement.net/ or contact the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions National Committee (BNC) at email@example.com.
On the horizon: both our Unplugged & Re-Plugged programs are taking shape and we have much in store for this summer.
We are planning a new version of our Re-Plugged program this summer in which we partner with the BADIL Resource Center for Palestinian Residency & Refugee Rights. Badil takes a “rights-based approach to the Palestinian refugee issue through research, advocacy, and support of community participation in the search for durable solutions” and also does educational and empowerment programming with hundreds of children in Palestinian refugee camps. Birthright Re-Plugged has developed a pilot program to complement Badil’s youth work. We will, as usual, facilitate the travel of Palestinian children living in refugee camps to Jerusalem, the sea, and their original villages, as well as spend time with Palestinian citizens of Israel. However, in addition we will also be working with the children to research and photograph their villages past and present. We aim to develop a process by which the children will then produce proposals that explore and imagine the practical possibilities for the implementation of their rights. These proposals will form the basis for a new exhibition that explores the cherished, legal, and feasible right of return.
We are also pleased to report that since the last time we wrote, the Re-Plugged exhibits have been hung in Sweden and across the United States, from Massachusetts to Wisconsin to California. They are still available – if you are interested in hosting one please check them out on the web: http://www.birthrightunplugged.org/replugged/exhibits/
This summer, Unplugged will continue to travel with mostly North American activists in an effort to galvanize their justice movement work. We will expand our BDS Institute, this time opening a significant portion of the programming to the general public. The travel portion of the trip will be August 1, 2009 – Aug 7, 2009, and the institute will be August 8, 2009 – August 11, 2009. Please help us spread the word about this institute to individuals and lists you think may be interested: http://www.birthrightunplugged.org/unplugged/dates
There are also a few staffing changes at Birthright Unplugged.
This winter we bid farewell to our co-founder and co-director Hannah Mermelstein. We are tremendously grateful to Hannah for her tireless work on Birthright Unplugged and on behalf Palestinian rights. Hannah built Birthright Unplugged with great care and attention to detail and her contributions are inseparable from the organization itself. We wish Hannah all the best in all her work to come!
Dunya Alwan will remain as a Director. Heike Schotten will become our Communications and Outreach Coordinator. Heike is a 2006 Birthright Unplugged alum. She has consistently volunteered with BRUP since traveling with us, and we are thrilled that she will now be taking on a more consistent role.
The rest of our staff will work with us on a project-by-project basis. They include Hazem, from Badil who will serve as an Unplugged trip leader and Re-Plugged advisor, and Ryvka returns as our BDS Institute coordinator and trainer.
We will continue to do the work for which you have come to appreciate us. And, as always, we need and cherish your support. Please spread the word about our work. To donate to Birthright Unplugged, visit our website.