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Newsweek: A Grittier Trip to the Holy Land

A Grittier Trip to the Holy Land,
Sarina Rosenberg, May 21 issue

The Israel that 18,000 young Jewish Americans will see this summer on the free, 10-day trip offered by Taglit-birthright Israel is a land of ancient religious sites, sandy beaches and buff young soldiers. “It’s a Jewish identity trip,” says Wayne L. Firestone, president of Hillel, which runs one of the largest Birthright tours. But according to Dunya Alwan and Hannah Mermelstein, two Boston-based activists, the Birthright-sanctioned trips don’t give a true picture of Israel because they minimize the experience of the Palestinian people. (Mermelstein is Jewish; Alwan, the child of a Muslim-Jewish marriage, calls herself a “secular Muslim-Jew.”) In 2005, the pair launched Birthright Unplugged, an “alternative” tour of the West Bank in which the Palestinian narrative takes center stage. This Israel is a land of refugee camps, military checkpoints and security fences. “We want to put people that would otherwise not have the access in direct contact with the Palestinian people,” Mermelstein says.

The Unplugged tours are relatively tiny, with just 60 travelers in two years, compared with Birthright’s 125,000 in seven years, but applications are increasing. The six-day trip costs $350 and stops at Hebron, Ramallah and Dheisheh, a Palestinian refugee camp in Bethlehem. (Birthright avoids areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority.) Accommodations reflect Palestinian living conditions, Mermelstein says—the group rides in local buses and opts for home stays over hotels. Nova McGiffert, 24, an Austin, Texas, social worker who traveled on both Birthright and Birthright Unplugged last winter, says the latter drove home what she called the devastating results of an Israeli occupation. “During Unplugged, all of my nightmares came true about the realities of the situation,” she says.

Unplugged travelers have angered the larger Birthright operation by using the latter to get to Israel free of charge, then extending their stay to experience Unplugged. “Showing the Palestinian side is not the mandate we receive from our donors,” Taglit-birthright Israel spokesman Gidi Mark says. “It’s abusing their generosity.”