Introduction to Bluewashing
The term ‘blue-washing’ has traditionally been used to criticize the relation of corporations to the United Nations through the unenforceable Global Compact that appears to confirm the corporations’ adherence to basic human right principles, but is in fact no more than window dressing for big business. At times, the term ‘blue-washing’ has been also used to criticize the influence of corporate money in the political system.
We are offering an additional definition, related specifically to Israel and Palestine. In order to divert attention from the Israeli occupation and the systematic violation of Palestinian human rights, we’ve found that a number of ‘washes’ are used: pink-washing (if you care about gay rights, forget the Palestinians), green-washing (if you care about trees, forget about the occupation), and blue-washing (if you care about Jews, forget about anything else.)
There is, of course, nothing wrong with focusing on LGBT rights, advocating for a clean and sustainable environment, and working for the good of the Jewish people. In fact, we very much welcome all three, but the Israeli occupation does not advance any of these objectives: The checkpoints and the wall cannot be good to the freedom of movement necessary to create LGBT-safe spaces. The staggering number of Palestinian trees uprooted cannot be good for the environment. The mixing of Jewish identity with an unquestioning support for Israel right-or-wrong cannot be good for the creation of a diverse and pluralistic Judaism that honors its traditions.
Over two thousand years ago, Rabbi Hillel summarized the Torah with the golden rule: “What is hateful to you, do not do unto others. The rest is commentary. Go and learn.”
Bluewashing seems to restrict that Rabbi Hillel’s admonishment significantly, almost saying “What is hateful to the Jews, do not do unto the Jews.”
His original, universal vision is important–even urgent–today.
Birthright trips are one of the main ways in which blue-washing takes place. Thesearefreeten-daytripstoIsraelofferedtoJewsbetween 18 and 26 yearsold. The trips are privately funded and take place in coordination with the Government of Israel and local Jewish Federations. Almost $600 million have been spent in bringing more than 260,000 Jews to Israel.
The name of the program in English—Birthright—serves to make the connection between these young Jews and Israel. It is their birthright, by virtue of having born Jewish, to come from abroad, tour the land far and wide, and settle wherever they wish. Palestinian refugees are not afforded the same birthright. Even Palestinians currently living inside Israel/Palestine are subjected to Israeli policies that make their ongoing living in the land difficult, and sometimes impossible. Take the case of Jerusalem. Any birthrighter who has never been in Israel or Palestine can settle in any part of the city—inside the Green Line or out—whereas Palestinians who have lived in the city for generations have to proof that Jerusalem is the “center of their lives” in order not to lose Israeli residence permits in the city.
The program has a different name in Hebrew—Taglit, meaning Discovery—and allusion to the discovery of one’s Jewish identity and connection to Israel. But this discovery is made in a sanitized environment, where the Birthrighters are encouraged to socialize and even fraternize with Israeli soldiers, but are discouraged from speaking to Palestinians under occupation. Trying to understand Israel without reference to the military occupation of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem is bluewashing. Trying to form a Jewish identity that connects to that Palestinian-less version of Israel is bluewashing too.
Charles Bronfman, one of the Birthright founders, described the trips as “the selling of Jewishness to Jews.”
Birthright organizers are obsessed with Jewish continuity, with transmitting Jewishness to the next generation in very clear, demographic terms.
“Things happen.”… The common denominator of the Birthright experience is the promotion—by turns winking and overt—of flings among participants, or between participants and soldiers. “No problem if there’s intimate encounters,” an Israel Outdoors employee told American staffers during training. “In fact, it’s encouraged!” Birthright boasts that alumni are 51 percent more likely to marry other Jews than nonparticipants.
(Source: The Romance of Birthright-Israel
Beyond the wink-wink attitude towards Jewish sex, Birthright organizers believe they can sell Jewish values or rather buy young Jews with a free trip. What they do not seem to get is that young Jews prefer to hear the truth, not a sanitized version of it. Offering anything else is patronizing and counter-productive.
What kind of Jewishness is being sold? Michael Steinhardt, another founder, describes his faith in Israel as “a substitute for theology.” We see another example of this new theology in countless synagogues and temples across the United States, where the Israeli flag appears opposite the American flag, sometimes having both flank the Aron HaKodesh [the Holly Arc, where the Torah Scrolls are housed.]
In truth, Palestinians are not out of the picture altogether. According to some Birthright alumni, when they are mentioned, they are only mentioned in terms that can only be termed racist.
Here are a few quotes from Birthright alumni:
“Our guide was Shachar Peleg-Efroni, a second-generation secular kibbutznik. Several times a day he said things like, “Arabs are those who originated from Saudi Arabia.” Everything we saw out the tour bus window was “in the Bible,” reinforcing Zionist claims to the land. He used “Palestinian” interchangeably with “terrorist.” Driving through northern Israel, Shachar gave a lesson in “Judaization,” the government’s term for settlement policy. Passing through an Israeli-Arab town, he called our attention to a litter-strewn road (perhaps the result of inequities in municipal funding, which escaped mention) and then pointed to a neat ring of state-subsidized Jewish towns. “Judaization,” he explained, was necessary “to keep them from spreading.” … En route to the next stop on the itinerary, Shachar pointed to tin shacks—Bedouin villages—and jovially detailed the government’s Bedouin home-demolition campaign, saying the IDF needed to “kick them away.” We arrived at our far more picturesque “Bedouin Dessert [sic] Village Experience” and rode camels into the sunset. A man named Mohammed served coffee and played a familiar tune on the oud: “Hava Nagila.”
(Source: The Romance of Birthright-Israel
“The nice green is Israel,” our guide tells us, “and the dry yellow area is Syria” — failing to mention that Israel monopolizes water supplies in the region.
There are countless similar anecdotes.
This is not just prejudice for its own sake, but it comes with a very clear political agenda. Birthright trips are designed to help create a new generation of young Jewish activists advocating against boycotts, divestments, and sanctions in the US, particularly in college campuses.
In May 2010 Hillel president Wayne Firestone denounced campus divestment campaigns for seeking to “delegitimize and demonize Israel,” declaring Birthright alumni to be “the only way to combat these efforts.”
In the words of CEO Gidi Mark, Birthright trains participants to “go back to anti-Zionists on their campuses and say to them, ‘Don’t tell me what you saw on CNN—I was there.’”
(Source: The Romance of Birthright-Israel
The “I was there” statement is only half-true, since Birthrighter are discouraged and even prohibited from visiting the West Bank. I was in Tel-Aviv! Serves to explain the reality of some Israeli Jews. But without the I was in Ramallah! piece, the full dimensions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Israeli occupation cannot even begin to be understood.
Luckily, Birthrighters who want to get the full picture can do so. Many Israeli solidarity and Palestinian rights organizations offer critical tours, including the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, Solidarity with Sheikh Jarrah, and Birthright Unplugged. The trick is not to mention any of these before getting on the plane. In the same way that flytilla activists were denied entry to Ben Gurion Airport when they announced they wanted to visit the West Bank, Birthright tourists would lose their spot if they declare openly that they also want to see the other side.
Since when has selling Jewishness become such an uncritical experiment?
Here’s another Birthright alumnus:
My liberal arts education taught me that any distinct concept or idea will crumble under the scrutiny of too many questions. Birthright set an example where it was okay and even honorable to believe in the state of Israel, to adopt, so to speak, the settler’s original dream.
Not to ask too many questions? What kind of Jewishness is that?
Here’s what Birthright offers instead:
Barry Chazan, a Hebrew University professor emeritus and the architect of Birthright’s curriculum, explains in a celebratory 2008 book, Ten Days of Birthright Israel, that the trip is designed so travelers “are bombarded with information.” The goal is to produce “an emotionally overwhelming experience” that “helps participants open themselves to learning.” On my own Birthright trip last year, I experienced the Chazan Effect. Chronically underslept, hurled through a mind-numbing itinerary, I experienced, despite my best efforts to maintain a reportorial stance, a return to the intensity of feeling of childhood.
The Romance of Birthright-Israel
This “overwhelming experience” is part and parcel of the blue-washing experience.
It does not have to be this way. Here are alternative visions that embrace equality and unmask the bluewashing.
Links to the Taglit leKulanu, YJP manifest, and Birtright OWS
- BROWSE / IN BlueWashing
- « Groups Working to Counter Bluewashing