Summary:Birthright Unplugged--partnered with a number of radical NGOs, some of which receive EU funding-- advances an extreme anti-Israel narrative via its “alternative” tours. The groups meet with officials from the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), ICHAD, and Allegra Pacheco from UN OCHA; and receive materials from the PLO Negotiations Affairs Department, and Badil. The goal is to deny the legitimacy of Israel and of “the concept of a birthright for Jewish people in this land that Palestinians were displaced from." On this basis, Birthright Unplugged prepares the small number of participants as “Palestinian solidarity” activists and to promote boycotts and demonization in the media, universities and other venues.
Birthright Unplugged was founded in 2003 by Dunya Alwan and Hannah Mermelstein, two American citizens and members of the International Women's Peace Service (IWPS), a West Bank-based NGO which collaborates with Christian Peacemaker Teams and the radical International Solidarity Movement (ISM). Mermelstein also serves on the Board of Advisers of the Deir Yassin Remembered organization, which describes Israel in their literature as a "Zionist colonization" project functioning under "apartheid conditions."
Birthright Unplugged runs what it calls "alternative" tours of Palestinian areas, which according to its website, "are designed primarily for Jewish people, though we welcome people of all backgrounds." The program and itinerary includes meetings with officials of radical Israeli and Palestinian NGOs, designed to expose participants to a narrative that denies any Jewish historical connection to the land of Israel, rejects the legitimacy of the establishment of the State of Israel, and supports the Palestinian "right of return" -- a highly contentious position and a major obstacle to compromise.
The concept behind Birthright Unplugged can be traced to the IWPS 2003-2004 "Mikarov Program," which described itself as "a ten-day intensive workshop for Israelis in the West Bank". This activity included collaboration with the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD), Machsom Watch, and the Holy Land Trust. According to IWPS's website, the goal of the project was to recruit and train “Palestinian solidarity” activists.
Sources of funding
According to its website, Birthright Unplugged "is funded largely by private donations from American Jews," with some funding from the Rachel Corrie Foundation and the A.J. Muste Memorial Institute (an American foundation which provides a channel for tax deductible donations to the International Solidarity Movement). For most of its operational budget, the organization relies on personal donations from the participants, who are asked pay US$350-500, depending on their personal financial resources. Birthright Unplugged encourages participants to fundraise independently to defer these costs and to contribute additional money to the organization, offering a model "fundraising letter" on its website.
Birthright Unplugged's agenda
According to its website, "Birthright Unplugged is not a political organization and has no party affiliations." However, in an August 2007 CNN news feature (in which CNN described the organization as "unabashedly political"), founder Hannah Mermelstein said that its goal is "to take the power out of the concept of a birthright for Jewish people in this land that Palestinians were displaced from." The website states that "Birthright Unplugged uses Palestinian goods and services and boycotts Israeli goods and services whenever possible.”
Partnership and Interaction with Radical Organizations
Much of the substance of these tours and programs is provided by officials from radical anti-Israel NGOs.
International Solidarity Movement (ISM)
Birthright Unplugged tours feature meetings with ISM members -- including with the co-founder of The ISM, Neta Golan --according to the tour's official itinerary. Indeed, Birthright Unplugged has an extensive connection with the ISM. As noted above, its two founders are members of the International Women’s Peace Service (IWPS) which “supports and is part of the loose network that calls itself ISM and will provide on the spot help and support to ISM activists.” Like Birthright Unplugged, ISM claims to advocate non-violence. But this is applied selectively, and there is no mention of how harboring terrorists, endangering the lives of foreign 'peace volunteers,' and sabotaging sensitive military operations have prompted the Israeli government to limit the activities of members of this organization. (In March 2003 Israeli troops captured a senior Islamic Jihad member hiding in an ISM office in Jenin).
Birthright Unplugged also works closely with the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD), which according to the tour itinerary, guides Birthright Unplugged groups on tours in East Jerusalem area.
ICAHD, funded by the EU, claims to be “a non-violent, direct-action group” created “to oppose and resist Israeli demolition of Palestinian houses in the Occupied Territories.” However, as documented in previous NGO Monitor reports, ICAHD promotes a highly one-sided view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Its leaders consistently ignore the context of ongoing Palestinian terror attacks, promote the “Durban strategy” of boycotts and demonizing the Jewish state, campaign against the two-state solution, and partner with other radical NGOs, including Sabeel.
Individuals taking part in Birthright Unplugged tours received materials from the BADIL Resource Center for Palestinian Residency & Refugee Rights. As NGO Monitor has reported, BADIL is one of the most active NGOs in promoting extremist Palestinian political positions in the context of the Israeli Palestinian conflict. BADIL campaigns against recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, openly declaring the goal of using the "right of return" to "alter the demographic balance in Israel so much that it would destroy Israel's Zionist, exclusionist character." BADIL was a signatory to an August 2002 call to boycott Israel, including an endorsement of the NGO Declaration of the 2001 Durban conference.
OCHA / Allegra Pacheco
Birthright Unplugged groups have met with Allegra Pacheco, described as an “American-born Israeli human rights lawyers.” Pacheco heads the Information and Advocacy unit at the UN-OCHA (the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs), which, as NGO Monitor has reported, is a highly politicized organization whose reports lack credibility. Before taking her position at OCHA, Pacheco was deeply involved in radical anti-Israel campaigning, and many of her speeches and articles referred to Israel with terms such as "apartheid", "collective punishment", etc., while erasing the context of Palestinian terror. In September 2000, Pacheco addressed a pro-Palestinian political rally in Washington DC, whose official slogan was "No Return = No Peace" and urged the dismantling of the Jewish state. Pacheco called for the abolition of Israel, declaring "The solution is Awda, complete and unrestricted return to Palestine, all of it from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.”
PLO Negotiations Affairs Department (NAD)
Birthright Unplugged has distributed information packets from the Palestinian Negotiation Support Unit (NSU) (an arm of NAD) to its participants. As NGO Monitor has reported, the NSU is primarily a advocacy organization. It was instrumental in the political campaign that brought the security barrier to the International Court of Justice at The Hague and plays an integral part in Palestinian propaganda. NSU’s official website features extreme bias and vilification of Israel. In its “fact sheets”, Jewish settlements are categorically referred to as “colonies”; Israeli checkpoints designed to prevent Palestinian terror attacks are said to “highlight Israeli Apartheid”; and Palestinians are said to be “caged” in “isolated ghettos” or “open-air prisons” in the West Bank. The NAD drastically misrepresents the history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict claiming that in 1948, “Israel ignored the [UN] Partition Plan and invaded and occupied 84% of Jerusalem.” In its section on the “Israeli Wall”, the NAD omits the context of Palestinian terror and instead argues that, “Israel’s strategy continues to be to take as much Palestinian land as possible while militarily encaging as many Palestinians as possible, all in an attempt to continue Israel’s colonization and theft of Palestinian territory.” The NSU has received significant funding from the British Government via its Department for International Development (DFID).
Other Partnerships, and support for anti-Israel boycott campaigns
Birthright Unplugged’s itinerary and its website reveal links to other NGOs, including meetings with activists from the Holy Land Trust, a pro-Palestinian NGO group that has extensive cooperation with ICAHD. Support for anti-Israel boycott campaigns compares Israel to apartheid South Africa, based on material from the Stop the Wall Campaign (War on Want), the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Campaign, Israeli Citizens for Boycott Divestment and Sanctions on Israel to End the Occupation, and B.D.S. – Palestine: Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and sanctions campaign. Birthright Unplugged also distributes the materials of Rabbis for Human Rights.
Birthright Unplugged has distributed to individuals on its tours a 12-page guide to activism, entitled “Public Speaking, Report Backs, and Media Talking: Skills and Ideas.” The guide gives specific advice on how to address groups to push its anti-Israel message.
In contradiction to the claim that it is “not a political organization,” the guide gives explicit advice on how to influence audiences while concealing one's political position. When addressing “Liberals and others who may be sympathetic but still [sic] somewhat ignorant regarding Palestinians and their struggle," the guide warns that “these audiences will probably be all about [sic] the ‘two state solution’.” The guide recommends the following “personal” response: “I believe people should have a say in the decisions that affect their lives…the solution will emerge as the situation changes…”
The guide also features a section entitled “Talking to the Media,” which begins by advising the would-be activist that “Dealing with the mainstream media is a game that we can easily master if we recognize how it works.” The “game” includes answering “hostile or distorting questions with your own questions.” One example is cited below:
"Q: Do you support suicide bombings?”
A: I support Palestinian and Israeli peace organizations working to end the brutal Israeli Occupation that is ruining the lives of everyone who lives in that region."
Later in the pamphlet, an entire section is devoted to the issue of suicide bombings. The guide advises that, “you can take many different approaches to this issue, depending on how you really feel about it and what you want to accomplish.” Rather than condemning terrorist attacks, the authors offer advice to would-be Palestinian activists:
"To address the implicit racism in much of the discourse around suicide
bombings, ask if it is more ethical/civilized to bomb a refugee camp from an
Birthright "Re-plugged" Tours: Supporting the ‘right of return’
According to its website, Birthright Unplugged also runs a parallel tour program calls “Birthright Re-Plugged,” which its website describes as “a two-day trip for Palestinian children who want to visit their grandparents' ancestral villages, the Mediterranean Sea, and Jerusalem before age 16, when Israel restricts their mobility.” These tours promote the “right of return,” which is antithetical to a two-state agreement, and amounts to calls for the removal of Israel.
In sum, Birthright Unplugged uses its extensive NGO partnerships to advance radical anti-Israel activism via its “alternative” tours. This organization aims to equip individuals with tools to manipulate the media and liberal audiences using a variety of rhetorical devices and distortions. Birthright Unplugged provides the platform for contributing NGOs to deliberately distort human rights norms to promote a political agenda.