The constant battles and destruction between the war-torn countries of Israel and Palestine seems to be a myriad of calamity with no resolution. Deaths, bombings and continual fighting between cultures have created a land full of disaster and sadness. But there are two American women that are making a change for the better.
Let me introduce you to Hannah Mermelstein and Dunyah Alwan…the creators, and current, as well as past, directors of Birthright Unplugged (Hannah left the organization to pursue additional aspirations in 2009). These two Jewish women worked together to creat an agency that is a tool for peace in an, otherwise, dangerous area.
Hannah (left) and Dunya (right) take a break from harvesting olives with an Israeli and a Palestinian woman. Fall 2003, from the Birthright Unplugged website.
Birthright Unplugged has different programs that develop understanding, friendship and peace through one-on-one contact. The main focus is to bring the youth of Palestine into Israel so that they may see the land of their ancestors and to bring Westerners into Palestine so that they may meet, firsthand, the loving people of this land of refugee camps.
I was able to talk with Hannah and Dunyah and learn what their inspirations, aspirations and insight is on the constant battles between the two countries that have been laid to waste by vicious wars. Continue reading to learn more from women working on the front lines of peace.
EoC: How was Birthright Unplugged created?
D&H: Dunya and I started our West Bank work with a human rights organization called the International Women’s Peace Service (IWPS). Through IWPS we did several delegations for a variety of people – journalists, activist groups, European diplomats, etc. The predominant request we heard from Palestinian friends and colleagues was to share stories of daily life and struggle in our own communities. As people with quite a bit of experience in the West Bank, we decided to begin bringing more people to hear Palestinian voices and then return to share them at home. We were each leading separate delegations in the summer of 2004. Dunya mentioned to Hannah that her aunt was on a Jewish educators’ trip that refused to set foot in Palestinian communities in the West Bank even after Dunya invited them and offered to host them. Hannah was not surprised, and told Dunya about Birthright Israel and other such opportunities for Jewish people to go on Zionist trips to Israel without any regard for Palestinian life and experience. This conversation led to the beginning of Birthright Unplugged. As people with Jewish backgrounds, with a knowledge of and access to Palestinian communities, we felt it important to offer a travel opportunity with a human rights and activist framing for Jewish people and others. At the same time, we conceived of a complimentary program for Palestinian children living in refugee camps, and six months later we implemented that one as well.
EoC: Why did you choose the name Birthright Unplugged?
D&H: We were trying to unplug, or take the power out of, the concept of a Jewish birthright to a land that Palestinian people are indigenous to and were expelled from. This concept is basic to us and the symbolic value of our programs is just as important as the actual value. We are not able to, nor do we want to, work with hundreds of thousands of people through our programs, but we want as many people as possible to hear about them and to begin to question concepts of birthright. Having a name like “Birthright Unplugged” is the best way to do that.
EoC: What are the ages of the Birthright Unplugged participants?
D&H: While most participants are in their 20s, we have had participants range in age from 12-70.
EoC: How do you find Palestinians that will do home stays?
D&H: Hospitality is a core value for Palestinian and Arab communities and there is a plethora of families who are happy to host international people regardless of nationality and religion.
For both Unplugged and Re-Plugged (the Palestinian youth program), we work with organizations we know and these organizations set up the homestays for the groups.
EoC: Have your clients remained in contact with their Palestinian hosts?
D&H: Many of our participants have remained in contact with their hosts. Some have stayed longer in the region and have gone back to visit their hosts or stay with them again. Others keep in touch via e-mail and via gifts sent through us to the families each time we go.
EoC: What are the ages of the Palestinian children that go on tour with you?
D&H: The children who travel with us on Re-Plugged are generally 10-15 years old. All are under 16, because at age 16, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip receive Israeli-issued ID cards, which Israel uses to control their movement. Until that age, Palestinians through a loophole, have somewhat more freedom of movement. We use our privilege as international passport-holders to accompany the children to Jerusalem, the sea, and their ancestral villages.
EoC: How did you become in contact with them?
D&H: We work in partnership with at least one organization in each refugee camp where we work. Most of the organizations we either know through our other work in Palestine or through friends. The organizations then pick the children to participate.
EoC: Are their parents supportive or worried about them going into Israel?
D&H: Parents and children have been both excited and worried about their trip with us. We designed the trip based on the desire we had heard from refugee communities about the places they long to visit, so the journey is incredibly moving for all involved. At the same time, parents have concerns about their children being out for two full days and one overnight, about possibly being attacked by Israelis, and about cultural differences they might experience. The local organizations that the kids work with have the trust of the families and the fact that we are working with the organizations usually helps quell any concerns.
EoC: What would you say is the biggest difference between the youths of Israel and Palestine?
D&H: We do not work with Israeli youth so cannot speak to that issue. We do, however, work with Palestinians children from West Bank refugee camps and Palestinian children from cooperating organizations inside Israel. Even among these communities the children experience cultural differences based on where they grew up and the different systems and laws imposed on each community. The Israeli government works to disconnect Palestinian communities from each other, and part of our Re-Plugged program brings them back together.
EoC: Have you seen a change in your clients? If so, how?
D&H: Our Re-Plugged participants have consistently moving experiences with us and express themselves through photography exhibits and writing after their trip. I am not sure we can speak about change in them, however, because we do not know them very well before we work with them and we are only in the camp a few times with them after the trip. Our partner organizations in the camp, who have relationships with these children and whose work our program works to strengthen, could answer this question better.
Our Unplugged participants have also been deeply moved by their experience, and many have had radical changes in perspective, understanding, politics, and motivation as a result of our trip. We have seen these changes in the six short days of our trip, and we have also watched our alumnae’s work develop and strengthen over time after their experience with us.
EoC: In your opinion, what other things need to take place, other than Birthright Unplugged, that will help to create peace between the Palestinians and Israel?
D&H: Palestinian voices must be included in any conversations about their future, and in the worldwide (and particularly Western) discourse about Palestine/Israel. More people need to understand the situation in terms of occupation, colonization, and basic denial of human rights, rather than as a conflict with two equal sides. Refugees (a majority of the Palestinian population) must have their historical experiences valued and their rights fulfilled. Birthright Unplugged tries in a small way to contribute to all of these paths towards justice, without which there can be no peace.
EoC: How can we become more involved?
D&H: There is an indigenous call from Palestinian civil society for the international community to engage in boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel until Israel honors Palestinian basic human rights. The movement is growing around the world and some divestment campaigns have already seen success. Joining a local group or starting your own is one way to become involved.
People can also read, write, plan actions, give talks, visit Palestine, individually boycott Israel, incorporate Palestine into teaching curricula, and much more.
As for people becoming more involved in Birthright Unplugged in particular, we are looking for venues for our Re-Plugged exhibit to travel. We are also always raising money to keep our programs running – our fundraising happens on a very grassroots level and all support is welcome and appreciated.
There will only be change in these countries filled with death and destruction through understanding, peace and love. As Martin Luther King once said, “Peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek, but a means by which we arrive at that goal.” Dunyah and Hannah are making steps towards these imperative teaching tools of serenity by doing exactly that.
Please visit http://www.birthrightunplugged.com for more information.