Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Propaganda of Birthright Israel

Several times this week, I've stumbled into a discussion about Birthright Israel and propaganda. According to Taglit Birthright's website, it strives to:
diminish the growing division between Israel and Jewish communities around the world; to strengthen the sense of solidarity among world Jewry; and to strengthen participants' personal Jewish identity and connection to the Jewish people.
Despite this mission statement, some argue that Birthright's true mission is to strengthen a particularly hawkish construction of Israeli identity amongst American Jews. For these critics, Birthright is a summer training camp for the dreaded "Israel Lobby."

The truth lies somewhere between. To explain why, we need to look at the difference between propaganda of commission and propaganda of omission.

To illustrate the difference, let's take the less controversial example of propaganda in Vietnam. While backpacking through the country a few years ago, I visited two memorable sites of anti-American propaganda: the Cu Chi Tunnels and the War Remnants Museum (formerly the American and Chinese War Atrocities Museum).

The Cu Chi Tunnels is a museum where tourists can experience life as a Viet Cong fighter, crawling through Labyrinthine subterranean tunnel networks and fighting the American imperialists. Before the tour, everyone watches an introduction movie that lauds one VC who earned the "American Killer Hero Medal" for holding off a dozen "American aggressors" with only a pistol, a grenade, and the courageous determination of the Communist cause. This is propaganda of commission: weaving a narrative that glorifies your cause and demonizes your enemies. Exaggeration and distortion are welcome.

Me at Cu Chi Tunnels
The experience at the War Remnants Museum is quite different. The exhibits, with decent accuracy, simply describe what Americans did in Vietnam during the war. Agent Orange. My Lai massacre. Torture chambers. These actions speak for themselves and therefore the exaggeration and distortion of propaganda by commission is not needed.

War Remnants Museum - Use of Water Torture

War Remnants Museum - Replica of S. Vietnamese Prison

But the War Remnants Museum is propaganda nonetheless - propaganda by omission. By only telling one side of the story without context, it ignored not only all the positive aspects of American intervention but also all the horrific crimes and atrocities committed by the Communists. There was no mention of the massacres at Hue, the summary executions of government collaborators, the reeducation camps, the torture and murder of POWs, etc.

The subtlety of propaganda by omission makes it more effective than propaganda by commission. I didn't need to know anything about Vietnam to recognize Cu Chi as propaganda. But recognizing the propaganda at the War Remnants Museum requires a foundation of pre-existing knowledge. It'd be very easy to leave that museum and not realize how it insidiously inculcated in me a narrative that, while not detached from reality, certainly distorts the actual historical record.

Birthright exercises propaganda by omission. The program takes young Jews and lets them experience all the great things about Israel - and there are a lot of great things to experience. But it does not let them experience all the bad things about life as a Palestinian in Israel - and there are a lot of bad things to experience.

Just as with the War Remnants Museum, it's very easy to participate in Birthright and not realize how the experience subtly influences your opinion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Importantly, this propaganda is at work whether Birthright intends it or not.

It may not sound like it, but I'm actually quite sympathetic towards Birthright. I'm generally tired of this tit-for-tat mindset that everything about Israel and Palestine must be framed within the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict that carefully balances the conflicting narratives in an even-handed manner. There's an Israel beyond the IP Conflict, just as there's a Palestine beyond the IP Conflict.

I therefore see nothing wrong with Jews experiencing all the best Israel has to offer. But I also would urge Birthright participants to fulfill a personal obligation to study the conflict on their own time, to understand that there's more to the Holy Land than what Birthright shows, and thereby to be able to identify propaganda by omission when they encounter it.

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