Every young Jewish member of the Diaspora around the world knows “Birthright,” an all-expenses-paid trip for anyone of full or partial Jewish descent of a certain age who has not visited Israel to see the Jewish Homeland. However, what is less known is that there is also an opportunity for young Palestinians of the Diaspora to visit the Palestinian homeland in a new program called “Know Thy Heritage.”
“This is not a vacation,” Know Thy Heritage founder Rateb Rabie stressed in several interviews. “We made the point that [delegates] have to be ready for this, to commit to the program, and to commit to Palestine.”
In 2011, Rabie, a Palestinian businessman and President of the Holy Land Ecumenical Foundation, raised enough money between Palestinian businesses in the West Bank and the United States to sponsor 33 young Palestinian-Americans to take a two-week trip to Palestine. To be accepted, the applicant had to be between the ages of 18 and 25, have at least one Palestinian parent and speak some Arabic. The final group of selected delegates was purposefully selected to be half Christian and half Muslim.
“This conflict is between Palestinians, Arabs and Israelis,” Rabie stresses during his first interaction with the delegates. “It is not a religious conflict.”
Although there is certainly overlap between Birthright Israel and Know Thy Heritage, Rabie hesitates to make the comparison. The Palestinian delegates of Know Thy Heritage experience their homeland quite differently. For one thing, Know Thy Heritage delegates land at Queen Alia Airport in Amman, Jordan rather than the more conveniently located Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, Israel. The reason for this is that Palestinians with dual citizenship, foreign nationals of Palestinian or other Arab heritage, and sometimes even potential activists who might be affiliated with the Palestinian cause are frequently held for hours and interrogated, in some cases leading to denied entry into Israel, for “security reasons.”
Even at the Jordanian border, each of last year’s delegates was individually interrogated and the delegation was held for a total of seven hours.
Once the delegation arrives in Palestine, they begin their tour. Understandably, their itinerary differs radically from that of Birthright Israel. The young Jewish participants of Birthright Israel are guided through the Israeli history of the Golan Heights and Negev Desert, the beaches and nightlife of Tel Aviv and the Jewish religious sites of Jerusalem. Meanwhile, it seems that the Palestinian delegation is in another country altogether, beginning their trip with the Church of the Nativity and Aida Refugee Camp in Bethlehem, the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron, the Samaritan Museum in Nablus and both the Christian and Muslim sites of Jerusalem.
Both groups visit Haifa, which the Birthright Israel website calls the “city of coexistence,” though many Palestinian citizens of Israel think otherwise.
Birthright Israel is advertised as a trip for young Jews to spend time in the homeland and connect to Israel. But Rabie has a different motive for bringing young Palestinians from the Diaspora to Palestine. “I want to encourage young Palestinians to do business in Palestine—to invest here,” he said in an interview.
Palestine’s economic boom first began after the Oslo Accords, which allowed monetary sovereignty and economic freedoms that yielded business opportunities. Many Palestinians who lived—and made money—abroad, saw this as an opportunity to come back and help build a Palestinian state. When the Second Intifada’s restrictions on movement between the West Bank and Israel became institutionalized, most of this development was relocated to Ramallah as a way to cater to Palestinians who could not travel to Jerusalem.
However, this economic development is often criticized as being limited to Ramallah and leaving out the rest of the West Bank—coining terms like the “Ramallah Bubble” and the “Five Star Occupation”—and normalizing Israel’s occupation with the illusion of prosperity.
“Ramallah—that is not really Palestine,” Abdel, a young man in the Palestinian village of Beit Ommar, once told me.
However, while state-building and economic development is on Rabie’s mind, most of the participants seem to come away from the trip more focused on peace and reconciliation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When asked about his generation of Palestinians in the conflict, Wissam Rifidi, a delegate from Houston, Texas expressed, “You never forget, but we need to start learning how to forgive.”