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Building ‘Birthleft’: Tour group aims to offer ‘alternative viewpoint’ on Israel

Un cimetière juif et une vue de la Vieille ville de Jérusalem, le 6 décembre 2017
AHMAD GHARABLI (AFP/Archives)
Critics say 'left-wing' tours of West Bank, East Jerusalem fail to show complexities of Mid East conflict

On a cloudy, rainy Saturday, a group of about 50 people gather outside the Dung Gate of Jerusalem’s Old City. But this tour group isn’t headed to the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism, or the Mount of Olives. Instead, they head downhill towards the predominantly Palestinian community of Silwan.

This tour group calls itself ‘Birthleft,’ establishing itself as the antithesis to government-sanctioned Zionist tour groups such as Birthright.

Groups associated with the left-wing have proven to be controversial in Israel, which recently passed a bill banning certain leftist NGOs from entering the country. And it is not the first time the Israeli government has been accused of targeting leftist NGOs. Of the 27 groups listed on a 2016 bill on NGO transparency, 25 were considered ‘left-wing.’ Two others were ‘non-affiliated.’

“Often times on Birthright, there is one perspective,” Abby Kirschbaum, a committee member of the ‘All That’s Left: Anti-Occupation Collective’ that runs the ‘Birthleft’ tours, tells i24NEWS. “We are making a radical stand, we provide an alternative viewpoint.”

"Nowadays, it is a radical statement to make a distinction between East and West Jerusalem," Kirschbaum says. "By developing Birthleft, we are trying to show birthright participants that alternative narratives in Jerusalem do in fact exist."

But other Israelis say that left-wing tours such as ‘Birthleft’ fail to show a crucial component of the conflict.

“International discourse discusses, mainly, the occupation. In order to understand the bigger picture, you need to actually be there,” Shachar Liran Hanan, CEO of ‘MyTruth,’ an organization that provides tours to West Bank checkpoints and other flashpoint historical sites to show the complexities of IDF soldiers’ duties, tells i24NEWS.

ABBAS MOMANI (AFP)

Hanan asserts that the public isn’t fully aware of the complexities of military service in the West Bank, and that the international media often fails to take into account the difficulties of maintaining the status quo. She says it is important to see what the IDF soldiers go through “in order to stand this unbelievable pressure, from the perspective of those that maintain.”

Nevertheless, Hanan believes that each tour group — whether from the left or right — provides a new and informative, albeit limited, perspective.

“I think that every group that comes to the West Bank needs to meet 2 to 3 groups,” she says, referring to the various players in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from soldiers, to Palestinian villagers, to Israeli settlers.

The first stop of the tour is the City of David National Park, adjacent to the predominantly Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan in east Jerusalem. “What we’re doing here is twisted to say something else,” says the group’s tour guide Yahav. “What we’re doing here is war.”

He is referring to archaeologists’ claims that the site is the historic location of King David’s Temple, and controversy surrounding the excavations of Israeli archaeologist Eilat Mazar, who, in 2005, declared to have uncovered the palace of King David in East Jerusalem.

Ahmad Gharabli (AFP)

This discovery was a welcome one in Israel, which has long sought to validate its claim to Jerusalem and the legacy of Judea and Samaria (biblical terms for the regions of the West Bank). Critics, however, noted that Mazar’s backers included the City of David Foundation and the Shalem Center — two organizations committed to the exploration of Israel’s biblical claim to the land.

Silwan has been excavated for more than a decade. The local population of around 50,000 Palestinians is wary of the digs, which many times cause structural damage to their properties. This was the grievance at the center of a 2008 lawsuit by Silwan residents, which was upheld by Israeli courts. The case, however, was overturned a year later by the Israeli High Court, which ruled that while new tunnels could not be built, digging was allowed in existing ancient tunnels.

Residents of Silwan believe that, nevertheless, groups such as the pro-settler Ir David Foundation — also known as the Elad Organization — have been illegally excavating the area. They have fought back in court with mixed results.

This area — located in the heart of Jerusalem — has also been a hotspot for cultural and religious contention largely due to its historic and religious significance for Christianity, Islam and Judaism.

THOMAS COEX (AFP)

One example of this religious clash is the Mount of Olives, the garden where, according to the Gospel of John, Jesus wept over Jerusalem. In the 7th century, Umayyad Caliph Abd el-Malik commissioned the Dome of the Rock based on the design of the Chapel of the Ascension, which stood just above the Mount of Olives. For more than 3,000 years, the site has been a burial site for many prominent Jewish figures, recently interring such Nobel Laureates as Shmuel Yosef Agnon and Menachem Begin.

Inside the Wadi Hilweh Information Center, a small compound that serves as a community center, the director, Jawad Siyam, welcomes the tour group into a large hovel. He comments with bitterness on the separatism found in the community. “[Israelis] think we are the others, we are not human beings,” he says. “Most Israelis have no idea what’s going on here.”

Siyam says that there is a disconnect with how Palestinians are treated. “I am allowed to go to Eilat,” he says, noting that a Palestinian in the West Bank would have more trouble traveling than one in East Jerusalem. “What is the difference between a Palestinian in Silwan and a Palestinian in Bethlehem?”

One of the tour members highlighted the importance of these tours. “The Palestinian narrative is important to hear,” Liat, a fellow at the Yahel kibbutz. “We need to take radical responsibility.”

THOMAS COEX (AFP/File)

But the groups running these tours face opposition from the Israeli government, which is heavily invested in taking steps to ban groups that take action against the Jewish State.

One such example is the government’s fight against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which encourages boycotts of Israeli products and divestment from companies that do business with Israel.

Its most recent endeavor — a ‘BDS blacklist’ of 20 global organizations whose members will be barred from entering the country due to their support for the movement.

“The anti-democratic tendencies that this blacklist represents, and that are overtly manifest in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, will likely continue to creep into domestic affairs unless a serious change is made,” says Erez Bleicher, a committee member of ‘All That’s Left’.

The members of the “All That's Left” group stress that they do not speak for the collective, but merely as individuals, sharing a decentralized power structure similar to that of the ‘Occupy Wall St.’ or ‘Black Lives Matter’ movements.

“All That's Left is non-hierarchical,” member Chagit Lyssy tells i24NEWS. “So everybody who wants to be is an equal member of the collective.”

“The only thing that unites us is our tagline,” says Bleicher. "We are a collective unequivocally opposed to the occupation and dedicated to building the diaspora angle of resistance."

Ethan Freedman is a reporter and producer for i24NEWS.

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