Birthright Unplugged (BU) 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 that collaborates with Christian Peacemaker Teams and the International Solidarity Movement (ISM). Mermelstein also serves on the Board of Advisers of the Deir Yassin Remembered organization, whose literature describes Israel as a “Zionist colonization” project functioning under “apartheid conditions.”
BU runs what it calls “alternative” tours of Palestinian areas, tours that according to its website “are designed primarily for Jewish people, though we welcome people of all backgrounds.” The 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” (which amounts to a call for the removal of Israel).
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. The goal of the project was to recruit and train “Palestinian solidarity” activists.
Birthright Unplugged receives some funding from the Rachel Corrie Foundation and the A.J. Muste Memorial Institute. The majority of its operational budget, however, derives from personal donations from the tour participants, who are asked pay $350 to $500 each, depending on their personal financial resources. BU also encourages the participants to fundraise independently to generate additional money for the organization, offering a model “fundraising letter” on its website.
BU states that it “is not a political organization and has no party affiliations.” But in an August 2007 CNN news feature (in which CNN described the organization as “unabashedly political“), founder Hannah Mermelstein said that BU’s goal is “to take the power out of the concept of a birthright for Jewish people in this land that Palestinians were displaced from.” Moreover, the BU website states that “Birthright Unplugged uses Palestinian goods and services, and boycotts Israeli goods and services whenever possible.”
Over the years, numerous BU tour groups have met with Allegra Pacheco, described as an “American-born Israeli human rights lawyer.” Pacheco heads the Information and Advocacy unit at the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN-OCHA), a highly politicized organization. Before taking her position at OCHA, Pacheco was deeply involved in radical anti-Israel campaigning; many of her speeches and articles accused Israel of practicing “apartheid” and “collective punishment” but remained silent on the subject of Palestinian terrorism. In September 2000 in Washington, DC, Pacheco addressed a pro-Palestinian political rally 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.”
BU works closely with the International Solidarity Movement and the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. Individuals taking part in BU tours receive literature produced by the BADIL Resource Center for Palestinian Residency & Refugee Rights.
BU also distributes information packets from the Palestinian Negotiation Support Unit (NSU) to its tour participants. As NGO Monitor reports, NSU is primarily an advocacy organization that plays an integral role in Palestinian propaganda. NSU’s official website features “fact sheets” where 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. NSU has received significant funding from the British government via its Department for International Development (DFID).
In addition, BU provides each of its tour participants with a 12-page guide to activism entitled Public Speaking, Report Backs, and Media Talking: Skills and Ideas. This guide teaches the would-be activist how to influence audiences while concealing his or her own political position. For example, the guide recommends that when speaking to “liberals and others who may be sympathetic but still [sic] somewhat ignorant regarding Palestinians and their struggle,” an effective strategy is to make “personal” statements such as: “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 titled “Talking to the Media,” which begins by explaining 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.” Later in the pamphlet, an entire section is devoted to the issue of suicide bombings. Rather than condemning such attacks, the authors advise: “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 F-16.”
Birthright Unplugged also runs a parallel tour program called “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 Palestinian “right of return.”
This profile is adapted, with permission, from NGO Monitor.