Israel-Palestine and US Public Opinion
with Dr. Shibley Telhami
American public attitudes toward Israel and Palestine have dramatically shifted in the past few years,
particularly among liberals. Whether on Capitol Hill or among the general public, open criticism of Israeli
policies is no longer taboo, nor are questions relating to US aid to Israel. Public support for
Palestinians under Israeli occupation and their quest for civil and human rights is no longer a fringe
position. While the needle is moving, the Israel-Palestine question continues to be an increasingly polarizing
issue in the US public sphere.
To analyze the recent developments and the overarching trends on this matter, APN hosted Prof. Shibley Telhami, a leading expert in public opinion on Israel-Palestine. In this webinar, Prof. Telhami presented findings from his recent poll on this issue and compared recent surveys to past data.
The webinar will be held on Thursday, September 2nd, at 12:00 noon.
Watch the video recording here.
Listen to the audio recording here.
Read the transcript here.
Americans for Peace Now (APN) welcomes Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s upcoming visit to the White House – his first since taking office – and urges President Biden to use this visit to bolster the administration’s role in advancing Israeli-Palestinian peace.
Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.
This transcript corresponds with Episode #203 of PeaceCast, which can be found here. It is an interview with Sam Sussman, Co-Founder and Director of Extend.
Ori Nir 0:09
Hello, and welcome back to PeaceCast. Today is Thursday, August 19 2021. I am Ori Nir and with me is my co-host Claire Davidson Miller. Today we're talking to Sam Sussman. He is the co-founder and director of Extend, a nonprofit organization which seeks to introduce young American Jews to Palestinian and Israeli human rights, civil society, and political leaders. The name of the organization "Extend" alludes to its interesting relationship with another nonprofit: Birthright or Birthright Israel, the famous organization that offers free trips to Israel to young American and non-American Jews. But this this is a special relationship. And we'll talk a little bit about that in a moment. While participants in the traditional Birthright trips to Israel are often encouraged to extend their trips to spend more recreational time in in Israel, Sam's organization Extend offers a different kind of extension, if you will. Students who take part in Extend see the political complexities that Birthright typically tries to sort of sidestep or even obscure. We at APN were involved in the inception of Extend, and our colleagues at Israel's Peace Now movement took several Extend groups on West Bank settlement tours, so they're also kind of involved with Extend, and Claire is an actual Extend graduate.
Claire Miller 1:40
Yeah, and if you listened to the special 200th episode of our podcast from several weeks ago, you probably have already heard a little bit about my own experience with Extend. I traveled to the West bank with Extend, in fact, with Sam himself in 2018, when I was an undergraduate student, and for me, like for so many other American Jews, Sam and Extend gave me my first opportunity to visit the West Bank. And it changed not only my outlook on Israel-Palestine, but also really the course of my career. It wasn't until I went on an Extend trip that I realized Israel-Palestine wasn't just a hobby for me, but my career would take place in the sphere of peacebuilding in Israel-Palestine. So today's PeaceCast episode is really close to my heart. And Sam, I want to thank you for being with us today.
Sam Sussman 2:39
Well, Claire, it's great to be with you; Ori, it's great to be with you. I have to say about Claire, she's not any ordinary Extend participant, and not only because of the amazing things that she's gone on to do, but also because Claire's program was in 2018, just around the time of Israel's war with Hamas. And it was a very challenging time to be running Extend programs, because I got a lot of phone calls from parents pulling their college students off of the program. And in the week run up, I think we went from about 15 people. And by the end, there was one person left on the program, who still wanted to go despite the war, and that was Claire. So she got a personalized version of Extend. And it meant that I got to know her a little bit, and really was impressed and enjoyed our conversations then. And I've not been surprised, Claire, by the great work that you've gone on to do.
Claire Miller 3:32
Thank you, Sam.
Ori Nir 3:34
So we got a little bit of kind of ahead of ourselves here in the conversation, we want to back up and talk a little bit about what Extend actually is. Maybe tell us a bit about how you started it. And then we can talk about how it came into being and what it was in your experiences that inspired you to to do this work.
Sam Sussman 3:55
So the short answer is that I saw the occupation. And I met Israelis and Palestinians who were working very hard to end it. And I wanted other people to have that experience. And it wasn't really happening.
Ori Nir 4:10
But in what capacity, Sam?
Sam Sussman 4:13
Yeah, well, that's the short answer. Now I'm going to give you the longer answer.
Ori Nir 4:16
Sam Sussman 4:17
So let me go back a little bit because, for me, Extend really sits at the intersection of two things that are very dear to my heart. One is a progressive vision of Jewish politics. And the second is what it means for the rhetoric of American foreign policy to match up to what our policies are actually doing around the world. So I should say first, that I grew up in a very progressive secular family. My father is a civil rights lawyer. His most cherished childhood memory is when his father took him to see Martin Luther King speak at the March on Washington. my great grandparents were labor organizers, either in the sweatshops of turn of the 20th century in New York, or maybe it was organizing under the pharaoh in Egypt. I'm not really sure all the stories blend together. But for me, that was the sort of political environment I grew up in. And the most aware about what Where did you grow up in the Hudson Valley, New York, actually, a town called called Goshen, which has its own interesting relationship to Jewish history.
Sam Sussman 5:26
So for me, the most formative event in shaping my politics was the Iraq war. I remember being 12, 13 years old, looking at photographs of American soldiers Iraqi homes, reading stories of night raids, ordinary people who lost their lives. And I remember thinking how strange it was that this war, which was presented about being about democracy about human rights was in practice anything but. That tension for me the rhetoric, the tension between the rhetoric that justifies or explains American foreign policy, and the reality that often exists was very formative for me. So I went to the West Bank for the first time when I was 21, in 2012, and I had a sense that there was occupation that there was injustice, but I wasn't really ready for what I saw. I met young teenagers, 13 year olds, who had just gotten out of solitary confinement in Israeli prisons. I met Israeli soldiers who described conducting night operations in the homes of Palestinian families, just as test operations not even as as real military occupation operations. I met Israelis and Palestinians who were joining together and meeting civil disobedience movements against the occupation, who were speaking the language of Gandhi and King that had come to me through my grandparents and my father is involved with in the American Civil Rights Movement. So when I was having these experiences meeting these Israelis and Palestinians, I was really struck by that gap, again, between the rhetoric of American values and the policies that we're promoting in the region, and the actual status quo. And you know, those the rhetoric that says, Okay, we have to defend Israel unequivocally because it's the only democracy in the Middle East. But that was really at odds with what I was seeing for Palestinians living under military occupation.
Sam Sussman 7:26
And I remember thinking most people I know, most Americans, Jews, also non Jews, if they looked at the situation, they would identify far more with the human rights activists I was meeting than with the status quo that American foreign policy was upholding. And I think this is really true for a lot of American foreign policy that most people want that human rights centered approach. That's why foreign policymakers speak that language. But to me that, as I was looking at the system and thinking about it, it's like, Okay, so what do you do? You have this tension. And Israel Palestine struck me as a very unique situation, not just because I had my personal experiences and attachments to it, and family in Israel and all that. But also, because there are so many Americans, particularly American Jews, who are coming to Israel every year, who want to learn, and who can pretty easily understand the human rights situation, and think about how they might get involved as advocates for something different. So we built Extend with a really simple premise, which is, let's put people on a bus, spend time in Israel, East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and introduce them to the people who share their values, Israelis and Palestinian activists, who are working to actually bring those values into effect and create a sustainable moral reality for everyone here, rather than the status quo, which as we know, is is unequal and in ways undemocratic, and doesn't reflect those deep values of democracy and human rights that we all believe.
Ori Nir 9:04
So let me ask you two questions about what how it works. So first of all, if someone wants to take part in Extend, how do they apply? And secondly, if you could tell us a bit about what it looks like what it feels like, what does a typical day on Extend look like?
Sam Sussman 9:21
Great. Okay, so the first question, I would say about two thirds of the people who join Extend, come after Birthright trips. And these are mainly young American Jews who feel that Birthright isn't adequately dealing with the political situation and they want what we offer. And then I would say about a third of the people coming on our trips are people more broadly in the American Jewish community who understand that the political time in which you can go to Israel and just engage with one narrative and one perspective has passed. So I'm, we're running throughprograms for Hillel directors who are who are saying, I don't actually really know what to say, when someone comes to me and starts describing the way that the occupation works or says these aren't my Jewish values. So I think there's a broader awakening that says, Okay, we have to go and engage. And the situation maybe is not what's been described for a very long time. So okay, then someone comes with Extend, what do they see, there are four things, four different constituencies that we focus on, that I think don't get the attention in the mainstream conversation enough. So first, it's Israeli civil society. So we're meeting with B'tselem and Breaking the Silence, Peace Now, 972, Standing Together, you know, those voices don't get heard on a Birthright trip. They don't get heard in, you know, many synagogues or shuls, their voices that are still sort of at the margins of the broader conversation. And they're Israeli voices, they're central to Israeli society, and we want them to be heard. Second, is that we're spending a lot of time in East Jerusalem. And we're meeting with Palestinian residents there. There's so much focus on occupation in the West Bank, that it often there's not enough attention on the fact that Palestinians in East Jerusalem, they live within geographic Israel, East Jerusalem has been annexed. But they're not citizens. So there are a whole host of civil rights issues to do with housing, education, etc, that we spend time learning about. Then we go to the West Bank, and we spent time with with really with civil society, we don't spend time with the PA or the official voices, or anything like that. We spend time with the grassroots activists who are really at the forefront of thinking about nonviolent transformation, and who educate us about what does it mean to live as a Palestinian under military rule? What are the ways that Palestinians are organizing and thinking politically, and trying to imagine and bring into being a different future, and the fourth constituency that we spend time with our Palestinian citizens of Israel. And that's something we've started doing recently. And again, in the broader conversation, I think the left is often so focused on the occupation that it overlooks important initiatives within Israel, to advance the civil rights of Palestinian citizens. So those are the four constituencies.
Sam Sussman 12:36
Now that doesn't tell you much about what an average day looks like. An average day is long, we tell you to drink a lot of water, we have a wide range of meetings, it could be everything from having lunch with Issa Amro in Hebron and walking the city and going through a checkpoint and experiencing what that is like to go into also prison with military court watch and meeting the families of Palestinians who are whose whose children are on trial. And then the last part of every day is the group conversations. And to me, that's often the most meaningful because it's really where people share what they've been feeling. And, look, it's not so simple. If you grow up with a certain narrative, and then you're seeing something that's very different. People have to talk about that we have to work it work through it together. And I think part of what's very powerful on Extend is that we're open to every reaction. And we want the whole group to talk things through and understand the the realities that we're engaging with.
Claire Miller 13:45
You know, hearing you say that, Sam, I know, you mentioned at the beginning of our conversation, how I had a really unique Extend trip. And I've really thought a lot about what a unique opportunity that was, to be able to engage with all of Extend's partners in such an intimate one-on-one atmosphere. But now you're making me think a little bit about what I might have missed, what conversations might have passed me by as the only person there.
Sam Sussman 14:19
So you're welcome to come on any future Extend trip. I extend you a slot on any program.
Claire Miller 14:29
So when you talk about the need for Extend participants to really be able to process how what they're seeing differs from the narrative on which they had been raised. That really makes me think of a very specific moment on our trip, because it's a moment that I look back on with a little bit of self-judgment, because I don't love my own reaction in that moment. When we were traveling together, we were in Hebron and you offered me the opportunity for us to cross over into the Palestinian area of the city. And the Palestinian area of the city is completely under Palestinian civil control, but also police and military control. And that made me nervous. And I remember I was a little bit hesitant and a little bit reluctant. And you really pushed me to do it, which is something that I really appreciate.
Claire Miller 15:39
And what I remember is, after we crossed over, we, one of the first things that we saw when we were out on the street was about three or four Palestinian men in uniform with guns. And that really jolted me like that really threw me. Because while I was raised in a relatively left wing, family and society when it came to Israel, not every Palestinian I saw stoked fear in me. But I learned in that moment, I still really had some amount of prejudice, because seeing a Palestinian with a weapon that did spark fear. And I really didn't know how to process that. And from there, we went into a marketplace. And I remember the marketplace because, first of all, who does not love a good outdoor market. And we stopped at a stand that sells pickled vegetables, and I love pickled vegetables, and I bought a bunch of pickled vegetables. And all of a sudden, I felt like I was doing my grocery shopping.
Claire Miller 17:03
And being able to have that moment, being able to go from fear of the unknown to something as mundane as shopping for food amongst Palestinians really flipped a switch in me. And I left Hebron thinking, "Oh, of course, the there were Palestinians in uniform with guns, just like there are police officers with guns in America and Israel." It really can be a society like every other. But that required a little bit of a leap of faith for me. How do you find on trips that participants are able to have the necessary buy-in to really get something out of it and to, to be able to take that first leap of faith and to trust you and trust each other enough to delve so deeply into that unknown?
Sam Sussman 18:02
That's such a powerful story. Thank you for sharing that Claire. No, I think it's not easy for many people. And to me, what's made Extend work from the beginning is intellectual and political humility. So the first program that we started Extend when myself and my partner, we were 22. And we went into that first program, saying very openly to our peers, we don't know everything. We know, there are things we don't know, and we want to be part of collectively educating ourselves. But we're not going to pretend that there's a straight line of answers, there are certain things we think you can't ignore, right? We think it's a political problem, that the occupation is ignored in so many mainstream circles. But we're all in this process together. And that's, I hesitate to use a term like facilitation model, because it sounds like the sort of thing used by the type of corporate NGO that Extend is not, but the way that we lead conversations and Extend emphasizes that engaging with this and and learning is, is an ongoing process. And, and I felt that very deeply in myself and I share that, I share my experiences of ongoing learning, with groups when when we're processing and it's one thing to have a kind of analytic politics, where you know what you believe or advocate for in the abstract, but it's very different to register where the limits or tensions are emotional, and I've seen profound transformations.
Sam Sussman 19:57
I remember on one of the first programs we ran, we were in Hebron. And there were, there was someone who said, we're taking a group photograph. And someone said to me, he stood to the side, and he said, "You know, I, I'm not part of this, I don't believe, basically the crap you're feeding us. And I'm, you know, I'm not getting in this photo." And on the last day of that program, we were on the beach in Tel Aviv, having a final group conversation, and he came up to me and said, these were the five most transformational days of my life. So I don't go into this work, assuming that people are so psychologically simple that they see something and have a straight line toward the answer that I want. I go into this work assuming that when most people see injustice, they want to act against it. But that that can be a gradual process. And I've seen the way that so many people have transformed themselves into extraordinarily powerful activists. And that's what keeps me going in this work.
Ori Nir 21:02
You know, so I remember in one of my first conversations with with Jon Emont, who's your co-founder, he asked me about the idea of doing family hospitality, of having Extend participants stay with Palestinian families in the West Bank and asked me what I thought about it. I was kind of conservative and said, "I don't know, you know, kind of tread lightly." You ended up doing it, maybe talk a little bit about that? It's an exciting and interesting aspect of the program.
Sam Sussman 21:32
Yeah, thanks. That's, that's funny. I remember that initial conversation. So we stayed in hotels, the first Extend program, and it created a dynamic that I don't think was was very healthy, it basically created a dynamic in which we were tourists asking to be served. And that's fine if you're on vacation, maybe. But we weren't on vacation. We were here to listen and to learn from Palestinian voices that we hadn't spent much time with. And we found that it just sort of felt odd not just to us, but to most people in the group. So we started looking for places to stay that wouldn't be an economic transaction, but would rather be in educational and cultural experience in both directions.
Sam Sussman 22:28
And we started staying with this wonderful family that has a guesthouse in Jifna, which is a half-Christian, half-Muslim city, a little ways outside of Ramallah just past Birzeit. So I would say that the most powerful thing that this did was really to open up unexpected experiences. So when you go to a military court, or when you walk the streets of Hebron, or when you go to Bil'in, to learn about the movement there, you sort of know what's going to happen, you know, what the conversation is going to be, you know, the particular aspects of the politics that you're trying to educate people about. I think there's also something very powerful about demystifying the experience of staying in a Palestinian community. So when you're just not, you know, you're not in Ramallah, you're not in a nice hotel in Ramallah, you're not in a comfortable place that could be where you could be on vacation. You know, you're in a pretty small, ordinary town where you might see some facets of daily life that you wouldn't experience.
Sam Sussman 23:43
I think a lot of the conversations that we've had in the Khouriya Family Guest House have just been about ordinary life. So it's talking to their children who are in their early 20s. About what is it like applying for university in Palestinian society? Oh, you're studying abroad in Germany? That's so interesting. Do many of your peers study abroad in Germany? What do you want to study? What are your ambitions? There's something very powerful about that unstructured time. And I'm often amazed by the places that the conversation goes to. And I think that's opened up something that's been very, very powerful and really transformative for extend.
Sam Sussman 24:27
That experience that we've had with where we stay is also something we've tried to model with how we travel. So we've had the same bus driver Samer Hawa since 2013, since the beginning, and when you start a small nonprofit, and we've always had a tiny budget, we started Extend with a few thousand dollar grant, of course, you know, your first reaction is like, what's the cheapest bus that I can get? And then I think very early on, we realized, hold on, we can't come in to Palestinian society modeling the sort of relationships that we're actually trying to transform. We have to model the sorts of human and political relationships that we're trying to create on a systemic level. So that meant, okay, we're going to build a long term relationship with one person who has his own travel business. And he's not going to just be a driver, he's going to be an integral part of Extend, is going to talk to our participants about his life experiences. When we're driving somewhere, he's going to share his experience of he's been there or his second cousin who lives in that community.
Sam Sussman 25:38
And I think that people to people programs have gotten a bad name in the last few decades, because they're seen as not politically direct enough. They sort of promised that just through conversation and understanding, that's enough to resolve a conflict. I think there's some truth to that. But what I've also learned is that Extend is dealing very directly with some of the most serious political issues in Israel-Palestine. And when people everyday are hearing for eight or 10 hours, about human rights issues, they also need a little human contact, they also need to have a little informal unstructured experience and insight into another society and Palestinian society is not just Of course, it's not just the occupation in Palestinian society is not just resistance to the occupation. And those human moments that open up an experience of what this society looks like, to those who are living within it, I think, is really crucial.
Claire Miller 26:44
I think that ethic you're talking about, and the fact that your values, both your values, Sam, and the values of Extend, are visible, not only in the activities, but also in the logistics of the program, is really part of what makes it so special and so impactful. And like you say, Extend is more than just vacation, so you're not going to treat it like a vacation, like they're tourists. So with that in mind, what is the bigger impact? How do you hope Extend will change the either your participants' relationship with Israel, or young American Jewry's relationship with Israel?
Ori Nir 27:31
And I want to, I want to just to add something here, you know, there's a similar program that's called Encounter, which is aimed at Jewish leaders, older, like, you know, obviously Jewish leaders, I took part in one of them, and was really impressed with with what they're doing and the way that they're doing it. There that, you know, the impact is clear, because we were talking about opinion leaders. But here, it's more, you know, it's younger people you don't know if they're going to, you know, reach leadership positions, as Claire has. So yeah, so what is the broader impact?
Sam Sussman 28:08
Well, I believe very deeply in grassroots politics. And I think that Extend is offering a conversation that doesn't fit. It doesn't always fit the conventions of the moment. And I think that, to me, what's most important is offering a program that has a different vision for what Israel-Palestine might look like that's more in line with the values held by most American Jews and the stated values of American foreign policy. And what I've learned on Extend is that when people see the injustices that we highlight, they want to be part of bringing that reality into place. And to me, one of the most extraordinary privileges of running Extend, is seeing the different directions in which people take their experience.
Sam Sussman 29:06
So someone hosts the Shabbat dinner to talk about what they saw, someone else hosts a photography exhibition, another person lobbies a member of Congress, someone writes an op-ed ,someone writes a song or a poem. There are so many different ways of people responding to injustice and that's also true political you know, some people are passionate two-staters, others come away with a more binational perspective. Some people aren't interested in the broader-solution-ism, they want to focus specifically on children's rights or water access, or other the myriad inequalities. So I'm not so focused on a top-down politics, I see emerging leadership from young American Jews all across the country. You know, when I think about the movements that have happened in the past decade, IfNotNow and J Street U and the youth wings of JVP. I don't think anyone said to those people, okay, you, you are the anointed leaders of the future. So now, go do something. That's not really how I think about politics. I think these were people who said, Hold on, our values aren't being reflected here, we're going to organize and advance those mountains." And that's what I see from young people.
Sam Sussman 30:25
And by the way, young people in America, not just on Israel Palestine, when I look across our generation, I see remarkable things happen happening in Black Lives Matter, and environmental justice, and new thinking around economic justice, thinking about universal basic income, thinking about increasing minimum wage, empowering labor unions, I think, you know, no one said to any of the activists in our generation who are leading those movements, okay, now you're the leader. Or, and nobody, those movements didn't come from saying to the anointed leaders, please, will you take these questions seriously. And this is also true for the MeToo movement, right. And these are all very grassroots movements. And when I think about the historical movements that are inspiring to me, whether it's the American Civil Rights Movement, or that apartheid movement in South Africa, or the anti-Vietnam War movement, these are really bottom-up grassroots movements that then gain a majority there. They're not initiated by the people in power. So, you know, I see that across my generation. And I see that on extend. And that's that's the sort of grassroots politics that I that, that I have faith in.
Claire Miller 31:49
As a young person myself, what you say about grassroots politics really resonates with me. But I think that we're seeing a very bizarre dichotomy in American Jewry, where on the one hand, over a third of American Jews under the age of 40 consider Israel to be an apartheid state. And at the same time, that's not something that we see in the mainstream community, we really see opinions like those on Israel kind of blackballed, blacklisted in a lot of places. And we're seeing more and more young people either not be allowed to participate in certain Jewish institutions because of their Israel politics, or choosing not to.
Claire Miller 32:40
And because so many of your participants on your programs come to you from Birthright, which is this very, very mainstream Jewish program, I'm curious to hear your thoughts about what I would consider the divergent progressive opinions on how to kind of handle Birthright. So Extend, is trying to add on to it with another view and other organizations like J Street have offered trips for students to the West Bank, though not nearly as consistently as Extend, whereas other progressive organizations like IfNotNow have taken the tack of either disrupting Birthright trips, having participants walk off trips, or by protesting Birthright in the United States and trying to organize young American Jews not to participate at all. So I'd be really curious to hear your thoughts about these two divergent progressive tactics regarding Birthright. And whether you feel it's more effective to overhaul or to try to, you know, in 2021 terms "cancel" a Birthright entirely, or to add on to it.
Sam Sussman 34:05
So before I answer this question about birthright, I want to go back to one thing you said, Claire, which was really interesting to me, you said that you see a lot of younger progressive Jews who don't feel welcome in mainstream spaces, who are either not engaging with Israel because of that, or sort of not expressing their values. I see a third thing happening, which is very inspiring to me, which is young people who are saying, We don't like the terms of the mainstream conversation, so we're going to create something new. So we don't like Hillel's rules for who's allowed to come and speak. We're going to create Open Hillel, our own new community. We don't like the mainstream media's approach to how Israel-Palestine is discussed. Okay, great. We're going to create Jewish Currents. We don't like how J Street is responding to the 2014 Gaza War. Okay, great. We're going to create IfNotNow, we don't like how Birthright is dealing? Well, we don't like Birthright, we're going to create Extend. So I see that renewal and that incredible political energy around creating an alternative. And that, to me is really inspiring.
Sam Sussman 35:18
So let's talk about Birthright. I don't think people should go on Birthright. Um, for a few reasons. One, I think the left has been really conciliatory toward Birthright, an explicitly right-wing project. It's funded by Sheldon Adelson, who is the single largest owner of right-wing politics in America and Israel. And what that means in practice is Birthright won't even coordinate running programs with groups like J Street, which tried to become a program coordinator in 2012, and was shut down as an official program. Birthright doesn't meet with Palestinians. It doesn't meet with progressive Israeli groups. So ultimately, what do we have left? You know, I think I came off my Birthright trip thinking if I didn't know anything else, I would have thought the political spectrum went from like Netanyahu on the left to Bennett on the right. I think we have to really ask what what Israel is Birthright showing and and who is it servicing? And I think the truth is, it's servicing a pretty narrow, right wing political agenda. So I think we should be straightforward about that.
Sam Sussman 36:31
I also think on a deeper level Birthright's having a pretty damaging impact on the way that young people think about their their Jewish identity. So Birthright says, Come on our program, explore your Jewish identity. And then here's the story they tell you: We lived here, we were exiled, we return triumphantly, now you have a birthright to be here. So that's a history that will give you a pretty shallow sense of Jewish identity, pretty shallow sense of Jewish history. It's taking a pretty dismissive and narrow tone towards actual Jewish historical experience. It's a teleological notion in which every aspect of Jewish history has existed in anticipation of the creation of the current version of the Israeli state. But you know, like Jews in Morocco, or Andalusia, or Baghdad, or Warsaw, weren't sitting around through all of Jewish history, dreaming about this particular version of a Jewish state.
Sam Sussman 37:31
And you can't learn much about those histories, the ways that Jews have actually lived across time and space, if you present Jewish identity as primarily being about a tap in attachment to this version of the state. So Mahmoud Darwish, the Palestinian poet, he has this great line where he says, "The flag is a poor subject for poetry." And I think it's also a poor subject for education and identity. Right? We don't, I don't think that we want the American Jews to be thinking about the richness of Jewish identity, whether that's drawn from Jewish text or history or tradition, just in terms of in attachment, a right of narrow version of a right wing attachment to this particular form of the Israeli state.
Sam Sussman 38:19
And I think Birthright, it's not really an educational project, it's a political project. I mean, what's the function of getting drunk on the beach in Tel Aviv, or riding a camel in the Negev? These are like in group activities that are meant to form a pretty narrow version of identity, what do they have to do with with Jewish history? So, for me, I think Birthright's damaging in a number of ways, the last thing I would just add is, wherever you are in the world, if you want to learn about a particular place, you know, don't go on a government-sponsored trip. Um, you know, I, we met with the PA at the beginning of extent, and at a certain point, we just stopped doing it, because then you go to any society, the most interesting things are being said by civil society activists, they're being said, by artists, they're being said by intellectuals, they're not being said by diplomats, and government spokespeople, you know, you can read those things in the press. It's like, you know, if you come to America, it's like taking the narrative that you get from a political party, right? It's like the version of American history that you'd get at the Democratic or Republican National Convention. It's not a rigorous or a searching history. It's easy slogans, cliches. That's what Birthright's giving you. And I think it's a real disservice to the bright, engaged people who want to think deeply about their Jewish identity, want to think this deeply about Israel Palestine, that that's why they signed up. So that's, I'll just close by saying Extend is strategically taking advantage of the fact that Birthright brings a lot of young American Jews to Israel-Palestine, it gives them free flights, but idealogically, pragmatically, you know, we, we are not politically associated.
Claire Miller 40:11
I definitely agree with a lot of what you're saying about Birthright. I know that when I went on Birthright, I was expecting to come in and have political disagreement with what was happening. But really what I found was just a superficial program for tourists. And I think that you really get at that superficial reality not only regarding the conflict, but also regarding Jewish identity. And it's clear from what you say that you, you are unequivocal in your opposition to Birthright as an institution. And I'm just wondering if Extend has gotten any public or private criticism or pushback from Birthright and perhaps about the way you do kind of take advantage of those free flights to Israel.
Sam Sussman 41:00
So we've actually had a lot of Birthright coordinators send people to our program. Because a lot of Birthright coordinators, they're very, you know, they're bright people. They're very well aware of the way in which Birthright's inadequacies are alienating to participants. And they'll say, okay, it's, you're not going to get a good conversation about the conflict on this trip. So go to Extend afterwards. So there, there have been a number of Birthright coordinators, and Birthright's never gone after us directly. But what they have done when they've gotten a whiff that Birthright coordinators have sent people in our direction is they've investigated those particular Birthright coordinators. At the very beginning, when we started Extend, we thought, okay, Birthright is going to come after us. They're going to try to shout us down, they're going to say you can't use your flight and go on Extend afterward.
Sam Sussman 41:56
And then at a certain point, we realized, hold on, what are they going to say? They're going to say you can't go to the West Bank afterwards. Well, you know, what about someone comes off a Birthright program and they're visiting their cousin in the settlement of Ariel? So at this point, I would actually welcome Birthright coming out and saying you can't go on Extend. We know that Birthright doesn't want you to see what you'll see on Extend. But there they also know that they're hiding behind right now a very unconvincing political argument that they're an apolitical program. And once they come out and say you can't go on Extend, you can't see the occupation, you can't meet with Palestinians - not even you can't meet with them on our program, which is already the rule, but you can't meet with them afterwards - well, now it starts looking like a much more political program. So I would welcome that conversation if Birthright wanted to have it in public.
Ori Nir 42:44
Do you see though as some kind of an ethical issue here, like you're taking advantage of a program that pays, they, they they cover some of your costs in some way. The the flights in other words.
Sam Sussman 42:58
Sheldon Adelson died is the 28th richest person on earth. I think he was worth $37 billion. I'd have to take a lot more of his money before I felt there was an ethical issue.
Ori Nir 43:12
Sam, thank you so much. This was really fascinating. I really thank you for being our guest on the show. Thank you very much, Claire for joining me as the co host. And that's it.
Sam Sussman 43:23
Thanks so much, Ori. Thanks, Claire. It was a pleasure to speak
Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.
*Brought to you in cooperation with Americans for Peace Now, where the Round-Up was born!
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