Birthright Israel recently ordered participants to stop meeting with Israeli Palestinian citizens.
Birthright’s conviction that its participants should not encounter Palestinian citizens is a troubling sanitization — one that does justice neither to young Diaspora Jews nor to Israel itself. Rather than ask American Jews to face Israel in all its complexities and contradictions, Birthright has chosen to offer what one congressman once described to me as “Disneyland Israel” after a trip by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee that met with no Palestinians.
So they will never know Wadeea.
This was the thought that came to me as I read the disappointing news that Birthright has chosen to end meetings with Arab citizens of Israel, who make up one-fifth of Israel’s population. Birthright’s official statement explained that “there is a need for further analysis” of such meetings before they can proceed.
Wadeea and I met in his hometown of Kafr Qasim, a city of Palestinian citizens of Israel, t2 miles east of Tel Aviv. Wadeea heard I was from New York, and he wanted to make sure I knew how much he hated the Knicks. I challenged him to a game of one-on-one. We found a court between Kafr Qasim and Rosh HaAyin and played well past dusk. The next time I was in Israel we smoked hookah, watched Barcelona beat Madrid and discovered that we both write fiction.
As our friendship grew, so did my understanding of Israel. I learned that Wadeea had studied at Tel Aviv University, taking three buses two hours each way because there was no direct line between a Palestinian city and an Israeli university. I learned how Wadeea’s feelings toward Jewish people had been transformed by his friendship with Dana Olmert, daughter of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, a professor of literature and fierce activist who became Wadeea’s mentor and friend.
While we had grown up worlds apart, Wadeea and I developed a close friendship. We often stayed up late into the night, debating the relative merits of Sayed Kashua and F. Scott Fitzgerald, or talking about different cultural approaches to love, community and pick-up basketball. Just as Wadeea’s understanding of Israel deepened in Tel Aviv, my understanding of Israel deepened in Kafr Qasim.
The last time I visited, Wadeea introduced me to the high school Hebrew class he teaches, where we had a roving conversation about democracy, equality and citizenship with the 40 students in his class. I’d never felt more optimistic about Israel’s pluralistic future.
And now, the pluralistic Israel I encountered in Wadeea’s Hebrew class is one that Birthright participants will never know.