A Grittier Trip to the Holy Land

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Byline: Sarina Rosenberg

The Israel that 18,000 young Jewish Americans will see this summer on the free, 10-day trip offered by Taglit-birthright Israel is a land of ancient religious sites, sandy beaches and buff young soldiers. "It's a Jewish identity trip," says Wayne L. Firestone, president of Hillel, which runs one of the largest Birthright tours. But according to Dunya Alwan and Hannah Mermelstein, two Boston-based activists, the Birthright-sanctioned trips don't give a true picture of Israel because they minimize the experience of the Palestinian people. (Mermelstein is Jewish; Alwan, the child of a Muslim-Jewish marriage, calls herself a "secular Muslim-Jew.") In 2005, the pair launched Birthright Unplugged, an "alternative" tour of the West Bank in which the Palestinian narrative takes center stage. This Israel is a land of refugee camps, military checkpoints and security fences. "We want to put people that would otherwise not have the access in direct contact with the Palestinian people," Mermelstein says.

The Unplugged tours are relatively tiny, with just 60 travelers in two years, compared with Birthright's 125,000 in seven years, but applications are increasing. …