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An open letter to a student thinking about walking out of their 'Birthright' trip to cross the wall

“The World Is Too Small For Walls.” Graffiti on a concrete block in front of the apartheid wall in Bethlehem.  Photo: Laurence Chiasson

Not so long ago, you were excited about boarding the plane. You thought this would be the trip of a lifetime. It felt like you were about to finally get that missing piece, the one you need to figure out your identity and where you come from. Then this opportunity became a puzzle in itself. The videos of young people walking out on a Birthright trip, like you are about to take, started to appear on social media. At first, you were shocked. Then you started to wonder if you should do such a thing -- if you could do such a thing.

Judging by the video you watched, you already know it won't be easy. You will be called a coward, a traitor, a quitter, and a self-hating Jew. They will tell you that you're naive and disrespectful of your origins. They will bring up your ancestors' struggle and point out how disappointed God must be right now. Someone might even tell you about that one guy who is a friend of a friend of a distant relative, who got stabbed by a Palestinian.

You will be called names. You won't get away with this easily. Worst thing is, as soon as you pass this dreadful first step you thought would be the hardest part of the whole adventure, you will realize that something harder is around the corner: the truth.

You are scared, I know. You are thinking ''is it worth it?'' All the opposition, the attention on you, the insults, the questions to which you don't even have the answers, the sudden look of disdain from that friend you were laughing with on the bus ride earlier. What will your parents think? What about your friends, your teacher? Will this impact your school year at all? It's already hard to walk through these halls with everyone judging your actions, your clothes, your tastes; surely you don't need to be ''that kid who walked out on his heritage'' on top of that, right?

So no, it doesn't seem worth it.

Except it is. Walking out on your group might be scary, but finding out the truth might seem simply terrifying. I know the feeling. I might not be Jewish, but I am a Canadian who discovered how her ancestors perpetrated a terrible genocide of First Nations and Indigenous people. And while our struggle is not the same, the process is pretty similar.

Like you, I had to go out on my own and ask questions about something my country refused to teach me properly in school. I got answers. I also got called naive, misinformed and disrespectful of my ancestors' efforts and sacrifices. I got hurt thinking of people whom I love so much with a new perspective. I felt ashamed of my identity, my past and my present -- because this disgraceful situation is not over. I was disappointed to look back and realize how people I respect talked about other human beings, and accepted the treatment inflicted on them and their families. 

I know you are scared. But I can assure you that it is worth it. Right now, you might be focusing on exams and grades or maybe you are finally done with school, and now it's time to "adult." I'm sure you are constantly reminded that you need to make choices for your future, and "now is the time to think about building a life and work on your career." What people fail to remind you, though, is that you are also becoming a member of society and a citizen of the world. Thinking about your future is not only about work and taxes, it's also about what kind person you want to become. Now is the time to ask questions and to explore, to discover who you are, and what you believe in. Above all, now is the time to make sure that you become the type of person you are proud to be.

You need to know something. You are not a bad person. You are not what others have decided to do in your name. You are not the occupation. You don't have to be ashamed for seeking answers and questioning the status quo.

What you are, however, is a part of the solution. Or at least you could be, if you just take that leap of faith and cross that checkpoint.

At the moment, I'm sure you feel like all you will find behind this giant wall is hostility, violence and deceptions. I lived and worked behind that wall for a full year, and I'll tell you what you'll really find.

You will find welcoming and friendly people. You will find a funny taxi driver who wants to guess where you are from and then tell you everything they know about your hometown. You will find addictive black tea infused with fresh mint and decadent pastries, right there on the sidewalks. You will find hectic neighbourhoods filled with music, colourful crowds, sounds and smells. Suddenly, just between two buildings, you will get a glimpse of some incredible lookout. You will come across street art that deserves a place in some kind of museum.

On top of all that, you will find that missing piece. It might not be where you thought it would be, but you will find it. Go beyond what is expected of you, beyond the narrative you have been served until now. Go beyond that wall, and you will find out that you have way more than a "Birthright." You have a right to be your own person. You have the right to speak up and demand change, to know the whole story, to get answers.

You have a right to think for yourself, to think differently.

Lastly, know that even if you face opposition, you will never be alone. There are thousands of people in this world who will support your actions and salute your courage. There are hundreds of people on the other side of that wall who are waiting to tell their stories. There are countless young people looking for the inspiration to ask questions. Be it.

Good luck. Whoever you are, I'll be with you every step of the way.

Laurence.

Laurence Chiasson recently joined Independent Jewish Voices Canada as a supporter, but has been advocating for the Palestinian cause for many years. She worked in Ramallah and Gaza as a technical advisor for communication and digital campaigning, supporting local associations and youth groups to launch awareness campaigns and online actions. She believes in the power of citizen actions, dialogue, and empowered youth.

Photo: Laurence Chiasson

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