In light of President Obama’s impending visit to Israel next month, I was reminded of an article I read some months ago. A family friend sent a piece from Dissent my way before I left NYC since she knew that I would be moving to Taiwan. In Birthright Journeys: Connecting Dots from the Diaspora, Audrea Lim discusses touring Taiwan as a teenager on the “Love Boat,” Taiwan’s birthright tour.
As a New Yorker who went to college at Syracuse University, I know more people who have done Birthright Israel than I can count! I had no idea that Taiwan had a similar program. +, while glaringly apparent, the similarities between Israel + Taiwan did not occur to me until reading this article.
I found the following section the most interesting:
IF BIRTHRIGHT Israel and its counter-programming are so compelling, not to mention the programs from Taiwan to Armenia to Ethiopia, then still, in Benedict Anderson’s words, “the striking thing is to ask the negative question, which is why some things don’t appear.” Why are there no programs to bring Mexican American, Jamaican American, or Vietnamese American youth back to Mexico, Jamaica, or Vietnam?
A handful of factors stand out. Most programs were either initiated by foreign states with security or dwindling-population concerns (Taiwan, China, Iceland, Israel) or arose within ethnic communities whose identities are somehow tied to the experience of persecution, either in the homeland (Israel, Armenia, Ethiopia) or in the United States (Irish Americans, Italian Americans, Chinese Americans). Several arose from ethnic communities with strong U.S. lobbies and an educated middle class.
Money is crucial; re-rooting cosmopolitan children of the diaspora is a costly endeavor, especially with their expectations of comfort, personal growth experiences, and fun. Establishing a Birthright-style program requires organizers with transnational experience and connections in both homeland and diaspora communities, as well as investors convinced that the programs have real worth.
That is why such programs are easier to establish when nation-building movements or initiatives are already in place—whether a state-initiated campaign, or a lobby or transnational nonprofit in the United States. After all, these programs are part of community- and nation-building strategies, unlike those of private companies specializing in roots-based tourism, such as trips along slave-routes in Ghana targeted at African Americans or summer language and culture education programs at Korean universities.
None of the birthright program organizers would claim that their programs are political, of course. All describe themselves as non-political and closer in kind to a cultural exchange. But while “cultural exchange” certainly occurs on these trips, the programs serve broader purposes, and this is most obvious in the cases of Love Boat and Birthright Israel, whose agendas line up with existing political campaigns, and whose donors have clear political agendas. And while the other programs are not operating within high-stakes international conflicts, their aim is still to create allies who may not have been concretely tied in any way to the homeland previously. Perhaps the ties are still too strong between Mexicans, Jamaicans, and Vietnamese at home and in the United States for such programs to develop. Perhaps, in this “show me your papers” era, travel back and forth is too dangerous.
Interestingly enough the Taiwan/Israel connection came up in conversation with my friend Jeremy soon after I arrived in Taipei, as it is something that he speaks about with a mutual friend on a regular basis.
Both Israel + Taiwan are states with major international security issues.
Both states, as they stand today, were created rapidly + legitimized almost immediately (though Taiwan’s legitimacy on the world stage almost disappeared after the United States accepted the PRC as the One China).
Both have histories of expelling + oppressing their indigenous populations.
I would also argue that the “49ers” who fled to Taiwan from Mainland China qualify as an “ethnic communit[y] whose identit[y is] … tied to the experience of persecution … in the homeland.” We are talking azaleas + oranges here (get it?! Taipei is The City of Azaleas + Tel Aviv is The Big Orange?!), but Taiwan’s Mainlanders were fleeing war-torn China + Mao’s Communist regime, which took power of the Mainland after the 1949 Chinese Revolution.
China has not attempted to bomb Taiwan for several years, while Israel faces frequent attacks. Threats to both remain high. However, global support for each country is drastically different. Israel has much of the Western world on its side, while Taiwan still struggles to obtain a seat in the UN. It is very important for each to have supporters (especially monied supporters) in the U.S. + their respective diaspora worldwide.
There has been a lot of discussion + criticism of Obama’s trip to Israel. Many wonder why the Israel/Palestine conflict will not the main issue discussed during Obama’s visit. Many also question the timing of the visit in light of the recent parliamentary election, which showed Netanyahu’s party clearly falling from public favor in Israel. I guess this is another situation where time will tell what happens next. I continue to hope for peace.
I’ve been listening to reggae all week + this song popped out at me for obvious reasons.