Birthright Unplugged’s History:
Birthright Unplugged was co-founded in 2004 by Dunya Alwan and Hannah Mermelstein. The two met in June 2003 and have worked together on several projects in both the United States and the West Bank. For example, both were members of the International Women's Peace Service (IWPS), whose mission is to support Palestinian-led nonviolent resistance to Israeli occupation. Both Dunya and Hannah have planned and led numerous international delegations throughout the West Bank, and in the summer of 2005 the two launched Birthright Unplugged. Re-Plugged followed soon after in the winter of 2006. In 2009 Hannah left Birthright Unplugged to pursue other work.
Our early mission was built around the rejection of the notion of a “birthright,” as embodied in fully-funded trips to Israel designed solely for Jewish people. We sought to contest this view, insofar as Israel has denied Palestinian people’s internationally recognized right of return for refugees, but has created a “Law of Return” that extends citizenship benefits to any person of Jewish heritage. This practice excludes millions of Palestinians – people who were born in the land that is now Israel – from their homes. Much of our work, therefore, is centered around refuting the alleged primacy of local Israeli law over international law and exposing this prioritization as the precondition for human rights violations in the region.
In more recent years, our work has continued to educate about and promote human rights through travel, and we are stepping our efforts to support justice movement work in our programs. In the case of Unplugged, this means practical support including speaker trainings, networking assistance, connecting participants to media and supporting campaign work. In the case of Re-Plugged, we are working with community groups to explore and express concretely realistic, desirable, and humane solutions for the implementation of refugee rights.
Birthright Unplugged Staff
Director: Dunya Alwan is Iraqi-American of both Muslim and Jewish descent. Born in the United States, she has lived, worked, traveled and studied in the Middle East and North Africa, including Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Palestine, Israel, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. Trained as an architect, she moved toward social justice work just prior to the first Gulf war. Since then her work has included making public art and documentary video, doing violence prevention education, and providing programming in the Massachusetts women’s prison. Dunya began working in human rights and education in Palestine in 2002.
Communications and Outreach Director: C. Heike Schotten is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts Boston, where she teaches political theory. She is a 2006 alumnus of Birthright Unplugged, a 2008 Re-Plugged volunteer, and a consistent activist and worker around issues of Palestinian liberation.
Unplugged Trip Co-Leader & Re-Plugged Program Advisor: Hazem Jam joum is a third-generation Palestinian refugee. He is a founding member of both the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid and the Sumoud Political Prisoners Solidarity Group. Hazem helped organize Israeli Apartheid Week in 2005 and 2006 as a member of the Arab Students' Collective at the University of Toronto. He has hosted Toronto's only Arab community radio show and sung with Jawqet El-Sheikh Imam, a Toronto tribute band to one of the 20th century's great artist revolutionaries. Hazem is currently a staff member at BADIL Resource Center for Palestinian Residency & Refugee Rights, which takes a rights-based approach to the Palestinian refugee issue through research, advocacy and support for community participation in the search for durable solutions.
Unplugged’s Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) Institute Trainer: R y v k a B a r Z o h a r has been involved in BDS activism in the U.S. since 2002, and is currently working on a citywide BDS campaign in New York with Adalah-NYC. She is also a Palestine Education Project collective member, and a Ph.D. student in Middle Eastern Studies at New York University. Ryvka led Birthright Unplugged’s BDS Institute in Summer 2008 and volunteered on Re-Plugged in 2007.
Additional Staff & Volunteers: Birthright Unplugged’s cherished network of colleagues, friends, supporters, and volunteers is large and ever-growing, and we are truly grateful for your contributions. We could not do our work without you!!