WASHINGTON — Over the last two decades, Birthright trips to Israel have become a rite of passage for more than 700,000 young American Jews.
The free 10-day trip, founded in 1999, takes participants throughout the country — from the stone streets of Jerusalem and the beaches of Tel Aviv, to the ancient plateaus of Masada and the Golan Heights.
But conspicuously absent from the Birthright itinerary is engagement with Palestinians. Over the last year, the omission has led to a series of angry protests from activists and students; demonstrations at Birthright Israel’s New York headquarters; sit-ins on campus Hillels; and students walking off Birthright trips to go into the Palestinian territories.
All of these episodes sent a signal to J Street, a liberal Zionist group, that there was an appetite for a different kind of trip. The organization envisioned one that would more directly confront the complex and often alarming realities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
So it decided to carry out its own trip this summer and brought 28 students to Israel and the West Bank. The group cast the 10-day journey as a multi-dimensional view of the Jewish state.
While there, the students met with multiple stakeholders in the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian saga. Within a 24-hour span, for instance, they spoke with Israeli settlers and Palestinians in Susya, a southern West Bank village the Israeli government has threatened to demolish.
“You hear about these things, you see them on the news,” said Abby Kirschbaum, J Street’s assistant director of young leadership, who organized the trip. “But when you’re faced with it, it’s something different entirely.”
The trip, formally called “Let Our People Know,” was not quite the complete opposite of Birthright; it didn’t leave out all of Israel’s glories and complicated wonder. In fact, the itinerary included visits to Tel Aviv, Tiberias, Safed, with stops at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and a kibbutz in northern Israel — some of the same features as a Birthright trip. But it didn’t shy away from Israel’s agonizing imperfections.
The students went to Ramallah, Hebron and remote Palestinian towns, where they crossed through checkpoints and saw daily life was like for ordinary Palestinians. They met with Palestinian Authority officials, young Israelis and Palestinians (they didn’t meet with Israeli officials), and they were briefed by an NGO, Gisha, on the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Unlike Birthright, Kirschbaum said, this trip “offers a painful portal into the occupation.”
A spokesperson for Birthright Israel said its program is apolitical — and that there are aspects of the country’s complicated geopolitical situation it does not address.
“We understand there are many organizations that provide the opportunity to connect the Jewish Diaspora to Israel,” the spokesperson said.
“For those young people who want to focus most of their attention on the conflict, there are trips which may be better suited to their interests either after or in lieu of a Birthright Israel trip,” said Birthright.
Meeting with Palestinians and settlers
Similar to Birthright, the J Street trip had its own admissions process: 28 students were selected out of roughly 80 applicants. Many of the students who went on the trip had previous involvement with J Street, and some had already gone on a Birthright trip.
Elyse Endlich became connected with the progressive group on her campus, Pitzker College in California. While she said she “may be a little more left than J Street,” the group “seemed to fit” with all her values. Endlich said she wants to see a two-state solution to the conflict.
Her reason for wanting to go on the trip was simple. It was a chance to learn about the conflict up front without being given an incomplete version of Israel, she said.
“I wanted to know more,” Endlich, 19, told The Times of Israel. “I wanted to be really informed. I wanted to know.”
Elam Klein, a 21-year-old Colorado College senior, also attended the trip. He has been involved with J Street U since he was a freshman.
For both Klein and Endlich, the most intense parts of the trip were visiting Susya, the small village outside Hebron where a number of Palestinians were evicted from their homes in the 1980s to make way for an Israeli archeological site. There, they met with Nasser Nawajah, a Susya resident and activist with the Israeli human rights NGO B’Tselem.
The next day, the students met with representatives from the Binyamin Regional Council, which governs a large swath of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
Klein described the meeting with the settlers as a “very tense discussion.” He said he asked the settlers why they agreed to meet with the students in the first place. They must have known, he reasoned, that the conversation ran the risk of being acrimonious, given J Street’s vehement opposition to the settlement enterprise.
“They said they wanted to make sure we didn’t have a distorted sense of their experience through the media, which to me was very valid,” Klein said. “It’s why we were there in the first place. I appreciated their honesty in that. But it was very difficult; it felt like we were banging our head against the wall at times.”
The students spent much of the session arguing about Susya, he said, as well as the broader issue of West Bank settlement.
“I think to engage with these people who have no desire to acknowledge the fate of their Palestinian neighbors was incredibly uncomfortable for them,” Kirschbaum said. “But it was important to meet all the players in what will be a negotiated solution. We wanted them to interact with the people who are part of this issue. It’s super important not to see just one side.”
No plan for second J Street trip
Klein said the experience gave him more ammunition for his activism.
“Before, it was an intellectual experience for me, mostly centered around organizing and strategizing,” said Klein. But after visiting Susya and Hebron, he said, “it suddenly became a much more emotional issue, which I think is for me what I needed. Now I have more emotional power to what I’m doing because I was exposed to [the occupation] firsthand.”
Klein, who had not been on Birthright, said he was part of the campaign to pressure the group to include Palestinian voices on its trip. But soon it became clear Birthright Israel would not change course, and he jumped at the opportunity to visit Israel and the West Bank with J Street.
Other young American Jews, however, shouldn’t expect the same opportunity to be available to them next year: Despite J Street considering the trip a major success, it’s not planning on repeating it.
“The intention was never to do a follow-up trip,” Kirschbaum told The Times of Israel. “The idea was really to prove a concept.”
“J Street is not in the business of providing trips,” she added. “I think it’s beautiful that 28 people’s lives were touched, but the fact of the matter is, it costs a lot of money. It’s a resource-rich endeavor. It requires a lot of fundraising. It requires a lot of staff effort. It would require adding a whole other body to the organization, which we’re not going to do at the moment.”
The trip cost J Street roughly $130,000, according to Kirschbaum. Students only had to put up a $150 down payment and cover their flights to meet at the Newark airport.
J Street is hoping the students’ testimony will make the point that a trip to Israel can do two things at once.
Kirschbaum explained: “The fact of the matter is we were trying to prove a concept that you can hold your love for and your connection to Israel, but there’s room for criticism when it comes to what’s taking place in Israel’s government in terms of the occupation and all of its manifestations.”
So what’s next?
Whether another entity in the American Jewish organizational infrastructure will follow J Street’s lead remains to be seen. But some other left-wing Jewish groups are applauding its one-off effort to provide an alternative to Birthright.
“It is encouraging to see more and more members of our generation challenging Birthright’s pro-occupation programming,” an IfNotNow spokesperson told The Times of Israel. “J Street U’s initiative is yet another clear sign that Birthright is irrelevant to our generation. Birthright is more interested in sticking to the right-wing political agenda of its donors who believe in perpetual military occupation than showing us the full truth.”
IfNotNow, a Jewish anti-occupation group, is considerably further left than J Street. For example, it doesn’t take a stance on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel, whereas J Street is firmly against BDS.
A Hillel representative indicated that Birthright trips are geared toward building Jewish identity and a connection to Israel. Students interested in exploring the conflict, said Matthew Berger, Hillel International’s vice president of communications, should pursue other trips that look at Israel’s situation more broadly.
“The goal of Hillel Birthright trips is Jewish identity and community building, helping students connect with the land of Israel, Jewish ideas and values, and creating a meaningful shared experience with their peers,” Berger told The Times of Israel.
“We encourage students to extend their travel in order to explore aspects of the modern state of Israel that go beyond what Birthright offers. And we encourage students to experience the diverse array of programs on these issues on their campus.”
The students who went on J Street’s trip said they are armed now with a greater level of knowledge and experience to push for a new approach to US-Israel relations.
“Almost everyone we met with talked about the importance of American Jewish folks advocating for their own congressional representatives and senators to speak out against what is going on in the occupation, within Israel itself, to take a harder stance,” Klein said.
His next step, he said, will be at the J Street national conference in Washington, DC, later this month, when 2020 Democratic candidates and other party leaders will be there.
Said Klein: “The trip has made me a lot more excited and motivated to mobilize other people because I feel like I have stories that I can communicate to them in a way that I didn’t really have before.”