NEW YORK – After months of chastising Birthright Israel for what it calls one-sided trips, J Street U is launching its first-ever free trip to Israel and the West Bank.
Come July, 40 American college students will participate on a 10-day trip courtesy of the progressive group. Billed as an alternative to Birthright, the trip, which will be funded by J Street donors, is part of its “Let Our People Know” campaign. Group leaders hope the trip will give American Jewish youth a more complete and nuanced picture of life in Israel.
“We hope this trip will provide a model for the kind of Israel education young Jews want and need — one that engages fully with Israel’s reality, including perspectives from Palestinians living under its 52-year military occupation,” said Eva Borgwardt, president of the J Street U National Board and Stanford University senior.
“It will prove that American Jews can engage with Israel as a complex place, one that is meaningful, important and challenging. In doing so, they will meet Israelis and Palestinians who are working toward a better future, and think critically about their own role as Americans in that conversation and the push for the just, peaceful, democratic future for the country outlined in its Declaration of Independence,” she said.
The announcement for the trip comes months after J Street U circulated a petition on campuses nationwide demanding Palestinian speakers of its own choosing be included on Birthright Israel trips. More than 2,000 students signed the petition. At the time neither J Street U nor other left-leaning groups considered funding their own trips.
Additionally, those opposing Birthright also staged several civil disobedience events in the past year. In early December 2018 three students with ties to the self-described anti- occupation group IfNotNow said Birthright forced them off their trip for inquiring about the Israel-Palestinian conflict. During the summer of 2018 activists also staged several walk-offs in in protest of what they said was Birthright’s steadfast refusal to address the ongoing conflict.
Those joining the summer trip will visit major tourism and heritage sites in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, the Galilee and other parts of Israel. They will also meet with Israeli social justice activists, West Bank Palestinian communities and settler leaders. The planned itinerary will allow American Jewish students to see first-hand the challenges Israelis and Palestinians face and the way the occupation erodes human rights, Borgwardt said. These were challenges Birthright has ignored for too long, she said.
While Birthright has a social diversity module and some of its trips meet with Arab citizens of Israel, they don’t meet with Palestinians who live beyond the Green Line.
“We submitted requests for speakers who could speak to experiences living under occupation in the West Bank, particularly those who could speak to the experience of being a Palestinian living under full Israeli Civil and Military control in Area C, and we received indication from Birthright that these speakers were categorically not accepted,” Borgwardt said.
Founded in 1999, Birthright Israel aspires to strengthen ties between Diaspora Jews and the State of Israel through a free 10-day trip. To date more than 650,000 American Jews have participated.
While Birthright said it regularly brings new programs, speakers and content to introduce participants to the complicated issues driving the Middle East, it tries not to endorse any specific agenda, opinion or belief.
Nevertheless, the organization has no issue with trips for young American Jews that represent other viewpoints, a Birthright Israel spokesperson said.
“We respect all young people’s desire to visit Israel in any way that suits their needs and interests, including extending their time in Israel after participating in their program of choice. Our educational trips are non-partisan and have enabled more than 700,000 Jewish young adults to experience Israel over the past 19 years. We appreciate all organizations that aim to connect the Jewish diaspora to Israel and provide the gift of experiencing Israel first-hand,” the spokesperson said.
Zachary Spitz, a J Street U board member and a senior at the University of Chicago, took issue with Birthright’s assertion.
“Birthright has said that it is an apolitical institution. But, in reality, it is absolutely a political decision to limit discussion of the occupation and avoid interacting with
Palestinians who live under occupation,” he said.
He said he hopes this summer’s trip will serve as a template for the kind of Israel trip that everyone should be able to support: “one that confronts the occupation instead of ignoring it.”
J Street U expects to receive hundreds of applications. Although the organization asks students to pledge to join only those trips that meet J Street U standards, students who have participated on Birthright are welcome to apply.
“American Jews want to visit Israel — and we want to develop a deeper understanding of what life is like there,” Spitz said.