NEW YORK — To pressure Birthright Israel into including the Palestinian narrative on its organized tours, left-leaning Jewish groups are willing to entertain almost any tactic — including staged walk-offs and petitions.
That is, any tactic besides launching their own competing Israel trips.
Birthright Israel has of late become a lightning rod for some liberal American Jewish organizations, including IfNotNow and Jewish Voices for Peace (JVP), to argue that the free trips are nothing more than a vehicle for propaganda. And yet, in spite of their views, when asked by The Times of Israel, none of these groups said they would consider starting, or seeking funding for, trips to Israel that reflect their political beliefs.
Instead, the organizations are devoting time and resources to a series of staged civil disobedience events: most recently, in early December three students with ties to IfNotNow, a self-described anti-occupation group, claimed they were forced off Birthright trips for asking questions about the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Other incidents took place last summer with staged walk-offs by activists in protest of what they say is Birthright’s refusal to address the ongoing conflict.
Also, in September J Street U, the campus division of left-wing Israel advocacy group J Street, began circulating a petition on campuses nationwide demanding Palestinian speakers of the organization’s choosing be included on Birthright Israel trips. So far the petition has garnered upwards of 2,000 signatures.
One of the petition’s organizers, Matan Arad-Neeman, a Haverford College sophomore, explains why efforts are concentrated on revising the existing trip’s narratives, rather than the formation of a new, J Street U-approved trip.
“We are not currently considering creating our own trip. The impact of a single J Street U trip is virtually nothing in comparison to the 40,000 students who go on Birthright annually and are forbidden from hearing about life under the occupation from Palestinians,” said Arad-Neeman.
Birthright Israel, which started in 1999, seeks to forge a bond between Diaspora Jews and the State of Israel through a free trip. According to a Birthright spokesperson, the organization does address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and “constantly introduces new programs, speakers and content that enhance and diversify our trips, following evaluation that ensures that they meet our educational standards and aren’t confined solely to geopolitical content.”
“Birthright Israel has facilitated programming for more than 650,000 participants to date, with a record 33,000 this past summer, making our organization the largest educational program in the Jewish world,” said the spokesperson. The program introduces participants to the complex issues driving the Middle East “without endorsing any specific agendas, opinions or beliefs,” she said.
“We encourage all eligible Jewish young adults to attend our trips and we respect the ability of our participants to formulate their own views and ask questions in a constructive and respectful manner,” the spokesperson said.
In the past half a year, over a dozen Birthright participants associated with IfNotNow were either asked to leave, or walked off, Birthright trips. These protests were the first of their kind since Birthright was founded 20 years ago.
It is of note that following last summer’s walkouts, Birthright added a new clause in its contract. Under the “Code of Conduct” section of the contract, which all participants must sign, it indicates that those who disrupt trips could face sanctions, including being asked to leave the group.
According to the clause, “Efforts to coerce, force or suppress opinions, hijack a discussion or create an unwarranted provocation violate Taglit-Birthright Israel’s founding principles and will not be permitted.”
Murmurs of a boycott
Arad-Neeman of J Street U said their petition builds on the organization’s “Stop Demolitions, Build Peace” campaign. In a recent blog post, J Street U said traveling to Israel is important for any student hoping to strengthen ties to the country. However, it believes Birthright is remiss in not including a more nuanced and in-depth view of life in the West Bank and Gaza.
“Palestinian narratives are essentially erased from the narrative. And when trips like Birthright omit their stories it lets Israel get away with things like demolitions and what it’s like to live under the occupation. We want more progressive voices on the trip, because if and when voices are included, they are academic. You aren’t hearing from Palestinians who wait for hours in checkpoints,” Arad-Neeman said.
And while J Street U hasn’t yet called for students to boycott Birthright, Jewish Voices for Peace has. It will continue to support its student-led “Return the Birthright” campaign, which began in 2017. As of last spring 1,200 students have pledged not to go on Birthright trips, said Sonya Meyerson-Knox, media program manager for JVP, in an email.
When asked why JVP won’t consider starting trips to the region that reflect its political views, Meyerson-Knox didn’t directly answer.
“We do not coordinate such trips and we have no plans to do so in the future,” she said.
Likewise, according to Yonah Lieberman, one of the founders of the anti-occupation group IfNotNow, the priority is “changing Birthright so that every participant on every single trip learns about the moral disaster and daily nightmare that is the Israeli occupation.”
“Birthright is the most well-funded Jewish educational institution in the country, which engages 50,000 young American Jews every year, and those participants deserve to know the full picture of Israel,” he said.
Lieberman seemed satisfied that J Street U joining the chorus of organizations pressing Birthright Israel as a sign that change is on the horizon.
Moreover, it’s unclear whether any liberal donor with the capacity of the Birthright funders would even be interested in helping establish trips that reflect J Street U or JVP’s politics. (Inquiries to George Soros’s Open Society Foundation were not answered.)
Lieberman seemed convinced that the progressive organizations won’t need to make their own “balanced” trips, pointing to the fact that J Street U is now joining the chorus of organizations pressing Birthright Israel as a sign that change is on the horizon.
“It is encouraging to see more and more members of our generation challenging Birthright’s conservative programming. Following the launch of our #NotJustAFreeTrip campaign and the many Birthright walk-offs this summer, J Street U’s new initiative is yet another clear sign that if Birthright wants to remain relevant to our generation, it will have to stop following orders from its donors who believe in endless occupation and start showing us the full truth,” Lieberman said.
All smoke but no fire?
While the petitions and walk-offs garner attention, it’s unclear whether they’ve had any impact on Birthright’s programming or attendance. The winter numbers are expected to see a slight decline along the lines of a seven-to-10 percent decrease, according to Birthright.
According to the organization, 2019 numbers will likely match 2018’s all-time high, when more than 48,000 participants traveled to Israel, according to a Times of Israel report.
Additionally, the protests have become something of a sore spot for some campus Hillel organizations that help coordinate Birthright trips.
At Brandeis University, the J Street U petition calling for a Palestinian narrative caught Hillel executive director Rabbi Seth Winberg unawares.
“Our Birthright trips, led by Hillel staff, are a great opportunity for students to intertwine their Jewish past with their present. Every Birthright trip I’ve led has included exposure to Hebrew as a dynamic language, personally meeting Israelis, including Palestinian citizens of Israel, learning about milestones in Israel’s history, and values-based conversations about fundamental and existential questions of Jewish dignity,” Winberg said.
Winberg said interested students could also choose to go on other trips that are more focused on geopolitical issues. Additionally, students are encouraged to avail themselves of several resources at Brandeis such as the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies, the Crown Center for Middle East Studies, or the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish studies.
There already are ‘alternative’ trips
At Tufts University, Tufts Hillel executive director Rabbi Naftali Brawer said his campus’s Jewish students’ center has always worked closely with J Street U.
“We meet regularly with J Street U leaders and listen carefully to their ideas, concerns and perspectives. We feel that direct and honest dialogue is the best way to effect change,” said Brawer.
Tufts Hillel issued a statement reminding its members that it has worked with students from J Street U on planning at least one of the three orientations to ensure Birthright participants receive a balanced education before they go on the trip.
Moreover, it “works diligently to amplify Israeli and Palestinian voices who are working together on peace building efforts,” according to the statement.
More than five years ago, together with the pro-Israel leadership community at Tufts, it formed Tufts Students for Two States, TS4TS. The group describes itself as an alliance of pro-Israel groups that believe in a two-state solution. Tufts Hillel also developed and ran a program called Visions of Peace. The trip, open to all faiths, to Israel and the Palestinian territories meets with people and organizations on the ground responsible for peace work,” according to the statement.
While these programs cover topics that some students want Birthright to include in more depth, they still don’t address the fundamental flaw with Birthright as the protesters and petitioners see it: a lack of Palestinian speakers of their choosing. Because of that, the student activists plan to keep pressuring and protesting Birthright as 2019 unfolds.
“We hope Birthright will take this more seriously. We want to see a clear change in policy,” Arad-Neeman said.