In a direct challenge to Birthright, a leading progressive Jewish-American organization is about to launch its own free 10-day trips to Israel.
J Street, the group sponsoring and financing the initiative, says the purpose is to provide young American Jews with a more balanced narrative of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — one that addresses the thorny issue of the occupation.
Registration for the first free trip, which will be held in early July, opens this week.
J Street expects hundreds of Jewish students on college campuses across America to compete for the 40 spots available. The initiative is being run through J Street U, the organization’s campus affiliate.
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“Young Jews should absolutely visit Israel and develop a deeper understanding of what life is like there,” said Zachary Spitz, a leading J Street U activist. “That includes speaking with a diverse range of both Israelis and Palestinians, and understanding what life is like for people who live in the West Bank under military occupation. Since Birthright is so far refusing to evolve in this regard, we’re stepping up and providing a model for the kind of truly educational and nuanced trip that our generation wants to go on.”
Spitz, a student at the University of Chicago, serves as vice president of the J Street U national student board in the Midwest.
This past fall, a petition organized by J Street U was signed by 1,500 Jewish students, demanding that Birthright’s itinerary include Palestinian speakers who could address the realities of occupation. It was delivered to directors of Hillel, the largest Jewish student organization in the world and a major recruiter for Birthright, at over 30 campuses across the United States.
J Street spokesman Logan Bayroff said hundreds of students have called, emailed or sent text messages to Birthright representatives in recent weeks, asking whether the organization plans to include Palestinian perspectives and discussion of the occupation in their trips. They received either no response, he said, or the following generic reply: “All Birthright participants attend a geopolitics module where the complex issues of the Middle East are discussed.”
This past summer, members of the Jewish-American anti-occupation group IfNotNow organized highly publicized Birthright walkouts to protest what they claimed was the very one-sided narrative provided on the trips. Unlike IfNotNow, J Street describes itself as a “pro-Israel” organization.
Recent surveys show that young Jewish Americans, who tend to be progressive, are increasingly distancing themselves from Israel because of the occupation. Many also object to Birthright because of its affiliation with Republican megadonor Sheldon Adelson, who contributes a large share of its funding.
The July trip will include meetings with Israeli and Palestinian peace activists, a visit to the West Bank cities of Ramallah and Hebron, and a tour of a West Bank settlement.
“The hope is that the major interest from students in this ‘model’ trip will inspire many similar future trips to be organized, funded and led by other Jewish educational groups and philanthropists,” said J Street’s Bayroff, adding that “J Street U will also consider leading and funding more such trips in the future.”
The new trip is part of a larger campaign called Let Our People Know, which will be launched this week.
As part of this campaign, J Street U activists will be urging Jewish-American students who might be considering traveling to Israel on organized trips to sign the following statement: “We pledge to only participate in organized trips to Israel that include meaningful engagement with key questions related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the occupation, and the status of minority groups in Israel. We will only participate in trips that include meetings with both Israelis and Palestinians, and that show participants how the occupation impacts the daily lives of Palestinians living beyond the Green Line.”
Eva Borgwardt, president of the J Street U national student board and a student at Stanford University, said that by signing this pledge, American-Jewish students would be showing they were committed to “Jewish and progressive values.”
“We want to go to Israel and engage thoughtfully and honestly with its present reality and challenges — which means we can’t accept the omission and erasure of Palestinian voices and perspectives,” she said.
J Street U has more than 50 chapters on college campuses across the United States and brings more than 1,000 students a year to Washington for its parent organization’s annual conference.
Since it was founded 10 years, J Street U says it has trained "thousands of students" to advocate for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to end the occupation.
Birthright declined to comment for this story.