The controversial pro-Palestinian advocacy group Jewish Voice For Peace has launched a campaign to convince young Jews not to participate in Birthright Israel trips, just as college students are returning to campus and registration for the winter visits gets underway.
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Under the slogan #ReturnTheBirthright, JVP is working to convince 18-26 year-old Jews eligible for the all-expenses paid 10-day tours to reject the tempting offer.
A “pledge” on its website takes the form of an online petition in which young Jews declare: “We will not go on a Birthright trip because it is fundamentally unjust that we are given a free trip to Israel, while Palestinian refugees are barred from returning to their homes. We refuse to be complicit in a propaganda trip that whitewashes the systemic racism, and the daily violence faced by Palestinians living under endless occupation. Our Judaism is grounded in values of solidarity and liberation, not occupation and apartheid. On these grounds we return the Birthright, and call on other young Jews to do the same.”
Birthright Israel sends Jewish young adults on a free ten-day trip to Israel with the goal of strengthening Jewish identity and connection to the Jewish state. The trips are funded through a partnership between the state of Israel and a group of North American donors. The original funders of the program were Michael Steinhardt and Charles Bronfman, but in recent years, Sheldon Adelson, casino billionaire, Republican mega-donor and supporter of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has showered $250 million on the program, becoming the its largest benefactor.
Ben Lorber, JVP campus organizer, said that the new national campaign grew out of a number of local anti-Birthright initiatives on individual campuses, which inspired the group to take the movement to campuses across the country.
“This is something that Jewish students have been talking about and acting on for a while,” Lorber said. “It is a fundamental injustice that we as young Jews are offered these free trips and can become citizens of Israel if we choose to later on, while our Palestinian friends and classmates are denied the same connection to the land their parents or grandparents come from.”
The campaign, he added, is, in addition to students, aimed at young Jewish adults post-university who may be thinking of travelling on Birthright. Lorber, in his late 20s, said that he personally had chosen not to travel on Birthright during the years he was eligible.
“It was a conscious decision. I was very disappointed at the advertising I saw telling me, ‘look at this happy free trip, you can go to the beach, hike on Masada, connect your homeland,’ while the Palestinians I knew had relatives who were being bombed in Gaza, and couldn't visit Jerusalem.”
In contrast, the head of another Jewish student organization, J Street U, which bills itself as “pro-Israel, pro-peace” said he did not believe young Jews should be dissuaded from travelling to Israel through Birthright.
Ben Elkind, J Street U director, said that for him, taking a Birthright trip was “an important piece of my engaging around Israel and the broader Israeli Palestinian conflict” and that he believes “it is important to encourage students to engage rather than not engage” with the issue.
“I empathize deeply with the questions and concerns” expressed in the JVP campaign, he said. “I think (people like) Adelson have not been a productive force in the politics of this issue, and I think there are reasons to have real concern about the lack of freedom of movement of Palestinians. But I am not sure the response needs to be to boycott Birthright. I think there are potentially more meaningful courses of actions.”
Elkind said that “going on Birthright doesn’t mean that people walk out of it with the politics of Sheldon Adelson.”
To that end, J Street U encourages its members to stay in Israel beyond their Birthright trips and take advantage of the growing number of “supplemental programs” in which Birthrighters remain after their trip “engage more deeply with the politics of the West Bank.”
While Lorber agrees that it is a “positive development” that some of the young Jews who go on Birthright extend their stays with alternative programs and educate themselves further on the plight of Palestinians, he still believes it is best to reject the trip completely. “For us, it comes back to the fundamental injustice. By taking this trip, you are becoming complicit in Birthright’s public relations work and you are part of a trip that isn’t available to Palestinians.”
The campaign’s “manifesto” goes into the reasons in more detail: “Taking a Birthright trip today means playing an active role in helping the state promote Jewish “return” while rejecting the Palestinian right of return. It is not enough to accept this offer from the Israeli government and maintain a critical perspective while on the trip. We reject the offer of a free trip to a state that does not represent us, a trip that is only “free” because it has been paid for by the dispossession of Palestinians.”
The manifesto “implores” young Jews to stay away from “a trip sponsored by conservative donors and the Israeli government, where the ongoing oppression and occupation of Palestinians will be hidden from you, just because it’s free. There are other ways for us to strengthen our Jewish identities, in community with those who share our values.”
JVP describes itself as opposing "anti-Jewish, anti-Muslim, and anti-Arab bigotry and oppression and “seeks an end to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem; security and self-determination for Israelis and Palestinians; a just solution for Palestinian refugees based on principles established in international law; an end to violence against civilians; and peace and justice for all peoples of the Middle East.”
The group has been criticized frequently and harshly by much of the American Jewish community for its active participation in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign (BDS). According to the Anti-Defamation League, “Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) is the largest and most influential Jewish anti-Zionist group in the United States. Despite the neutral tone of its name, JVP works to demonstrate Jewish opposition to the State of Israel and to steer public support away from the Jewish State.”
Birthright Israel did not respond to a request for response from Haaretz.