(March 22, 2019 / JNS) J Street U, the student wing of J Street, announced last week that it was planning its own version of a Birthright Israel trip this summer—not competing with the long-established 10-day free trips for Jewish youth as much as to design an itinerary with Palestinian areas and “voices” in mind.
The move by J Street comes as Birthright has come under assault by some on the left over the past year. This protest has been echoed by groups such as IfNotNow, Jewish Voice for Peace and Students for Justice in Palestine.
At the same time, J Street U has criticized Birthright organizers for being “unwilling to make any such changes” to their existing tours, which do not take participants to Palestinian areas or the West Bank, though groups do interact and meet Israeli Arabs, Bedouin and Druze.
A Birthright Israel spokesperson told JNS that their programs are nonpartisan, and that participants can elect to extend their time in Israel to explore other programs.
AJCongress came down hard on J Street’s initiative, saying it is “effectively reducing the entirety of Israel to its role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
“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,” said the spokesperson. “Our educational trips are nonpartisan 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 firsthand.”
Since trips began in the winter of 1999, nearly 700,000 young people from 67 countries have participated in Birthright. The majority of participants are from the United States and Canada. Trips that started just for college- and post-college-aged Jews have grown to a program for those ages 27 to 32, with a specifically geared option for young adults with special needs and more.
Starting in July, J Street U will offer its complimentary “Let Our People Know” summer trip to Israel that includes visiting the West Bank, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, the Galilee and other areas, in addition to meeting with “Israeli social-justice activists, West Bank Palestinian communities and settler leaders,” according to the statement.
“American Jews want to visit Israel, and we want to develop a deeper understanding of what life is like there. That means meeting with both Israelis and Palestinians—and learning what life is like for those living under occupation,” said J Street U board member Zachary Spitz, a senior at the University of Chicago. “While Birthright and similar organized trips currently fail to provide these important experiences, we want to provide a model for the kind of truly educational Israel trip that our generation needs.”
Additionally, J Street U launched a 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.”
‘Seeking to undermine a strong, positive program’
“The main question is: Will this trip present students with a well-rounded view of the conflict or reflect the bias of the organization running it?” StandWithUs co-founder and CEO Roz Rothstein told JNS.
“Unfortunately, J Street’s approach of one-sided pressure and criticism of Israel—and minimal accountability for Palestinian leaders—makes peace and justice harder to achieve,” she continued. “We encourage trip participants to ask tough questions about that and seek a variety of sources, including our staff in the StandWithUs Education Center in Jerusalem.”
Last month, J Street U was criticized for attacking the pro-Israel community at the University of Vermont. Both J Street U and Students for Justice in Palestine released corresponding letters blasting the Hillel on campus for accepting funding from the pro-Israel group Maccabee Task Force, which will use some of the monies to organize a trip to Israel for students.
The American Jewish Congress came down hard on J Street’s initiative, saying it is “effectively reducing the entirety of Israel to its role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
“It would be one thing if J Street was simply offering an independent free trip to Israel with the mission of exploring perspectives on the conflict,” AJCongress president Jack Rosen told JNS. “But what they are doing is presenting it as a more moral alternative to Birthright.”
“The message they are sending is that visiting Israel is wrong unless you are there to hear it portrayed as an oppressor, and that Israel can only be celebrated in the same breath as it is condemned,” he explained. “No other country is talked about this way so broadly. This kind of thinking essentially ignores everything about Israel other than the conflict.”
“Ultimately, the more Jews go on trips to Israel, the more Jews there will be engaging with Israel and with their identities.” — Gil Troy
Rosen also said that “this kind of thinking facilitates anti-Israel bias around the world.”
“J Street’s trip will be an indoctrination, not a ‘getting to know the facts’ trip,” Zionist Organization of America national president Mort Klein told JNS. “This is clear when one knows that J Street takes students to visit Jew-killer [Yasser] Arafat’s grave as part of their ‘learning’ experience.”
On its website, J Street acknowledged that a tour did stop at the former Palestinian leader’s grave “while waiting for another appointment, not to ‘pay respects,’ but to learn about an important piece of the history of the conflict.”
“J Street will falsely tell students there’s an ‘occupation’ when, in fact, Israel has given away all of Gaza and 40 percent of Judea [and] Samaria, where 99 percent of Palestinians live under their own rule,” said Klein. “The Palestinians have their own [p]arliament, schools, media and police.
“They only share security efforts with Israel, which would end as soon as Palestinian terrorism against Jews ends,” he continued. “J Street’s trip will wrongly complain about Jewish settlements stopping peace, even though they comprise only 2 percent of Judea [and] Samaria.”
Aviva Rosenschein, International Campus Director at the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, told JNS: “J Street’s new Israel trip beginning this summer is yet another example of J Street seeking to undermine a strong, positive program that aims to strengthen the connection between young Diaspora Jews and Israel.”
“J Street U has sponsored many concerning events on American campuses, including bringing speakers, such as members of Breaking the Silence, who present inaccurate and sometimes demonizing accounts of Israel,” she continued. “Due to J Street’s record of espousing falsehoods and distorting historical facts, it is unfortunately safe to assume that J Street’s trip will be extremely biased against Israel. The trip will further misinform young Jews about the issues surrounding the conflict, ultimately alienating them from Israel.”
However, columnist and historian Gil Troy told JNS that a variety of trips to Israel exist—from ones that are partisan to ones that aren’t.
“We try to welcome Jews of all stripes, from right to left,” he said. “We try to put our partisanship on mute and invite them to the same.”
“If people want partisan trips, let them go with J Street, with ZOA, with whomever they wish,” he continued. “That’s a far more honest and authentic reaction than sneaking on a trip and trying to impose your partisan agenda on others or trying to bully Birthright into becoming something it will never become—a right-wing or left-wing propaganda trip.”
“Ultimately, the more Jews go on trips to Israel,” he said, “the more Jews there will be engaging with Israel and with their identities.”