US Jewish group "J Street U" is to offer trips to Israel and the West Bank in a bid to challenge Birthright's erasure of the Palestinian narrative.
J Street U is the university campus arm of J Street, a non-profit organisation which advocates for an end to the Israel-Palestine conflict and is popular with liberal Jewish-American youth.
The group yesterday announced it is launching a free ten-day trip to Israel, with the first trip slated to take place in July. The initiative will be funded by J Street donors as part of the organisation's #Let Our People Know campaign which, in its own words, "pushes to end erasure of Palestinian voices on organized Israel trips".
The trip plans to tackle issues such as Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories, its illegal settlement in the occupied West Bank and Palestinian citizens of Israel, topics which are overwhelmingly ignored by Birthright trips that have for 20 years sent young Jews to Israel.
The Times of Israel reported President of the J Street U National Board, Eva Borgwardt, saying:
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.
The move comes after a J Street U petition late last year which demanded that Birthright's itinerary include Palestinian speakers who could address the realities of Israel's occupation. The petition garnered signatures from 1,500 Jewish-American students and was delivered to the directors of Hillel, the largest Jewish campus organisation in the world, according to Haaretz.
The J Street trip is expected to be popular and will be seen as further indication of the waning support for Israel among young Jewish-Americans. Birthright was thrust into the spotlight last summer by a series of high-profile walkouts from its trips. The walkouts were organised by activists with the IfNotNow movement, a US-based organisation which opposes the Israeli occupation, using the hashtag #NotJustAFreeTrip. Several of those students who walked off the Birthright trip instead went to join a tour of occupied Hebron led by Breaking the Silence, an organisation of ex-Israeli army soldiers who seek to expose the reality of Israel's occupation.
In an interview with MEMO in July, one of the students who walked off her Birthright trip, Katie Fenster, explained her decision: "As Americans, we realised that going to Israel and not talking about the occupation is like going to the Jim Crow South and not talking about segregation," referring to the racial segregation imposed on African-Americans in the southern US states until the 1960s civil rights movement.
In December, Haaretz revealed that there had been an "unprecedented" decline in Jewish-Americans participating in Birthright trips. The Israeli daily noted that "recent studies have shown that Jewish millennials, who are largely progressive, feel less connected to Israel than their parents and grandparents because they perceive the country's policies as antithetical to their values".
Relations between US-Jews and Israel have become strained in recent months, with many criticising the direction Israel is taking under incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This rift has been deepened by the ongoing row sparked by US Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, who in February responded to a tweet by journalist Glenn Greenwald saying: "It's stunning how much time US political leaders spend defending a foreign nation [Israel], even if it means attacking free speech rights of Americans." Omar tweeted in response: "It's all about the Benjamins baby," with her comments understood to refer to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and other lobby groups which donate vast sums of money to Israel.
Though Omar's comments sparked fierce debate about anti-Semitism and calls for her to resign, Jewish-Americans came out in support of the Minnesota congresswoman in an open letter. The letter said that "the pro-Israel lobby has played an outsized role in producing nearly unanimous congressional support for Israel" but concluded that, "as Jews with a long tradition of social justice and anti-racism, AIPAC does not represent us".