J Street U launches ‘anti-Birthright’ trip that pushes Palestinian narrative

J Street U is planning its own Birthright-style trip which will include meetings with Palestinian speakers.

By World Israel News Staff

J Street U, the left-wing Jewish campus group, announced on Wednesday its plans for a “model trip” to Israel and Judea and Samaria (or “West Bank”) for 40 U.S. Jewish college students in July 2019.

The trip is designed to emulate the highly successful Birthright Israel trips started in 1999, only with an emphasis on the Palestinian side of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

According to the announcement, only the one trip is planned, meant to serve as an example of what J Street U considers an ideal tour. It will include visits to tourism and heritage sites, meetings with “social justice activists, West Bank Palestinian communities and settler leaders,” J Street U says.

It is unlikely that J Street U, or its parent organization, J Street, both of which share the mission of promoting a Palestinian state, will raise anything near the funding necessary to compete with Birthright, which raises tens of millions and has brought over 600,000 young people from 67 countries since its first trip in the winter of 1999.

J Street U pledge

But it doesn’t appear that competing with Birthright is J Street U’s goal. The trip is part of a campaign to convince American Jewish students “to sign a pledge to only participate in organized trips to Israel that include meetings with both Israelis and Palestinians and that show participants how the occupation impacts daily life in the West Bank,” according to a J Street U press release.

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“By taking this pledge, American Jewish students are calling for Israel education that is honest, nuanced and consistent with our Jewish and progressive values,” said J Street U President Eva Borgwardt, a senior at Stanford University.

“Organized Israel trips that omit and exclude Palestinian perspectives provide political cover for policies that entrench the occupation and undermine the two-state solution. We can’t accept that,” she said.

The campaign is not new. Last year it was reported that J Street U started collecting signatures to pressure campus Hillels to include Palestinian speakers on their Birthright trips. Hillel partners with Birthright in organizing tours to Israel.

J Street U argues that American Jewish students need “a full and nuanced picture of the challenges facing Israelis and Palestinians today, including the threat that the occupation presents to Palestinian human rights and to Israel’s long-term future as a democratic homeland for the Jewish people.”

In December, 2018, Birthright told JNS that “all our participants attend a geopolitics module where the complex issues of the Middle East are addressed without endorsing any specific agendas, opinions or beliefs. 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.”

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Others, like Leonard Saxe, Jewish Studies professor at Brandeis University and director of its Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies and Steinhardt Social Research Institute, said going deeply into the Arab-Israel conflict is not Birthright’s mission.

“Birthright does deal with the conflict on its trips — they don’t need J Street U to tell them to do that — but it’s primarily a program designed to engage Jews from around the world with their Jewish identity, with Israel, Israelis and each other,” he told JNS.

Counter-reaction

J Street U’s efforts received push-back from a number of American Jewish organizations, including the Zionist Organization of America and the Maccabee Task Force.

Morton Klein, national president of Zionist Organization of America, told JNS: “You need to ignore J Street’s malicious attempts to turn Birthright trips into anti-Israel propaganda trips by giving a podium to Israel-haters.

“Jewish students are regularly exposed to this sort of anti-Israel propaganda on their campuses; the last thing they need to hear is more of it on their Birthright trip,” Klein said.

JNS contributed to this report.