For many young adults, going on a Taglit Birthright Israel trip is an integral part of the Jewish experience. To date, more than 600,000 Jews have participated in the well-known excursion, a ten-day free trip to Israel for Jewish young adults and professionals. But the trip has also proven controversial, and J Street recently announced its own free trip to Israel as a culmination of its efforts to petition Hillel International and Taglit Birthright Israel—through its Let Our People Know initiative—to reform their educational curriculum. The J Street program called the “Let Our People Know Trip,” is scheduled for this July, and it is designed to feature staple Israeli destinations and activities as well as highlight Palestinian narratives. The itinerary includes stops in East Jerusalem, Hebron and Ramallah, and it is fully subsidized for participants, including those who have already participated in Birthright.
J Street’s announcement serves as an indicator of growing uneasiness towards the Birthright curriculum within parts of the Jewish diaspora. “My hope is that the Jewish community recognizes that in educating people on Israel, there needs to be honesty about the occupation and about the treatment of Palestinians,” says Miriam Young, a co-chair of her university’s chapter of J Street. “In my view, a more nuanced trip includes all stories from all different walks of life in Israel, and an important facet of Israel is its role in the conflict—and to deny that is just absurd to me. By no means is the conflict the sum total of Israel, but Palestinian experiences of occupation are just as integral to the tapestry of Israel as Independence Hall or the Western Wall.”
And according to Zachary Spitz, the Midwest VP on the J Street U National Board, the Let Our People Know Trip has already garnered a lot of interest. Within the first 24 hours of the application going live, 250 applications were submitted and 500 students signed a pledge, which states: “I 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. I 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.” Only 40 spots are available on the trip.
Sources of tension between young Jews and Birthright are reflected in the comparison of both trips’ itineraries. And while Birthright itineraries vary depending on the theme of the trip, certain elements remain consistent. Reviewing five sample Birthright itineraries, none feature a visit to the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem, while the J Street itinerary features the Jewish, Muslim and Christain Quarters. While the Birthright itineraries I consulted had no mention of the West Bank, the J Street itinerary featured a visit to Ramallah as well as a Jewish settlement, along with two days titled “The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict and the Occupation 101” and “Israel and Palestinian Perspectives Over the Green Line.” “When designing this model trip, we were reacting to Birthright’s decision to de-emphasize the occupation and avoid interacting with Palestinians who experience its destructive effects every day,” says Spitz.
A look at the Birthright Israel website tells us that Birthright trips are designed to foster discussions in three different “core educational areas,” including: “narratives of the Jewish people,” “contemporary Israel” and “ideas and values of the Jewish people.” Furthermore, the website advertises the goals of the trip to “ensure the future of the Jewish people by strengthening Jewish identity, Jewish communities, and connection with Israel via a trip to Israel for the majority of Jewish young adults from around the world.” And according to many sources, Taglit Birthright Israel has been successful for years in its ability to meet these goals. According to a recent study conducted by the Maurice and Marilyn Cohen Center for Jewish Studies at Brandeis, participants are 40% percent more likely than nonparticipants to report feeling connected to Israel, and 85% of participants call Birthright Israel a “life-changing experience.” Additionally, 30% of participants thus far have eventually returned to Israel.
Even though 10 days is a short amount of time, the itinerary can be of great significance to participants. “I think that allowing us to do something as small as venturing into the Muslim quarter of Old Jerusalem would allow participants of Birthright to get a wider knowledge of all of Israel, not just the Jewish part,” says Lindsay Paulen, Birthright alum and the executive vice president of her university’s chapter of College Democrats. “I think a lot of other organized trips focus on the conflict, but in my opinion, Birthright is more about being spiritual and experiencing Israel’s history. However, I do think Birthright should do more to create conversations about the conflict.”
J Street U is one of several organizations to argue that the Birthright Israel curriculum detracts from the weight of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. IfNotNow, a grassroots organization, calls for the reform of Birthright trips, and some may remember the IfNotNow organized walk-off from a Birthright trip in June 2018 in response to the curriculum. Organizations such as Jewish Voice for Peace have also dedicated much of their mission to changing the conversation around Birthright. “Birthright presents Israel as the triumphant culmination of millennia of Jewish longing for their ancestral homeland while ignoring the fact that the state has been built on the denial and outright suppression of the Palestinian people’s very same yearning,” stated the organizing committee of Jewish Voice for Peace at The George Washington University. “Young, impressionable Jews get to go clubbing in Tel Aviv while Gazans suffer under a military blockade just an hour’s drive away.”
But while the J Street trip could be significant in terms of its new educational approach, the influence of Birthright is undeniably vast. Only 40 will participate in J Street’s trip this summer, while 48,000 people participated in Birthright in 2018 alone. Birthright has thus far declined to comment on the J Street trip. However, with the attention J Street and other groups are receiving, Birthright and its provider organizations should be aware this is an issue that is unlikely to go away.