J Street U petitions to add Palestinian voices to Birthright
The Brandeis chapter of J Street U is circulating a petition calling on Brandeis Hillel to include Palestinian speakers in future Hillel-led Birthright Israel trips. Written by board member Sivan Ben-Hayun ’19, the petition explains, “Our community values complexity, nuance, and the inclusion of multiple experiences and narratives,” and asks that Birthright participants “learn about the Israeli occupation from Palestinians who are living under it.”
J Street announced the petition at the conclusion of their Oct. 15 Breaking the Silence event, in which IDF veteran Merphie Bubis discussed her experience with violence and policing practices in the West Bank.
Birthright Israel is an organization that sponsors one- to two-week-long trips to Israel for Jewish young adults worldwide in order to “ensure the future of the Jewish people by strengthening Jewish identity, Jewish communities, and [participants’] connection with Israel,” according to the organization’s website. Through visits to sites with historical significance to Judaism and Zionism in addition to modern Israeli organizations and businesses, participants learn about their Jewish heritage and contemporary Israel — including its “geopolitics, society, and statehood.”
But J Street believes that Birthright trips do not provide a complete picture of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, frequently leaving their participants with “a connection to Israel that is fragile at best,” per the petition.
In an Oct. 28 Justice interview with Ben-Hayun and current chapter chair Talya Guenzburger ’20, Ben-Hayun cited her experience on a Brandeis Hillel-led winter 2015 Birthright trip. After the group listened to two invited speakers — a Jewish Israeli and a Palestinian citizen of Israel — share their experiences living in Israel, the group’s tour guide “proceeded to say how everything that this Palestinian just told us about his personal experience was a lie, or untrue, or unjustified,” Ben-Hayun said. “I was really angry.”
All Birthright trips are led by Israeli tour guides who have been licensed by Israel’s Ministry of Tourism and receive further training from Birthright, according to a July 27, 2018 Jewish Telegraphic Agency article. These tour guides work with staff from other organizations (such as Hillel) that facilitate specific Birthright trips, such as college Hillel trips.
This past summer, a number of Birthright participants affiliated with the progressive anti-occupation group IfNotNow walked off their trips to join a Breaking the Silence tour in Hebron, a city in the West Bank, according to a June 28, 2018 Times of Israel article. The participants claimed that Birthright was “hiding the realities of the occupation” and that they did not receive satisfactory answers to their questions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during the trip.
In a Facebook post two days after J Street released their petition, Rabbi Seth Winberg and Stephanie Sanger-Miller, Brandeis Hillel’s executive and assistant directors, respectively, wrote that they were “puzzled” by J Street’s choice to circulate a petition. “We want to understand your concerns and are more than willing to dialog with you. In our experience, dialog is a more effective and efficient way to collaborate and make change,” they wrote.
In an email to the Justice, Winberg said he was “disappointed” that J Street had begun circulating their petition without first sharing their concerns with him. “Every Birthright trip I've led has included exposure to Hebrew as a dynamic language, [and] personally meeting Israelis, including Palestinian citizens of Israel,” he explained. “Through dialogue, we can explore students' concerns and connect them with valuable resources at Brandeis.” One example he gave is the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies — the “leading evaluator of Birthright’s impact on young adults,” Winberg noted.
Winberg added that while Brandeis Hillel can and does make recommendations about what activities to include on trips, Birthright ultimately determines the itineraries. “There are other trips that focus more on geopolitical issues for those who wish to explore them,” he wrote.
In the interview with the Justice, Guenzburger explained that J Street chose not to meet with Hillel prior to announcing the petition because they felt there was “no realistic way” that doing so would result in large-scale changes to Birthright trips. “We really need this critical mass of students who also want this and have a stake in Birthright to really make this happen, so it didn’t seem politically effective for us to go to ask Hillel beforehand,” she said.
Ben-Hayun added that “Hillel needs standing — it needs to be able to say, ‘This is what my students want.’ We’re giving Hillel that opportunity.”
Working with J Street U National, Guenzburger and Ben-Hayun are finalizing a list of Palestinian speakers and organizations they hope Birthright will consider including in future trips. The list includes B’Tselem, a group dedicated to “documenting Israeli violations of Palestinians’ human rights” that “unequivocally demands an end to the occupation,” and Gisha, an organization that seeks to “protect the freedom of movement of Palestinians, especially Gaza residents,” according to their respective websites. Guenzburger and Ben-Hayun plan to present this finalized list to Brandeis Hillel along with the petition. “The goal is to have as many Hillel directors [as possible] calling Birthright International to make this ask,” she said.
Guenzburger told the Justice that Winberg had emailed her on Oct. 16 — the day after J Street began their petition, and a day before Winberg’s Facebook post — to set up a meeting to discuss J Street’s concerns. She said she had been “fully intending, before he posted on Facebook, to get back to him — it was a busy time.” J Street arranged a meeting and Hillel two weeks later, on Oct. 31, during which J Street planned to deliver their petition.
J Street did not deliver the petition during that meeting, though they plan to in the future. “We decided to use the time … to talk mainly about our relationship with Hillel moving forward,” Guenzburger told the Justice in an email on Sunday. “We will be working in collaboration with the Hillel Student Board and staff towards its goals,” she added. J Street plans to meet with Winberg again this week, this time to discuss Birthright trips specifically. In an email to the Justice on Thursday, Winberg reaffirmed his desire to hold a conversation about Birthright and to “hear their questions and understand their concerns.”
Reflecting on the changes they hope to effect, Guenzburger contrasted J Street’s petition to the IfNotNow walkouts and Jewish Voice for Peace’s April protest of a Birthright gala in New York City. She describes those actions as “turning away from the Jewish community and promoting their politics away from the community.” Instead, she said, “What we’re trying to do is stay within the Jewish community and make it … something that reflects our values.”