Monday, August 26, 2019

What You Need To Know About J-Street's "Birthright" Style Trip

This post originally appeared on Elder of Ziyon on July 4, 2019

The Birthright program is often in the news, mainly because of the tremendous work it does to strengthen the Jewish sense of identity of young Jews by creating the opportunity for them to visit Israel for free.

The Birthright trips have expanded over the years and now you can choose your own theme/itinerary:
  • Active: Dive-in to the ultimate outdoor adventure and get ready to hike, bike, and climb your way through Israel
  • Professional: Delve deeper into your professional industry by experiencing the best of Israel through an occupational lens
  • Culinary: Savor the flavor of Mediterranean cuisine and develop your palate and culinary skills alongside some of Israel's finest chefs
  • Spiritual: Embark on a meaningful quest through mystical Israel. Connect with the land, the people and yourself
  • Cultural: Get lost in Israel's thriving city centers and explore music, theatre and award-winning film
  • LGBTQ: Join like-minded peers on a curated tour of Israel's thriving LGBTQ culture
  • Study Abroad: Make the country your classroom and travel Israel for 12-14 days. You will experience all the best parts of our Classic trip and master a topic of your choosing earning 3 credits in the process
The goal of Birthright is

Birthright Israel seeks 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.

Our hope is that our trips motivate young people to continue to explore their Jewish identity and support for Israel and maintain long-lasting connections with the Israelis they meet on their trip. We encourage our alumni to take active roles in Jewish organizations and to participate in follow-up activities worldwide.
But Birthright also gets into the news because of the attempt by left-wing groups to politicize what the program does. These groups offer suggestions -- if not outright demands -- that the Birthright 10-day program includes a 'balanced' introduction to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

J Street is among those left-wing Jewish groups, under J Street U, that want to tinker with the program
The J Street U campaign emphasizes that it is important for American Jewish students to be well-informed and to receive a full and nuanced picture of the challenges facing Israel today, including the threat that the occupation presents to its long-term future as a democratic homeland for the Jewish people. The petitions warn against the damaging consequences of excluding and omitting Palestinian voices and narratives from the conversation.
So now J Street has started its own alternative to Birthright trips.

Why is this a concern?

Because of J Street's controversial agenda to use the US to impose its politics on Israel.

As J Street puts it:
Israel’s supporters have the right and the obligation to speak out when the policies or the actions of the Israeli government are hurting the long-term interests of Israel and the Jewish people.
J Street presents itself as a more liberal alternative to AIPAC. But it is more than that. Unlike AIPAC, which advocates for Israeli policy independent of politics and who leads the Israeli government, J Street actively pushes its own agenda in the US in order to influence the policy in Israel. For example, unlike AIPAC, J Street actively involves itself in US elections and supports only Democratic candidates. Considering how Democratic candidates are moving the left and are less supportive of Israel, that is a major concern that needs to be addressed.

As the J StreetPAC site puts it on their About Us page:

While J Street notes the overwhelming Jewish support for the Democratic party, that does not explain J Street support for anti-Israel Democrats.
All this is consistent with past J Street activities, such as actively supporting the biased Goldstone Report, working for the Iran deal alongside the pro-Iranian group NIAC and bringing "Breaking the Silence" to speak at Princeton in 2017 during Yom HaZikaron and Yom Haatzmaut.

While J Street U has put together its own "Birthright trip, this is not the first time J Street has tried this.

The blog Mystical Politics has a copy of the original press release from J-Street posted by J Street U director Daniel May on January 25, 2011, announcing a trip in conjunction with Birthright. (The press release has been removed from the J Street site):
J Street U is very happy to announce that we will be leading a free, ten-day Taglit-Birthright trip this summer titled, "Explore Israel: Progressive Zionism and Social Justice."

This trip is an incredible opportunity to connect with the Israel that isn't on the front page or in the guide books. Move beyond the headlines, and see what's really happening on the ground.

If you're Jewish, age 18 - 25, and have yet to take a peer group trip to Israel, we strongly encourage you to sign up and be the first to know when registration opens.

The trip is a chance to appreciate the vibrancy of Israel's history, culture and landscape from a perspective that acknowledges your Jewish and progressive values.

The best way to discover the richness of Israeli society and the full contours of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is to travel around Israel and meet people from the diverse groups of the region. There is simply no substitute for seeing the land and connecting with the people.

On the trip, we'll speak with members of Israeli civil society working to advance the goals of democracy and human rights. Our itinerary will provide a cross-section of Israeli opinion.

This trip is a gift of Taglit-Birthright Israel and will be provided by The Israel Experience, Ltd. [emphasis added]
The intended focus of the trip was political -- from a 'progressive' perspective, focusing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and meeting representatives of human rights groups -- as opposed to Jewish identity and connection to Israel. That was, and is, their prerogative. However, the description does not seem like it would mesh with the Birthright goals of identity and connection

And mesh it didn't.

The blog FresnoZionism sounded the alarm: Action alert: Don’t let J Street exploit Birthright:
In other words, the phony ‘pro-Israel’ organization J Street, a group that takes money from people associated with Saudi Arabia, the Arab-American institute, Iranian interests, anti-Israel billionaire George Soros, a mysterious woman associated with the guy who beat the Hong Kong horse-racing track, and the Turkish producer of anti-Israel propaganda films; whose co-founder [Daniel Levy] called the creation of Israel ‘an act that was wrong’; and which facilitated meetings between members of Congress and Judge Richard Goldstone, author of the notorious Goldstone report that accused Israel of deliberately murdering civilians in the Gaza war — this organization has the chutzpah to use funds provided by Taglit-Birthright to sabotage its purpose!
He contacted Birthright and encouraged others to as well, and in the end, the Birthright trip was canceled.

Moriel Rothman, President of the J Street U student board, issued a statement which read in part:
J Street U had planned our trip in order to forge an avenue through which liberal-minded college students – who may otherwise not engage – could develop a deep and lasting relationship with the Jewish homeland. The trip was to include the traditional highlights of a Taglit-Birthright experience – visits to Masada, the Kotel, and Yad Va’Shem – as well as opportunities for students to engage with Israeli human rights advocates, journalists, and politicians involved in the struggle to preserve the democratic future of the Jewish homeland.

...Despite their initial approval for a trip that would provide just such an experience, Birthright’s leadership has now decided that it is inappropriate for JStreetU to organize a trip because we are politically oriented. Nonetheless, comparable organizations with different politics than ours participate and help organize trips every year. For instance, AIPAC’s “Capital to Capital” Birthright trip is designed for Jewish political activists who are “significantly involved in the American political process.” Given that other such trips are regularly offered, we were surprised and saddened that our trip was suddenly deemed inappropriate. [emphasis added]
Again, there are politics and there are politics. FresnoZionism in the same post makes reference to the politics of Moriel Rothman:
What is J Street U? Its National Board President U is a Middlebury College student named Moriel Rothman. Here is how he explains the controversy around the Sheik Jarrah / Shimon haTzadik neighborhood in East Jerusalem. Pay attention not only to his words, but his tone:
…the Jerusalem municipality has been bending to the will of fanatic Jewish settlers, and producing - based on archaic documents from the Ottoman period and manufactured Israeli law - eviction notices to a number of Palestinian families, and in some cases - such as with three families in Sheikh Jarrah- acting on those eviction notices by force and removing those Palestinian families from their homes. The municipality’s actions are hugely problematic from a moral standpoint: not only are Jews buying up and/or stealing Arab land in East Jerusalem, but Arabs are moreover unable to buy land in the primarily Jewish West Jerusalem… These policies are also hugely problematic from the standpoint of peace, as East Jerusalem must be the capital of the future Palestinian state, and the Clinton Parameters, which state that Palestine will get control of Arab neighborhoods and Israel will control Jewish neighborhoods, are made harder and harder to implement with each infiltration of Jewish settlers into Arab neighborhoods like Silwan and Sheikh Jarrah. [emphasis in the original]
This is the example set by a head of J Street U at the time.

In the end, it appeared that the provider J Street U was working with, Israel Experience, did not clear the arrangement with Birthright in advance.

J Street U's statement gave a hint of things to come:
J Street U students are petitioning Birthright CEO Gidi Mark to “provide more Birthright trips that speak to the values of social justice, democracy, and peace that are so important to young, progressive Jews. [emphasis added]
An article from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency at the time explained the Birthright position on politically oriented trips and why trips coordinated with AIPAC are different from what J Street proposed:
“We said such a trip, as described in a brief conversation with the Israel Experience, would likely be out of keeping with our longstanding policy of not conducting trips with a political orientation,” Birthright said in a statement.

A spokesperson for Birthright subsequently confirmed that the policy was adopted in 2009, when the organization decided not to partner any longer with groups that are “overtly political.”

Prior to 2009, Birthright trips were run in conjunction with the Zionist Organization of America and the Union for Progressive Zionists, the precursor to J Street U.

Birthright continues to partner with AIPAC, though references to the pro-Israel lobby group were scrubbed recently from the website of the Israel Experience. Birthright said AIPAC did not fall under the 2009 policy change because the organization does not generally seek to influence Israeli policy. [emphasis added]
Birthright further explained the
For years, we have run a Capital-to-Capital trip through another trip provider, which focuses on the Israeli political system. The provider has been running this trip, with input from AIPAC, a mainstream Israel advocacy group, long before JStreet was established. It focuses on Israel’s political structure, with an approach similar to a political science class; the trip has never been tilted to one side of the political spectrum. [emphasis added]
In the end, J Street went on the trip on their own.

How did it go?

In a J-Street U mailing no longer online, Daniel May, Director, J Street U, wrote on June 21, 201:1
I can tell that these two weeks are making a life-long impact on the participants. And amidst the painful stories of this conflict, that fact is giving me tremendous hope. But I don't want you to hear it from me. I want you to hear it directly from the students...

Simone Zimmerman, Berkeley ‘13 – Read her whole post here.
As aspiring peacebuilders, we have already been given so much to challenge us, and we have barely chipped the surface. I feel a tremendous amount of responsibility already, and a tremendous amount of privilege for being able to participate in this journey with J Street U. I’ve been to Israel many times in many different capacities, but this is my first trip where I am finding that I can, without contradiction, bring together my deep love for this country with my deep commitment to exploring the toughest challenges facing Israel today. [emphasis added]
Here is a picture of Simone Zimmerman from during the J Street U trip
From J Street U Facebook Page

Zimmerman has since made a name for herself in expressing that "deep love" and "commitment":

Bernie Sanders staffer fired for anti-Netanyahu rant hired to run B’Tselem USA
After Zimmerman, a former J Street student activist, was hired by the Sanders campaign, it was discovered she previously wrote on Facebook, “Bibi Netanyahu is an arrogant, deceptive, cynical, manipulative asshole,” according to the Washington-based Free Beacon.

She continued: “F-- you, Bibi, for daring to insist that you legitimately represent even a fraction of the Jews in this world, for your consistent fear-mongering, for pushing Israel in word and deed, farther and farther away from the international community, and most importantly, for trying to derail a potentially historic diplomatic deal with Iran and thus trying to distract the world from the fact that you sanctioned the murder of over 2,000 people this summer.”

She edited the post on March 3, 2015, changing asshole to “politician” and the second expletive to “shame on you.” She was dismissed by the Sanders campaign after being its Jewish outreach coordinator for only two days.

Simone Zimmerman. Screengrab from Haaretz video on YouTube

Considering the example of J Street's past activities against Israel, the attitude demonstrated in the past by J Street U leaders like Moriel Rothman and the activities of the products of J Street U leadership such as Simone Zimmerman -- who is one of the founders of the virulently anti-Israel If Not Now -- suspicions of J Street "Birthright-style" trips are natural.

According to the itinerary of the current 9-day J Street trip:
Day 6: The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict and the Occupation 101
Morning: Settlement Tour and Palestinian Village
Afternoon: Hebron
Evening: Group conversation
Overnight: Jerusalem

Day 7: Israel and Palestinian Perspectives Over the Green Line
Morning: Ramallah–Palestinian self-rule under occupation.
Afternoon: Conversation with Settlers
Evening: Israeli and Palestinian Peace Activists
Overnight: Ein Gedi
There is nothing wrong with criticism of Israel.

The issue is not criticism but rather J Street's record of undercutting Israel and its subversion of support for it.

  • We see it reflected in J Street statements
  • We see it reflected in J Street's actions.
  • We see it reflected in J Street's support for anti-Israel Democratic candidates
  • We see it reflected in J Street 'graduates'

J Street is a special interest group with its own agenda.

It is a political agenda that contrasts with AIPAC, just as its politicized idea of an Israel trip contrasts with Birthright trips that encourage Jewish identity and connection with Israel.

Neither AIPAC nor Birthright have a particular agenda that it imposes or politics it is trying to push onto others.

The same is not true of J Street.
The goal of its trip is just one more way for J Street to push its agenda.

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