Several Jewish groups are defending the Birthright program after a June 11 New York Times article highlighted protests against the program.
The article described Birthright as a free 10-day trip for Jewish young adults to become more connected with their Jewish identity as well as with Israeli culture, adding that IfNotNow — a progressive Jewish organization calling for an end of Israeli occupation of the West Bank — is demanding Birthright to be boycotted, arguing that the program doesn’t provide attendees with the opportunity to meet with Palestinians in the West Bank. In July 2018, at IfNotNow’s urging, eight Birthright attendees engaged in a walkout.
The Times also reported that J Street U, the student arm of J Street, has been urging Birthright to feature Palestinian speakers discussing the occupation. J Street U has also begun offering its own trip to Israel to meet with both Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank.
Simon Wiesenthal Center Founder and Dean Rabbi Marvin Hier told the Journal it “would be one of the tragic mistakes of the Jewish community” to boycott Birthright.
“Birthright inspires young Jews to be fascinated and to connect with the greatest historic accomplishment of the Jewish people in 2,000 years: the creation of the state of Israel,” Hier said. “It is not a political organization. It doesn’t tell you which political party to support. It imbues in the students a love of Israel.”
He added that it would be terrible to deny American Jews the opportunity to connect with the state of Israel, and that groups like IfNotNow are trying “to undermine and criticize the state of Israel.”
American Jewish Committee Los Angeles Assistant Director Siamak Kordestani said in a statement that Birthright is “an opportunity for young Jews of diverse backgrounds to explore their cultural, spiritual and historical connection to the land of Israel. Unfortunately, a very small but noisy group is intent on sullying that experience for others in order to advance their own narrow political agenda.”
StandWithUs Co-founder and CEO Roz Rothstein said, “Birthright is an inspiring educational opportunity for Jewish students, which is why anti-Israel activists are trying so hard to taint it. We are confident that students will continue traveling to the region with Birthright and independently, exploring a variety of perspectives, and making up their own minds. We are also confident that Birthright will continue to grow.”
Maccabee Task Force Executive Director David Brog said, “Birthright is clear about its mission: to connect young Jews to the Jewish state, the Jewish people and their own Jewish identity. If they wish to study the geo-politics of the region and meet Palestinians, I’d encourage them to do so. But they should find ways to do this that don’t involve subverting one of the most effective tools for Jewish continuity we have today.”
Birthright defended itself in a statement to the Times saying it encourages “our tens of thousands of participants each year to challenge themselves by asking difficult questions [but] IfNotNow promotes a specific and highly partisan political viewpoint, which does not correspond with Birthright Israel’s nonpartisan commitment to open dialogue that allows participants to develop their own points of view.”
IfNotNow Los Angeles leader Shay Roman told the Journal, “The American Jewish establishment can and should support our generation to authentically engage in our Jewish identity, but instead they are dirtying our moral Jewish tradition by implicating us in a political agenda that supports a brutal military occupation over millions of Palestinians. It is a tragedy that so-called leaders of our community would rather tout their right-wing political agenda, and ostracize our generation, than invest in a diverse and inclusive Jewish future.”
J Street U did not respond to the Journal’s request for comment.