Birthright disallows J Street trip
Ever since he became the national president of J Street U, Middlebury College senior Moriel Rothman had seen his student group antagonized—and it was about to happen again.
As the college arm of J Street—which calls itself the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobby—J Street U groups host on-campus discussions and events focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Because these events often include some criticism of Israeli governmental policy, the group has drawn rebuke from traditional campus pro-Israel circles.
Last Tuesday, Rothman thought that trend was changing. J Street U announced that it was going to host a Birthright trip, and Rothman saw this development as proof that his group was gaining broader acceptance in the Zionist community.,
“The mainstream Jewish community is opening up and allowing for a wider range of voices as to how you express Zionism,” he said. According to Rothman, this is a core goal of J Street U.
Taglit-Birthright Israel—an organization that facilitates free 10-day trips to the Jewish state for Jews ages 18 to 26—has drawn increasing Jewish communal attention and support since its founding 12 years ago. Many Birthright participants report a stronger connection to Judaism after visiting Israel’s key Jewish religious and cultural sites. Because of that, Birthright has become a popular cause for Jewish donors concerned with young adult Jewish identity. Even the Israeli government has become involved in funding the trips. J Street U’s Birthright announcement came fewer than two weeks after the Israeli government pledged $100 million dollars to Birthright.
But as Rothman was exiting the subway last Friday—days after J Street U’s initial announcement—he got an urgent text message from Daniel May, J Street U’s director.
May said that the trip was cancelled. In fact, according to Birthright, it had never even been approved.
A series of miscommunications
What looked at first like a story of Jewish institutional cooperation has become a public dialogue of press statements .It seems that officials from neither Birthright nor J Street U know what happened. According to Birthright, J Street U is ineligible to facilitate a trip because J Street is an organization with an explicit political agenda—and Birthright says that it is apolitical by policy.
“We’ve always held axiomatically that we do not deal in politics,” said Jacob Dallal, Birthright’s associate director of communications. “We do not deal in religion. We do not impose religious views on participants. That’s what makes Birthright mainstream.”
J Street was founded in 2008 as a progressive pro-Israel voice in Washington, DC. The group promotes Israel as the Jewish and democratic homeland but often disagrees with the Israeli government. J Street criticizes Israeli policies that it sees as detrimental to the state—such as West Bank settlement building—while advocating for actions that it believes will bring regional peace—such as negotiations with the Palestinian Authority.
Dallal added that Birthright made the decision to deny J Street a trip at the end of November—not this week. In order to facilitate a trip, each potential facilitator must work with a Birthright-approved trip provider—of which there are several. J Street U, which wanted to lead a trip called “Explore Israel: Progressive Zionism and Social Justice,” had chosen to work with a trip provider called The Israel Experience.
But Dallal said that when Israel Experience approached Birthright about the J Street trip two months ago, Birthright declined the request because of J Street’s political ideology. According to Dallal, that was Birthright’s final conversation with Israel Experience about J Street.
Rachel Russo, Israel Experience’s Taglit-Birthright Israel director, declined multiple requests for comment on the issue.
J Street and J Street U staff tell an almost opposite story. J Street Press Secretary Amy Spitalnick said that Israel Experience contacted J Street U about facilitating the trip in late November—at the same time that Dallal said Israel Experience spoke with Birthright. Spitalnick added that Israel Experience worked closely with J Street U during the following two months to organize the trip. During that time, Spitalnick said, no one from Israel Experience ever suggested that Birthright had declined permission for the trip. Because trip facilitators communicate with Birthright exclusively through the trip provider, representatives of Birthright and J Street U never spoke directly.
E-mails between Russo and J Street U staff indicate that Israel Experience approved J Street U’s announcement of the trip on Jan. 13. Spitalnick forwarded that e-mail conversation to New Voices. On Jan. 25, J Street U sent out the press release.
“As we prepared to go out with the announcement we ran it by [Israel Experience] and they said ‘Perfect,’” Spitalnick said. “There was lots of enthusiasm. This was something that Israel Experience was excited to do. They told us that they got the program approved and everything was right and we were good to go. If we didn’t think everything was in place we wouldn’t have gone out with the announcement.”
A question of politics
According to J Street staff, 104 students signed up to receive more information about the trip during the two days following the press release. But Spitalnick, Rothman and J Street U Director Daniel May noted that something else occurred during those two days: right-wing Zionist bloggers drew attention to the J Street U press release and called on Birthright to cancel the trip.
The day after the trip was announced, Vic Rosenthal wrote a post called “Action alert: Don’t let J Street exploit Birthright” at FresnoZionism.org, a blog that calls itself, “A pro-Israel voice from California’s Central Valley.” In the post, he called J Street “anti-Zionist” and told his readers to e-mail Birthright and “ask them if they think that the anti-Zionist organization J Street U should be allowed to lead a Birthright trip.” He reposted the same post on Boston Zionist blog Solomonia.com. IsraelMatzav.blogspot.com—another right-wing blog—published a similar post criticizing Birthright for the J Street trip.
While J Street staff have not suggested that these posts alone led Birthright to cancel the trip, they do hint that it raises another possibility: that Birthright cancelled the J Street U trip as a result of political pressure. J Street’s self-labeled “progressive” positions—along with certain stances it takes that run counter to Israeli governmental policies—have led some in the pro-Israel community, like Rosenthal, to doubt J Street’s Zionist credentials.
And while Rothman—J Street U’s student president—hoped that the Birthright trip would signal J Street U’s full acceptance into the campus Zionist community, Spitalnick fears that the opposite has happened.
“We hope it’s not politically motivated,” she said. “All we know is that there are trips like this.”
Spitalnick was referring to a Birthright trip called Capital to Capital that is run in partnership between a trip provider called Israel Experts and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. AIPAC is the United States’s largest pro-Israel lobby and—unlike J Street—advocates in Washington for the policies of the current Israeli government, no matter that government’s political orientation. Capital to Capital’s website promises participants “briefings from top academics, policy makers and AIPAC’s Jerusalem staff,” in addition to other politically-themed programs. The trip description does not include an overt ideologically political stance.
Dallal said that the difference between AIPAC and J Street lies in that J Street has a specific vision for what Israeli policy should be, while “AIPAC blows with the wind in an ideological sense” and advocates for the platforms of both right- and left-wing Israeli governments. Dallal characterized J Street as a group that advocates for “Labor-Meretz” policies—two of Israel’s left-wing parties.
Several other groups with policy statements—from the Union for Reform Judaism to the Orthodox Union—run Birthright trips. But Dallal differentiates between groups that have political positions and those whose principal focus is a specific political agenda.
“A lot of organizations have said something about politics, deal with politics,” Dallal said. “But those that have a specific orientation, one way or the other—that’s problematic.”
Dallal added that Birthright examines every trip before approving it, and that Capital to Capital did not display any overt political leanings.
“That trip was vetted before,” Dallal said in reference to Capital to Capital. “It doesn’t have a political bent to it. It’s like a political science course. It is parve. It’s balanced.”
May does not see the same distinction as Dallal does between AIPAC and J Street U. He noted that both AIPAC and J Street U, according to their government classification, cannot rate or endorse political candidates—though J Street does have another arm called JStreetPAC, which funds candidates. In addition, May said that AIPAC and J Street have similar missions and share common ground.
“J Street’s focus is the policies of the US government,” he said. “AIPAC’s political mission is directed toward the policies of the US government, shaping that policy toward Israel. We have broad areas of agreement: shaping a strong relationship between the US and Israel.”
May added that because Israel Experience, the trip provider, gave J Street U approval to do the trip—he assumes that the cancellation happened after J Street U sent out the press release, and not last year.
“I cannot speak to where pressure came from, but we were given every indication that this trip was given a green light,” May said. “Clearly, at some point in the last week it was halted. I can only assume that happened as a result of pressure and conversations.”
Dallal, however, said that J Street U is mischaracterizing Birthright’s actions and motives.
“What’s disingenuous about this is it appears that we rescinded our approval,” Dallal said. “We never gave our approval. We didn’t know about anything.”
The trip that once was
While J Street staff point to AIPAC’s Capital to Capital as an example of a Birthright trip with a political orientation, precedent exists for the J Street U trip that is much closer to home: a trip called Discover Israel: Peace, Pluralism, and Social Justice that last ran in 2008 and was cosponsored by the Union of Progressive Zionists. UPZ was absorbed by J Street about a year later, and became J Street U.
Like Capital to Capital, Discover Israel worked with Israel Experts. According to its website, Discover Israel “explores the country from a progressive perspective, focusing on both domestic social and political issues as well as larger questions of a just and lasting peace for Jews and Arabs both.” In the press release announcing its trip last week, J Street U called the trip “a chance to appreciate the vibrancy of Israel’s history, culture and landscape from a perspective that acknowledges your Jewish and progressive values.”
UPZ acted as an umbrella organization for progressive Zionist groups at campuses nationwide. Its Birthright trip—which it led in conjunction with the New Israel Fund, a supporter of progressive Israeli non-profits—did not encounter the hurdles that J Street U is facing now. But after the 2008 trip, two events led to the trip’s permanent cancellation.
First, the financial crisis dealt a blow to Birthright’s budget, drastically reducing the number of total spots the organization could offer to applicants. Because of this, former UPZ Executive Director Tammy Shapiro said, Israel Experts eliminated all of its specialty trips—including UPZ’s. That same year, UPZ merged with J Street. In 2009, the organization renamed itself J Street U and change its structure, which meant that it did not inherit its old Birthright trip.
“If we were going to have a new trip we would have had to start over from scratch because we were a new organization,” said Shapiro, who managed the group’s transition from UPZ to J Street U.
UPZ was not the only campus political Israel group to stop its trip due to lack of funds. In 2009, a similar fate befell the Birthright trip of StandWithUs, a group with activities on campus that aims to tell “Israel’s side of the story.” Among other policies, StandWithUs advocates significant US foreign aid to Israel—a policy that both J Street and AIPAC support.
While the CEO of StandWithUs, Roz Rothstein, did not characterize the trip as political, she noted that participants would get a tour of Israel’s borders, see the security fence near the border with the West Bank, visit the embattled town of Sderot near Gaza and hear from policy experts.
“We would try to show young people those things so they understand Israel’s strategic threats,” she said. “Some would consider that to be political.”
Both Rothstein and Shapiro cite financial difficulties as reasons for cancelling their trips. Dallal, however, points to a third reason why some trips were disallowed: In 2009 Birthright instituted its policy of declining trips with political ideologies. He cites the Zionist Organization of America—a right-wing group—along with UPZ as two organizations whose trips were stopped. Dallal said that the decision came because Birthright “matured” as an organization and realized that its political trips could turn into liabilities.
He added that because most conversations about Israel involve politics, Birthright must be careful when governmental policy comes up on its trips.
“How do you best maintain your neutrality while giving people something stimulating and interesting?” he asked. “That’s something we’re struggling with. If people thought [we were] partnering with right-wing people or left-wing people, it would turn off a segment of the population.”
“A missed opportunity”
Despite this setback, J Street staff still hope to lead a Birthright trip as soon as they can. May feels that the trip is necessary because it will provide progressive students with a way to connect to Israel.
“Many people connect their Judaism to liberal values and a commitment to justice,” he said. “They want to commit to Israel in a way that reflects that. We’re as enthusiastic as we were when we were first asked to consider such an opportunity, and we are hopeful that a trip reflective of social justice and progressive community could be offered.”
Dallal would also like to see a trip based on social justice, though he would not want J Street to be directly involved in it. He encouraged Israel Experience, the trip provider, to organize such a trip.
“There have been trips around social justice in Israel,” he said. “Those trips have been vetted. If the trip provider said, ‘We want to do a thing on social justice,’ we could have judged it on its merits, but that never took place.”
Rothman, however, feels that one of the most important parts of a future J Street U Birthright trip would be introducing students to an Israeli progressive community. Rothman went on a Birthright trip in 2008, and said that he would have liked to meet more Israeli social and political activists.
“Something a J Street U trip would have done is show me a side of Israel I wish I had known earlier: the social justice community. It’s not monolithic, but it’s something you don’t hear about much. It would be great to meet my liberal [Israeli] counterparts who were also critical of some of their government’s policies.”
Shapiro said that the most important part of the UPZ trips was the community of progressive students they created, and added that Birthright had a chance, with those trips, to engage students who it might otherwise miss.
“Other people went on other Birthright trips and felt alienated from the other participants, from the content,” Shapiro said of progressive students. “The participants on the trips were the most important part of the trips we ran. It’s a missed opportunity for Birthright to create a connection precisely with the people they’re afraid of losing from the community.”