J Street Statement on Taglit-Birthright Israel Trip

February 1, 2011

J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami issued the following statement today, following J Street U student board President Mori Rothman’s statement on Taglit-Birthright Israel’s cancellation of the “Explore Israel: Progressive Zionism and Social Justice” trip:

J Street and J Street U are deeply disappointed by developments related to the planned Birthright trip, “Explore Israel: Progressive Zionism and Social Justice.”

For several months, we worked closely with one of Birthright’s duly-authorized trip providers, Israel Experience, to help craft a trip that meets Birthright’s criteria. We were thrilled that within 48 hours of telling our members that this trip would be offered, well over a hundred people expressed interest in registering.

To be clear, we worked with Israel Experience to help put together a trip like this because we believed, and they agreed, that we could help them reach young people that other groups and providers may not be able to, and that we could help in their mission to strengthen the bonds of young Jewish adults to Israel and strengthen their Jewish identity.

We worked with Israel Experience every step of the way to ensure that we did everything by the book, including clearing every piece of our publicity about the trip with them. Israel Experience was professional in every way, worked with us carefully to craft a trip that met Birthright’s criteria, and assured us we had done so. We even received from Israel Experience the logo that Taglit-Birthright is now “perplexed” to see on our materials in that exact form, with a request from Israel Experience that we use that particular format on our materials.

It was our understanding that the Israel Experience staff briefed Birthright staff along the way and received the necessary approval to proceed with the trip. It is also clear that many organizations that have strong opinions from right to left about Israel have been and are engaged in planning Birthright trips. These include AIPAC – which touts an “AIPAC Birthright trip” – and, in 2009, Stand With Us, and before that the Zionist Organization of America. Even J Street U’s predecessor organization, the left-of-center Union of Progressive Zionists, was engaged in organizing exactly such a trip in prior years.

J Street U still wants this trip to happen – in this cycle of trips or the next. We are willing to work with Birthright and Israel Experience or any other appropriate provider Birthright wishes us to work with under the same rules as all other organizations to help put together a balanced, open-minded trip that appeals to young people with a particular interest in social justice. Our interest is in furthering the mission of Birthright, working with them to meet their criteria, and to bring young people on a trip who are excited by the chance to visit Israel for the first time. If changes in the trip need to be made to meet criteria that are different than Israel Experience had set out, we will work with Birthright to do so.

For the sake of Jewish unity, we can only hope that this is not a politically motivated decision because a decision to work with pro-Israel groups with one set of views and not another would deeply damage the cause of Jewish unity that Birthright is playing such an important role in promoting. We hope to find a way going forward to work with Birthright in accordance with their criteria.