Response to J Street U’s Birthright Trip Cancellation

January 31, 2011

Moriel Rothman, President of the J Street U student board, issued the following statement in response to Taglit-Birthright Israel’s decision to cancel  JStreet U’s upcoming Birthright trip:

Within 48 hours of our announcement that J Street U was facilitating its first Birthright trip, “Explore Israel: Progressive Zionism and Social Justice,” over 100 students had signed up expressing interest in participating. This is not surprising. Those of us engaged on this issue on campus know that there is a deep hunger among our peers to connect with Israel in a way that reflects our Jewish and democratic values of justice and equality.

In light of this tremendous enthusiasm, we are deeply troubled by Birthright’s abrupt decision to cancel our trip. Revoking this previously-approved opportunity, planned in concert with accredited Birthright trip organizer Israel Experience, sends exactly the wrong message to our community and to our students. And it is a painful message to receive.

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.

As student leaders in J Street U, we believe that our commitment to Israel requires us to work to secure its future, and to stand for a democratic future for all who live in the region. We understand the powerful connections that can be forged from exposure to the dynamic advocacy and activism unfolding every day in Israel. We were eager to provide such an opportunity to others looking for a trip that reflected that values.

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.

Denying students the opportunity to engage with Israel in a way reflective of their commitments to justice and democracy does not serve the long-term interests of our community nor of Israel. Such a move tells students that a relationship to the Jewish homeland demands compromises many are unwilling to make. We will not let our connection to Israel be severed by those who, to quote Peter Beinart, “demand that we check our liberal values at Zionism’s door.”

We call on those who run and fund the Birthright program to reconsider this shortsighted and counterproductive decision.