J Street’s Israel trip wasn’t alternative Birthright. It was better

‘WHAT SET ‘Let Our People Know’ apart from my Birthright trip was the impossibility of looking away from the complex implications of Zionism that are our real birthright as diaspora Jews.’  (photo credit: JSTREET)
‘WHAT SET ‘Let Our People Know’ apart from my Birthright trip was the impossibility of looking away from the complex implications of Zionism that are our real birthright as diaspora Jews.’
(photo credit: JSTREET)
It was in the Palestinian village of Susya that I realized the prospect of modeling Birthright after J Street’s inaugural Let Our People Know trip is misguided, to say the least.
On my Birthright trip three summers ago, none of the participants knelt beside huts made of straw bales, overcome with despair at the sight of the water-starved village that’s been resisting Israeli demolition orders since 1986. Nobody walked in stunned silence through the post-apocalyptic streets of Hebron, where severe restrictions on movement have shuttered most Palestinian storefronts. Nor do I think that many of the 18- to 21-year-olds on my Birthright trip – most of whom thought of it primarily as a vacation – would have welcomed such exposure to the difficult realities of the Israeli occupation.
J Street called its trip a kind of “alternative Birthright,” but Birthright this was not. It’s actually far better. Let Our People Know is doing the crucial work of building a progressive Judaism that is deliberate in its political stakes.
The J Street trip, which took 28 US college students across Israel and Palestine this month, was the culmination of a campaign that asked students to pledge only to participate in trips to Israel that feature both Palestinian and Israeli perspectives.
The trip was billed explicitly as a model, seeking not to replace traditional programs such as Birthright but to urge them toward a more nuanced curriculum. As one J Street staffer on the trip put it, the organization is not anti-Birthright; it would be happy to see every Birthright trip adjust a day or two of its programming to accommodate a visit to the West Bank.
If J Street’s goal was simply to introduce a template for “Birthright Plus” – a guide for tacking the occupation onto a conventional pro-Israel framework, as if West Bank settlement is just an ailing appendage to an otherwise healthy Israeli democracy – I’m not sure it succeeded.
J Street’s accomplishment is something new altogether and far more formidable: Let Our People Know challenges Birthright’s pretense of apoliticism in Jewish engagement with the State of Israel, instead providing space for young American Jews to wrestle with our moral responsibility.
Birthright, the leading provider of free 10-day trips to Israel for Diaspora Jews, calls itself a “nonpartisan, apolitical organization” that avoids clear political ideology in its trips. Its goal, according to its website, is to “ensure the vibrant future of the Jewish people by strengthening Jewish identity.”
It’s true that the political bent of any particular Birthright trip varies based on the tour guide (for what it’s worth, the Let Our People Know guide told me he doesn’t lead Birthright groups, because he resents their de facto requirement to toe the party line). But at an institutional level, policies such as a ban on meeting with Arab-Israeli citizens – let alone Palestinian residents of the occupied territories – are transparently ideological attempts to avoid the politically charged question of the occupation.
J Street promised participants the in-depth education about the occupation that Birthright lacks, and it leveraged its relationships with Palestinian community leaders to deliver. Our tour of Susya with B’Tselem activist Nasser Nawaja, a lunch in Ramallah with PLO Palestinian National Council member Bashar Azzeh, and a panel featuring Saleh Diab, an activist in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, were among the trip’s highlights.
Our conversation about the challenges of the Jewish state didn’t end at the Green Line, either. Iranian-Israeli comedian Noam Shuster-Eliassi called attention to historical discrimination against Jews from Arab countries in Israeli society, for example, and two Tel Aviv activists debated the challenges of intersectional LGBTQ organizing in light of the Israeli government’s deportation of African refugees.
What set Let Our People Know apart from my Birthright trip was the impossibility of looking away from the complex implications of Zionism that are our real birthright as Diaspora Jews. Questions about our role in shaping the future of the Jewish state were as present in Tel Aviv as they were in Ramallah.
SOME LEFTIST critics of the J Street trip have reasonably argued that the new trip might reinforce a core tenet of Birthright: that Israel is central to American Jewish identity. But those critics shouldn’t ignore the fact that for most young American Jews, the aspirational desires and consequential baggage of Zionism are already bound up with our Jewish identities.
The trip reached a climax when our group engaged Israeli settlers in the West Bank in a tense discussion on the matter of Jewish ethics. One participant asked the three panelists which Jewish value they find most important, and each answered with a variation of the Hebrew term “hessed” – sometimes translated as radical compassion, or in one panelist’s terms, “putting yourself second.”
The seeming irreconcilability of such a value with the project of Israeli settlement expansion hung in the room, surfacing a question that pervaded many participants’ engagement with the trip itself: what does our Judaism demand of us, if anything, when it comes to this country 6,000 miles away?
Etan Nechin wrote in The Forward that because the Let Our People Know trip frames the occupation through the lens of Jewish values, it centers Jewish people in anti-occupation work rather than empowering Palestinians.
On the one hand, this accusation of narcissism makes me laugh – many of the trip’s participants engage with J Street at the cost of painful alienation from our more right-wing Jewish communities.
But Nechin is correct that Let Our People Know is a conscious attempt to reclaim and transform the Judaism that underpins establishment narratives about Israel. The pilot trip is J Street’s self-conscious attempt to help bend the moral arc of Judaism toward justice. More than anything else in this nightmarish conflict, this ambition gives me hope.
Yael Patir, director of J Street Israel, told participants that many were watching the Let Our People Know trip to determine whether we can “do Israel education like this and still come out of it being into Israel.”
If “into Israel” encompasses a commitment to ensuring the state is something we’re proud to be associated with as American Jews, J Street succeeded and then some. Our people’s need to know is less about the occupation per se, and more about the need to organize the Jewish voice against it – and against an establishment that takes an amorphous, apolitical Jewish connection to Israel for granted. Birthright, this is not.
The writer is a UCLA graduate and rising JD candidate at its School of Law.