Birthright rejects J Street effort to co-sponsor trip

US lobby claims other groups have also organized Taglit tours with "political orientation."

Birthright boat 311 (photo credit: Taglit-Birthright)
Birthright boat 311
(photo credit: Taglit-Birthright)
Taglit-Birthright Israel, the group that has brought over 250,000 young Jewish adults on free trips to Israel, has turned down an attempt to organize a trip co-sponsored by left-leaning Jewish advocacy group J Street.
Birthright officials said this week that the proposed J Street trip would “likely be out of keeping with our longstanding policy of not conducting trips with a political orientation.”
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The statement came after J Street had announced it was planning a Birthright trip that would take place this summer in collaboration with the Israel Experience, an established Birthright partner.
“Taglit-Birthright Israel wishes to clarify that at no time did it approve of a Birthright Israel trip in association with J Street, nor did it give its trip provider, the Israel Experience, any approval for such a trip,” a spokesman for Taglit- Birthright said on Tuesday. “We did not rescind its approval, as no approval was given in the first place.”
Last week, J Street posted an announcement on its website informing individuals interested in taking part in its proposed Birthright trip to register online.
“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,” said J Street founder Jeremy Ben-Ami.
“We were thrilled that within 48 hours of telling our members that this trip would be offered, well over 100 people expressed interest in registering.”
According to J Street, the planned trip would have included visits to the usual Birthright destinations, such as the ancient fortress of Masada, the Western Wall and the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum. In addition, it would have put a special emphasis on social issues important to the organization.
When Taglit-Birthright caught wind of J Street’s announcement, it informed the group it had not greenlighted the proposal.
“We were perplexed to read a press release by J Street U [J Street’s on-campus arm] announcing it was ‘leading’ a Birthright Israel trip, and soliciting participants to register for the trip on its website bearing a Taglit-Birthright Israel logo,” the organization told The Jerusalem Post.
“Aside from the fact that no such trip was ever approved, there cannot have been any registered participants, since registration in North America begins on February 14 and takes place only through our website,” it added.
J Street said in response that it had acted in good faith working under the assumption that Israel Experience had cleared the trip with the charity. The logo that J Street featured on its website had been put up in response to a specific request from the Israel Experience, it said.
J Street – which presents itself as a left-wing alternative to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the powerful Israel lobby in Washington – also complained of being treated unfairly, pointing to what it said were similar trips run by AIPAC and other politically oriented organizations.
“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,” Ben-Ami said.
“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.”
Taglit-Birthright played down the role AIPAC had in putting together the “Capital-to-Capital” trip, which it likened to a “political science class” that was not “tilted to one side of the political spectrum.”
“The provider has been running this trip, with input from AIPAC, a mainstream Israel advocacy group, long before J Street was established,” Taglit-Birthright said.
J Street contends that AIPAC has been covering up the measure of its involvement in Birthright trips, citing as evidence the disappearance of several links to AIPAC’s website from the “Capital-to-Capital” Facebook profile and Web page in recent days.
Since 2000, Taglit-Birthright has been lauded by politicians, religious leaders and sociologists as an effective way of strengthening Jewish identity. During that time, the charity, which bills itself as non-partisan and apolitical, has struggled to stay away from promoting overt political agendas other than lending its broad support to Israel, which provides about a third of its funds.
One Birthright trip from Australia stirred up controversy last year when it included in its itinerary Hebron, which is home to the Cave of the Patriarchs and is one of most politically tense areas over the Green Line.
“Out of the 750 groups that we have this year, only one went,” Taglit-Birthright CEO Gideon Mark told The Forward at the time. “If this is possible, everything is possible.
But practically, this is the proportion of groups until today.”
Taglit-Birthright stated on Tuesday that it welcomed “every Jewish young adult, of every political, religious and ideological worldview” to sign up for its upcoming summer trips when registration begins February 14.
“The over [a] quarter-million young adults who have been on Taglit-Birthright Israel trips have represented the diversity of the Jewish people,” it said. “Through the trip, our participants have found something in Israel which speaks to and strengthens their identity as part of the Jewish people. In this we take deep pride.”