J Street, the center-left Israel policy group, will compete with Birthright by launching its own free trip to Israel for college students this summer.
The trip will introduce students firsthand to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the lives of Israelis and Palestinians on different sides of the spectrum. Organized by J Street U, the group’s college arm, it will take 40 students to Israel and the West Bank for 10 days in July. Along with visiting sites in Israel, the group will meet Palestinian activists, Israeli social justice activists and Israeli settlers.
“Birthright educates 40,000 young Jews a year who do not hear from Palestinians living under occupation while on the trip,” J Street U president and Stanford University student Eva Borgwardt told J. in an email. “This has a silencing effect on discussion of the occupation within our community.”
Moreover, she said, young Jews don’t see the occupation as an optional aspect of their learning about Israel. “They see it as vital for Palestinian perspectives to be included in any responsible engagement with the country’s current reality,” she said.
Borgwardt has not been on Birthright but has spent time in Israel. “I spent the summer of 2017 in Israel, getting to know many of the progressive Israeli activists the trip will meet with, and also spent time in the West Bank, including in [Palestinian] villages that are under threat of demolition,” she said.
Birthright, the free 10-day trip to Israel for Jewish young adults co-founded by philanthropists Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt, has funded more than a half-million participants over two decades. But it has received criticism from left-wing activists who say it does not talk enough about Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. Birthright does not visit the West Bank, and groups do not hear from Palestinians, although they do hear from a variety of Jewish Israelis and are often accompanied by Israel Defense Forces soldiers.
J Street was set to run a trip through Birthright in 2011, but plans fell through, with Birthright claiming that the trip had never been approved.
Last year, groups of Birthright participants associated with the anti-occupation group IfNotNow walked off their trips in protest of its curriculum.