Last Wednesday, J Street UChicago announced a new free trip to Israel for Jewish college students. The trip, organized by J Street U, is meant to compete with the Birthright program and will include Palestinian speakers absent from Birthright trips in an effort to give Jewish students a different perspective on the Israel-Palestine relationship.
J Street U is a pro-Israel, anti-occupation organization of students with chapters at colleges across the U.S. The organization intends to use this trip to educate Jewish students on the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, as a more politically-minded alternative to the Birthright trip many Jewish students have been taking to Israel since 1999.
The trip follows a J Street U petition last fall that asked Birthright to add Palestinian speakers to their programming.
Although the petition garnered thousands of signatures, it had no impact on Birthright programming, said fourth-year Zachary Spitz, a member of J Street U’s national student board. This refusal led to J Street U’s announcement of the alternative trip. According to Spitz, “If Birthright isn’t going to change, then students shouldn’t go.”
The announcement follows mounting criticism of the UChicago Hillel Birthright trip that will take place this September. Last month, the progressive Jewish organization If Not Now protested outside Hillel, advocating for inclusion of Palestinian perspectives on the conflict in Israel.
J Street U’s trip will run from July 1 to July 10, and will feature speakers from various regions and perspectives, including Palestinian speakers living in Israeli-occupied zones. The trip is free, like Birthright, and American Jewish college students are eligible to apply. The trip will be accepting 40 students from universities across the U.S.
“This is the first time in 20 years that a free trip to Israel is being run that shows the realities of life in Israel to Jewish students,” Spitz said. He added that 19 UChicago students have requested an application for the trip so far.
“Birthright trips claims to be apolitical, but they only let you meet Israelis. This shows [students] the diversity of Israeli society but doesn’t share anything about the other side,” Spitz said.
Students interested in the J Street U trip can also sign a pledge agreeing not to go on trips to Israel through Birthright or any other organization that ignores the Israeli occupation.
J Street UChicago plans on holding informational events early next quarter for students to learn about the trip and other opportunities J Street U is offering.