More than 100 young Jews from across the country, among them UChicago students, gathered at Birthright’s New York City headquarters last Friday, April 5 to urge Birthright to confront the crisis of the Israeli occupation. Instead of engaging, Birthright arrested 15 Jewish students, continuing their pattern of hard-hearted obstinancy in the face of earnest appeals from our generation. Indeed, over the past year, young Jews have been demanding that Birthright stop hiding the daily nightmare of Palestinian life under occupation. With Friday’s arrests, Birthright has revealed its raison d’etre: ensuring that the occupation continues indefinitely with the full support of American Jews. In light of Birthright’s entrenched pro-occupation agenda, UChicago Hillel, which runs Birthright trips every summer, must cut ties with the organization.
Birthright is one of the Jewish community’s most heavily funded institutions. Founded in 1999, it brings upwards of 40,000 young Jews on free 10-day trips to Israel every year. On these trips, Birthright promises young participants a chance to connect more deeply to their Jewish identities. In reality, Birthright is a bribe bought and paid for by the Netanyahu administration and right-wing donors like Sheldon Adelson. In light of its sources of funding, Birthright’s pro-occupation agenda is no surprise. The institution deliberately lies to its participants about the nightmare of life under military occupation for millions of Palestinians. Birthright requires each group to spend days with active IDF soldiers, building deep, personal connections between American Jews and the Israeli military. Palestinians are reduced to abstract security risks, if their existence is acknowledged at all.
Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem—now more than 50 years old—denies Palestinian civil, political, and economic rights. While Israeli citizens cast their ballots in Tuesday’s election, nearly five million Palestinians living under its military rule were denied the privilege. Estimates suggest that Israel arrests between 800 and 1,000 Palestinian children each year, some of whom are not even teenagers, with about 270 in Israeli prisons at any given moment. Since 2007, Israel has imposed a land, air, and sea blockade of the Gaza Strip, restricting the flow of essential goods and human beings and thereby creating a humanitarian disaster. This, and the tacit support it receives from many American Jews, cannot continue.
In recent years, young Jews from across the country have increasingly asked Birthright to stop concealing these facts from its participants. Some, frustrated by these elisions, chose to walk off their trips this past summer and winter. Months later, Birthright did respond, but not by acknowledging the reality of the occupation; instead, the organization changed its code of conduct to prohibit participants from “hijacking” the conversation. Apparently, to Birthright, earnest, critical questions about the Annexation Wall and checkpoints constitute “hijacking.” From our own personal experiences, the Jewish community has always considered passionate discussion to be a virtue, not a vice.
At UChicago, Jewish students delivered a box of letters to Hillel asking them to implement basic changes to their Birthright trip—showing participants a military checkpoint from a Palestinian perspective and touring the occupied West Bank city of Hebron with the anti-occupation Israeli organization Breaking the Silence. When we didn’t hear back, we attended an open town hall meeting at Hillel where we again raised our concerns. Student-leaders in Hillel heard us out, but the true issue became clear: Hillel would be unable to organize a trip that showed the truth of the occupation, so long as that trip is organized through Birthright.
For this reason, we turned to Birthright itself last Friday, only to be met with squad cars and handcuffs. For months, we have given Birthright a chance to join the growing consensus of young Jews who know that visiting Israel without grappling with the occupation is like visiting the Jim Crow South without acknowledging segregation. Over and over, Birthright has proven that they have no intention of changing. And indeed, they have shown that education about the occupation is deliberately omitted by the design of their enterprise.
It is clear that the Jewish community has a choice to make. We are calling on young Jews to sign a pledge promising not to go on Birthright trips, and instead join us in building a vibrant Jewish future based on freedom and dignity for all Palestinians and Israelis. Many Jewish students at UChicago already refuse to go on Birthright, knowing that Jewish identity need not come at the cost of our progressive values. Additionally, we call on American-Jewish institutions to cease all cooperation with Birthright. We celebrate UChicago Hillel as an invaluable resource and trusted steward of Jewish life on campus. To represent UChicago’s Jewish population, and do right by our Palestinian siblings, Hillel should demonstrate moral leadership and heed the call. Hillel, it is time to end your relationship with Birthright.
Clarification on April 14, 2019, 11:41 a.m. CDT:
An illustration originally posted with the article was later removed, due to the author’s concern, upon seeing the illustration, that it did not represent the spirit of the letter.