J Street U Tufts petitions to include Palestinian speaker on Birthright trip

J Street U students from universities on the East Coast, meeting at Tufts for J Street U's Regional Workshop, pose for a photo on Oct. 14. Courtesy Halle Young

The Tufts chapter of J Street U began circulating a petition on Oct. 18 that calls for the inclusion of Palestinian speakers on Tufts Hillel’s Birthright Israel trips. At press time, the petition had garnered 255 signatures, 192 of which were provided by students who indicated that they were eligible to go on a Birthright trip.

The petition, addressed to Tufts’ Jewish Chaplain and Neubauer Executive Director of Tufts Hillel Rabbi Naftali Brawer, addressed the need for diverse perspectives on the trip.

“On a trip to Israel, we should experience the country’s history and culture, but we should also learn about the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and hear the voices of Palestinians living under occupation,” the petition reads. “As those of us who have been on Birthright and similar trips can attest, shielding us from these truths creates a ‘connection’ to Israel that feels fragile at best.”

The petition was written by the national J Street U organization and provided to various colleges, according to Channah Powell, chapter president of J Street U Tufts. J Street U Tufts described itself as “pro-Israel” and “pro-peace.” Powell, a sophomore, said that she participated in the discussion and drafting of the petition. The petition requests that Birthright participants get to “meet with Palestinians who can speak to the realities of life under military occupation.”

A meeting between members of J Street U Tufts and Tufts Hillel took place in the Granoff Family Hillel Center on Oct. 25, according to senior Talia Inbar, the Northeast regional co-chair for J Street U.

Claire Trilling, a senior and J Street U Tufts member, was present at the meeting.

“I believe there was some misunderstanding on the part of Hillel staff as to our intentions, but we were able to share our goals with the petition and our hopes that Hillel staff will work with us on an issue that clearly matters so deeply to our community,” Trilling told the Daily in an email.

However, Trilling said that Tufts Hillel made no commitments and that J Street U Tufts is still waiting for a response beyond Tufts Hillel’s public statement.

In their statement, Tufts Hillel said it felt its values were “misrepresented” by the petition. They defended their previous Birthright trips, citing the fact that they have worked with students from J Street U to organize pre-trip orientations in the past.

The statement added that trips have, in the past, heard from Israeli Arab individuals, while also pointing to its Visions of Peace program, which organized a trip to Israel and the West Bank to meet with people active in peace work.

Sara Legasey and Rachel Eilbaum, the former and current Tufts Hillel Birthright coordinators, told the Daily in an email that while every Birthright trip differs in itinerary, all Tufts Birthright trips feature multiple narratives.

“All of our trips have included Israeli Arab and/or Palestinian speakers, or encounters with another minority group in Israel,” Legasey and Eilbaum wrote. “Each trip itinerary is different, and for various reasons, we aren’t able to guarantee any particular speaker. Over the years we have always brought a diverse array of narratives, including Palestinian narratives, into our Birthright trip educational program, and we will continue to do so.”

Legasey and Eilbaum also said that including those narratives were a priority for the program.

However, Powell said that participants on Tufts Birthright are unable to get a nuanced view of Israel. According to Powell, in 2017, the national Birthright Israel organization canceled a geopolitical module that facilitated interactions with speakers from an Israeli minority community, such as Arab Israelis or Ethiopian Jews.

Powell said that the petition does not call for the resurrection of the geopolitical module, since, as she claimed, the sessions never included a Palestinian speaker.

“It’s an example of omission and erasure of Palestinian narratives from the Jewish community, which I think is really unjust,” Powell said. “If we want our children to understand Israel — understand Judaism — it’s important for them to learn that you can’t just listen to one side of the story.”

In an email to the Daily, a spokesperson for Birthright Israel offered a different explanation for what happened to the geopolitical module. The spokesperson said that in November 2017, programs focusing on co-existence, including between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel, were postponed and later reintroduced in December 2017 as the “Social Diversity” module.

Powell criticized Birthright Israel for calling itself apolitical while also receiving funding from what she called “rich right-wing donors.” She cited the billionaire Sheldon Adelson, a frequent donor to the Republican Party.

“What we’re pointing out is that by ignoring [Palestinian] narratives you’re actually being explicitly political,” Powell said. “You can’t just go to Israel and party in Tel Aviv, go to the Bedouin tents and completely ignore the military occupation that’s being done by the Israeli army.”

The Birthright Israel spokesperson wrote that the organization would always remain apolitical and did not support the dissemination of one-sided political or social agendas on their trips.

“Certain political activist groups choose to politicize Birthright Israel by leveraging the longstanding success and good reputation of our organization to generate publicity for their causes,” the spokesperson wrote.

Carolyn Hitelman, a sophomore who participated on a Tufts Birthright trip last spring, said that while the group did not hear from any Palestinian speakers, they did visit The Haifa Center for Dialogue and Conflict Management.

Hitelman said the group elected to talk about the basics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She went on to state that the trip also visited a Druze hospitality center where they learned about the Druze community.

Leonard Saxe, the director of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University, studies the effects of Birthright trips on their participants. He said that the data does not show a change in participants’ attitudes about Israel, the status of Jerusalem or related hot-button issues as a result of the trip.

“I think that there’s no evidence that they’re getting a Zionist perspective,” Saxe said. “One of the goals of the program is to enhance the connection people feel with Israel, but that doesn’t mean supporting a particular government.”

Saxe compared Birthright participants to international students.

“They might come to love the U.S., love what we stand for, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they will love, appreciate, support the government of the U.S. or the leadership of the U.S,” he said.

Compared to those who applied for a Birthright trip but were rejected, Birthright participants are 22 percent more likely to feel at least “somewhat confident” in explaining the geopolitical situation in Israel, according to Saxe’s research published in 2012.

Tufts Students for Justice in Palestine issued a statement about the petition, saying that an additional Palestinian speaker on a Birthright trip would be no more than a token and political tool.

Birthright is free to American Jews, but the price is paid by Palestinians in the form of stolen lives, homes, and hope,” the statement read. We call on J Street U at Tufts not to invest further in an institution that ignores and upholds the oppression of Palestinians.”

Ben Shapiro, co-president of Tufts Friends of Israel, declined to comment on the petition but said that the group partners with both Tufts Hillel and J Street U Tufts on specific issues.

“Tufts Friends of Israel is proud allies with both Tufts Hillel, the Jewish chaplaincy center on campus, and J Street U [Tufts],” Shapiro, a junior, told the Daily in an electronic message. “We are happy to be in the Tufts Students for Two States (TS4TS) coalition with both groups, and consider us all to be part of a single pro-Israel community.”

Max Price, a first-year who identifies as Jewish, has not signed the petition.

“Birthright is intended to provide a cultural heritage experience for American Jews, not a political perspective,” he told the Daily in an email.

Price said that from his experience, Tufts Hillel works to incorporate Palestinian and Arab voices into its programming, and that publicly confronting Hillel was not the best way to create dialogue.

First-year Brett Sachs, who signed the petition, spoke to the importance of Palestinian voices on Birthright.

“It’s important to inform any college community about both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and it’s even more essential as Birthright is such a key moment in the life of any young Jewish person. Adding a Palestinian speaker would broaden participants horizons on what is usually sure a narrow issue,” she said.

Clarification: An earlier version of this article quoted co-President of Tufts Friends of Israel Ben Shapiro as saying that the group partners with J Street U. Shapiro has since clarified that Tufts Friends of Israel partners with the Tufts chapter of J Street U, not the national organization, and only on certain issues including a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The article has been updated accordingly.


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