In an attempt to strengthen Jewish identity to Israel, Birthright Israel has successfully sent over 500,000 young Jewish adults on free 10-day trips to Israel since 1999. While this program brings Jews back to Israel to learn about their heritage and connect with their Jewish identity, it has also drawn ire for sanitizing and ignoring certain aspects of Israel’s history, particularly with regard to Palestine.
Jewish Voices for Peace, a national organization with an NYU chapter, works to boycott the acclaimed Birthright because it is “fundamentally unjust that we are given a free trip to Israel, while Palestinian refugees are barred from returning to their homes,” according to JVP’s website.
This social justice-minded organization closes the gap between Israel and Palestine by working alongside its sister organization, NYU Students for Justice for Palestine. Together these organizations hope to influence Jewish students to sign the pledge to return the birthright to Palestinians and boycott the trip until the Israeli occupation of Gaza ends.
LS freshman and JVP member Ethan Fraenkel said immersing Jewish students back into Israel is meant to create a bond between American and Israeli Jews.
“Young people are less pro-Israel and are usually apathetic to the issue, so trips like this are utilized to get people more excited about Israeli society,” Fraenkel said. “Birthright is deceptive. It’s not for any students and specifically targets young Jews. Though marketed as an apolitical organization, it leaves out the reality of Palestinian refugees.”
According to Palestinian-American and LS sophomore Khalid Abudawas, Birthright excludes native Palestinians who are now forced to live in exile in refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.
“The idea of birthright assumes some type of nativeness to the Holy Land for people who only have a religious connection to the area,” Abudawas said. “It stands on an idea that says ‘we have a right to go here because we believe in a certain set of ideas.’ This erases the actual attachment native Palestinians have to their land.”
Abudawas also said the organization fails to inform students of political turmoil that has unfolded for over a century and instead works as propaganda.
“Attendees are exposed to the fun of Israel,” he said. “It fails to address the truths of the area in regards to settlements, displacement, the refugee crisis and mistreatment of a native population.”
Not every student is as anti-birthright as JVP. CAS sophomore and Realize Israel Director of Communications Jordana Meyer, who went on a Birthright trip, said that she saw efforts to fight Birthright as counterproductive.
“Boycotting Birthright does nothing to accelerate the peace process, taking it away from one group will not give it to another, and turning on one’s own people does not make you an advocate for another people,” Meyer said. “Birthright is a beautiful experience, a once in a lifetime experience and an indescribable opportunity for Jewish youth to reconnect with an identity their ancestors fought to preserve. Birthright is not the negation of a Palestinian experience, it is simply the assertion of a Jewish one.”
A quarter of Birthright’s budget is derived from Israeli government funding. However, private donors play a large role in financing the organization. For instance, billionaire Sheldon Adelson has personally donated $45 million to Birthright on top of the over $100 million the Adelson Family Foundation has contributed over the years, while Adelson has claimed Palestinians are “an invented people.”
“Birthright is marketed as a cool, hip and liberal organization that’s inclusive to LGBTQ students,” Fraenkel said. “However, the main contributor is a supporter of [President] Donald Trump — a leader openly against these ideals.”
Correction: Oct. 25, 2017
A previous version of this article stated that Birthright is primarily a vacation, which is incorrect, because the trip focuses primarily on educating Jewish teenagers about their heritage and connecting them to their Jewish identity.
Email Aya Ouda at [email protected].