J Street and Birthright Face Off

Is J Street playing the Birthright card strictly for self promotion? Did trip provider Israel Experience exceed their authority? Hard to know. You decide …

The story began on January 25th, when J Street issued a press release that said, in part:

J Street U is very happy to announce that we will be leading a free, ten-day Taglit-Birthright trip this summer titled, “Explore Israel: Progressive Zionism and Social Justice.”

This trip is an incredible opportunity to connect with the Israel that isn’t on the front page or in the guide books. Move beyond the headlines, and see what’s really happening on the ground.

On the 31st, J Street indicated Birthright canceled their trip saying,

Within 48 hours of our announcement that J Street U was facilitating its first Birthright trip, “Explore Israel: Progressive Zionism and Social Justice,” over 100 students had signed up expressing interest in participating. This is not surprising. Those of us engaged on this issue on campus know that there is a deep hunger among our peers to connect with Israel in a way that reflects our Jewish and democratic values of justice and equality.

In light of this tremendous enthusiasm, we are deeply troubled by Birthright’s abrupt decision to cancel our trip. Revoking this previously-approved opportunity, planned in concert with accredited Birthright trip organizer Israel Experience, sends exactly the wrong message to our community and to our students. And it is a painful message to receive.

Yesterday, Birthright responded with a statement of their own,

Taglit-Birthright Israel wishes to clarify that at no time did it approve of a Birthright Israel trip in association with JStreet, nor did it give its trip provider, the Israel Experience, any approval for such a trip. We did not rescind its approval as no approval was given in the first place.

Three months ago, we were approached by the Israel Experience which informally inquired about holding a trip focusing on Progressive Zionism and social justice in conjunction with JStreet. We said such a trip, as described in a brief conversation with the Israel Experience, would likely be out of keeping with our longstanding policy of not conducting trips with a political orientation.

The Israel Experience made no follow-up, and it did not submit any formal request for such a trip. At no time did Taglit-Birthright Israel have any contact with JStreet or JStreetU.

Last week, we were perplexed to read a press release by JStreetU announcing it was “leading” a Birthright Israel trip, and soliciting participants to register for the trip on its website bearing a Taglit-Birthright Israel logo. Aside from the fact that no such trip was ever approved, there cannot have been any registered participants, since registration in North America begins on February 15th and takes place only through our website.

Also yesterday, the JTA reported,

“According to e-mails obtained by JTA, planning for the trip continued through mid-January. It was not immediately clear why Israel Experience continued to work on the trip despite Birthright’s claim that it rejected the idea at the outset.”

There are many questions unanswered. One is did trip provider Israel Experience, a subsidiary company of the Jewish Agency, overstep their authority. You may remember, Israel Experience is the same trip provider that was at the center of last summer’s controversy centering around a Birthright visit to Hebron. One way to help sort this out would be for the JTA to have their own version of wikileaks and publish the emails referred to above. Or, better yet for J Street to make them public. As a part of the Jewish Agency, and therefore dependent on donor money, Israel Experience needs to be totally transparent in all their dealings. Birthright, who receives a significant percentage of their support from the donor community and the Government of Israel, has the same responsibility.

We should not permit this to be swept under the rug.