Two flags, Palestine on the right and Israel on the left, fly with the Star of David situated between them. Illustration by Maya Winshell.

J Street U Petition Sparks Birthright Debate

A petition started by the Lewis & Clark J Street U chapter to bring Palestinian speakers on PDX Hillel Birthright is now being considered by Birthright International. It aims to allow Palestinian speakers on Birthright Israel trips to bring awareness to life under Israeli occupation. The petition first circulated at the Student Activities Fair in the fall, and J Street U has since collected over 200 student signatures, about 175 of those being Birthright eligible students. The petition was brought to the attention of PDX Hillel who then submitted an official request to Birthright International along with a list of potential Palestinian speakers assembled by the LC J Street U chapter.

J Street U is the college campus branch of J Street, which is self-proclaimed on their website as a “pro-Israel” and “pro-peace” organization that pushes for a diplomatic two-state solution between Israel and Palestine. PDX Hillel, the Portland-based branch of Hillel International, serves to connect Jewish students on campus to the larger organization of Birthright International and sends approximately 10 to 20 LC students on Birthright Israel trips each year. Birthright International sponsors over 40,000 Jewish college students per year in visits to Israel where they spend 10 days learning about Israeli culture and history and their Jewish identity.

LC J Street U members hope a Palestinian speaker will increase awareness of life under Israeli occupation and give college-aged Jews on Birthright trips a more balanced view of the geopolitical, cultural and physical implications behind the Israel-Palestine conflict. There are over 30 similar petitions from other institutions now being considered by Birthright, including petitions from Tufts University and the University of Washington.

Naomi Goldman-Nagel ’19, a member of the J Street U National Board, commented on the motivation behind creating the petition.

“Birthright is the largest Jewish education program in the world,” Goldman-Nagel said. “We’ve had a really hard time talking about the occupation in the Jewish community and asking the Jewish community to take a stance, and a big part of that is because people are scared and feel like they don’t know enough.”

Goldman-Nagel mentioned how a Palestinian speaker could specifically address issues in the West Bank, the security barrier, school and home demolitions and military checkpoints. The list of speakers assembled by J Street U include Palestinians living in the West Bank who are involved in nongovernmental organizations working to educate the public and advocating for a two-state solution to end the conflict.

Some students who are part of the LC Jewish community claim that Birthright intentionally does not educate young Jews on the issues between Israel and Palestine. Jack Levin ’19, a J Street U member who has been on a Birthright Israel trip, commented on how the conflict is presented in Israel.

“Palestinians do not often have the opportunity to share their stories within Israel and the international community more generally,” Levin said via email. “There is a consistent effort to silence their experiences for the sake of painting a cleaner version of Israel. I can attest that while the conflict is talked about, it is usually done in an abbreviated manner.”

Avia Kaner-Roth ’22, a J Street U member, spoke on the lack of knowledge among the Jewish community surrounding the occupation.

“As a personal experience for me, it took other people telling me about it,” Kaner-Roth said. “I wasn’t able to learn about it through my Jewish education or my Jewish community because it’s generally not talked about. It’s taboo.”

Birthright International has not yet responded to the requests. All of the petitions are now in the hands of Birthright International, and local Hillel groups have little power to affect their decision. If PDX Hillel does not receive a response by March 10, that means that LC students registered for the spring Birthright Israel trip that were hoping for Palestinian speakers will be unable to cancel their trip.

Yitzchak Luster ’22 is involved with PDX Hillel on campus and is registered for the upcoming  Birthright trip.

“I know that on the trip they take you to the border of the Gaza Strip, and it’s not depicted in the best way,” Luster said. “It’s like, ‘look at those people over there, we try not to associate ourselves with them’. There’s definitely a one-sidedness. I would 100 percent be disappointed if there wasn’t (a Palestinian speaker).”

Luster said that because Israeli Defense Force (IDF) soldiers accompany students on their trip, views of the conflict are further obscured.

Members of J Street U say that regardless of whether the petition is approved by Birthright, they will continue to organize around the issue by educating the LC community on both narratives of the conflict, supporting Palestinians in the West Bank by sharing their stories and providing platforms for Palestinian voices.

“There is a persistent mentality that simply acknowledging there are two sides is akin to fully fleshing out people’s narratives,” Levin said. “It is not. You cannot know what someone has lived through without supporting their voices and giving them a platform. That is all this is about, giving Palestinians the platform they deserve to tell their stories.”

Cassidy has been writing for the Pioneer Log as soon as she stepped on campus during her freshman year. Starting her Pioneer Log career writing for The Backdoor and news, she began to focus on writing (usually politically-charged) articles for the opinion section. Now as a sophomore, she has joined the Pioneer Log team as an opinion editor. As an editor, she hopes to diversify student voices represented in the opinion section and allow the Pioneer Log platform to support lesser-heard or marginalized groups on campus.

Cassidy is an International Affairs major and a History minor. In her free time, you can catch her tutoring English in the ILC, looking at plants in Tryon or watching any show about ghosts and cryptids.

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