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Jewish-American students call for an end to campus support of Birthright

Youth initiative IfNotNow embark on sit-ins at Jewish student organisation Hillel over continued ties with Israel propaganda tours
Activists said that there 'was no better than [Jewish Holiday] Passover to call for liberation' (IfNotNow)

Jewish-American student activists with IfNotNow, a youth-led initiative calling for an end to their community's support for the Israeli occupation of Palestine, are demanding that Jewish campus organisation Hillel International sever its relationship with Taglit-Birthright Israel.

Activists embarked on sit-ins in at least two cities in the United States on Tuesday, calling on Hillel to immediately cut ties with Birthright, for refusing to include the reality of the occupation in its itinerary during the free trips it provides for Jewish youth from around the world. 

Shahar Tsamaret, one of the student activists who led the sit-in at the Hillel offices at the University of Minnesota, told Middle East Eye that she felt it necessary to protest because "Hillel encourages students to go on Birthright trips to Israel and plays a role in erasing the occupation".

"Hillel also does not give space for students like us, who want to talk about Israeli occupation and who believe in a new Jewish future," Tsamaret said.

Hillel International is considered the biggest Jewish campus organisation in the world. It claims to have chapters in some 550 colleges in the US alone. Hillel says it "facilitates immersive travel experiences such as Taglit-Birthright Israel, Masa Israel Journey, and Onward Israel programmes to advance students’ personal relationships with Israel".

But Madi Norman, a student at the University of Chicago, says that while Hillel claims to serve Jewish students, it continues "to run trips with Birthright despite growing protests of its one-sided programming from young Jews and Birthright’s own actions silencing dissent".

'Hillel encourages students to go on Birthright trips to Israel and plays a role in erasing the occupation'

- Shahar Tsamaret, student activist

Taglit-Birthright Israel began in 1999 with the touted goal of connecting young Jews around the world to Israel and strengthening their Jewish identity. Around 650,000 Jews from all over the world have participated in the tours over the past 20 years. Some 48,000 made the trip in 2017.

“Every summer, tens of thousands of my peers participate in the programme’s 10-day, all-expenses-paid tours of Israel where, between nights of partying in Tel Aviv, they're sold a right-wing narrative about the country that denies the reality of the Palestinian life under Israeli military occupation," Daniel Epstein, a graduate student who also participated at the sit-in at Hillel offices at the University of Chicago, said.

The calls for Hillel to cut ties with Birthright are part of a campaign IfNotNow calls #NewJewishFuture, which urges young Jewish-Americans to boycott the group "until it exposes and opposes the injustices of Israel's occupation". 

Yonah Lieberman, a founding member of IfNotNow, told MEE in early April that the group hopes to gather 10,000 pledges by the end of the summer. 

Hillel International and Birthright did not respond to Middle East Eye’s request for comment.

‘New Jewish Future’

Sit-ins on Tuesday took place at the University of Chicago and later at the University of Minnesota, where around a dozen students at each campus held placards, sang songs and transmitted their message via Facebook Live

Activists at the Hillel International building at University of Minnesota were eventually forced out when they were threatened with arrest. 

"We were sitting in a circle and singing and we were told that if we didn't leave, we would be arrested. But we won't stop calling for Hillel to cut ties," Tsamaret said.

Over the past year, at least 12 American Jews have walked off Birthright tours over the “disinformation” and “erasure” of Palestinians from the tour.

The protests, activists said, are the culmination of months of campaigning by IfNotNow to get Birthright to make changes to its programme.

Jewish Americans abandon Israeli Birthright tour to call out propaganda
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When Birthright refused to do so, more than a hundred young Jewish American Jews protested outside the organisation's headquarters in New York on 5 April. Around 15 protesters were eventually arrested.  

Many Jewish-American activists, including groups like Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow, have grown increasingly vocal in their criticism of Israel’s occupation and treatment of Palestinians, especially at a time of burgeoning relations between US president Donald Trump and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. 

While IfNotNow has been lauded for its efforts to galvanise young Jewish Americans towards ending US  support for Israeli occupation, the group remains non-committal to critical questions like the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign (BDS) and Palestinian right of return.