Jewish anti-Israel activists in the US
Jewish anti-Israel activists in the US Flash 90

Since it began operating in 1999, Birthright Israel has brought some 600,000 young Diaspora Jews to visit Israel, with the aim of strengthening ties between Jews abroad and the Jewish state, and to foster Jewish identity among Diaspora youth.

With a clearly non-partisan agenda and a diverse set of trips catering to Orthodox Jews, members of the Reform and Conservative movements, and even unaffiliated Jews, Birthright Israel seems like an unlikely target for ideological battles within the American Jewish community.

The organization eschews politics and hot-button cultural issues within the Jewish community, forcing out the head of Oranim, Birthright’s largest trip provider, in 2009 over Oranim’s anti-assimilation, pro-Aliyah message.

Nevertheless, Birthright has found itself in the crosshairs of one radical left-wing organization, which seeks to curb American Jewish identification with Israel and combat the concept of a Jewish ‘birthright’ to the ancient Jewish homeland in the Land of Israel.

The Jewish Voice for Peace, far-left group based in Oakland, California which claims to have some 200,000 supporters, has denounced not only Birthright Israel, but the underlying concept behind Birthright’s name.

In the manifesto for the new “Return the Birthright” campaign, the Jewish Voice for Peace declares that Israel is not the birthright of Jews, and decries the nascent Israeli army’s efforts to defend against Arab invasion in 1948 as the “ethnic cleansing” of Arabs by “Zionist militias”.

“As young Jews, we recognize that Israel is not our birthright. In 1948, Zionist militias expelled over 700,000 Palestinians from their homes and villages, an act of ethnic cleansing, known by Palestinians as the Nakba or ‘catastrophe’ in Arabic, that cleared the land for the creation of the modern-day state of Israel.”

“As young Jews, we #ReturnTheBirthright. We implore other young Jews on our campuses and in our communities: don’t go on a Birthright trip to Israel. Don’t take a trip sponsored by conservative donors and the Israeli government, where the ongoing oppression and occupation of Palestinians will be hidden from you, just because it’s free. There are other ways for us to strengthen our Jewish identities, in community with those who share our values. Israel is not our Birthright. Return the Birthright.”

Ben Lorber, a campus organizer for Jewish Voice for Peace, said the right of return, which permits any Jew to immigrate to Israel and receive full citizenship, is “a fundamental injustice”, and said opposition to the Birthright program had been building among left-wing Jewish activists on campuses across the country.

“This is something that Jewish students have been talking about and acting on for a while,” Lorber told Haaretz. “It is a fundamental injustice that we as young Jews are offered these free trips and can become citizens of Israel if we choose to later on, while our Palestinian friends and classmates are denied the same connection to the land their parents or grandparents come from.”