Stanford Birthright trips stirs controversy among students

Feb. 23, 2016, 1:56 a.m.

The kibbitz-means-ohat email listserv has traditionally been at the heart of political debate within the Stanford Jewish community and often serves as a forum to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A month ago, on Jan. 18, the chat list’s political tensions flared in the context of Stanford Birthright trips, leading to ongoing debate.

Michaela “Izzy” Ben Izzy ’18, a member of Stanford Students for Justice in Palestine and a subscriber to kibbitz-means-chat, became frustrated with the number of emails on the listserv that were promoting Birthright, a trip which she sees as inherently pro-Israeli, and in response emailed kibbitz-means-chat announcing that she would be sending emails to the listserv about Palestinian solidarity events.

“I wrote the email because we’d been getting a lot of advertisement emails for Birthright from all sorts of different members of the community including our rabbi,” Ben Izzy said. “Trips to Israel, and particularly the Birthright trip, was being mixed up with Jewish life on campus.”

Ben Izzy’s email spurred a number of emails in response, some criticizing her characterization of Stanford’s Birthright trip, and others defending her.

One student who responded to Ben Izzy, Aaron Zelinger ’16, had participated in a Stanford Hillel-sponsored Birthright trip in the summer of 2014.

“I just saw what were clearly inaccuracies [in Ben Izzy’s email]… I wanted people to know the truth about my experience and the experience of my friends who’d been on Birthright,” Zelinger said, describing the trip as “a process that really welcomed dissent, that actively asked us to challenge our beliefs without any right answer, that simply sought ostensibly to expose us to Israel.”


Political disagreement

One of the points of dispute is whether or not Birthright trips have an inherently political and pro-Israeli agenda.

“Birthright is pro-Israeli by nature,” Ben Izzy said, including Stanford’s Birthright trip.

Zelinger disagrees, arguing that people’s perceptions of Birthright don’t always match up with the experience itself.

“I know among liberal Jews there’s a healthy skepticism about Birthright… concerned about propaganda, concerned that they were going to be fed the standard, you know, lines of 30 years ago regarding the conflict,” Zelinger said. “In my case… that simply isn’t the case. We actively sought to dig a little deeper than what the classic political lines are,” he continued.


The role of on-campus organizations

In response to the recent conversations surrounding Birthright, Stanford’s branch of J Street U, a national organization supporting a two-state solution in Israel and Palestine, hosted an event on Feb. 9 to provide an opportunity for students to discuss Birthright and other trips to Israel.

“Students had raised concerns that Birthright presented a one-sided narrative, and we held this event to serve two purposes: to complicate that narrative, and to talk about the role of Birthright and other Israel trips in the Jewish community, on campus and in the U.S. community at large,” wrote Eva Borgwadt ’19, interim co-chair of Stanford’s J Street U, and Zoe Goldblum ’18, the other co-chair as well as the VP for the Northwest chapter of the national organization, in an email to The Stanford Daily.

“Our discussion went well – there were a variety of perspectives regarding the conflict and organized Israel trips, including several students who felt they could not go on an organized Israel trip for political reasons,” Borgwardt and Goldblum wrote. “However, we noticed that no students who had attended Birthright trips came to our event, and we want to ensure that future discussions include their voices.”

Stanford Birthright trips are organized and run by a Zionist youth group called Young Judaea, and they are sponsored by Stanford Hillel, which also oversees the admissions process for students who apply to the trip. Ben Izzy expressed particular frustration with Hillel’s role in promoting Birthright trips.

“I’m involved with Students for Justice in Palestine, and I have strong opinions on the conflict and I’m also Jewish,” Ben Izzy said. “It’s disappointing for me to see Hillel become a center for… pro-Israeli life.”

Ben Izzy envisions the role of Hillel as a facilitator for discussion and debate, rather than an advocate for one political perspective.

“I think there’s division within the Jewish community on this issue and Hillel could even be a place we all come together on it,“ Ben Izzy said. “Of course there’s going to be differing opinions but intellectual discourse, asking the hard questions, those are Jewish values. We need to ask them; we can’t have one-sided conversations.

“It’s not possible, it turns out, to go to Hillel without encountering pretty intense, pro-Israeli sentiment,” she added.

Zelinger, however, doesn’t see the conversations as one-sided.

“I’ve never been shut down at Hillel,” Zelinger said. “I’ve had healthy discussions and debates at Hillel, before, during and after the divestment movement on campus.”


Common ground

Both Ben Izzy and Zelinger agree on the need for awareness and education in the Israeli-Palestinian debate.

“I definitely think that we should be discussing politics in the context of Hillel because it’s totally a Jewish issue,” Ben Izzy said. “But it needs to be a conversation; it needs to be a fair conversation. And we don’t have representation of Palestinian voices in Hillel.”

For his part, Zelinger feels that Birthright provides a unique opportunity for education and enrichment.

“I think we have to be careful about equating travel to Israel and exposure to Israel and the complex issues on the ground there, with supporting any political ideology,” Zelinger said. “Instead, I think it’s much more difficult but much more important to roll up our sleeves and go experience these places for ourselves, to go see the realities for our own eyes,” he added later.


Looking forward

In the future, Ben Izzy plans to continue sending emails about Palestinian solidarity events to the kibbitz-means-chat listserv. In addition, J Street U wants to continue the conversation that her original email raised through planning future events and trips to Israel.

“We would like to follow up with another discussion that more specifically addresses the past and future Birthright trips attended by Stanford students,” Borgwardt and Goldblum wrote. “We look forward to working together [with Stanford’s Israel Fellow] to create future trips that reflect the needs of the Stanford community in presenting a narrative as nuanced and complicated as the region itself.”


Contact Sarah Wishingrad at swishing ‘at’

Sarah Wishingrad '18 is a former Desk Editor for the University/Local beat. She is a History major from Los Angeles, California who loves politics, the waffles at Coupa, and all things Jane Austen. Ask her about her dog, Hamilton, at swishing 'at'

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