After originally being denied entry into the University of Michigan Hillel Foundation building, approximately 20 University students conducted a sit-in at the building Friday afternoon to demand the foundation cut ties with Taglit-Birthright Israel.
Demonstrators were insisting Hillel end its relationship with Birthright Israel, a free 10-day trip to Israel for young Jewish adults aged 18 to 32. IfNotNow, a Jewish activist group opposing Israeli occupation, coordinated the sit-in. The group defines the occupation as “the military rule over Palestinians in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza.”
At about 9 a.m. Friday — during the Jewish holiday Passover — a live-streamed video of demonstrators marching to the Hillel building surfaced on the IfNotNow Facebook page. Demonstrators in the video can be seen holding two banners that read “Hillel and Birthright: it’s time to part” as well as smaller signs. On their way to the Hillel building, demonstrators sang a song adapted from Chance the Rapper's "Blessings" titled “We’re Gonna Rise Up Momentum Song.”
Upon arriving to the Hillel building, participants explained their reasoning for taking part in the demonstration. LSA and Art & Design junior Ariel Friedlander was one of the individuals who spoke at the demonstration, which took place outside of the building. In her speech, she called on Hillel to hold itself accountable for harm she said it has caused for some members of the University’s Jewish community.
“Some of us have grown as Jews through our participation and leadership in Hillel’s ritual and communal space,” Friedlander said. “Some of us have been estranged by Hillel’s exclusion of our knowledge, identities and political convictions. Some of us have been directly harmed by Hillel leadership, policies and community members, and we don’t feel safe in Hillel.”
LSA sophomore and Hillel Chair Leor Rosen wrote in an email to The Daily that IfNotNow had not reached out to Hillel directly, but Hillel leadership would be open to talking with the group if they do.
“IfNotNow has not reached out to us to talk about their concerns,” Rosen wrote. “We have only seen their demands posted publicly on social media. I, as well as other student leaders and staff members, welcome having this conversation in a way that fosters dialogue and relationship.”
Friedlander said it is IfNotNow’s firm belief that Jewish institutions should uphold the freedom and dignity of all people. She asked Hillel to listen to IfNotNow’s demands, which included to no longer host anti-Palestinian speakers, to stop prioritizing Israeli advocacy over the needs of Jewish students and to cut ties with Birthright Israel.
According to the Facebook post attached to the video, participants were stopped from entering the Hillel building because of their politics. In a later video posted on the IfNotNow Facebook page, demonstrators are later let into the Hillel building Hill Street by Executive Director Tilly Shames. No electronics were permitted inside of the building.
Shames wrote in an email to The Daily that Hillel was not made aware IfNotNow was coming beforehand and did not indicate they wanted to enter the building. She also wrote she told demonstrators she would be available to talk, but no one from IfNotNow approached her.
Demonstrators were not allowed to bring electronics in, Shames wrote, because Passover requires refraining from the use of technology to focus on prayer and the holiday.
“The protestors arrived at our building chanting loudly and recording themselves, which would have been disruptive to our services and offensive to those celebrating the holiday had it happened inside the building,” Shames wrote. “My top priority is to ensure the safety and respect for those participating in programs in Hillel, which today meant Orthodox religious services for the Passover holiday. Once we received assurances that our holiday programs would not be disrupted, we opened the doors and allowed them into the building.”
Once she was aware the demonstrators wanted to come inside, she wrote, she informed the rabbi and let them in. Shames wrote the wait to come inside was less than five minutes.
Shames also wrote many past participants reached out to her to express their support for the program in light of today’s demonstration. She wrote the Birthright Israel trip includes Arab-Israeli speakers and discussions about the conflict in the area.
“Birthright is primarily a trip to foster Jewish community and enable our students to explore their Jewish identity and relationship with Israel,” Shames wrote. “Past Birthright participants who were aware of this protest approached me all day to tell me how meaningful their Birthright experience was and how glad they are that they went on a trip with our Hillel. Michigan Hillel’s Birthright trip, in which hundreds of students participate every year, presents diverse voices, including Arab-Israeli speakers and discussions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
This sit-in comes after the University chapter of J Street, an American advocacy group that promotes the efforts of “pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans,” published a petition to incorporate Palestinian perspectives into Birthright trips with University of Michigan Hillel.
Throughout the past two days, IfNotNow demonstrators at other universities such as the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Chicago and Northeastern University have also been conducting sit-ins outside of their respective Hillel buildings.
Earlier this month, 15 people — including two University students — were arrested after taking part in a demonstration outside Birthright Israel headquarters in New York. An open letter posted on IfNotNow’s UC Berkeley’s Facebook page Sunday addressed the demonstration and asked Hillel to no longer work with Birthright.
In an interview with The Daily, Friedlander said IfNotNow chose Passover because it is supposed to represent freedom. But, according to Friedlander, Birthright Israel denies occupation, illegal settlement and representing the West Bank on its map.
“Us at IfNotNow know that the Birthright is not in our Jewish future,” Friedlander said. “We want to build a new Jewish future that really works towards our Jewish value of fighting for the freedom and dignity of all people, and Hillel is an important ritual and communal space for Jews on this campus, and we feel isolated and excluded from Hillel for our political beliefs. We believe that Hillel has to potential to cut the tie with Birthright and to build a better Jewish community that represents our values.”
Additionally, Friedlander disagreed with Shames, saying Birthright Israel does not have a history of including Palestinian voices in its trip or discussing the occupation. She specifically referenced students who were kicked off the trip for asking about the occupation as an example of this. Friedlander said if Birthright Israel did fairly represent Palestinians, students would not have been arrested in front of its headquarters.
“Truly, we at IfNotNow are Jewish students working toward liberation, and we have immense respect for Jewish ritual, for Jewish practice, for Jewish identity and that is why we do what we do,” Friedlander said. “We were raised on our Jewish values, and those Jewish values are what led us to be here today at Hillel and to demand a Jewish future that reflects the Judaism we wish to see in the world.”
Correction: This article has been corrected to accurately reflect the ending of Passover and the origin of IfNotNow's song, which was not original. Additionally, the article has been updated to represent IfNotNow's goal of Birthright being ended, not revised.