Two University of Michigan students were arrested in New York City Friday for their role in protests outside the headquarters of Taglit-Birthright Israel. In total, seven students from the University were present at the demonstration, which included approximately 200 Jewish members of IfNotNow, an activist group that opposes Israel’s presence in the Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
IfNotNow wants Birthright Israel to address political issues such as the treatment of Palestinians and to educate participants on Palestinian perspectives on Israel’s control over the region. The students protesting Friday demanded changes to the Birthright Israel trip, the free 10-day trip to Israel for young Jewish adults aged 18 to 32.
Incoming LSA transfer student Zu Weinger and LSA junior Becca Lubow were arrested along with 13 other activists for blocking the entrance to the Birthright Israel building.
Art & Design junior Ariel Friedlander was at the protest, which activists publicized using the hashtag #LastChanceBirthright. Friedlander said IfNotNow has been sending demands to Birthright Israel for the past six months.
“For months we’ve been asking Birthright to meet our very simple demands, which are recognizing the West Bank on their maps that they give out to their people on the trip, and that they have a Palestinian speaker on these trips and that they recognize the crisis that is the occupation,” Friedlander said.
In a statement responding to the demonstration, Birthright Israel said it was an apolitical organization.
“We encourage our tens of thousands of participants each year to challenge themselves by asking difficult questions and engaging in conversations with our educators and their peers, including Israeli participants,” the statement read. “IfNotNow maintains a radical approach to an agenda they know does not align with the facts. Birthright Israel provides a multifaceted view of Israel, Jewish heritage and Jewish values.”
Friedlander criticized Birthright Israel for refusing to have a dialogue with the activists about their concerns.
“These people at Birthright refuse to have a conversation about the freedom and dignity of Palestines and refuse to acknowledge them. And they chose to arrest their fellow Jewish Americans,” Friedlander said. “The fact that they chose to have these 15 people arrested instead of having a dialogue, instead of being responsible and standing up for what’s right — it says a lot about the values they upload and the future they see for Judaism.”
Birthright Israel spokeswoman Pamela Fertel Weinstein told The Algemeiner, a New-York based publication covering “matters of Jewish interest around the world,” that the organization was not responsible for the arrests.
“We had nothing to do with any of the arrests made by the NYPD,” Weinstein said. “It is our understanding that after blocking Third Avenue and the entrance of the building to tenants, the NYPD arrested them for disorderly conduct as they would do in any similar situation.”
In a press release, Weinger said Birthright Israel had chosen to listen to the organization’s donors rather than students, noting donations from the Israeli government and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as well as American business magnate Sheldon Adelson.
“Today was Birthright’s last chance to choose the progressive values of our generation over the interests of its right-wing donors, like Sheldon Adelson and the Netanyahu government,” Weinger wrote. “Over the past year we’ve asked Birthright to make simple changes like adding the Green Line marking the Palestinian territories to the maps they give participants. But Birthright has refused to engage with us. Today we went to their headquarters, demanding they hear our stories and engage with us in the streets — but they arrested us, once again choosing their donors over us.”
In a post on the group’s Facebook page on Friday responding to the arrests, IfNotNow said, “Birthright made their choice — now we get to make ours.” The post promised to announce the activists’ plans for the future on April 10. IfNotNow University of Michigan will host a discussion the same night at the School of Social Work about Birthright and students’ experiences on the trip.