Members of the University of Michigan chapter of J Street, an American advocacy group that promotes the efforts of “pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans,” have published a petition to incorporate Palestinian perspectives into Birthright trips with University of Michigan Hillel.
Hillel is a global Jewish campus organization. As part of its mission to advocate for Jewish students, it runs Birthright trips during which young Jews can travel to Israel on a sponsored trip and learn about the state’s history and culture.
Jewish students made headlines this summer by walking off of birthright tour buses due to agendas and framing on the trip they saw as one-sided.
LSA junior Meghann Norden-Bright, the co-president of the University’s chapter of J Street, along with other leaders of the organization, decided to gather signatures after they received feedback from members of the campus Jewish community expressing dissatisfaction with Hillel’s Birthright trips.
“We were hearing from a lot of Jewish students who were feeling that Birthright didn’t offer a balanced perspective,” Norden-Bright said. “As Jewish students and young Jewish Americans, a lot of people were calling for better representation in this and wanting to hear a more balanced perspective. The idea was essentially that we wanted to make Birthright better and to get a more balanced education with it.”
Norben-Bright and other Jewish students were frustrated by the fact that students taking the Birthright trips can’t hear from Palestinians during their time in Israel due to Hillel’s policy. They felt the absence of this perspective severely affected the educational value of the trips.
“We feel that there’s an omission of these narratives from the trips right now and that if students go to Israel and they only hear one side of the story, that’s going to be inherently biased,” Norden-Bright said. “The goals of the petition are for every student who goes on Birthright to hear from a Palestinian about their lived experience and to hear those narratives and to have a more comprehensive picture of Israel.”
The petition is a part of a national J Street initiative to incorporate Palestinian perspectives into the Birthright trips. The University’s chapter is the latest in a series of nationwide college student organizations that have echoed the call for a re-examination of the education offered by the trips. Palestinian students at the University have called for boycotts of the trip altogether, and the national chapter of Jewish Voices for Peace rallies around the same cause.
Student engagement abroad in Israel has been in the spotlight this year at the University. Earlier this semester, instructors declined to write letters of reccommendation for students studying in Israel, upholding an academic boycott against the state.