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Birthright Blasted By Activists For New Ban On ‘Hijacking Discussions’

Birthright Israel has sparked fresh outrage from critics by imposing vague new conditions barring participants from “hijack[ing] a discussion” during its flagship trips.

The critics say the new clause in the contracts that all participants must sign could be used to squelch any discussion of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands — even though Birthright insists it is designed to ensure participants are free to debate in a “constructive manner.”

“Birthright is doing a perfect job itself from deterring people from going on these trips,” said Danielle Raskin, a volunteer with IfNotNow, a Jewish activist group that opposes Israel’s 51-year occupation.

The move, which was first reported by Haaretz, comes amid mounting activist pressure on Birthright to address criticism that it does not educate participants about the occupation and Palestinian rights within Israel proper. The program was rocked last summer by a series of protests and walkouts from young leftist activists.

Registration for Birthright trips has plunged for this winter’s trips, although it’s unclear if the political conflicts are responsible. (Birthright has said that the drop in enrollment is due to the first dates for signing up for the trips falling during the High Holidays.)

Activists also harshly criticized the tone of the contract, which they say “demonizes” the trademark Jewish penchant for sharp dialogue.

“From the students’ end, this [criticism] comes from a place of care, and investment in our Jewish education,” said Eva Bogwardt, president of the student board for JStreet U, the student wing of the dovish pro-Israel lobby, J Street. “That care is totally mischaracterized and demonized by the language in this contract.”

Birthright said in a statement that the new clause was a routine tweak to the contract and it was “shared widely.” It said violators will be booted off trips.

“Birthright Israel always welcomes participants’ views and questions, which are essential to the success of the experience, so long as they are shared in a constructive and respectful manner,” a spokesman for the group said.

The new Birthright contract comes after a summer in which several Birthright participants publicly walked off their trips. Five of the participants who walked off said in a statement that they did so because Birthright tried to “hide the occupation from us.” They released a video of their walkout.

In a statement issued at the time, Birthright said that the video did not show “the troublemakers repeatedly berated trip leaders, attempting to actually take over the trip from its leaders.”

Birthright kept the $250 deposits of eight participants who walked off their trips this past summer and cancelled their return flights home. The participants raised money for the flights with a GoFundMe page.

The new contract clause appears written to directly address such situations — and even comes close to echoing its statement about the walkouts. The new language, first reported by Haaretz, reads:

“Taglit-Birthright Israel expects each participant to maintain the personal integrity needed to build the intimate, intense and holistic group experience that typifies its trips. In order to ensure the trip’s overall integrity and educational mission, Taglit-Birthright Israel rejects any attempt, by any individual or organization, to manipulate its open climate. Efforts to coerce, force or suppress opinions, hijack a discussion or create an unwarranted provocation violate Taglit-Birthright Israel’s founding principles and will not be permitted.”

Raskin, who was one of the people who walked off their Birthright trip this past summer, said that the new contract language is meant to keep participants from asking questions about the occupation.

“They want to intimidate people, and make people fearful of challenging any aspect of their programming,” Raskin said. “Rather than attacking peoples’ ideas, they’re just attacking our tactics.”

IfNotNow has been trying new approaches to get Birthright participants to ask questions about Israel’s occupation while on their trip. They recently went to the airports where trips were meeting ahead of their flights to Israel to hand out reading material, including statistics and maps, to participants.

Birthright critics say that the organization’s alleged opposition to discussing the occupation is backfiring, as evidence by reduced enrollment rates for this winter’s trips as compared to last year. Trip leaders who spoke to Haaretz said they saw drops in enrollment between 20% and 50%.

“It’s not just a contract, it’s a larger problem,” said Bogwardt.

“People are already recognizing that Birthright’s pro-occupation agenda is stopping people from going on the trip,” Raskin said.

Birthright Israel offers all-expenses-paid trips to Israel for young Jews aged 18 to 32. Proponents say it instills a lifelong commitment to the Jewish state. They also assert it makes participants more likely to marry other Jews and be Jewishly involved.

Ari Feldman is a staff writer at the Forward. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @aefeldman

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