After a series of highly publicized walkouts on Taglit-Birthright trips this summer, the organization has included a ban on “hijakck(ing) a discussion” in the contract participants are required to sign to be accepted on its free 10-day trips to Israel.
A new clause included in the contract appears aimed at preventing a recurrence of such fiascos, which caused considerable embarrassment to the organization and were unprecedented in its nearly 20-year history.
It also could be used to bar any debate about Israel’s 51=year occupation of Palestinian lands or the moribund Mideast peace process. The clause is included in all the contracts signed in the current winter season.
The new clause appears under the “Code of Conduct” section of the contract, which is known as the “Gift Waiver and Permission Agreement.” It suggests – though it does not say so explicitly – that participants who disrupt trips could face sanctions.
A key excerpt reads as follows: “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.”
This past summer, activists affiliated with IfNotNow, an anti-occupation movement, organized walkouts on several Birthright trip to protest what they charged was the program’s one-sided take on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The walkouts were live-streamed on social media and shared widely.
Participants who left their trips subsequently joined activists from Breaking the Silence, an organization of former Israeli combat soldiers fighting the occupation, on trips to the West Bank.
When asked if the new clause in the contract was prompted by the walkouts this past summer, a spokeswoman for Birthright refused to comment. She also refused to explain what the organization meant when it warned in the contract that such activities “will not be permitted” and specifically, whether participants engaging in such activities would be thrown out or sent home.
As reported in Haaretz last week, Birthright is experiencing a sharp drop in registration and participation rates this winter season, as compared with last winter. According to five trip organizers who spoke with Haaretz, the drop ranges from 20 percent to 50 percent, depending on the trip organizer. Birthright acknowledged that its numbers were down this season and blamed the decline on the fact that the first registration days for the winter season coincided with the Jewish High Holy Days.
The trip providers told Haaretz they were not entirely sure of the reasons for the downturn but offered several possible explanations.
One explanation was that because eligibility requirements have been loosened in recent years, young Jews feel less of a sense of urgency nowadays to register for the program. In the past, the program was open only to participants aged 18 to 26. In a bid to expand the applicant pool, Birthright announced a few years ago that anyone up to the age of 32 would be eligible.
Trip providers have also speculated that the downturn could reflect the well-documented fact that young American Jews are growing increasingly disengaged from Israel, and have less and less interest in visiting the country – even when the trips are free.
Earlier this month, a petition signed by 1,500 Jewish students – demanding that Birthright include in its itinerary Palestinian speakers able to address the realities of occupation – was delivered to Hillel directors at over 30 campuses across the United States.
The petition was organized by J Street U, the campus affiliate of the pro-Israel, anti-occupation advocacy group. Hillel, the largest Jewish student organization in the world, is a major recruiter for Birthright.