Sunday, February 6, 2011

Taglit/Birthright Israel to J Street U: Drop Dead

Taglit/Birthright Israel's relentless march to the right continues. First, it axed a planned Birthright trip co-organized by J Street U to Israel. Now it has launched a website for young adults called Take Back Zionism, whose "partners" include nobody to the left of Ameinu, formerly the Labor Zionist Alliance. So J Street and J Street U (formerly, the Union of Progressive Zionists) are excluded.

Oh, I suppose one of its partners, Ameinu is progressive Zionist….but let's face it, how many young people affiliate with Ameinu and not with J Street U? For that matter, how many young people have heard of Ameinu? I don't mean to diss that organization (I do that here), which has come out on behalf of the Sheikh Jarrah activists, and against some recent Knesset decisions. But why are they partnering with an initiative that doesn't include J Street or J Street U? Is there a real split among progressive Zionists here?

On the disallowal of the Birthright J Street U trip there is a balanced article here. The official reason given by Birthright? J Street has a political agenda, and it does not fund trips that are organized by groups with political agendas. (AIPAC has a political agenda, but AIPAC is kosher for Birthright, since it supports any Israeli government, no matter what shade of rightwing nationalist it may be, from the extreme right of Avigdor Lieberman to the moderate right of Tzipi Livni.)

But what if J Street U doesn't actually sponsor the trip, but a trip is organized for progressive Jewish youth? Here is the response of Jacob Dallal, Birthright spokesperson:

"There have been trips around social justice in Israel," [Dallal] said. "Those trips have been vetted. If the trip provider said, 'We want to do a thing on social justice,' we could have judged it on its merits, but that never took place."

One wonders whether Birthright considers Israeli activists on the West Bank, or the struggle of its Palestinian citizens for equality to be considered "social justice"? I imagine that as long as "social justice" stays within the Jewish consensus – a trip to Neve Shalom, a visit to a clinic for Ethiopian Jews, etc. – that's all right with Birthright.

As for Take Back Zionism -- the drab, alte kakke-looking website has old content paid for by old Zionists in an effort to attract the Rachel Maddow crowd. All right, maybe I am a wee unkind. But take a look at its partners, which include, "Artists 4 Israel" (countering the artistic boycott), Friends of the IDF, The David Project, Standwithus, ZOA, NGO Monitor, Hasbara Fellowships, etc., etc, and you will see how heavily weighted this group is to the right, the Ameinu fig leaf notwithstanding.

I suppose that Take Back Zionism is a way to prolong that Birthright afterglow. But if it wants to appeal to young Jewish progressives on the Upper West Side, it should be talking with J Street U.

When I asked why J Street did not appear as a partner, and why Zionism was limited to the conventional statist kind, I received this reply:

We are not limiting Zionism at all, in fact, the point is to expand Zionism and move it away from the narrow connotation it currently holds in contemporary discourse

There are a number of reasons why J Street is not on this list- first and foremost, they do not have a young leadership group or 'next generation' activity in NYC- you will find that our partner organizations have a way for alumni to actually engage and become involved.

If there are opportunities for young adult engagement in the NY metro area with J Street that you have heard of, please do let us know.

Well, it's nice to know that NGO Monitor has a young leadership group in NYC, and that it numbers more than the young adults affiliated with J Street…If you believe the above, I have a bridge to sell you….

By the way, J Street does have a young professionals network in NYC, and it is putting on an event this week. See here.

Look, I will take back some of my criticism of the site when J Street is included. (Needless to say, Martin Buber and Judah Magnes are not in the pantheon of Zionists there, but the official version of Zionism excluded them long ago, and Americans can't be blamed for that.) But I have a feeling that Take Back Zionism is being disingenuous here.

And I am sure Kenneth Bob can explain to his rank-and-file why Ameinu is kosher as a partner for Take Back Zionism, whereas J Street, on whose advisory board he sits, is treif.


Ken Bob said...

I am afraid your most recent post displays a lack of knowledge and research that I have not noticed in previous posts. For example, you are obviously unaware that Ameinu is a sponsor of a progressive Zionist youth movement aged 10-25 named Habonim Dror which creates a direct link to the younger people you believe have never heard of Ameinu. Secondly, do you know that Ameinu was the co-founder of the Union Of Progressive Zionists, the previous name of J Street U?

You also hint at some sort of organizational rivalry between J Street and Ameinu. That really displays a gap in your knowledge; nothing could be further from the truth. Ameinu has been involved with J Street from the start, serving as "Participating Organization" for both of the first two conferences. I personally have been invited to speak this year at the conference as well. In terms of participating in the Birthright returnee programming you cited, we agreed so there would be a progressive Zionist alternative for interested parties. I don't see how it is better to leave the playing field to "the other team."

Also, FYI, I was personally very involved in the J Street U Birthright situation and agree that the decision to cancel the program is wrong-headed in every possible way.

Finally, I don't think being a blogger as opposed to another type of journalist absolves the writer of doing minimal research in order to get your facts striaght. An email to me and/or J Street would have provided lots of useful background. Happy to be in touch with you directly at any time.

Jerry Haber said...

Ken, I knew those things that you mentioned (well, except for the bit about going to bat for J Street at Birthright;) they appear here:

and I familiarized myself with Ameinu's website before writing the post.

I also know -- though I am certainly no expert on the behind the scenes -- that UPZ decided to go with J Street and become J Street U. Perhaps you can enlighten readers of the blog why that was the case.

As for Habonim Dror, I know a whole bunch of students at my campus who are involved with J Street U with ties to Habonim Dror. It's a worthy institution.

But all this is besides the point.

What I am really interested in hearing is why J Street and J Street U are not included on the the Take Back Zionism website, whereas Ameinu is. I cannot fathom why one organization is kosher and the other treif -- if both are progressive Zionists.

And yes, if J Street is being excluded, then I would expect Ameinu not to be a partner of the webstie, in solidarity with other progressive Zionists, especially since Ameinu is a founding member of J Street and you are on its advisory board.

As you know, there are many people in the consensus Zionist camp who delegitimize J Street. If -- and maybe there is another explanation, I hope there is -- this is the case with Birthright, then it makes all the sense in the world to tar Birthright with the brush of Standwithus, ZOA, and NGO Monitor than to be, frankly, a fig leaf among a lot of rightwing organizations.

But if the J Street folks contact me and say they are ok with Ameinu being a partner of the website and their not being a partner -- well, I may see things differently. If there is a tacit understanding between the two groups that I don't know of, I will delete the post.

In the future, I will be happy to contact you for a reaction prior to posting. Thanks for the offer.

Brian said...

For me the question is deeper: Why would Ameinu and J Street and any other "progressive Zionists" want to be in bed with NGO Monitor and others who are leading the crusade against any form of progressive, even "liberal" Zionism. I reviewed the list of Board members of Ameinu and found many rabbinic colleagues and past Habonim friends who are on this list. I can't fathom why J Street or Ameinu join in the crusades of the right that are aimed at the very progressives that one would think they would ally themselves with. Instead they end up with the most extreme, right wing groups like NGO Monitor and the others. This is the contradiction that is ignored by liberal American Jews who wish to oppose the Occupation while joining with right wing groups to "support Israel" With friends like these...

Ralph Seliger said...

Having been involved with Meretz USA (then and now), I can tell you that the Union of Progressive Zionists moved to J Street to become J Street U largely for financial reasons. The UPZ was founded under the board leadership and with the financial backing of Meretz USA, Ameinu, Habonim Dror and Hashomer Hatzair.

While the financial burden was shared by the founding groups, it fell heaviest on Meretz USA, because it devoted a major amount of staff time in the UPZ. When the possibility opened up for the UPZ to affiliate with J Street, we all welcomed this as an opportunity for the pro-Israel, pro-peace perspective to grow at American college campuses.

eeejay said...

There is always Taglit Lekulanu: