When the Stanford College Republicans announced that they were bringing Dinesh D’Souza to campus, the response from the Jewish community on campus was swift and almost universally negative. It makes sense! We, as members of the Jewish community, have a lot to be mad at D’Souza for — his (since retracted) retweet of a tweet with the hashtag “#burnthejews” and his penchant for comparing George Soros and Bernie Sanders (both Jews who either survived the Holocaust or had family who perished in it) to Nazis are probably enough to get the point across.
But maybe more infuriating than SCR’s invitation of D’Souza was the response to their Jewish critics. Instead of taking into account the wide-ranging condemnation of their invitation, SCR doubled down, condemning the “smear attacks that ooze through the pages of the Stanford Daily” and claiming that they, as an organization, have done the most of any group on campus “to combat anti-Semitism.” They even took the time to call out Jewish students for criticizing them for earlier actions, which is obviously the correct thing to do when accused of promoting anti-Semitism. SCR hid behind a vague aegis supporting Israel and “combating anti-Semitism” and spoke over the actual Jewish people who could speak to their opposition to SCR’s conduct and values. When SCR and D’Souza have a network of right-wing media outlets to amplify their voices over ours, it’s easy to feel like the voices of actual Jewish students don’t matter at all.
But what does it feel like to not be able to speak at all?
Every year, 40,000 Jewish young adults go on Birthright, a free 10-day trip to Israel. If you’re a Jewish student on campus, or even someone who’s friends with a few of them, you’ve probably heard of it. It’s hard not to, with flyers throughout Hillel and Chabad and a concerted marketing push to young Jewish students. Those 40,000 students will go to Israel and see its sights — the beaches at Tel Aviv, the Dead Sea, a kibbutz or two — and its connections to Jewish history, from the Western Wall to Masada. But there’s one important piece to understanding Israel that Birthright withholds from young Jews: the Palestinian people and the experiences they have to share.
Birthright currently bans their trips from meeting with Palestinians — even those who are citizens of Israel. A Jewish student who goes on Birthright might hear about the Occupation of the West Bank from an IDF soldier or a knowledgeable tour guide, but never from an actual Palestinian voice on their trip. And without hearing from anyone who can speak to the perspectives of the nearly 6.5 million Palestinian people who live lives deeply interconnected with Israel, young Jews on Birthright trips are left with a fundamentally lopsided notion of what life is like in Israel and Palestine. Palestinian voices are systematically silenced and crowded out by Birthright, and both Jewish students and Palestinians lose out.
In fact, the only people who benefit from this status quo are the same people who are creating it. We as American Jews want a two-state solution, an end to the occupation and at least a partial dismantlement of some Israeli settlements in the West Bank — polling conducted by the polling firm GBA strategies indicates 83 percent approval from American Jews for a two-state solution as of this November, and a similar poll conducted by the American Jewish Committee found 60 percent approval for dismantling at least some of Israel’s settlements in the West Bank. By crowding out Palestinian voices and the voices of American Jews who want a peaceful solution in Israel and Palestine, the donors that are funneling tens of millions of dollars into Birthright every year reshape the conversation into one of unquestioning, uncritical support for the occupation.
We don’t have to let them win.
Just as we don’t have to just let the College Republicans control the narrative and claim that they are the strongest defenders of our community on campus, we don’t have to let the donors that control Birthright’s programming continue their stranglehold on American Jewish discourse. They may have the money — 90 million dollars of it, as per last year’s operating budget — but we have the people. Birthright only runs, only gets to control the narrative, if people actually want to go on its trips. That’s why I am proud to champion J Street U Stanford’s new campaign to ensure that Stanford Birthright trips meet with Palestinian speakers who can speak to the realities of the occupation of the West Bank. Our petition already has more Birthright-eligible signees on this campus than the number of people who went on Birthright last year. We, as members of the Jewish community on campus, have the power to shape this conversation. For our own sake and for the lives and stories of everyone in Israel and the Palestinian territory, we must use that power for good.
Contact Jacob Kuppermann at jkupperm ‘at’ stanford.edu for more information.