Jewish-American protestors at U. of C. demand Hillel stop supporting Birthright Israel

“It is not despite my Jewishness that I despise the occupation [of Palestine], it is because of it,” says U. of C. student Madi Norman. Norman, flanked by Ruthie Dworin and Everett Peltzman, was speaking at the protest outside the U. of C. Hillel Center. (Photo by Marc Monaghan)

By SAMANTHA SMYLIE
Staff writer

Jewish students at the University of Chicago who are a part of the IfNotNow movement, a national movement to “end the American Jewish community’s support for Israel’s Occupation”, demanded that U. of C.’s Hillel House cut ties to Birthright Israel — which is a national organization that takes young Jewish-Americans to Israel.

On April 23, IfNotNow UChicago held a rally at the university’s main quad and marched to Hillel House, 5715 S. Woodlawn Ave., to give their demands and personal accounts of why they decided to not support the Birthright program. The students conducted a sit-in that lasted for almost 24 hours. During the night, 5 students slept on the lawn in chilly weather.

The rally took place during Passover, a Jewish holiday that remembers the exodus from Egypt; it is a time where many Jews recommit themselves to fighting for freedom. To combine the holiday with the protest, the students asked Hillel four questions — as a reflection of the Passover Seder’s four questions ritual.

Each of the four questions proposed during the protest centered on one main question, “Why does Hillel partner with an organization that violates so many of the Jewish values it seeks to uphold and instill?” said Madi Norman, a third-year student at U. of C.

During the rally, IfNotNow UChicago said it does not support the 10-day trip to Israel because it hides the conditions that Palestinians live in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem.

In an op-ed written in the Chicago Maroon on April 12, IfNotNow UChicago said: “Estimates suggest that Israel arrests between 800 and 1,000 Palestinian children each year, some of whom are not even teenagers, with about 270 in Israeli prisons at any given moment. Since 2007, Israel has imposed a land, air, and sea blockade of the Gaza Strip, restricting the flow of essential goods and human beings and thereby creating a humanitarian disaster.”

The student protestors also criticized recently re-elected Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for his campaign promises to annex Israeli settlements in the West Bank, as well as Sheldon Adelson and Michael Steinhardt, the primary financial supporters or Birthright.

For the past year, the IfNotNow national movement has been working to get Birthright to change its program. The movement has four demands for Birthright: “Mark Gaza Strip on every map, educate participants on the daily nightmare of the occupation, show a checkpoint from a Palestinian perspective and bring trips to Hebron to see what the policies of the occupation have done to the city.”

In early April, the national movement went to Birthright Israel’s headquarters in New York City to deliver their demands. Instead of being heard by Birthright officials, 15 people were arrested.

“Birthright is a fundamentally, morally corrupt institution. When they arrested 15 young Jews, they exposed the fact that they are unwilling to change. Birthright as an institution was designed, and continues to be designed, as an institution to uphold and entrench the occupation,” said Ruthie Dworin, a second-year student at U. of C.

As a result of the arrests, the group has focused its efforts on getting local organizations, like Hillel, and Jewish-Americans to stop supporting Birthright. However, this has been a difficult feat.

For many young Jewish-Americans, the Birthright trip is seen as a rite of passage and a promise to find a Jewish community. Students at the action on Tuesday evening asked their community to stop linking the trip to their Jewish identity.

“In the fall of 2014, I was starting to come into Jewish adulthood. I still had a lot of questions, but I made a lot of friends who went to a Jewish Day School. One night, we were having a pretty heated debate and it was about what was going on in Gaza. At one point in the conversation, the look on my friends’ faces became quizzical. They asked me, again, if I were Jewish. I said ‘Yes, absolutely. Why are you asking me this right now? We’re talking about Gaza’. They said, ‘Well if you’re really Jewish, you wouldn’t have a problem with this. You would be on our side.’” Norman said revisiting a childhood memory.

“At the time, I trusted them because they had a lot of Jewish Authority. So, I thought to myself ‘Ok, if they’re saying that I can’t be Jewish if I don’t support this then fine. In between then and now, I joined IfNotNow. Through that, I realized that it is not despite my Jewishness that I despise the occupation [of Palestine], it is because of it … Birthright is not the natural consequence of Jewish Identity. It is fundamentally in opposition to what we stand for,” Norman said.

As the sit-in continued, members of UChicago Hillel asked the protestors to come inside and talk instead of having a sit-in. After negotiating with UCPD officers and a Dean, the protestors were allowed to stay outside, and Hillel was given an option to request disciplinary action.

The Hyde Park Herald reached out to U. of C.’s Hillel to get a comment about its position on supporting the Birthright trips, but Hillel has not responded.

s.smylie@hpherald.com