NYU Jewish Voice for Peace was one of several chapters of the organization that gathered late Sunday afternoon to protest outside of the Ziegfeld Ballroom where Trump campaign donor and pro-Israel billionaire Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam, were honored with the Guardians of the Jewish Future Award.
The event was the 18th annual gala held by Birthright Israel Foundation, which offers free 10-day trips to Israel for young Jewish adults. Adelson has donated at least $160 million to the organization over the years.
He has also previously spoken out against Palestinians, saying they are an invented people whose sole purpose is to ruin Israel.
LS first-year and NYU Jewish Voice for Peace Treasurer Ethan Fraenkel thinks the Birthright Israel Foundation masks the historical Israeli-Palestine conflict.
“A lot of people see Birthright as just a free trip, but we know that there’s a moral cost to it,” Fraenkel said. “It’s a big reason why young people are kind of indoctrinated into accepting Zionism, into promoting Israel and not recognizing the crimes. Birthright presents this very sanitized, Disney-fied version of Israel-Palestine. For instance, it doesn’t recognize that a lot of the cities people go to were originally on the site of destroyed Palestinian villages that were destroyed by Israel and ethnically cleansing.”
At its peak, a crowd of nearly 150 students from Oberlin College, Vassar College and other universities gathered to hear from speakers, including Palestinians, recounting stories of being unable to return home. The crowd protested outside the venue, with a small group of counter-protesters waving Israeli flags across the street.
Among their chants were “Birthright, birth wrong, the land was stolen all along,” and “Birthright, Birthright, you can’t hide, stop whitewashing apartheid.”
Several attendees of the gala yelled obscenities and flipped off the JVP members.
Amid a heavy police presence, two counter-protesters confronted the JVP members, calling them “stupid” and “morons.”
Gallatin first-year and JVP member of the NYU chapter Sophia Gallagher points out the disparity of free birthright trips while many Palestinians are still not able to return to their homes in the country.
“It’s very unfair that we are allowed to go there for free while people who are forced out of their homes can’t go there,” Gallagher said. “Palestinians should be able to have the right of return, and they should be given equal rights in the area.”
She adds that the Birthright Israel Foundation missed the mark in deeming Adelson helpful to the Jewish community.
“A free trip on stolen land is not what I would describe as something that’s helping the Jewish future,” she said.
Several members of the JVP chapters are also part of Return the Birthright, a group of young Jews who are eligible to receive the free Birthright trip but refuse on the grounds of the ongoing occupation of Israel and the human rights violations occurring in Palestine.
The gala comes after news that dozens of people have been killed and hundreds more injured during recent protests in Gaza, a highly contested area between Palestinians and Israelis. In addition, this year marks the 70th anniversary of the Nakba, a diaspora that displaced approximately 700,000 Palestinians from their homes due to war and the carving out of Israel as a nation for Jews fleeing persecution in Europe.
In commemoration, the crowd read the names of villages destroyed on that day 70 years ago, and placed stones for them as a traditional sign of mourning.
Moving forward, Sonya Meyerson-Knox, the media program director for the national chapter of JVP, said there is only one way to resolve the tensions between Israel and Palestine.
“Israel cannot continue to occupy land, Israel cannot continue to be a state that has human rights abuses and bigotry and apartheid systems, but rather has to be a system where human rights of Palestinians and Israelis are equally protected,” Meyerson-Knox said.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, April 16 print edition. Email Sarah Jackson at [email protected]