Days before Christmas, three Birthright participants were kicked off the trip by group leaders for reportedly just asking questions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, it turns out that the questions weren’t asked out of genuine curiosity; the three participants booted from the Birthright trip were actually members of the radical anti-Israeli “occupation” organization IfNotNow, which is currently running an anti-Birthright campaign that encourages people to “take action” during their trips. For Americans, the Birthright Israel trips are provided and paid for by the Birthright Israel Foundation.
Shira Leah (also referred to as “Shira Tiffany” by the Jerusalem Post) was the first person to publicly discuss what happened on her Birthright trip. While sharing over an hour of recorded footage on Facebook, Leah explained she and the others “tried to ask questions about it [the Israeli border wall] and didn’t accept his [the tour guide’s] answer that the entire conflict is caused by crazy violent Palestinians.” In her post, Leah mentioned IfNotNow’s anti-Birthright campaign, “Not Just a Free Trip.”
A Medium page for “Shira Yudkin Tiffany” uses the same exact photo “Shira Leah” does on Facebook and discusses her support for the IfNotNow #ResistAIPAC campaign from 2017. In March 2017, “Shira Yudkin Tiffany” wrote an article in the Israeli paper 972 asking, “American Jews, which side are you on?” Throughout the piece, IfNotNow is mentioned 13 times. Shira Tiffany is also named on a press release for IfNotNow Boston and is mentioned on the IfNotNow website as a Jew who was arrested protesting in front of the Israeli consulate in Boston in April.
Leah even created a fundraiser for IfNotNow on Facebook in November 2017. When thanking people for donating to the fundraiser, Leah said she felt “incredibly lucky” to be involved “in this movement.” In 2016, she uploaded a photo of people wearing shirts with the words “NO LIBERATION WITH OCCUPATION” on them and touted IfNotNow’s merchandise, referring to her membership in the group as “we.” In 2016, she sent out multiple tweets encouraging people to join IfNotNow.
Ben Doernberg, whose thread about Birthright went viral on Twitter, similarly shared concerns about the tour guide allegedly putting “100% of the blame” on terrorists for the existence of the Israeli wall and demanded more “nuance.” Doernberg is identified as a member of IfNotNow by the organization in a press release and in an article in the left-leaning New Republic.
Emily Bloch is the third participant who was kicked off the Birthright trip. In her piece in Forward detailing what happened to her on Birthright, Bloch detailed her membership in IfNotNow. She wrote, “I started to get involved in IfNotNow because I wanted a space to engage in learning, community building, and action with like-minded Jewish young people.”
Considering that the main page of IfNotNow’s website currently decries the “daily nightmare” of “the occupation” by Israel, Bloch was well-aware that her group of “like-minded Jewish young people” does not likely include Birthright participants.
IfNotNow’s “Not Just a Free Trip” anti-Birthright campaign asks people whether they are planning to attend Birthright and encourages them to “talk before your trip!” Prospective Birthright participants are encouraged to fill out a survey that asks them for their Birthright trip advisor and their bus number before asking “what support” they need during their trip. The “support” options include talking before the trip, taking “action” during the trip, opting to “visit the Occupied Territories after my trip is over” and simply wanting to learn more.
The Winter 2018 resource package provided by IfNotNow includes a diagram showing “what your Birthright guide says” versus “the truth.” Under the diagram, people are encouraged to share the things their Birthright guides said that allegedly “showed” them that it’s “#NotJustAFreeTrip,” such as, for example, saying, “The Arabs don’t want peace. They just want to kill us.” The website also gives sample questions to ask during the Birthright trip, such as “What is the Occupation?” “Where are the Occupied Territories?” and “Will I see evidence of the Occupation on my Birthright trip?”
Although the Birthright trip is in Israel, two of the statements given by the participants took jabs at policies regarding the U.S.-Mexico border and President Trump. In her post on Facebook, Leah wrote, “I am devastated by Trump’s policies of family separation, detention of children, and building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border because it goes against all of the values I was taught growing up n [sic] my Jewish community, where my mom was the Rabbi. It is unfathomable that I would be asked to stay silent when we see the same thing happening in Israel. Clearly this is a bribe, not a gift.” Similarly, Bloch wrote in Forward:
“So when I read the news of the government shutdown over Trump’s demand to build a wall along the US-Mexico border, my heart sank. I felt doubly sick as I watched our Birthright bus wind along the separation wall. I know enough about the separation wall to know that it denies Palestinians freedom of movement, keeping them apart from family members only a few miles away. And I had heard — both in the media and from the Israelis on my trip — that Trump views Israel’s wall as model of success.”
These references to American immigration are not coincidental; according to Bloch’s bio in Forward, she works as an organizer for Cosecha (otherwise known as Movimiento Cosecha), an immigrant-rights organization that launched in July 2015 and gets its name from the Spanish word for “harvest.”
The group reportedly has no paid staff, only volunteers. Currently, Cosecha is running a campaign to meet prospective illegal immigrants at the border to provide them support. Donations to Cosecha go through ActBlue Charities, and the group is fiscally sponsored by the Ayni Institute. The Ayni Institute website boasts that its support for Cosecha “has now lead [sic] to the development of IfNotNow.” The website for Cosecha also solicits donations to Pueblo Sin Fronteras, a group heavily involved in organizing the most recent migrant caravan. Bloch is a former fellow for the group JOIN for Justice, otherwise known as the Jewish Organizing Institute and Network for Justice. In the same alumni class as Bloch is yet another reference to “Shira Tiffany,” also from Boston.
In addition to focusing on Israel, IfNotNow also supports a variety of standard liberal causes. For instance, IfNotNow has even pitted Jews against the leaders of the Women’s March, who are facing accusations of anti-Semitism. IfNotNow’s support of Women’s March organizer Linda Sarsour, for instance, started in 2014, when the group praised her for retweeting its material. Sarsour called the group “the future of the American Jewish community.”
But we won’t be fooled. We know who shares our Jewish values and belief in freedom and dignity for all — and it isn’t the Trump-loving Saudi regime or Islamophobic Jewish organizations. It’s progressives like @lsarsour, @IlhanMN, and @RashidaTlaib.
— IfNotNow🔥 (@IfNotNowOrg) December 10, 2018
Along with Sarsour, Minnesota Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar and Michigan Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib are all supporters of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement.
While IfNotNow doesn’t have the same kind of funding and institutional backing as Birthright, its support has been growing—and quickly. According to the group’s 2016 990 tax filing, in 2015, the organization’s revenue totaled $145,656. In 2016, the organization’s total revenue was $497,507. The net income for the group grew from $39,712 to $186,317 between those two years.
In March 2017, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund awarded IfNotNow a one-time $20,000 grant. In July 2018, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund gave IfNotNow $40,000 over two years. Both of these grants, which are for “general support,” claim the goal of the program is to “Advance Just and Durable Peace: Constituencies for Peace.” In 2018, the Foundation for Middle East Peace gave money to IfNotNow and other anti-Israel causes, such as Jewish Voice for Peace and even the terrorist-associated United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). In 2017, the group gave $10,000 to support the “general operating funds” of IfNotNow. The Arca Foundation also gave $30,000 to IfNotNow in 2018. The Max & Anna Levinson Foundation claims it donated to IfNotNow to “End the Occupation,” and has also donated to Sarsour’s MPower Change group to “#StandWithMuslims,” along with a variety of other Jewish-related causes.
The IfNotNow page is currently posting footage of various people pulling the same kind of stunt as Leah, Doernberg, and Bloch on their respective Birthright trips. In fact, over the summer, IfNotNow gained international prominence for showcasing activists recording themselves walking off their Birthright trips. In addition to sharing pre-planned walk-off events to drum up support for its mission, IfNotNow organizers have also confronted people planning to attend Birthright at airports with scripted, leading questions for participants to ask on their trips. The planned spectacles by IfNotNow members have even led Birthright to institute new rules against “[e]fforts to coerce, force or suppression opinions, highjack [sic] a discussion or create an unwarranted provocation.” While the new Birthright rule has been criticized by many, the recent actions taken by IfNotNow members, with the agenda of taking over the trip to support the organization’s mission, makes it seem more reasonable.