Last week, J Street U, the campus arm of J Street, wrapped up its inaugural free trip to Israel for Jewish college students. The “Let My People Know” trip was conceived as a response to protests against Birthright, which does not include meetings with Palestinians on its trips, or discussions about the occupation.
While the debate around Birthright has received significant national attention, there are some Israel tours for college students that are going unnoticed. These trips are led by organizations with explicit right-wing political agendas that have a dangerous potential to affect young US Jews’ understanding of Israel and the occupation in the years to come.
Groups like Hasbara Fellowships (HF) and the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) recruit to their tours Jewish and pro-Israel leaders on campuses. They attempt to inculcate in these leaders support for the occupation and illiberal Israeli policies, such as displacement of Bedouin Israelis from their villages in the Negev.
How do I know? I participated in ZOA and Hasbara tours for campus leaders. I witnessed firsthand their efforts to generate support for extremist policies and their attempts to brand dissent as anti-Israel.
I went on these trips not because I support the politics of ZOA and Hasbara. Frankly, it was opportunism. They provided a highly subsidized way to return to Israel, where I’d spent a gap year and for which I feel tremendous affinity. I couldn’t have afforded to go on my own. My participation also brought the prospect of securing funding from these groups for the politically unaffiliated Israel group I ran on my campus.
What I saw and heard on these tours shocked me. It was reprehensible and even dangerous.
Tour leaders policed language and opinions. In ways that could be considered public shaming, they corrected neutral terms like “West Bank” and “settlements,” replacing them with terms in the lexicon sympathetic to the occupation: “Judea and Samaria” and “Jewish communities.”
Guides and guest speakers spoke of anti-occupation, Zionist organizations like J Street and Americans for Peace Now with derision; they questioned explicitly the Zionist, and even Jewish, identity of supporters of such groups. David Friedman’s poisonous characterization of these fellow Jews as “kapos” would have fit in nicely.
Right-wing, pro-occupation, and even racist content filled most of the presentations we attended. “Make Greater Israel Great Again” was the title of the opening presentation on the ZOA trip, just weeks after the election of Donald Trump.
The trips included substantial time in settlements as a means of normalizing them and building bonds with their residents. During meetings with settler leaders in Hebron, both tours featured talks by Rabbi Simcha Hochbaum, who called mass murderer Baruch Goldstein a righteous man.
Rabbi Hochbaum told us that the murderous Palestinians between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea made Goldstein’s 1994 massacre of 29 Muslims during prayer pale in comparison. I was stunned the first time I heard this. The second time, I confronted him. He insisted that the good Goldstein had done in his 11-year medical career far outweighed the moment in which he gunned down Palestinian Muslims in Hebron’s Ibrahimi Mosque.
We didn’t only meet settlers, though. Unlike on Birthright, these tours included meetings with Palestinians in the West Bank, though they were very carefully curated to convey a particular narrative.
We went to the new Palestinian city of Rawabi, home to luxury apartments and high-end stores, and met with its founder Bashar Masri. The message: How could occupation be bad if one can buy Coach handbags?
We also visited a settler-owned factory near the settlement-city of Ariel and engaged in a discussion with its Palestinian workers, a conversation heavily curated by the factory owner. Surely, occupation is good if it provides jobs for Palestinians, right?
Palestinians who challenged occupation, such as those we observed from a distance in Hebron, were characterized as murderous. How can we end occupation if Palestinians would kill Jews, if given the chance?
Birthright aims to create an uncritical affinity between diaspora Jews and Israel. Programs like those run by ZOA and Hasbara are more problematic, even dangerous. They aim to indoctrinate campus leaders, instilling a rigid right-wing orthodoxy concerning what it means to be pro-Israel.
They also use hardball financial measures. Hasbara makes a portion of the money paid by participants for its heavily subsidized trip refundable through a point system. To “earn” their money back, Hasbara Fellows must work with program advisors to earn points. Under HF’s point system, a Fellow’s deposit would be refunded if, for example, she formed a “deep and ongoing” relationship with a non pro-Israel student group; implemented a strategy to “fight against BDS/Apartheid Week”; distributed Hasbara Fellowships materials on campus; published an approved Israel-related op-ed in a university newspaper; and recruited a student to attend a future HF Israel Program.
These programs do no favors for either their participants, or for Israel. Through propaganda, manipulation, and even financial incentives, they aim to create a cohort of leaders advocating unquestioning support for Israel’s most problematic policies.
I am an Israeli flag-waving, kippa-wearing Jew, but because I oppose the occupation, programs like those run by Hasbara and ZOA paint people like me as anti-Zionist and even self-hating. Rather than enhance young American Jews’ affinity to Israel, they threaten to widen the chasm between American Jews and Israel.
Ultimately, these programs prove the maxim that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. The meal they serve is rotten.
Scott Boxer is a rising senior at American University and an intern at Americans for Peace Now.