American missions to Israel need to expand their scope beyond hasbara.
I’ve decided to travel to Israel this winter despite the Knesset’s recent law banning foreigners who have advocated for boycott of the settlements—which I’ve often done to protest the Occupation. I’ve been there at least 24 times, and it’ll be sad if I’m turned away—not to mention a travesty of the state’s democratic principles—but I think it’s urgent for American Jews who care deeply about Israel’s future to do some serious fact-finding on the ground.
And that means doing more than just traveling on the kind of Israel mission offered too often by synagogues and Jewish communal institutions. To my mind, most of these reveal a narrow geographic, political and ideological viewpoint and a propagandistic objective. They want to make people fall in love with Israel (which I did more than 40 years ago) but also to forestall any doubts or questions.
Jewish visitors’ overall impression of Israel depends largely on the places they’re taken to and the people sponsors have chosen to give them “briefings.” Most Jewish institutional sponsors want our impression to be 100 percent positive, with no disturbing images or contradictory narratives to muddy the picture. The Israel they show us is a miracle of bustling nightlife, rich cultural ferment, medical and technical wonders and happy, harmonious citizens. We could spend ten days there and never notice the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or have a meaningful encounter with an Arab. (Many such tours also offer little access to female leaders, but that’s another problem.)
One synagogue itinerary I saw recently was a case in point. It featured a discussion of the future of Israeli-Palestinian relations—with an Israeli speaker but no Palestinian. One day’s activity was to “explore Christian East Jerusalem through visits with Christian personalities and institutions,” but there was no comparable exploration of Muslim Arab perspectives.
As a result, the people on that trip probably missed a major contentious development in East Jerusalem. They wouldn’t have seen what Elad, the religious nationalist group funded by the late U.S. bingo millionaire Irving Moskowitz (among others), has been doing to “Judaize” Arab Jerusalem—forcing out or buying out Palestinian owners in order to move Jews into those homes, and excavating the ground under Palestinian properties, ostensibly for archeological research but actually to establish Jewish claims to “biblical, historical” sites so that those properties can never be subject to negotiation.
By contrast, when I traveled last year with Americans for Peace Now (APN)—on whose board I serve—we spent time touring East Jerusalem with Hagit Ofran of Peace Now’s Settlement Watch, who pointed out several places where there was evidence of such excavations carried out illicitly.
On one recent APN trip, we met a Likud official at Israel’s Foreign Ministry, three Israeli security experts and the U.S. consul general in Jerusalem. But we also met with the PLO ambassador to the United States, a member of the PLO’s Executive Committee and a prominent Palestinian entrepreneur.
There are many ways to get a nuanced view. A group called Encounter designs trips intended both to examine the Israeli-Palestinian issue and to heal conflicts over it within the Jewish community. To that end, Encounter arranges meetings with Palestinian officials, nonviolent activists, teachers, sheikhs and teenagers. It provides kosher food, Jewish prayer services and Torah study—as well as panel discussions by Palestinian women and home hospitality with Palestinian families. Intensive programs in Bethlehem and Hebron give Jews face-to-face experiences with the Other.
Few tours sponsored by mainstream Jewish organizations include visits to Palestinian villages inside the Green Line. Fewer still cross into the West Bank, except to admire sprawling, spanking-clean Jewish settlements. So what is it that traditional Jewish institutions don’t want American Jews to see?
On ordinary sightseeing trips, the stated rationale is usually safety, not politics. One Israeli travel agent told me he would never take American Jews into Ramallah because he “can’t take responsibility for their security.” Yet in recent years, Peace Now has shepherded numerous travelers through Ramallah, and when visiting this vibrant city I’ve never once felt unsafe.
When synagogue missions take Jews to the Kerem Shalom border crossing between Israel and Gaza, their primary goal is to demonstrate the vulnerability of southern Israel to rocket attacks—which no one can deny.
When our APN group visited that border, we met with an Israeli diplomatic correspondent and a major general of the Israel Defense Forces. We sat in a playground whose bomb shelters were disguised as huge circus animals, a sight as chilling to us as it would be to a traveler with AIPAC or United Jewish Appeal. But we also met with leaders of a local peace organization—the Movement for the Future of the Western Negev. Our itinerary exposed us to the vulnerability and the fear, but also to the activism and the hope.
I’m not sure if Jewish communal tour planners are just blind to what’s missing from their itineraries or willfully overprotective. Are they afraid that exposure to a layered reality might make us “anti-Israel?” If so, they should be worried about the superficiality of our commitment.
I confess to giving small credence to people who bad-mouth “the Palestinians” without ever having broken bread with one, visited a Palestinian home or school, strolled through a Palestinian village or observed the stark contrast between their dusty roads and the sleek highways built for Jewish settlers. Jews who’ve seen only Jewish or even Christian Israel tend to be less equipped to engage in substantive discourse about the country’s politics. Without facts, arguments too often deteriorate into slogans and denunciations.
For years, I’ve been badgering my friends to vet any Israel itinerary presented to them and, if it’s skewed, to demand a broader scope. Jewish tour organizers should not give us a Potemkin village or a party line. They should trust us to process Israel’s contradictions, complexity and ambiguities along with its many wonders.
This article appeared first on November 1, 2017<\a> in Moment Magazine.
In December of 1988, during the last days of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, the United States publicly agreed to an official dialogue with the Palestine Liberation Organization. This followed PLO leader Yasser Arafat’s renunciation of terrorism, acceptance of Israel’s right to exist, and endorsement of UN resolutions 242 and 338, after which the US accepted the PLO’s legitimacy. In effect, the PLO had conceded that 78 percent of what they considered to be historic Palestine was now Israel. They accepted that control of the “remaining” 22% — the West Bank and Gaza Strip — would be determined by negotiations.
The Palestinians had finally assented to the “land for peace” formula that had been adopted by the US, Israel, and the international community after the 1967 war. Now, almost 30 years later, this formula is being undermined by a figure who once would have seemed an unlikely culprit: the US ambassador to Israel.
The comment by US State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert, made at a press briefing this past Wednesday, was as absurd as it was dangerous: “We are not going to state what the outcome [to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict] has to be. It has to be workable to both sides. And I think, really, that’s the best view as to not really bias one side over the other.”
By this logic, any expressed preference by the Trump administration for a two-state solution risks prejudging the outcome of the peace process in favor of either Israelis or Palestinians.
In reality, an explicit endorsement of a two-state solution is the most unbiased approach that the administration could take.
The June 25th decision by the Israeli government to suspend the agreement to create a pluralistic prayer space at the Western Wall could not have been more poorly timed. Coinciding with a visit of American Jewish leaders to Israel and coupled with the government’s decision to further a bill tightening regulations on Jewish conversions, the message of disrespect, disregard, and rejection was thus maximized – as was the response.
Rabbi Rick Jacobs of the Union for Reform Judaism cancelled a planned dinner with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and, along with Rabbi Steve Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, called the decision a “betrayal.” Jerry Silverman, CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America called the move “a direct insult.” The outrage even included this line from Michael Siegel, the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel: “Support for Israel does not necessarily mean support for the Israeli government.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apparently wants to convince us that he is not interested in reaching a peace deal, but in maintaining power by catering to his radical right flank and the settler movement.
At a June 6 ceremony celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War, Netanyahu promised an audience of settlers that “no one will be uprooted from their home. … I’m doing whatever is needed to protect the Jewish settlement enterprise in Judea and Samaria. … We are building and planning in all parts of Judea and Samaria.”
During a White House press conference in February, while expressing his interest in helping make the “ultimate” Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, President Donald Trump appealed to Netanyahu: “I’d like to see you hold back on settlements for a little bit,” he said. Trump’s ask clearly didn’t persuade Netanyahu against giving in to the settlers’ demands for expansion. Netanyahu’s promise to the settlers not only contradicts his stated support for a two-state solution, but also jeopardizes the prospects of future Israeli-Palestinian peace.
"Everybody knows,” goes the argument. “Everybody knows that under any future Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, West Bank settlement blocs will be annexed to Israel.” And because everyone knows that, the argument goes, Israel should be allowed, even encouraged, to continue unhindered with settlement construction in the “blocs.”
Proponents of construction in settlement blocs argue the following. There is an Israeli consensus around the future annexation of the blocs once a peace agreement is signed. Even the PLO gave a nod of approval for such a scenario. Both Israelis and Palestinians have accepted the principle of “land swaps” (Israel compensating the Palestinians for lands it will annex east of the Green Line with Israeli land West of the Green Line). The US has made it clear that it will not insist on an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 lines. Given all that, they say, why not build in areas that “everybody knows” Israel will end up keeping and annexing? How could that damage future negotiations?
This logic is becoming so rampant that a prominent Washington expert on the conflict recently said: “If settlements are the problem, then the blocs are the solution.”
Really? Is more settlement construction here the solution to the problem that settlement construction there creates?
As Americans come out in huge numbers to challenge the illiberal policies of President Donald J. Trump, they should be mindful of developments in and emanating from another increasingly illiberal democracy: Israel.
In power in Israel for nearly a decade, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his political partners have focused their energies on one goal above all others: expanding settlements and securing permanent Israeli control over territory occupied by Israel in 1967. In pursuing this “Greater Israel” agenda, Netanyahu has governed according to a political ethos that has much in common with that of Trump, starting with the belief that political might makes right; that laws, courts, and public institutions exist solely to serve those in power; that the media and activists are the enemy; that hasbara (Hebrew for “propaganda,” often akin to “alt-facts”) trumps facts; and that democratic norms like “rule of law” and “checks-and-balances” are for suckers.
Americans should pay attention to Israel not merely for the many lessons it offers about how illiberalism can take hold in a free society. They should pay attention because the same “Greater Israel” agenda that has eroded Israeli society is today poisoning America’s democracy.
The more Netanyahu hitches his wagon to the White House, the more he and Trump resemble each other, the more American Jews will actively resist both.
Israel’s newly adopted, patently unconstitutional “Regularization Law” further distances most American Jews from the government of Israel and the State of Israel.
It does so by further underscoring the similarities between Israel’s leadership and U.S. President Donald Trump’s campaign of constitutionally controversial executive orders. It thus further deepens the sense of dissonance in the minds of American Jews regarding the U.S.-Israel relationship.
***UPDATE: The final language of the bill has been significantly broadened, and now applies to “Any person who is not a citizen of Israel or holds a certification for permanent residency in the state of Israel shall not be given a residing certification or permit of any kind, if he, or the organization or agency for the sake of which he acts (she-hu po’el avuram), has knowingly published a public call to boycott the State of Israel, as defined in the Law to Prevent Harming the State of Israel through Boycott of 2011, or if he has committed to take part in such a boycott, as stated.”***
***UPDATE: The Knesset passed the "Entry Bill" into law on March 6, 2017***
APN's statement condemning passage of the law is here.
What is the “Entry Law”?
The so-called “Entry Law” currently under consideration is an amendment to Israel’s 1952 “Entry Law,” which determines who is allowed to enter into Israel and under what conditions.
The amendment stipulates that any person who is not an Israeli citizen will be denied entry into Israel if:
“if the person, or the organization or agency for the sake of which he acts, has knowingly publicized a call to boycott the state of Israel, as defined in the 2011 Law to Prevent Harming the State of Israel through Boycott, or (if that person) has pledged to participate in such a boycott.”[while granting Israel’s Interior Minister the prerogative to issue exceptional entry permits to boycotters “for special reasons.”]