Friends Seminary group in Palestine, earlier this month, at their site
The Anti-Defamation League‘s Abe Foxman is annoyed that a group of seventeen high school students and six faculty members from New York City’s prestigious Friends Seminary recently visited Israel and Palestine (which he terms the “West Bank region”), but didn’t spend nearly enough time being force-fed ADL-approved hasbara.
Writing in The Jerusalem Post in late March, Foxman expressed his clear frustration that “the participants will be spending most of their time in the West Bank meeting with Palestinians,” during which time students “will have overnight stays with Palestinian families” and “will be developing oral histories of those families.” While Foxman states that “[t]here is, of course, nothing intrinsically wrong in doing these things,” he worries that “because of the intensely personal nature of the home visits in the West Bank, which will expose the group only to a Palestinian perspective, these visits should be balanced by similar experiences with Israelis within Israel,” including “meeting with Israeli families” and “visiting important venues like the Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem.”
Foxman is irked about what he calls the school’s “distorted, anti-Israel version of historical and current events in the Middle East” and worries that its administrators and students won’t “recognize how easily what seems like criticisms of Israel can veer into anti-Semitism.
What Foxman deftly omitted from his criticism of the Friends trip is that, at the time his piece was published, students had already visited Jerusalem’s Western Wall, explored a number of synagogues, St. Anne’s Church and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, spent time at The Israel Museum, where they met with the director of a program that conducts workshops in which Palestinian and Israeli children create art together, and visited the Jordan River Valley with Mira Edelstein of the Tel-Aviv-based organization EcoPeace/Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME). The day after Foxman’s piece appeared in the Jerusalem Post, the group traveled to Jaffa where they met with Dr. Edward Rettig, Director of the Israel/Middle East Office of the American Jewish Committee as well as a representative of The Abraham Fund Initiatives, a non-profit organization dedicated to “promote coexistence and equality among Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens.”
Nevertheless, Foxman criticizes Friends for “taking high school kids to the Middle East and devising such a pro-Palestinian schedule,” especially because “Israel is America’s main ally in the region, a number of the students are Jewish, and balance is one of the school’s valued and oft-stated educational goals.”
It is unsurprising that Foxman’s disingenuous yearning for “balance” is driven by his desire to see the “impressionable high school students” exposed to Israeli narratives that reinforce the eternal victimhood of not only Israel but all Jews worldwide and which equate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. Learning about the personal experiences of Palestinians and experiencing the infrastructure, discrimination and oppression of the occupation does not fit with Foxman’s agenda.
This past November, the ADL took a “group of senior Latino and Latin American journalists, editors and producers [on] an eight-day mission to Israel” in an effort “to counter what it sees as Latinos’ less favorable attitudes toward Israel.” The Jerusalem Post reported that “Stops on the tour included the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the Gush Etzion settlement bloc, Sderot, Nazareth, Safed, Lake Kinneret and the Golan.”
These Latino journalists, who hailed from the United States, Bolivia, Chile and Venezuela, went to multiple areas under Israeli occupation and probably met with numerous local colonists in their illegal settlements on stolen land! Imagine how “intensely personal” these “visits in the West Bank” were for the journalists. One has to assume that, due to Foxman’s apparent commitment to a “balanced” narrative presenting “similar experiences” of both Israelis and Palestinians, when visiting Christian holy sites on the ADL’s dime and with their own guides, the Latino journalists were able to spend ample time speaking with Palestinians, both Christian and Muslim. Oh, wait, that didn’t happen? Shocking!
In early 2004, the ADL took “[s]enior law enforcement personnel from across America, including “sixteen police chiefs and FBI terrorism task force representatives,” to Israel to meet “with their Israeli counterparts and learned how to better predict, prevent and respond to terrorism.” By Foxman’s standards of “balance,” the officials must have been told about the rampant Israeli arrest of Palestinian children and toddlers, who suffer abuse – mental, physical and sexual – and who are tortured during and traumatized by their imprisonment. They surely learned about Israel’s use of administrative detention to hold Palestinians indefinitely without charge or trial, a direct violation of universal human rights and international law.
Did the group visit Palestinian communities victimized by housing demolitions, a particularly vindictive form of collective punishment favored by the Israeli government, examine the illegality of Israel’s Apartheid Annexation Wall and U.S.-supplied weaponry, or study the implications of a surveillance state built upon domestic spying and racial profiling? Of course not.
University of Florida student Virlany Taboada was sent to Israel in 2010 by the ADL and “visited key sites related to Israel’s history,” “learned the country’s significance to the Jewish people,” and heard “different perspectives…from a variety of people while in Israel including military and a family that the group had a Shabbat dinner with one night.” Balance!
No wonder that upon her return, Taboada said,
“For people who say that the Holocaust didn’t exist or that God doesn’t exist, you know the moment you go to the Jewish home and see a Jewish city that something happened. You know something took place that has completely transformed the way Israel is and the way people talk about it and I think that is what I saw there — that there is something special and something unique that you can’t find in a lot of places.”
That “special” and “unique something” is actually called Apartheid, Virlany. In fact, the ADL’s annual Campus Leader Study Mission is so balanced, the non-propaganda just drips from the following description of last year’s trip:
Each year, the ADL brings leaders from colleges across the country to Israel. In August, 17 campus leaders joined the latest of these annual trips.
The eight-day trip, designed for students who have never visited the country, included visits to the Dead Sea, the Golan Heights, the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum, the Jordan River and Christian and Jewish holy sites.
Students also learned about Israel’s diverse culture. They had Shabbat dinner with a family in Jerusalem and met with members of the Druze community as well as Ethiopian immigrants. They met Israeli Defense Force soldiers, students, and young citizens at the forefront of the summer’s tent city protests.
The mission also sought to further the students’ understanding about the conflict by bringing speakers with varying opinions such as a West Bank settler and a Palestinian journalist.
Whoa, one whole Palestinian journalist, eh? What perspective. Assuredly, Foxman didn’t raise any qualms about “balance” when AIPAC brought over 80 members of the U.S. House of Representatives to Israel in a move that was assailed by Palestinian Knesset member Ahmad Tibi as a “propaganda tour” designed to whitewash and obfuscate “the discrimination and occupation that the state of Israel imposes on the Palestinian people in its midst. ”
But Foxman is right: how are New York students supposed to internalize hasbara when they’re actually meeting with Palestinians in Palestine and staying in their homes under Israeli occupation? And all without a visit to Yad Vashem? I mean, when exactly was the emotional blackmail supposed to occur? And how are they supposed to make out with IDF soldiers if they’re busy learning Palestinian oral histories?
But that’s not all.
Foxman attacks not only the “imbalanced structure of the trip” but also one of its chaperones, a history teacher at Friends, who he describes as having “well-known anti-Israel views, which he promotes at the school” and who “he presents the students a completely biased and one-sided version of events in the Middle East.” Here, the ADL chief seems to be taking his cues from the eminent warmonger, torture-advocate, and outspoken terrorist supporter Alan Dershowitz, who recently also took to the pages of The Jerusalem Post to declare Friends Seminary a haven for anti-Semitism and condemn the same teacher as “rabidly anti-Israel…who propagandizes his students against Israel in the classroom, and who has a picture of Anne Frank wearing a Palestinian headdress on his website.”
“In his World History class, when he devotes one day to Israel, his two primary sources have been reported to be a speech by former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and a paper by the American Friends Service Committee,” reveals Foxman, adding that the AFSC “has a long history of one-sided advocacy against the State of Israel.”
But Foxman’s selective and sensationalistic suggestion is not supported by facts and deliberately seeks to elicit shrieks of shock and condemnation.
The speech assigned to students is not just “a speech by former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat,” it is the 1988 Palestinian Declaration of Independence, written by renowned poet Mahmoud Darwish. Students are also assigned to read both the 1917 Balfour Declaration and Israeli’s own 1948 Declaration of Independence. Furthermore, that a Friends school would include a paper by the American Friends Service Committee is hardly newsworthy.
Foxman also misunderstands the “oral history” component of the Friends trip. The project consists not of Friends students doing oral histories of Palestinian families, but rather sharing their own oral histories about Friends Seminary and Meetinghouse in Manhattan with Palestinian students from the Ramallah Friends school who developed oral histories of their own families.
The fact that the picture of Anne Frank in a kaffiyeh – used to spooky effect by Dershowitz – was actually this photograph of New York City street art posted on Flickr by someone else and merely “liked” by the history teacher in question hardly merits any attention, but perhaps demonstrates just how absurd these charges are.
Perhaps most telling is the inconvenient fact which Foxman and Dershowitz both deliberately leave out of their libelous descriptions of the Friends history teacher: he’s Jewish.
While Foxman claims to have spoken to “a number of parents” who seem to question the “balanced” nature of Middle East curricula at Friends, Joel Cohen, a current Friends parent, responded to both Foxman and Dershowitz’s attack on the school. In a letter written to and published by The Jerusalem Post the day after Foxman’s article appeared, Cohen condemns the “unjustified and unsupported attack on a New York private school, Friends Seminary, that Alan Dershowitz began last month,” stating that “Foxman, like Dershowitz, criticizes this respected school, its administration and faculty based on assertions he fails to support.” Cohen writes that Foxman “cites no evidence for his accusation about the history teacher, much like Dershowitz failed to offer when he began the attacks against Friends and this teacher. Like Dershowitz, Foxman also fails to provide evidence that he in fact knows anything meaningful about the Friends visit.” An even more detailed rebuttal of Dershowitz’s claims was posted on the Friends Seminary Facebook page in late February.
But the best counter to the attacks on Friends and its faculty lies with the students themselves. During the trip to Israel and Palestine, the students kept an incredible, publicly-accessible blog, entitled “Friends Visiting Friends in the Middle East.” It features posts written by the students themselves about their experiences and feelings.
Reading through the posts (written by the students themselves about their experiences and feelings during the trip), understanding the trip’s itinerary and looking at the gorgeous pictures, one can easily see why Foxman and friends are terrified of Friends students traveling to Israel and Palestine without the requisite hasbara pit stops. Truth and knowledge are anathema to Zionism’s stranglehold on emotional blackmail, ethnocratic exclusivity, and perennially exploited victimization.
In one entry, a Friends student named Eliza wrote about her conflicted feelings:
When I reflect on the experiences of this trip, the criticisms of it, and the larger conflicts within this region, I have found it really easy to lose sight of the human element in all of this. When I think about my host mother and the way she treated me with love and warmth despite my personal religion and political views, I find it a little bit easier to see the human side and I am incredibly grateful and thankful for that. I am more appreciative that I feel I am coming away from this experience with more of a human connection absent of all politics.
Jacob, who is in his senior year at Friends, wrote the following after spending time with Palestinian students and his host family in Ramallah:
I was amazed at how much these students like me, and also fascinated by the cultural differences…I never want to forget my experiences here, nor do I want to forget the lessons that I drew from them even though we are from different cultures and hold different beliefs. We are the same where it matters most: we both want peace, we both want to laugh, we both value passion, and we both enjoy a good felafel.
Another senior, Will, described painting messages on the separation wall as “one of the most ‘Friends’-like experiences I’ve ever had,” elaborating
We were all painting messages of hope and peace, and beyond that I was moved by how much we were supporting each other, both metaphorical and literally: Not only did we cheer each other on and applaud each other’s handiwork, but I actually lifted Rose up on my shoulders so she could find space to write. I also wrote my own message; after much internal debate, I decided to write the phrase that kept coming to my head: “WE ARE FRIENDS.” And walking away in the sunlight, with empty spray-paints cans in hand and classmates at my side, I really did felt that these words were true.
Shortly after arriving in Israel and traveling to the West Bank, Rose summarized her feelings about what she had experienced so far:
We’re simply not staying here long enough. It’s a relief. A dream come true.
It is no surprise that experiences like those described by the courageous students of Friends Seminary, experiences that humanize Palestinians, represent a dangerous threat to the hegemony of narrative so desperately promoted by career Zionist apologists like Foxman and Dershowitz.
For them, Rose’s “dream come true” is an absolute nightmare.
This post appears also on Nima Shirazi’s site, Wide Asleep in America.