Last week I did a post on a Vassar College trip to Israel and Palestine that drew opposition from the Students for Justice for Palestine chapter at the school because it was associated with Israel’s Arava Institute.
Well at the same time Harvard sent over a trip of a far more pro-Israel character, and it has gotten into a lot more trouble for a laughable reason. “[L]ed by a dynamic team of Israeli undergraduates,” The Harvard Trek trip recruited 50 Harvard students of diverse background (i.e., they’re generally not Jewish) to fall in love with Israel. And not a word about Palestine:
Students will learn about Israeli history, culture, and politics. Some of the topics explored will include the hi-tech industry, the emerging cultural landscape, questions regarding religion and state, the peace process and Israel’s geopolitical position in the region.
But the problem was that the students visited the Muqata in Ramallah a week ago and tweeted out the image above, at Arafat’s tomb. Even that was too much!
After it was discovered by rightwingers, the Jewish press has gone crazy over the fact that pro-Israel groups helped pay for the tour. There are a dozen or more stories in pro-Israel outlets about the outrage. Here is typical coverage, from Israel Hayom:
“I was horrified to see that Harvard Hillel is a supporter, and Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies is a sponsor of a trip that includes a visit to the grave of one of the world’s most notorious Jew-murdering terrorists,” [Daniel] Mael told the The Jewish Press weekly newspaper.
As the Israel Trek’s website put it, “Israel Trek is made possible by the generous contributions of a number of family foundations and Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies. The Trek is supported by Harvard Hillel.”
The issue has sparked criticism and outrage in the American Jewish community, especially among donors who discovered they funded not only a trip to Israel but a trip to the Palestinian Authority…
Some folks seem to understand that the controversy will hurt the Israel lobby by demonstrating its intolerance. David Eden of Hillel International issued this statement (to a rightwing site) that tries to straddle. It’s a Zionist trip, “staunchly pro-Israel”; but these students were visiting Ramallah and they’re diverse and didn’t know better, and should have been more thoughtful, etc.
A photograph of Harvard Israel Trek participants at the tomb of Yasser Arafat in Ramallah is causing understandable concern. That image is not what this trip is about. This morning the Trek was up north on the Syrian border touring an elite Israeli defense post and receiving an update from a senior IDF general on the current security situation there. So much of the trip is in that vein.
The Israel Trek is being led by Harvard Israeli students, distinguished IDF veterans among them, and is sponsored by Harvard Hillel together with the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, along with several individuals and family foundations, all staunchly pro-Israel. The itinerary of the Trek, approved by the sponsors, includes a very impressive roster of meetings and outings with representatives of the very highest echelons of Israeli government, armed forces, business, and culture. The trip also includes a visit to Ramallah to meet with Palestinian leadership.
Trek participants are documenting every step of their trip together, taking pictures of the group with virtually everything they see, everywhere that they are hosted. Given our digital online world, the participants may have given insufficient thought to the way in which this particular photograph would be seen and received back home, where the image is being captioned and written about in a very disturbing manner, including sensationalistic interpretations, by people unfamiliar with the Trek’s full program and mission.
The fifty student participants in this trip come from diverse backgrounds and faiths, selected from more than three hundred applicants. The positive experience of Israel that they are sharing, and that they will bring back to Harvard, will have an enormous and constructive effect in increasing understanding of Israel with personal connection and amity.
Now look at the contortions of a Boston Jewish leader in the Jewish Press, trying to justify the students’ decision, implying it was under duress:
“The students obviously found themselves in a set of circumstances, where they were at Arafat’s grave. They were somehow put in such a position,” is how [Gideon] Argov put it.
… He said it was “unfortunate, but we will find out why and how it happened” when the students return…
“I am 100 percent convinced that these students will come back, able to articulate why Israel is critical as an American ally, why it is critical as the Homeland of the Jewish people,” and why it should be protected as it is the one stable nation in a region devolving into chaos.
Well that’s the problem, isn’t it? The lobby needs diverse American support. But the diverse Americans haven’t drunk enough Kool-Aid.
Imagine the crisis we’re in, when inquisitive Harvard students offered a free visit to Israel make a stop in Palestine and dare to be photographed at Arafat’s tomb and are smeared all over the American Jewish press. Imagine how these Harvard students are going to regard the Israel lobby after this. Once again, we see the American Jewish community committing intellectual suicide, right before our eyes.
Yes and how many of those students are now going to begin to look at what else was suppressed on their trip, and will learn about ethnic cleansing and apartheid?
Thanks to commenter Sycamores we’ve intercepted a slew commentary by student trekkers who set up a Facebook page Harvard College Israel Trek 2014 as well as sharing their thoughts on a Medium Collection. Students responded to negative criticism the group received due to their visit to Arafat’s tomb including their official response “Yes, we visited Arafat’s grave” which got picked up by the Times of Israel.
An example of FB statements, this one from a student identified as “Trekker Kelsey”:
“In response to select media coverage of the Harvard College Israel Trek’s visit to Ramallah:
Lived experiences are real. Acknowledging one person’s lived experience neither negates nor diminishes another person’s lived experience. Acknowledging one peoples’ narrative does not inherently undermine another peoples’ narrative. Intersubjective recognition is a deeply human need and is the most basic requisite for understanding. Understanding a shared humanity is the most basic requisite for peace.
One student trekker, Cansu Çolakoğlu, blogged in his post “No regrets” why visiting Ramallah, which he calls “the capital of the occupied Palestine “, was such an important component of the trip and concludes:
Thanks to all of the opinions I have heard on this trip, I have at least one clear statement I can fully embrace and will take away from this trip: The terms ‘pro-Israel’ and ‘pro-Palestine’ are not antonyms and I do realize that ‘pro-Israelis’ will dislike my argument as much as ‘pro-Palestinians.’ Yet, once you get to explore the issue in a balanced way, you realize that those terms mean the same exact thing because if Palestine is miserable, there is no way Israel will not be miserable. The faiths of the two are so intertwined that there is no future for one without a bright future for the other.
I recommend exploring more of the student blogs over at the Medium Collection. Here’s an anecdotal smidgen of student Edward de Fouchier’s observations in his blog “Ramallah“:
The real challenge for me to process was the lecture delivered by Nabil Shaath, a Palestinian minister and negotiator. If the spokesman was the PLO’s modern image, this man was its wise man. A Wharton graduate, university professor of management, and man of culture, he was aware of his lay audience and first connected with us as Americans attending Harvard. He fondly remembered his time in America, playfully informing us that he had decided against attending Harvard after initially being rejected for his young age. He conveyed a sense of humor and subtlety.
His address to us was given with a tone of wise and patient hopefulness, a sense that he could, as a seasoned diplomat, look at the situation with more distance. His discourse was devoid of urgency and filled with shrugging assurances that a reasonable solution would be found sooner or later. If the peace talks conducted by John Kerry fail, he reassured us, “the world will not end.”
(Update ~ Annie Robbins)