The following is an email sent by NYU Law’s School’s Students for Justice in Palestine to the law school community about iTrek – a fully-funded program that facilitates propaganda tours to Israel for U.S. graduate students. A contingent of NYU Law School students participated in an i-Trek trip to Israel during the 2016-2017 year. Another trip is being planned for this academic year. The email highlights the problematic nature of these trips, and is being republished here, with permission from the authors.
Dear Former iTrekkers and the Law School Community,
The purpose of iTrek and the incentive for Israel and Co. to offer it with heavy subsidy to students at elite graduate schools is to paint a positive picture of Israel in the eyes of future leaders. Per their website, Israel and Co. has received funding from the Israeli government and seeks to promote a favorable view of the state. They share objectives with other Zionist groups like the Anti-Defamation League, which pays for US law enforcement to go to Israel to train with the Israeli Defense Force (IDF), who portray Israel as the victim of a pathologically dangerous Palestinian population rather than as the illegal occupiers of Palestinian land. It is an attempt to reframe Israel’s racist, violent settler-colonial state in sympathetic terms. Since iTrek groups cannot stay overnight in the West Bank, there is no time on this trip to actually see the dark underbelly of oppression upon which Israel has constructed its highly curated portrait for tourists to see.
iTrek 2017’s Disturbing Itinerary
The iTrek organizers point to last year’s trip as a model of nuance and fair-mindedness. Unfortunately, that spirit was not reflected in the trip’s actual itinerary and activities. For instance, last year’s trip visited illegal settlements and went wine tasting and ATV riding in in the Occupied Syrian Golan, which Israel effectively annexed in 1967 in order to exploit its rich natural resources. The group was guided by a retired colonel from the Israeli army, who breezed past the topic of the illegal occupation of Syrian Golan in order to discuss Israel’s medical assistance to Syrians at the border (Note: Israel routinely and arbitrarily denies medical permits to Palestinian civilians in the Gaza Strip who need urgent, life-saving medical care). Tourism is a huge part of the settlement economy in the Golan – where the Israeli government has razed Syrian villages in order to create ski resorts – and the iTrek trip funnels more money toward this disturbing dispossession. Of course, trip participants were not encouraged to question their complicity by their former Israeli colonel tour guide.
In Jerusalem, trip participants posed for pictures with IDF soldiers, who dehumanize and murder Palestinian civilians on a daily basis. Going between the tourist sites in Jerusalem typically means taking the Jerusalem Light Rail, which was intentionally designed to help change the demographics of the city. With only 3 of 23 stops in East Jerusalem (where Palestinians live), the Light Rail exists mainly for the purpose of helping the Jewish settler population and creates the impression that illegal settlements are merely the suburbs of Jerusalem – an “Israeli space” across the Green Line (within Palestine) to give settlers a sense of comfort and ownership of occupied land.
While in Jerusalem, the trip visited Israel’s Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem. Unfortunately, the very end of the formal exhibits at the museum attempts to convert the tragedy of the Holocaust into a justification for the founding of Israel on Palestinian land. This narrative attempts to situate the Holocaust within a Zionist teleology that ends with Israel’s reclamation of the “ancestral homeland” of the Jewish people. There is no reflection on the contradiction of having this museum in a country that is built on the theft of Palestinian land and homes and that uses walls, checkpoints, home demolitions, and military occupation to control the Palestinian people. An Israeli tour guide at Yad Vashem who tried to highlight this contradiction was promptly fired.
Fresh off of the weighty emotional toll of Yad Vashem, the trip stopped next at the Israeli High Court of Justice (HCJ). A justice speaking to the group blatantly lied about the independence and impartiality of the Court and how it is allegedly trusted by Palestinians. In reality, the judiciary in Israel is completely controlled by the executive, not independent, not impartial, and – when it comes to Palestinian cases – bows to whatever suits the government. In the overwhelming majority of cases, the HCJ acts as a rubber stamp on home demolitions, extrajudicial killings, and collective punishment measures against the Palestinian people – and yet refuses to apply the same standards to Jewish settlers who gruesomely murder Palestinian children. The court also authorized the destruction of a Bedouin community in the Negev in order to create a Jewish-only community, which occurred earlier this year. This is why human rights organizations like B’Tselem (Jerusalem) and Al-Haq (Ramallah) boycott the HCJ. A publication by the latter summarizes, “The HCJ, however, plays a central role in the occupation by providing moral weight and legal justification to oppressive and illegal Israeli policies in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, while masquerading behind a superficial facade of humanitarian and human rights law.”
In Tel Aviv, the group met with the Legal Counsel for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Israel, who told them about difficult decisions he had to make in the IDF while fighting in the 2008 Gaza War. He emphasized the importance of adhering to moral standards in armed combat that surpass even the Geneva Convention. However, he failed to mention that Israel intentionally attacked civilian targets during the war, resulting in the death of approximately 1,440 Palestinians compared with 13 Israelis. He failed to mention that three Israeli military operations in the last eight years, as well as ten years of economic blockade, have shattered Gaza’s infrastructure, ravaged its productive industries, inhibited reconstruction, and impoverished the Palestinian population. Israel’s blockade prevents supplies from entering Gaza to repair damaged hospitals, power grids, and water purification plants. Today, 96 percent of the groundwater in Gaza is unfit for human consumption, Gazans experience power cuts of 18 to 20 hours per day, and Israel cruelly denies medical permits for patients in extreme health conditions more often than not. At this rate, the UN has estimated that the Gaza Strip will become uninhabitable by 2020.
Making students an audience for IDF soldiers and Israeli government officials to justify their actions in the Gaza strip, which have led to an unspeakable human tragedy, is deeply disturbing. The group’s stops at other Zionist propaganda sites, like Independence Hall in Tel Aviv, raise further disturbing questions. The image of privileged law students frolicking around the Dead Sea and buying Dead Sea products that read “Made in Israel” – while Palestinians have zero access to use of its natural resources – is also unsettling. Students also learned about how the Masada is a symbol of Zionism while completely breezing past the Israeli government’s destruction of Bedouin communities in the Negev.
You Want to See Palestine?
Dropping into Ramallah on one day of a week-long “cultural learning” trip – which is already chock full with Zionist propaganda – constitutes a mere token gesture. You want to see Palestine? Go to Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem, where you can see the doors of UN schools riddled with bullet holes from the IDF. Stand in the very places where Israeli snipers have shot and killed Palestinian children. Go to Beit Sahour, right next to Bethlehem, and look across the wall as the Israeli government builds homes for Jewish settlers directly across the barrier from the Palestinians from whom they seized the land. Talk to the residents, who will tell you how Jewish settlers across the fence are allocated five times more water than Palestinians living in Beit Sahour.
Go to Hebron (al-Khalil), where you can see how the most ideologically-driven Jewish settlers have taken up residence in the very heart of the largest city in the West Bank. See how the Palestinian population has been locked in cages by a checkpoint system that severely inhibits their free movement and relegates them to ghettos within their own city. Watch Israeli soldiers harass and dehumanize Palestinian civilians and then turn right around and hug American settlers and tourists and take selfies. Walk through the market by Ibrahimi Mosque and see the nets that locals have set up to protect Palestinian merchants from objects hurled at them from above by Jewish settlers who live in the adjacent apartments. Go to Palestinian villages in the South Hebron hills, where you can see houses funded by and bearing the logo of the European Union lying in shambles. See the ruins of EU-constructed homes that the IDF has repeatedly demolished in order to drive out the Palestinian population and make way for the expansion of adjacent Jewish settlements.
Talk to Palestinians in East Jerusalem (illegally annexed in 1980), who can describe the Israeli government’s ethnic cleansing project, which includes demolishing Palestinian homes, revoking the Jerusalem IDs of Palestinians, cutting off Palestinian communities from Jerusalem’s suburbs with the annexation wall, and in some cases, cutting off Palestinian communities from both Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank (e.g., Nabi Samwil).
Go to Qalqilya, where you can see how the apartheid wall annexes huge swaths of territory on the Palestinian side of the Green Line, which prevents Palestinian farmers from accessing their own land. When you enter and exit through the only checkpoint to Qalqilya, you will see how it becomes an open air prison to 60,000 people when Israel arbitrarily closes the checkpoint.
Go to Ramallah and meet with Palestinian human rights organizations (NOT the PA/Fatah) who can tell you about the daily struggle of working within a racist legal system that does not recognize the value of Palestinian lives or freedoms. Drive through the West Bank with a Palestinian guide who will point out the illegal Jewish-only settlements dotting every hilltop of Palestine and the ways that the original Arabic names have been altered and twisted in order to erase Palestinian identity.
This is not to say that a trip to Palestine cannot be fun – quite the opposite! Ride the cable cars to the Mount of Temptation in Jericho, where you can take in incredible views of the Jordan Valley. Hike across Wadi Qelt through the Valley of the Shadow and see the Monastery of St. George of Choziba etched into the side of a cliff. Go to Nablus to watch the making of olive oil soap, relax in Turkish baths, and taste the best Kanafeh in the world. Visit beautiful port cities like Haifa and Akka where Jews and Arabs live peacefully together, and dream of a future where ’48 refugees have the right to return. Go to Jenin to see productions from The Freedom Theatre, which recently debuted its play “The Siege” right here at NYU. Eat delicious falafel, hummus, ful, musakhan, maqluba, and maftoul all along the way.
Unfortunately, this is not the type of trip that iTrek represents. The inescapable reality is that iTrek is funded in order to soften the image of Israel’s violent, racist settler-colonial state in the eyes of future leaders. Don’t fall for the ruse.