Many of you probably know someone who has gone to Israel and Palestine during spring or winter break on trips sponsored by Hillel. You might be considering applying for the one this spring break or, like me, you might have gone on one of these trips before. It seems like a good deal. I spent only $250 for a trip that must have cost thousands of dollars per person, and we met diplomats, journalists, politicians, and community organizers in Israel and Occupied Palestine. We even got to hit the beach in Tel Aviv and float in the Dead Sea.
Inspired by Taglit-Birthright Israel but not limited to Jews, this trip is geared toward students who know little about Israel and Palestine to show them an Israeli interpretation of normalcy, diversity, and the efforts of the two-state process. By having a good time and hearing a range of perspectives, it appears that students are meant to return to campus as ambassadors of goodwill for Israel—critical but not too critical of the Jewish State. In fact, similar programs are sponsored by the Israeli government and right-wing Zionist organizations, which pay for visits by politicians, police chiefs, and even NFL players, some of whom, like Michael Bennett, refuse to go. Special efforts are being made to show that Zionism cannot possibly be racist by AIPAC-sponsored trips for students at historically black colleges. It’s like the proverbial free lunch—there’s no such thing.
On my trip, we went on a jeep ride in the Golan Heights, Syrian territory that Israel has occupied since 1967. We breezed through checkpoints that can take hours for Palestinians. We visited a village in Palestine to learn about water conservation while the village itself buys its water from Mekorot, the Israeli national water company, which allots them only a third of what Jewish settlers nearby receive. We were wined and dined at a settlement-turned-winery, where, after a delicious meal and more than a few drinks, we listened to a settler disavow Israeli violence against Palestinians. We sipped lattes at a high-rise hotel overlooking the Mediterranean not an hour’s drive from Gaza, the small strip of Palestinian land that the United Nations deemed unlivable without the aid it provides after more than 10 years of Israeli blockade, attrition, and violence. We visited a sort of fresh air camp for young Ethiopian Jews, where our guide mentioned gangsta rap contributing to poverty and violence in the inner cities.
The trip, however slanted, was meant to open discussion, and we weren’t always shown a rosy picture. We spent an afternoon with an American activist and social worker named Elliot Glassenberg, who told us point-blank the reason African refugees in Israel are denied asylum is because of the belief that “Israel should be a Jewish state.” But students going on this year’s trip might not see any non-Jewish Africans, because the Israeli government issued a notice demanding that all African asylum seekers leave the country within the next 90 days or face imprisonment.
Having learned about Israel and Palestine at Columbia, the façade was not hard to see through. When I inquired about sources of funding for the trip, my questions were evaded. Even the before-and-after survey from Hillel—“Do you consider Israel a militarized society? Do you consider Israel a diverse society?” etc.—intimated the trip’s apparent goal of disproving the growing belief among college students that Israel is a racist, apartheid state. It was harder to disprove that notion after Israeli security at JFK repeatedly asked a black friend of mine about his middle name—Lamar—while I wasn’t asked about mine—Steiner. Harder yet when, on the trip after mine, a South Asian Muslim student was taken behind closed doors for interrogation while the rest of the group waited at the gate. Certainly this happens in America too, but that doesn’t make either country any less racist or innocent, or any more democratic for that matter. Lorde chose to boycott Israel for reasons such as these.
As much as I have tried to raise the alarm about Zionists’ intentions, the free lunch has traction. Many people who have gone on this trip are vaguely attached to notions of “the two-state process” and many are critical of Israel—but not too critical. Most students I’ve spoken to enjoyed themselves, and some talk of going back. Hillel is even offering a trip to Poland, where students will visit concentration camps and ghettos and learn about prewar Jewry. This visit is a more expensive version of a tour of Yad Vashem, another stop on this Hillel trip to Israel, where visitors experience the savagery of the Holocaust before stepping out onto a veranda overlooking Jerusalem—Jewish destruction and Jewish rebirth.
I don’t usually tell people that I have been to Israel and Palestine, because I was privileged by and complicit in the Zionist project in order to be there—and I am ashamed and embarrassed by that. Besides eating Palestinian food in Hillel, enjoying land taken from Palestinians is the would-be free lunch travelers must recognize—by simply being there, you stand on land that was and continues to be cleansed of its indigenous population.
If you decide to go on these trips, for whatever reason, it is imperative that you educate yourself about the place you will be visiting. Feel free to reach out to me and don’t shy away from asking questions and being critical. The trip is paid for, ostensibly, so that you might deepen your perspective, so take that burden on and take it very seriously. Like 16-year-old Ahed Tamimi, you must speak truth to power.
The author is a junior in Columbia College.
To respond to this op-ed, or to submit an op-ed, contact email@example.com.