October 23, 2019

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The Forward criticizes "Hasbara" tours of Israel. Do their arguments add up?


In wake of J-Street’s highly publicized “Let My People Know” tour of Israel that included professional anti-Israel activists lying to college students and being praised for it in the New York Times, the Forward has an article about similar, far less public and highly subsidized tours of Israel by Hasbara Fellowships and the Zionist Organization of America.

The article by Scott Boxer, currently an intern at Americans for Peace Now, who attended both tours as a college student, is highly critical and insulting.

Let’s compare the language he uses with the examples he brings and see if his characterization of the tours adds up.

Tour leaders policed language and opinions. In ways that could be considered public shaming, they corrected neutral terms like “West Bank” and “settlements,” replacing them with terms in the lexicon sympathetic to the occupation: “Judea and Samaria” and “Jewish communities.”

“Judea and Samaria” and “Jewish communities” are in fact neutral terms – and far more accurate than “West Bank,” terminology that didn’t exist before Jordan illegally annexed the lands (even the UN used those terms), and “settlements” which now have a pejorative meaning.

As far as public shaming is concerned, Boxer doesn’t give any examples, but imagine using the term “Judea and Samaria” in the J-Street trip and see if they would let it go.

Guides and guest speakers spoke of anti-occupation, Zionist organizations like J Street and Americans for Peace Now with derision; they questioned explicitly the Zionist, and even Jewish, identity of supporters of such groups.

The Forward in this very article calls these tours “reprehensible and even dangerous”. (And racist, as we will see.)  Are strong opinions not allowed, or only one one side? I question the Zionist identity of these groups since they are entirely dedicated to turning Jews against Israel’s policies as chosen by the people who live there. (I do not agree with saying that their supporters aren’t Jewish, my guess is that in reality the words used were that the groups did not adhere to Jewish values.)

Right-wing, pro-occupation, and even racist content filled most of the presentations we attended. “Make Greater Israel Great Again” was the title of the opening presentation on the ZOA trip, just weeks after the election of Donald Trump.

Right wing and pro-occupation, certainly. The groups make no pretense of being otherwise, and Boxer certainly knew that when he went on the trip. But “racist?” He has not mentioned anything in this paragraph that could be considered that.

The trips included substantial time in settlements as a means of normalizing them and building bonds with their residents. 

Why is that bad, but J-Street’s bringing students to an illegal building in Susiya where they get served lunch from the family that lives there not considered equally bad?

During meetings with settler leaders in Hebron, both tours featured talks by Rabbi Simcha Hochbaum, who called mass murderer Baruch Goldstein a righteous man.
Rabbi Hochbaum told us that the murderous Palestinians between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea made Goldstein’s 1994 massacre of 29 Muslims during prayer pale in comparison. I was stunned the first time I heard this. The second time, I confronted him. He insisted that the good Goldstein had done in his 11-year medical career far outweighed the moment in which he gunned down Palestinian Muslims in Hebron’s Ibrahimi Mosque.

While Hochbaum’s words reported here could be considered technically accurate, it is wrong in any way to contextualize Goldstein’s massacre as anything but pure evil. This is the only part of Boxer’s criticism that I agree with.

We didn’t only meet settlers, though. Unlike on Birthright, these tours included meetings with Palestinians in the West Bank, though they were very carefully curated to convey a particular narrative.

Literally every tour of the region, ever, has been “carefully curated to convey a particular narrative.” There is only so much time and every group has an agenda, whether they admit it or not.  This cartoon I captioned several months ago used the same term when describing the B’Tselem, Break the Silence and J-Street tours of Hebron:

We went to the new Palestinian city of Rawabi, home to luxury apartments and high-end stores, and met with its founder Bashar Masri. The message: How could occupation be bad if one can buy Coach handbags?

Why is a visit to Rawabi considered bad? Why wouldn’t J-Street go there if it wanted to show all sides of the story?

We also visited a settler-owned factory near the settlement-city of Ariel and engaged in a discussion with its Palestinian workers, a conversation heavily curated by the factory owner. Surely, occupation is good if it provides jobs for Palestinians, right?

Again, is this a bad thing? Isn’t this showing a side of the conflict that rarely gets reported? In short – why would anyone be against speaking with Palestinian workers in a Jewish owned business? I’ve done it myself and I was able to ask whatever I wanted.

This article assumes that the left-wing narrative is the only one, and therefore anything else is “dangerous.” Yet the examples brought show no such thing – on the contrary, they show that the Peace Now types want to limit what Jewish students can see when they visit Israel to only their own “curated” experiences in Susiya, Shuhada Street (never the rest of Hebron,) and elsewhere.

The “right wing” tours are meant to instill a love of Israel. The left-wing tours emphatically do not.

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