Op-Ed: Israeli academic treks: single narrative at the service of occupation

Last week, Israeli government, media and civil society celebrated the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration — the historic promise made a century ago by the British government to the Zionist movement to work in favor of the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. 

However, in Jerusalem, Ramallah, Gaza and elsewhere, Palestinians commemorated and protested what they condemn as an act of betrayal and perfidy, “the original sin” that led to historic injustice, wars, deportation, occupation and disaster for almost 70 years.

The battle over Balfour is in itself an incarnation of how the Arab/Palestinian-Israeli conflict is complex and encompasses very different opinions and attitudes that can — and have — inflame even the most cool-headed minds.

As for us at Tufts and The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, this contested anniversary is a significant reminder that we should question single, simple and uncontested narratives such as the one advanced by the Israeli government and its allies through the organization of subsidized academic trips to Israel and Occupied Palestine, which particularly target U.S. academic institutions because of the diversity of their students and the potential future leaders that will graduate from these schools and colleges.

The controversial “Fletcher Spring Break Israel Trek” that a number of my colleagues at The Fletcher School are organizing, this year again, is, unfortunately, another illustration of such propaganda — an academic trip where participants will mostly hear Israeli voices and will not be exposed to the brutal and devastating aspects of the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

During this eight-day trip, students will visit the occupied West Bank for one day only, including the administrative center of Ramallah and the new development project of Rawabi which serves as an illustration of the possibility of economic prosperity under occupation and collaboration with Israel. Both Ramallah and Rawabi are not representative of the situation in Palestine or reflect the diversity of Palestinian views, nor can they offer a comprehensive understanding of the conflict with Israel.

More importantly, these kinds of programs give a dominant Israeli narrative of Israeli-Palestinian relations. The assumption here is that Israel must remain a Jewish state, that the right of return of Palestinian refugees to their homeland is unmanageable, that Israel is the only prosperous, multicultural democracy in the Middle East and that its continuous occupation of Palestine is necessitated by security concerns.

Moreover, in this narrative, Israel is positioned as a peace-seeking country whose repeated efforts for a just and lasting peace were only thwarted by Palestinian terrorism and misguided leadership. The dire situation of the civilian Palestinian population in Gaza which has been under Israeli blockade since 2007 is totally ignored in these programs.

Claims of nonpartisan nature and highest balance and objectivity by the organizers of these plans tend to overshadow the reality that there is an unambiguous political agenda. There is a systematic effort to appeal to academic institutions to support Israel and its policies through the dissemination of its talking points and views in a clever and subtle approach. And yes, while there are hollow gestures towards fair representation of the other side, there are also arrangements to distort the truth, international law and relevant United Nations resolutions. For example, the organization of visits to the occupied Syrian Golan Heights and Palestinian-occupied East Jerusalem, in close cooperation with Israeli government officials and its security services in accordance with the Israeli narrative.

The financing of these trips also makes this bias clear. “The Fletcher Spring Break Israel Trek” is supported by a pro-Israel advocacy organization, named “Israel and Co.,” which explicitly describes its core mission as: “grow a network of people who have an understanding of and appreciation for Israel’s values and contributions to the world, and who will take that knowledge and approach with them as they become leaders in their professional and civic lives.” Israel and Co. continues by claiming that it “introduces people to the Israel beyond the news so that they can experience for themselves Israel’s rich history, business innovation, hospitality and complex culture, and form their own first-hand opinions.” Despite very careful wording, Israel and Co. acknowledges on its website that it has received funding from the Israeli government in the past.

These facts should lead the administration of The Fletcher School to intervene and not hide behind the excuse of non intervention in student-led initiatives, both to protect its reputation and its students against the current Israeli government propaganda efforts through the setting of best practices, guidelines, and most importantly, to ensure that students are well aware of these political agendas before attending such programs. Furthermore, the fact that the Tufts Community Union Senate passed a resolution this year urging divestment from companies that do business in occupied Palestine is another sign that the Tufts community gives utmost importance to the justice of the Palestinian struggle against Israeli occupation. The policies of the current Israeli government against academic freedom and its systemic segregation policy toward Palestinian students and their international peers’ supporters, including Tufts and Fletcher students, should drive the administration to stay alert when dealing with initiatives that risk to endanger the values and principles that it is so proud to claim are at the core of its foundation and which led us to choose this particular institution.

As for the students, faculty members, alumni and friends of the Tufts and Fletcher family that are extremely proud of the diversity of our school and its core principles of inclusiveness and championing international law and justice, I urge you to think critically about such initiatives and the motives behind them so that the name of our school and its students don’t serve the purpose of occupation and supremacy. Consider for yourself what you would have done or hope your parents have done, in the ’80s, when the Apartheid regime in South Africa used the exact same tactics to disrupt the international boycott that contributed to its eventual fall and the conclusion of the awful segregation regime against our black brothers and sisters. As Nelson Mandela once said, “we know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.”

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