Op-Ed: Fletcher Israel Trek: Promoting Diplomacy, Diversity and Accuracy

In a Nov. 15 op-ed, Fletcher student Mohamed Nabil Bennaidja calls out the “single narrative” he claims exists on Fletcher’s Israel Trek, yet demonstrates clearly that his lack of understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is exactly why such a trip exists.

The recent 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration is an important one, as it signaled British support for a Jewish state and helped lead to Israel’s establishment. Balfour’s letter is sometimes used to represent the beginning of the Palestinians’ oppression, but this is far from the case — Balfour’s letter did not claim such a Jewish state should exist on the entire British Mandate, and it made no mention of denial of an Arab Palestinian state. A Jewish and a Palestinian state were not mutually exclusive national developments then and certainly are not now. In fact, the Balfour Declaration actually paved the way for the 1947 UN Partition Plan and the two-state solution today. Here’s the famous sentence that Bennaidja so fundamentally misunderstands:

“His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”

This was no “act of betrayal and perfidy,” but a well-intentioned olive branch that still holds true today. I cannot deny that the Palestinian people have faced much tragedy in the time since those words were written, and Israeli policies regarding the Palestinians are subject to critique like any democracy. But the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, like any situation, is one that needs to be examined in a larger context. Bennaidja’s claim that the Balfour Declaration led to “injustice, wars, deportation, occupation and disaster” neglects the crucial context that no conflict would exist if the Arab world accepted the UN Partition plan — which allotted the Arabs more land than the current borders of the West Bank and Gaza Strip — and that the 1948 Independence War, 1967 Six-Day War and 1973 Yom Kippur War were provoked by Israel’s Arab neighbors.

Israel unfortunately had to fight defensive wars, but ultimately it emerged victorious. Balfour’s letter did not lead to the “deportation” of Palestinians, but rather the 1948 request of the Arab world played a significant role in Palestinian displacement. Palestinians were told to leave their homes to allow the Arab armies to destroy the infant Jewish state with ease. The Iraqi Prime Minister at the time said, “We will smash the country with our guns and obliterate every place the Jews seek shelter in. The Arabs should conduct their wives and children to safe areas until the fighting has died down.” Arab newspapers even estimated it would take 4–6 weeks for the cleansing of the Jews. Palestinians weren’t deported by a mass immigration force, a propaganda image ‘intersectional’ activists conjure, and many left hoping the one-day-old Jewish state would be destroyed, establishing an Arab state in its stead. 

Attributing all the “historic injustice” and “disaster” to Israel allocates absolutely no responsibility to the Palestinian leadership. The Palestinians have never had self-determination or a state, something they do truly deserve, yet their freedom will never be earned as long as they lack democratic representation. In the Gaza Strip, “democratically elected” terrorist group Hamas uses its people as human shields to provoke international attention, uses hospitals and schools for military bases, spends international aid to build terrorist tunnels into Israel and launches thousands of rockets at Israel’s civilians. In the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority pays salaries to the families of terrorists who spill as much Jewish blood as they can and is led by a man in the 14th year of his four-year term.

Fletcher’s Israel Trek offers students the opportunity to meet “with prominent Israelis and Palestinians in the political, business, and security sectors.” Israel is not a country defined by the conflict, but is a robust society pioneering technology, medicine and international aid. It is of course wrong and nearly impossible to visit Israel without exposure to Palestinians, which is why an important day is dedicated to touring the West Bank. Bennaidja claims that Ramallah and Rawabi are “not representative of the situation in Palestine,” but I cannot think of better cities to visit to achieve Fletcher’s vision than the de-facto capital of Palestine and an innovative experimental community development. Yet while most of the trip is spent in Israel and not the West Bank, Israel is home to a vibrant (self-identifying) Arab-Israeli population of almost 2 million. Bennaidja uses the terms “Israeli voices” and “Israeli narrative” to imply that Israelis are a monolith of ethnicity and religion, but ignores the Arab-Israelis as a valid Israeli voice. Muslims hold seats in the Israeli Parliament and Supreme Court, can serve in the military, can work any job in Israel and are active members of Israeli life. Beyond that, Arab-Israelis enjoy the democratic, pluralistic, egalitarian society their Palestinian kin are deprived of in the territories. Besides the multi-denominational Jewish population, Israel’s unique diversity includes large numbers of Druze, Bedouins, Arab-Muslims, Arab-Christians, Ethiopians, Armenians, Baha’is and other ethno-religious groups. While I agree that one day is not enough to see the West Bank, this is not promoted as a West Bank trip; this is a trip to Israel, a diverse multicultural country which by itself cannot be explored in a mere seven days.

Bennaidja’s main “gotcha!” evidence that this is a propaganda trip is that it may be subsidized by the Israeli government. The author uses the term “pro-Israel” to slander organizations who finance these trips, but who else is going to subsidize a trip to Israel — anti-Israel organizations? International trips do not exist in a vacuum and take money to happen. It makes perfect sense if the Israeli government contributes to these efforts to make academic trips possible for students. Even the Palestinians could fund trips for people to visit the Palestinian territories on a separate trek, a solution Bennaidja did not propose. The claim that Israel is targeting “academic institutions because of the diversity of their students” is less of an incrimination and more common sense. Of course Israel wants to invite potential future leaders to visit, any country would and should as part of its international diplomacy. Not every trip to a country is propaganda. There is a word for it: tourism.

When Bennaidja seeks to think critically about this supposed “narrative,” he questions if Israel should even remain a Jewish state. I need not say anything beyond citing the ethnic-cleansing of the Jews in Muslim-majority nations. Jews, unfortunately, do not have a right of return to the Arab lands they used to dwell in, and many had to make their home in the one Jewish state of Israel, having been denied entrance to countries like Canada and the United States (think back to the MS St. Louis tragedy). Palestinian refugees around the world should have a similar right of return to a future state in the West Bank and Gaza. The Balfour Declaration and the 1947 Partition Plan sought to achieve the self-determination of both peoples. The two-state solution still does. Israel’s founding as a refugee state, in the context of the purge of Jews from Arab lands and the Holocaust, still shows its importance with the revival of anti-Semitism today. Israel of course must remain a Jewish state, a development not mutually exclusive with Palestinian self-determination.

I will also end with a Mandela quote: “As a movement, we recognize the legitimacy of Palestinian nationalism just as we recognize the legitimacy of Zionism as a Jewish nationalism. We insist on the right of the State of Israel to exist within secure borders, but with equal vigor support the Palestinian right to national self-determination.”

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