This week an Op-Ed was released on Forward called These Hasbara Tours Bribe Jews To Be Pro-Israel And Make Birthright Seem Lefty. What is interesting is that the gentleman that wrote the opinion piece was on the same tour as me. In fact, we were even roommates while we were in Tzfat. With a familiar name like Scott Boxer, and such a clickbait title, I had to read. Because I don’t want readers to bounce back and forth, I decided to insert quotes from the Op-Ed here, and each excerpt will be followed by a response. So let’s start:
Last week, J Street U, the campus arm of J Street, wrapped up its inaugural free trip to Israel for Jewish college students. The “Let My People Know” trip was conceived as a response to protests against Birthright, which does not include meetings with Palestinians on its trips, or discussions about the occupation.
While the debate around Birthright has received significant national attention, there are some Israel tours for college students that are going unnoticed. These trips are led by organizations with explicit right-wing political agendas that have a dangerous potential to affect young US Jews’ understanding of Israel and the occupation in the years to come.
Okay, so my primary response to this is going to be the latter part of the second paragraph. Hasbara Fellowships is the organization that both Scott and I were affiliated with, when we went to Israel. I didn’t agree with everything about the trip, but I certainly didn’t consider it to be championing a “right-wing political agenda,” nor do I consider any of the trip to have “dangerous potential.” We literally sat and talked with a Muslim woman in a library of a kibbutz (collective community), and talked about the issues that the Arab Israelis face. Many of her statements and arguments with our group, was far from “right-winged.” Some of our group agreed and sympathized, while others like me found her rhetoric to be subjective, self-aggrandizing, and combative; however, I also saw her as prideful of her place in Israel, as an Israeli.
The organization’s former executive director, Fay Goldstein, even held a coalition class, which spoke specifically about intersectionality and other progressive ideology. It was not an indoctrination of progressive views, but it was an acknowledgement of them. The entire trip was about acknowledging viewpoints, and none of the trip’s staff would give any political input at all. Seriously, we tried to see where they stood on various policies or where they were on the ideological spectrum, but they refused to break.
Simply put, Hasbara Fellowships made a serious effort to create a trip dedicated to critical thinking, without any of the staff attempting to indoctrinate. They encouraged discussion, and we had plenty of that amongst ourselves. It is not a trip made for ideologues, so perhaps that is why Scott felt such disdain.
Groups like Hasbara Fellowships (HF) and the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) recruit to their tours Jewish and pro-Israel leaders on campuses. They attempt to inculcate in these leaders support for the occupation and illiberal Israeli policies, such as displacement of Bedouin Israelis from their villages in the Negev. How do I know? I participated in ZOA and Hasbara tours for campus leaders. I witnessed firsthand their efforts to generate support for extremist policies and their attempts to brand dissent as anti-Israel.
I cannot comment on ZOA, but yes, Hasbara recruits Jewish and Pro-Israel leaders on college campuses. As far as inculcating us, that just isn’t true. Also, the Bedouin affected communities in the Negev are only experiencing issues with the Israeli government, because they settled and built villages on state owned land, which they didn’t have permission to build on. No one likes bureaucracy, but it’s necessary when planning infrastructure in a sovereign nation. Scott’s argument here amounts to pointing at something and just saying, “That’s mean.” That approach doesn’t really help anyone, and it’s just plain reductive.
Unfortunately, the Adalah legal center, that has represented the Bedouin community, has been doing the community a disservice. They have represented them for over 15 years, and when recent negotiations would take place, they were not at the table. It’s too nuanced of an issue to just scream “Displacement!” and then that be the end of the conversation.
Many of the Bedouin from these villages in the Negev have many residents who served proudly in the IDF, and many consider themselves conservatives, in the Israeli sense. It has been a sensitive issue, and unfortunately the community wasn’t represented to a level that was deserved. If Adalah would have taken a cooperative approach to negotiations, then there could have been a more acceptable outcome.
Also, it’s important to note the author’s lack of qualifying their statements. He is talking about two different organizations as if they are one. Name names, and name specific policy that the organizations championed on these trips. It’s easy to just generalize. If you’re talking about Hasbara Fellowships, then say it. The theme of ambiguous criticism is common throughout his Op-Ed.
I went on these trips not because I support the politics of ZOA and Hasbara. Frankly, it was opportunism. They provided a highly subsidized way to return to Israel, where I’d spent a gap year and for which I feel tremendous affinity. I couldn’t have afforded to go on my own. My participation also brought the prospect of securing funding from these groups for the politically unaffiliated Israel group I ran on my campus.
I’m going to be quite blunt on this one. His tonality and braggadocios attitude toward openly using donor’s money to subsidize a free trip for him, and money for his campus organization rubs me the wrong way. I went on this trip legitimately wanting to learn more about Israel and its complex political framework. I wanted to be a better advocate at Texas A&M, where so many students are eager to learn about these things. It was an opportunity to connect more strongly with my Jewish faith and heritage while grounding my connection with Israel. I was humbled by the opportunity to be selected. If you read my last blog, I spoke about the intellectual caliber of many students that I attended the trip with. I felt honored to be among so many introspective students, that were trying to educate themselves about this country we have a deep connection with.
What is sad is that a more optimistic student could have experienced the trip, but unfortunately Scott took their place, because he wanted to go back to Israel without spending his own money. It’s a slap in the face to the Hasbara Fellowships donors that donate their hard-earned personal money to support trips through Hasbara Fellowships. It’s also a slap in the face to the staff, which are true to their ethos of objective learning, and exposing all viewpoints. The classes we took always discouraged the idea of “owning” the opposition in public debates. Their mantra is “Explaining.” It is a Zionist’s duty to explain their viewpoint, while acknowledging the opposition. Hasbara Fellowships promote honest, passionate, and objective dialogue from Pro-Israel advocates. You know, the basics of a rhetorical argument: Pathos, Ethos, Logos.
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.”
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. David Friedman’s poisonous characterization of these fellow Jews as “kapos” would have fit in nicely.
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.
As far as Hasbara, the first paragraph is just false. There was no policing of language at any point, except between the students. Students corrected each other on terminology, and argued over terminology, but never the staff. It is typical of guest speakers to have a rigid viewpoint, but as I mentioned, this was part of the trip. We interacted with an “anti-occupation” liberal Israeli from Tel Aviv at one point. I personally challenged his viewpoint, respectfully. He challenged mine, respectfully, and we hugged before I left. Again, this is why it’s important to qualify your statements. ZOA and Hasbara have distinctly different goals, and they are two separate organizations. I will say, at least he did qualify his statement in the last paragraph. Though, ZOA has never hidden their conservative-leaning Pro-Israel activism.
The trips included substantial time in settlements as a means of normalizing them and building bonds with their residents. 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.
Ah yes, I was there when Scott spoke to Rabbi Hochbaum. He never referred to Dr. Baruch Goldstein as a righteous man, ever. This is simply untrue. We cannot begin to have a conversation about these complex issues when we aren’t presenting the facts about what was said. Rabbi Hochbaum only spoke of imagining the complex emotions of Dr. Goldstein, a doctor who treated so many that were affected by terrorist attacks throughout the region. He never excused Dr. Goldstein’s act of terrorism, but he stated that he understood how he was radicalized by it.
It was obvious that he was simply pointing out that there is a concerted effort of terrorism on the Palestinian side, and that the disgusting acts of one man doesn’t absolve or justify the numerous heinous attacks of Hamas terrorists. Hochbaum also noted that it was a fellow IDF soldier that killed Dr. Goldstein, and he believed it was a justified action on the IDF soldier’s part.
I think the primary issue here is Scott’s American privilege. These issues and ideas are not totemic in nature. They are symptoms to the complexity of the history in Israel. The difference is I will say is that Dr. Goldstein was a terrorist in the same sentence as I’ll say Hamas are terrorists. Let’s be honest here, and not examine these types of horrific events in a vacuum.
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.
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?
I went with him to Rawabi, and I can tell you that that wasn’t the message of Bashar Masri. Bashar is a Palestinian-American billionaire, who had been in and out of Israeli jail for acts of violence as a young man. The city development of Rawabi is a new one, and its making was a bureaucratic and political nightmare. The city is in Area A of the West Bank, which is completely controlled by the Palestinian Authority. As we drove on the tour bus, the Rawabi-employed tour guide complained of the Jewish settlers, whom they deny resources like water and electricity to. Most of the contention in building this city was the infrastructure. Israel wanted to bargain over it, to ensure that water and electricity went to Jewish settlers in the West Bank. You know, basic human rights stuff. Eventually, Israel allowed the water to be turned on, and the Palestinian Authority continued to not allow Jewish settlements to enjoy the infrastructure provided by Israel.
– Copyright Justin Lee Farrell 2019
It’s complicated though, just like anything. The only difference is that Rawabi officials bragged about their possession of water. They even boasted about creating the first water park in the region, and the largest amphitheater in the Middle East. By the amphitheater I stood in awe as I saw potable water shooting in the air from fountain heads, and falling on the warm stones that paved the area. It collected in grated drains at the base of the fountain. All while their Jewish citizens went without basic running water, here was this fountain flowing, and a water park being built. The Rawabi tour guide gave me a sharp look when I mentioned that Qatar was one of the largest investors of Rawabi’s development. It is no secret that there is an unholy alliance between Hamas and Qatar, one that has been rocky lately, due to the bifurcated goals of Hamas and Qatar.
There is nothing normal about Rawabi; it was all so weird. It was just a different story of propaganda than what Scott understood it to be. There are two strategies on Palestinian propaganda in the region. The story of the oppressed Palestinians, who must fight Israel or die. It aims to explain away their offensive terrorist tactics by claiming they are oppressed; therefore, they are justified in killing unarmed Israeli men, women, and children. Then there is the message of the peaceful and industrious Palestinians, who are just trying to build their own paradise in a war-torn land. Bashar was attempting the latter strategy with Rawabi. As a young man, Bashar got nowhere with violence, so after going to Virginia Tech and working in industry around the world, he came back to the West Bank with a different plan.
– Copyright Justin Lee Farrell 2019
I will also add that while we toured Rawabi, it was as if we were visiting a movie set. People were walking around playing with their kids at the empty amphitheater, with a backdrop veneered with American pop culture icons like Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, etc. There was a woman at the cash register of an empty convenience store. Practically no one was shopping at these stores. Not to mention, there was Christmas posters up everywhere, a Christmas tree in the courtyard, and American pop music blasting throughout the shopping area. Remember, we are in a Palestinian controlled area of the West Bank. The city was blatant propaganda, but it was Bashar’s 21st century Palestinian propaganda. He was selling a hip and modern Palestine. It was reminiscent of the movie The Interview, where a talk show host and his producer go to North Korea to interview Kim Jong Un. In the movie there is a fake grocery story filled with fake fruit, and a kid actor eating ice-cream in front of the store. It simply wasn’t real.
Bashar spoke with our group personally, something he supposedly doesn’t do often. He would not condemn Hamas when asked, and he also would not endorse them. He simply said that Hamas was voted in by the will of the people. Bashar is an intelligent businessman, a brilliant propagandist, and a Hamas sympathizer; however, he currently is an important figure in finding a solution in the region.
There was one concern for me about Rawabi: they stated that they have a considerable amount of people who supposedly live there, but it was essentially a ghost town when we visited. Over $1.2 billion has been invested into this city. My concern is that the city has been a financial shell to fund terrorism in the region. Due to the size of the development, Qatar and other parties could essentially launder money through the development to finance terrorist activities in the region. This shouldn’t be taken for gospel. It is purely a concern. As we can tell, a few sharp sentences from Scott is not nearly adequate to explain the complexity of Rawabi, and the reason for its existence. I personally think it serves a couple purposes, but its true purpose is too complex for outsiders, like Scott and myself, to fully understand.
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?
Palestinians who challenged occupation, such as those we observed from a distance in Hebron, were characterized as murderous. How can we end occupation if Palestinians would kill Jews, if given the chance?
I will agree with him on this point. The factory had a strong policy of no political discussion. He mentioned this in the beginning, and when many students pressed the envelope, the factory supervisor would shut them down. A group of students actually went over to workers while they were smoking and began asking them questions. It was rather infuriating for me, because those Palestinian workers could be fired if they said something the factory manager didn’t like. The men working in this factory had a great opportunity making considerable money, yet the persistent students were jeopardizing that.
The factory supervisor said that it would have been better to talk to him and the workers off the clock, and down the road off company property. This was the first time that Hasbara had attempted this venue on their trip. When a trip adds programming like this, then there is going to be some growing pains. I don’t blame anyone personally for what happened. It just required refining for future visits.
Scott continues to also throw around words like “occupation,” as if we are holding a 71+ year incursion for nothing more than an idea of Manifest Destiny. It is indisputable to say that Israel is the indigenous land of the Jews. Even when the Romans held Israel, it was called the Roman Province of Judea. The Temple was there long before the Al-Aqsa Mosque or any other Palestinian artifact. These are not my opinions; these are just facts.
Birthright aims to create an uncritical affinity between diaspora Jews and Israel. Programs like those run by ZOA and Hasbara are more problematic, even dangerous. They aim to indoctrinate campus leaders, instilling a rigid right-wing orthodoxy concerning what it means to be pro-Israel.
They also use hardball financial measures. Hasbara makes a portion of the money paid by participants for its heavily subsidized trip refundable through a point system. To “earn” their money back, Hasbara Fellows must work with program advisors to earn points. Under HF’s point system, a Fellow’s deposit would be refunded if, for example, she formed a “deep and ongoing” relationship with a non pro-Israel student group; implemented a strategy to “fight against BDS/Apartheid Week”; distributed Hasbara Fellowships materials on campus; published an approved Israel-related op-ed in a university newspaper; and recruited a student to attend a future HF Israel Program.
Here he mentions both ZOA and Hasbara, but he isn’t making a distinction between the two. I still fail to see the “rigid right-wing” indoctrination that he is taking about. There were right-wing, left-wing, and centrist speakers throughout our travels in Israel. The evidence of his claims is purely absent in reality, when referring to Hasbara Fellowships.
As far as the financial measures he speaks of — what would be the primary concern for donors funding this trip? They want to ensure that students are utilizing the knowledge they gained from the trip and applying it to their Israel related organization on their campus. The trip him and I went on was not a subsidized vacation; it was a trip for learning and understanding the region better. Hasbara was always helpful in providing all the resources to make this easily achievable for the fellows. The trip was intended to help campus leaders advocate for Israel in a non-partisan manner. BDS is a racist movement, and Apartheid Week is a revisionist dog and pony show made by BDS activists, but that doesn’t come close to the reality of Israel.
South Africans can tell you all about what actual apartheid looks like. I know he was there with us when we went throughout Israel and saw Ethiopian Jews right next to Ashkenazi Jews, which were right beside Muslim men and women. I know he was there when we went through Haifa and saw the coexistence of Muslims, Arab Christians, Baha’i, Druze, Jews, etc. I know he was there when we broke bread with a Druze village, and they spoke of their pride in being Israeli.
These programs do no favors for either their participants, or for Israel. Through propaganda, manipulation, and even financial incentives, they aim to create a cohort of leaders advocating unquestioning support for Israel’s most problematic policies.
I am an Israeli flag-waving, kippa-wearing Jew, but because I oppose the occupation, programs like those run by Hasbara and ZOA paint people like me as anti-Zionist and even self-hating. Rather than enhance young American Jews’ affinity to Israel, they threaten to widen the chasm between American Jews and Israel.
Ultimately, these programs prove the maxim that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. The meal they serve is rotten.
Still, we encounter his views without any specific proof, more visceral than objective, and not a qualifier in sight. He can be an Israel flag-waving, kippah-wearing, super Jew, but that doesn’t make him right. I don’t believe Scott is “self-hating,” but his rhetoric is not Zionist in nature. If he has a problem with Israel’s way of governing, and he calls himself a Zionist, then he better be making aliyah (the process of Jews returning to Israel to become permanent citizens).
I believe that Scott is an ideologue who produces predictable and arrogant utterances, which do harm to any productive conversation. He speaks with contempt of viewpoints that aren’t his own and criticizes organizations like Hasbara Fellowships for their objectivity. This is his hamartia in his quest for equity in the world. Truth is equity. I didn’t see one word spoken about our time in Sderot, where Israeli children have playgrounds with built-in bomb shelters. I didn’t see any words dedicated to Save a Child’s Heart, where we played with children from all over the world who are alive because of Israeli humanitarianism. I saw nothing of the countless IDF soldiers and Israeli civilians who have died from the oppression of the region. Israel has been surrounded by enemies for years. Coalitions have come to destroy them multiple times. They all lost, but Israel paid the price of their victory in Israeli blood.
Copyright of Justin Lee Farrell
The privilege Scott espouses is troubling, to say the least. Scott waited almost two years to show his contempt publicly, and attempts to defame an organization that gave him another opportunity to explore Israel. Donors give money to pay for these trips. The money and funding doesn’t come out of thin air. I urge Scott Boxer to retract his statements against Hasbara Fellowships, or at least provide proof of his claims, and modify his statements to fall in line with the facts of our 2017 trip. Honesty matters.