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August 22, 2019 6:00 am

J Street’s Alternative Universe Tour

avatar by Mitchell Bard


A general view picture shows houses in the Israeli settlement of Maale Adumim, in the West Bank, Feb. 15, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Ammar Awad / File.

Birthright Israel has been criticized by some people, including Jews, for failing to take participants to the West Bank and not spending more time on the “Palestinian” narrative. It is true that Birthright does not go to the West Bank; however, participants are exposed to different opinions on the conflict with the Palestinians.

This, however, is not the purpose of the Birthright trips, which, first and foremost, are meant to introduce young Jews — most of whom know little or nothing about Israeli history or have ever visited Israel — to this homeland, and learn about the people who live there.

J Street is among the critics of Birthright, so this summer, they launched their alternative “Let Our People Know” trips, which take participants to the West Bank to get the Palestinian perspective and see the impact of the “occupation.”

As someone who has been writing about the conflict for more than 40 years, I appreciate the importance of learning both sides of the issues; however, it is impossible to understand them without first studying the history. Without this background, a trip to the West Bank amounts to little more than a brainwashing exercise where students are given the impression, as Bill Maher put it, that the “occupation came right out of the blue, that these completely peaceful people found themselves occupied.”

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Thus, for example, a representative of Peace Now, Hagit Ofran, could ignore the purpose of Israeli checkpoints (or the fact that Israel removed the majority of them years ago), which routinely prevent terrorists from infiltrating Israel, and make the comment that “to look suspicious, you need to look Arab.” Well, who does she think is committing terrorism inside Israel? Norwegians?

Terrorists are usually caught not because of racial profiling, but because of their behavior. In fact, terrorists sometimes dress like Jews to try to evade detection. If Israel’s security was dependent on racial profiling, why did every one of the J Street participants get questioned by Israeli security at the airport when they were leaving the country?

No one gets a pass — even privileged white progressive American students.

J Street calls itself the “pro-peace” lobby, as if no other Jews want peace. Before or after they met with Ofran, did anyone explain why Peace Now has all but disappeared from the Israeli political scene? Did Ofran explain why they can’t mount rallies with tens of thousands of people the way they did in the past? Did anyone explain why peace with the Palestinians has not been an issue in the Israeli elections?

It’s not because Israelis are any less determined to live in peace with their neighbors; it is because of their experience after ending the “occupation” of Gaza. Israelis saw the shattering of the “land for peace” myth when the disengagement was followed by thousands of rockets, arson balloons, and terrorists seeking to kidnap soldiers, kill civilians, and infiltrate Jewish communities.

J Street apparently did not go to the towns near Gaza to talk to the Jews who live in constant fear of indiscriminate rocket attacks from Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Were the participants educated about the ideology of those groups, which call for the destruction of Israel and the killing of Jews everywhere, and why that fact, rather than settlements or the “occupation,” might be the reason for the absence of peace?

If they had gone to the area, the students could have visited the playground that had to be built underground so that children can play in Sderot, and could have asked residents how the elderly and disabled can get to shelters in the 15 seconds they have to reach safety after a rocket launch is detected. Do you think that might have given them a better perspective on the conflict?

While they were in Ramallah, did they speak to any of the Palestinians who, polls say, form the majority that opposes the two-state solution J Street advocates? Were the US students shown the maps of “Palestine” encompassing all of Israel? Did they ask any Palestinians, 98 percent of whom live under Palestinian rule, how they felt about their leaders denying them freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, women’s rights, and gay rights?

A few weeks after they returned, the Palestinian Authority banned LGBTQ activities in the West Bank. I wonder how the participants would have felt about — or if their tour guides would have mentioned — this inconvenient truth had it occurred before their trip.

Typical of the misinformation supplied by Ofran, who apparently was leading the group through the West Bank, was her description of Hebron. This is one of the most ancient Jewish cities, where the patriarchs and matriarchs are buried, and only 800 Jews live among 200,000 Palestinians. J Street students were told about the deprivations of Palestinians there, but were they also informed that Israel withdrew from 80 percent of the city, which is now under the control of the PA?

According to David Halbfinger, who reported on the trip for The New York Times, Ofran told her group of innocents how the main market streets were closed. He did not say if she explained this was done for security reasons, or if the group was taken to the Palestinian-controlled part of Hebron, where a flourishing commercial center exists less than a mile from the shuttered marketplace.

“Hebron is the most prosperous city and the main center of the economy for the PA, with more than 40 percent of the PA economy produced there,” according to Steven Frank. “There are 17,000 factories and workshops in all areas of production. There are four hospitals, three universities, and an indoor 4,000-seat basketball stadium.” Did Ofran mention any of this?

I wonder if anyone asked what would happen to the Jews if the Palestinians controlled all of Hebron or if Israel ended the “occupation” of the entire West Bank. Mahmoud Abbas has already given the answer: “In a final resolution, we would not see the presence of a single Israeli — civilian or soldier — on our lands.” Would it bother these students to learn that “Palestine” would be one of the few places on earth to ban Jews?

Ofran reportedly compared the massacre of 67 Jews in Hebron in 1929 with Baruch Goldstein’s murder of 29 Muslims in 1994. The killing of Jews on August 23, 1929 was part of a countrywide campaign to murder Jews, instigated by the Mufti of Jerusalem. Arab terrorism against Jews has continued unabated for the last 90 years — before and after the “occupation.” By contrast, Goldstein’s monstrous act was an anomaly, one that was condemned by all but a lunatic fringe of Israelis.

Everyone today understands that young Jews cannot be educated without exposing them to Israel’s faults and challenges. Any student who wants to learn about these on their own can read Haaretz online. Focusing on Israel’s deficits, however, without understanding its history and surroundings or the context of its actions, will produce the type of Jews who join Jewish Voice for Peace and Students for Justice in Palestine and become boycott advocates.

It should come as no surprise that Halbfinger found that “as the day grew long, the facial expressions more pained and the questions more anguished, the J Street tour seemed increasingly incompatible with Birthright’s goal of hooking young American Jews on Israel.”

This should give pause to the trip’s funders, especially those worried about the next generation’s commitment to Israel, and their ability to respond to the myths about Israel they hear from detractors on campus.

Mitchell Bard is Executive Director of AICE and Jewish Virtual Library.

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