November 10, 2017
Dear Former iTrekkers and the Law School Community,
The purpose of iTrek and the incentive for Israel and Co. to offer it with heavy subsidy to students at elite graduate schools is to paint a positive picture of Israel in the eyes of future leaders. Per their website, Israel and Co. has received funding from the Israeli government and seeks to promote a favorable view of the state. They share objectives with other Zionist groups like the Anti-Defamation League, which pays for US law enforcement to go to Israel to train with the Israeli Defense Force (IDF), who portray Israel as the victim of a pathologically dangerous Palestinian population rather than as the illegal occupiers of Palestinian land. It is an attempt to reframe Israel’s racist, violent settler-colonial state in sympathetic terms. Since iTrek groups cannot stay overnight in the West Bank, there is no time on this trip to actually see the dark underbelly of oppression upon which Israel has constructed its highly curated portrait for tourists to see.
iTrek 2017's Disturbing Itinerary
The iTrek organizers point to last year's trip as a model of nuance and fair-mindedness. Unfortunately, that spirit was not reflected in the trip’s actual itinerary and activities. For instance, last year’s trip visited illegal settlements and went wine tasting and ATV riding in in the Occupied Syrian Golan, which Israel effectively annexed in 1967 in order to exploit its rich natural resources. The group was guided by a retired colonel from the Israeli army, who breezed past the topic of the illegal occupation of Syrian Golan in order to discuss Israel’s medical assistance to Syrians at the border (Note: Israel routines and arbitrarily denies medical permits to Palestinian civilians in the Gaza Strip who need urgent, life-saving medical care). Tourism is a huge part of the settlement economy in the Golan – where the Israeli government has razed Syrian villages in order to create ski resorts – and the iTrek trip funnels more money toward this disturbing dispossession. Of course, trip participants were not encouraged to question their complicity by their former Israeli colonel tour guide.
In Jerusalem, trip participants posed for pictures with IDF soldiers, who dehumanize and murder Palestinian civilians on a daily basis. Going between the tourist sites in Jerusalem typically means taking the Jerusalem Light Rail, which was intentionally designed to help change the demographics of the city. With only 3 of 23 stops in East Jerusalem (where Palestinians live), the Light Rail exists mainly for the purpose of helping the Jewish settler population and creates the impression that illegal settlements are merely the suburbs of Jerusalem – an “Israeli space” across the Green Line (within Palestine) to give settlers a sense of comfort and ownership of occupied land.
While in Jerusalem, the trip visited Israel’s Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem. Unfortunately, the very end of the formal exhibits at the museum attempts to convert the tragedy of the Holocaust into a justification for the founding of Israel on Palestinian land. This narrative attempts to situate the Holocaust within a Zionist teleology that ends with Israel’s reclamation of the “ancestral homeland” of the Jewish people. There is no reflection on the contradiction of having this museum in a country that is built on the theft of Palestinian land and homes and that uses walls, checkpoints, home demolitions, and military occupation to control the Palestinian people. An Israeli tour guide at Yad Vashem who tried to highlight this contradiction was promptly fired.
Fresh off of the weighty emotional toll of Yad Vashem, the trip stopped next at the Israeli High Court of Justice (HCJ). A justice speaking to the group blatantly lied about the independence and impartiality of the Court and how it is allegedly trusted by Palestinians. In reality, the judiciary in Israel is completely controlled by the executive, not independent, not impartial, and – when it comes to Palestinian cases – bows to whatever suits the government. In the overwhelming majority of cases, the HCJ acts as a rubber stamp on home demolitions, extrajudicial killings, and collective punishment measures against the Palestinian people – and yet refuses to apply the same standards to Jewish settlers who gruesomely murder Palestinian children. The court also authorized the destruction of a Bedouin community in the Negev in order to create a Jewish-only community, which occurred earlier this year. This is why human rights organizations like B'Tselem (Jerusalem) and Al-Haq (Ramallah) boycott the HCJ. A publication by the latter summarizes, “The HCJ, however, plays a central role in the occupation by providing moral weight and legal justification to oppressive and illegal Israeli policies in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, while masquerading behind a superficial facade of humanitarian and human rights law.”
In Tel Aviv, the group met with the Legal Counsel for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Israel, who told them about difficult decisions he had to make in the IDF while fighting in the 2008 Gaza War. He emphasized the importance of adhering to moral standards in armed combat that surpass even the Geneva Convention. However, he failed to mention that Israel intentionally attacked civilian targets during the war, resulting the death of approximately 1,440 Palestinians compared with 13 Israelis. He failed to mention that three Israeli military operations in the last eight years, as well as ten years of economic blockade, have shattered Gaza’s infrastructure, ravaged its productive industries, inhibited reconstruction, and impoverished the Palestinian population. Israel’s blockade prevents supplies from entering Gaza to repair damaged hospitals, power grids, and water purification plants. Today, 96 percent of the groundwater in Gaza is unfit for human consumption, Gazans experience power cuts of 18 to 20 hours per day, and Israel cruelly denies medical permits for patients in extreme health conditions more often than not. At this rate, the UN has estimated that the Gaza Strip will become uninhabitable by 2020.
Making students an audience for IDF soldiers and Israeli government officials to justify their actions in the Gaza strip, which have led to an unspeakable human tragedy, is deeply disturbing. The group’s stops at other Zionist propaganda sites, like Independence Hall in Tel Aviv, raise further disturbing questions. The image of privileged law students frolicking around the Dead Sea and buying Dead Sea products that read “Made in Israel” – while Palestinians have zero access to use of its natural resources – is also unsettling. Students also learned about how the Masada is a symbol of Zionism while completely breezing past the Israeli government’s destruction of Bedouin communities in the Negev.
You want to see Palestine?
Dropping into Ramallah on one day of a week-long “cultural learning” trip – which is already chock full with Zionist propaganda – constitutes a mere token gesture. You want to see Palestine? Go to Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem, where you can see the doors of UN schools riddled with bullet holes from the IDF. Stand in the very places where Israeli snipers have shot and killed Palestinian children. Go to Beit Sahour, right next to Bethlehem, and look across the wall as the Israeli government builds homes for Jewish settlers directly across the barrier from the Palestinians from whom they seized the land. Talk to the residents, who will tell you how Jewish settlers across the fence are allocated five times more water than Palestinians living in Beit Sahour.
Go to Hebron (al-Khalil), where you can see how the most ideologically-driven Jewish settlers have taken up residence in the very heart of the largest city in the West Bank. See how the Palestinian population has been locked in cages by a checkpoint system that severely inhibits their free movement and relegates them to ghettos within their own city. Watch Israeli soldiers harass and dehumanize Palestinians civilians and then turn right around and hug American settlers and tourists and take selfies. Walk through the market by Ibrahimi Mosque and see the nets that locals have set up to protect Palestinian merchants from objects hurled at them from above by Jewish settlers who live in the adjacent apartments. Go to Palestinian villages in the South Hebron hills, where you can see houses funded by and bearing the logo of the European Union lying in shambles. See the ruins of EU-constructed homes that the IDF has repeatedly demolished in order to drive out the Palestinian population and make way for the expansion of adjacent Jewish settlements.
Talk to Palestinians in East Jerusalem (illegally annexed in 1980), who can describe the Israeli government’s ethnic cleaning project, which includes demolishing Palestinian homes, revoking the Jerusalem IDs of Palestinians, cutting off Palestinian communities from greater Jerusalem with the annexation wall, and in some cases, cutting off Palestinian communities from both greater Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank (e.g., Nabi Samwil).
Go to Qalqilya, where you can see how the apartheid wall annexes huge swaths of territory on the Palestinian side of the Green Line, which prevents Palestinian farmers from accessing their own land. When you enter and exit through the only checkpoint to Qalqilya, you will see how it becomes an open air prison to 60,000 people when Israel arbitrarily closes the checkpoint.
Go to Ramallah and meet with Palestinian human rights organizations (NOT the PA/Fatah) who can tell you about the daily struggle of working within a racist legal system that does not recognize the value of Palestinian lives or freedoms. Drive through the West Bank with a Palestinian guide who will point out the illegal Jewish-only settlements dotting every hilltop of Palestine and the ways that the original Arabic names have been altered and twisted in order to erase Palestinian identity.
This is not to say that a trip to Palestine cannot be fun – quite the opposite! Ride the cable cars to the Mount of Temptation in Jericho, where you can take in incredible views of the Jordan Valley. Hike across Wadi Qelt through the Valley of the Shadow and see the Monastery of St. George of Choziba etched into the side of a cliff. Go to Nablus to watch the making of olive oil soap, relax in Turkish baths, and taste the best Kanafeh in the world. Visit beautiful port cities like Haifa and Akka where Jews and Arabs live peacefully together, and dream of a future where ’48 refugees have the right to return. Go to Jenin to see productions from The Freedom Theatre, which recently debuted it’s play “The Siege” right here at NYU. Eat delicious falafel, hummus, ful, musakhan, maqluba, and maftoul all along the way.
Unfortunately, this is not the type of trip that iTrek represents. The inescapable reality is that iTrek is funded in order to soften the image of Israel’s violent, racist settler-colonial state in the eyes of future leaders. Don’t fall for the ruse.
Law Students for Justice in Palestine
November 8, 2017
Dear NYU Law Community,
This letter is addressed to all those who are considering attending the iTrek Spring Break trip to Israel. While we understand that the prospect of a highly subsidized vacation is tempting, therein lies the problem.
This trip purports to have the goal of providing students with a “balanced view” of the region but the very fact that it is funded by an organization which seeks to cultivate an “appreciation of Israel” makes it impossible for this trip to foster any real understanding of the occupation and persecution of the Palestinian people.
Though Israel and Co., the organizers of this trip, advertises iTrek as a trip that can be customized for groups according to their interests, it provides planning support to the trip leaders, in the form of “setting up site visits, mentoring iTrek leaders, consulting on all aspects of the itinerary, and providing expert advice on all Israel-related topics.” For an organization that pretends to let students shape their experience of Israel, it is highly involved in the planning process and also fails to make any mention of Palestine in its promotion of a trip that claims to be “well balanced.”
Whether the trip is framed as a cultural exchange or peace-seeking initiative, it is in fact part of a disingenuous Israeli-government-linked advocacy program that that aims to misinform participants about the reality of day-to-day life in Palestine/Israel. The intent of this letter is to elaborate on these realities to highlight how the iTrek trip, by ignoring these realities, contributes to diminishing the human rights of the Palestinian people. We, as law students, stand against this whitewashing of oppression and believe it is inappropriate to go on the iTrek trip offered to students. We hope that you will take this into earnest consideration before committing to iTrek or other similar programs.
The trip is targeted to the “next generation of global influentials” so that they may obtain a “better understanding and appreciation of Israel.” While the trip is advertised as an opportunity for students to plan their own journey, it is not an independent endeavor. The mission of Israel & Co., and other similar groups part of the Brand Israel campaign, was developed by the Israeli government as an attempt to make Israel look more attractive and deflect attention away from Israeli human rights abuses. Millions of dollars have been spent on such initiatives, part of Israel’s wider outreach program with the world, which also includes training American police forces on methods of brutality.
As law students and future leaders, we have a responsibility to critically evaluate our choices, not accept options at face value, and treat situations of grave injustice and inequality with seriousness. This trip aims to present a progressive-looking Israel but hides the ugly realities of Israel’s policies and history as a settler-colonial state built on ethnic cleansing. An accurate understanding of Israel cannot be divorced from its policies in Palestine and the consequences felt by the Palestinian people which this trip fails to adequately address, including the destruction of homes, building of illegal settlement-colonies, use of arbitrary detentions, discriminatory immigration and refugee policies, periodic large-scale killings and military incursions, and ongoing confiscation of resources. Trips such as iTrek seek to obscure that reality in an effort to lull participants into complicity with Israel’s illegal actions.
These types of misleading trips are not only being offered to NYU Law students. For example, students at Berkeley Law issued a similar pledge to not participate in the upcoming iTrek trip offered there. This year students from University of Pennsylvania School of Law have also committed to not participate in this trip. These letters are part of a worldwide effort to halt and reverse Israel’s destructive and discriminatory policies by raising awareness on the reality of the situation in Palestine/Israel and holding institutions and actors accountable for their complicity with Israel’s oppression.
Today 5 million Palestinians live in exile as a result of the mass expulsions of Palestinians during the creation of Israel (“Nakba”) and the 1967 invasion (“Naksa”). These communities and the hardships they continue to face decades into exile, living in refugee camps in neighboring countries or in the West Bank and Gaza, cannot be presented on the trip. While the movement of most Palestinians is restricted based on the military policies, Palestinian refugees are barred from returning to their homeland outright. Trips like iTrek offer vacations in Palestine/Israel to foreign students, while these refugees are barred from returning to their homes within the same area. It is important for us to reflect on the implications of such a refugee crisis while we reckon with our own xenophobic administration’s cruelty to refugees. As we chant “no ban, no wall” within our own borders, we must remember that our tax dollars support a state that has built a wall to disenfranchise its indigenous population.
Furthermore, activists who have called for a boycott of Israel and fight for human rights have been systematically denied entrance into Palestine/Israel. This systematic denial of activists from Israel’s militarized borders ensures that no one who supports Palestinian rights will be able to go to Israel. Israel has also recently banned Birthright trips from organizing meetings with Arabs and Palestinians living in Israel. Working together, these policies demonstrate that anyone visiting Israel for “cultural sharing” will be given a narrow idea of a country that systematically denies basic human rights to its indigenous inhabitants, with billions of dollars of support from the U.S. government. Biased trips like iTrek further cement an American approval of its racist policies.
Although this trip seems free, it comes at the cost of dismissing the experiences of Palestinians who live under systematic exclusion and institutional racism perpetuated by the Israeli state. If you would like to visit Israel and Palestine without ignoring this reality, there are various programs we would recommend you consider, including: Interfaith Peace-Builders delegations and other tours put forward by Jews for Justice for Palestinians.
Finally, please consider signing the letter here to affirm that our law school community is conscientious about both domestic and international issues; your support is greatly appreciated!
The iTrek trip fails to critically examine the extent to which Israel maintains institutionalized segregation and discrimination, including segregating Jewish and Palestinian children in public education, blocking Palestinians from leasing or owning property and even prohibiting mixed marriage. These are just a few of the examples of the many laws that explicitly discriminate against Palestinian citizens of Israel, which continue to be introduced by Israeli legislation to this day. But instead, the iTrek trip brands Israel as a uniquely placed democracy in the Middle East, without examining the structural and legal inequalities enforced against Palestinians. As many of us are actively working to dismantle the racist underpinnings of many American institutions, we aspire to look towards a more egalitarian system rather than discriminatory ones and hope our peers will look beyond iTrek’s marketing materials to consider the reality of Israeli governance.
Second, this trip does not present students with the true reality of daily life in Israel/Palestine. A celebration with a Bedouin theme should not be complete without engaging with the many Bedouin villages that Israel routinely destroys and to whom Israel denies resources like electricity or running water. For example, Al-Araqib, a village whose inhabitants are indigenous Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, has been razed over 80 times and its inhabitants ordered to pay half a million dollars to cover the cost of these demolitions. While wine tasting and ATV riding are fun activities, these excursions have taken place in the Golan Heights, illegally annexed from Syria and the UN continues to reject Israel’s claim. The indigenous Druze who inhabit the area as well as all Jewish teens in Israel need to complete two years mandatory military service at the age of 18, which youth are increasingly objecting due to their “opposition to the military occupation of Palestinian territories,” where “human rights are violated, and acts defined under international law as war-crimes are perpetrated on a daily basis.” If they refuse, though, like Omar Saad (Druze) or Tair Kaminer (Jewish), they are subjected to multiple prison sentences.
This concern also extends to the extent to which the iTrek trip will give students exposure to the day-to-day realities of Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation in the Palestinian territories. For example, mere miles from the glittering lights of Jerusalem’s Old City (illegally annexed by Israel), Palestinian families continue to be uprooted to make way for Jewish only settlements, illegal under international law. Since 2004, more than 641 homes have been demolished in East Jerusalem alone, a routine practice throughout Occupied Palestine; nearly 50,000 homes and structures have been demolished since 1967, under the guise of not having appropriate permits or as a form of collective punishment. This is just one of the many impacts of Israel’s occupation, which severely limits Palestinians’ movement and access to natural resources.
Previous iTrek trips have not exposed participants to these harsh realities; instead, their engagement with Occupied Palestine has been at an illegal settlement, which Israel’s government continues to construct as “facts on the ground” despite the condemnation of the US and the international community. We, however, refuse to accept this trip’s portrayal of the conflict.
We should not forget how this trip is blind to the experience of the people in Gaza who have been subjected to a severe siege since 2007 and what has been referred to as the “world’s largest open air prison.” The population of nearly 2 million people are locked in the Gaza Strip by land and cannot even benefit from the sea that it borders, as its fisherman are routinely shot at the shore and prohibited from fishing further than 3 miles from the shore. Moreover, in 2008, 2009, 2012, and 2014 the Israeli military conducted major airstrike and land offenses indiscriminately against the people in Gaza as a form of collective punishment; in 2014, more than 2,100 Palestinians (including 495 children) were killed and the UN has stated that 7 of every 10 killed were civilians. Just last week, Israeli forces killed 7 Palestinians in Gaza. We recognize that the experiences of Palestinians in Gaza, West Bank, and in Israel, mirror the experiences of ethnic cleansing and discrimination that indigenous and native populations in the Americas, Australia, and New Zealand have faced from settler-colonial projects. We support the struggle for indigenous rights from Standing Rock to Palestine/Israel, which we do not believe is a value that this trip enshrines.