Yesterday The Jewish Press ran an article about a group of Harvard college students who visited mass-terrorist Yasser Arafat’s grave while on a trip funded at least in part by Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropy, and supported by Harvard Hillel.
That trip, the Harvard College Israel Trek 2014, is billed as an effort to bring a diverse group of Harvard students to Israel to facilitate “a nuanced first encounter with the country, its history, narratives, culture, politics and people. Student participants represent diverse religious, national, and cultural backgrounds, and are all leaders in various capacities on campus.”
The posting of the picture of the Harvard Trek students at Arafat’s grave unleashed a storm of criticism. Many supporters of Israel and donors to Jewish communal institutions were outraged that a Jewish-funded and sponsored Israel trip for college students included a visit to the risibly ostentatious mausoleum dedicated to a man who was responsible for more dead Jews than almost anyone else in the last fifty years.
But there was another wave of fury, and this one emanated from the people who were responsible for the sponsorship of the Trek, Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies and Harvard Hillel.
Let’s deal with the second one, as the first does not really require a response.
This reporter spent the day trying to get the head of the CJP on the telephone, so that he could comment on the story as it was unfolding. Barry Shrage was unavailable all day, but after several telephone calls, a lay leader, Gideon Argov, made contact in the early evening.
Argov is the co-chair of the CJP’s Israel Advocacy committee. He helped create the itinerary for this year’s Israel Trek and he has been involved in many other trips in which students are brought to Israel to experience the country first-hand. He firmly believes that it is imperative to bring students to Israel, especially those from “elite” schools, where they are likely to be exposed to the worst anti-Israel activities such as the BDS movement, Islamists, intimidation of Jewish students, and worse.
For Argov, there is “no better single way to get people to understand Israel than to bring them there.” And, Argov explained, “the Israel Trek program is one that is organized by Israeli and Jewish students who are among the strongest supporters of Israel on campus.”
It was clear to this reporter that Argov fully believes in the Trek program. He said that the goal of the program is to take campus leaders – on this trip there is the editor of the Harvard Crimson as well as the captain of the football team, and many other leaders – and put together an itinerary that exposes those leaders to all walks of Israeli life and to do it in a multi-faceted fashion. To do all of this with the intent of creating knowledgeable leaders to advocate in, when they return to the States, in an effective way for Israel.”
I was convinced. Convinced that this is what Argov wants the Trek program to be and what Argov believes the program to be.
But I still wanted to understand how it was that the students went to pay their respects at Arafat’s grave.
For this, Argov was more reserved.Why did they go? According to the itinerary, the Harvard Trek group was supposed to go to Ramallah on Monday, March 17, and meet with local business people and leaders, but somehow the group also went elsewhere.
“The students obviously found themselves in a set of circumstances, where they were at Arafat’s grave. They were somehow put in such a position,” is how Argov put it.
When pressed, Argov insisted he was “not worried in the least about the safety of the students on the trip.” He said it was “unfortunate, but we will find out why and how it happened” when the students return.
The one thing Argov said he was worried about was that “focusing” on the fact that the students were taken to the Mukata “misrepresents the basic rationale for this trip.”
“I am 100 percent convinced that these students will come back, able to articulate why Israel is critical as an American ally, why it is critical as the Homeland of the Jewish people,” and why it should be protected as it is the one stable nation in a region devolving into chaos.
Pressed even further, Argov said that while the sponsors back in Boston are in regular contact with the Israel Trek leaders, “they were not in daily contact.”
When it was explained that information available on the Internet suggested that perhaps not everything was running precisely as the sponsors anticipated, and that there had been reports in the Arab press that Harvard students visiting in Ramallah on Monday had been subjected to pretty raucous anti-Israel and anti-American sentiment from Palestinian Arab leaders with whom they met, the tone of the conversation changed.
Eventually three of the people on the ground – three of the Israeli leaders on the Israel Trek program – were reached in Israel and put on the phone to speak with The Jewish Press.
And what they explained about the program and about the Mukata and other extra-itinerary excursions was very important to hear.
First, the student leaders were unabashed about their visit to the Mukata. They explained that bringing smart people on a trip to Israel and not sharing with them all facets of reality in the Middle East would not be effective. They spoke with passion and with certainty that exposing these students to the many differing narratives was essential in order to educate them and to create Israel supporters who can relate to the complex issues which exist in and around Israel.
“We wanted to show these students – 50 of the brightest and smartest American students – the Israel that we love,” said Zaki Djemal. Djemal is a Harvard undergraduate, but did many things before enrolling in college, including serving three years in the IDF. He worked in the Israeli Army radio station and as vice editor of the daily morning news program and as a military correspondent.
Yoav Schaefer, another one of the student leaders, made aliyah at 18. Schaefer also served three years in the IDF, as a combat soldier and a self-defense instructor.
Schaefer is the one who explained why the group went to the Mukata.
“We believe the students need to see all of Israeli society, they need to see the reality in which we live. And in order for us to be able to meet with Palestinian leaders, one of the things we must do is take a tour of the Mukata,” Schaefer said.
“It is important for the students to understand the Palestinian narrative, and the only way to engage seriously with them is by legitimizing the Palestinian narrative in a responsible way,” he explained.
So, in order to ensure that bright student tourists take to heart what the ardent lovers of Israel student leaders have to say, they feel it is imperative to also have them hear the Palestinian narrative first hand. Even if that means doing what, essentially, amounts to paying their respect to the arch-terrorist leader, Yasser Arafat.
“We later were able to explain to the students why that experience was so difficult for us,” Djemal said. But he was quick to point out that he “didn’t want to sound as though he was being apologetic for having gone to the Mukata. We really could not have gone to Ramallah without going to visit the Mukata.”
It’s a choice that was made by the student leaders, a choice that was complex, as is almost everything having to do with the Middle East.
Still, the nagging sensation of wondering, if visiting the Mukata was believed to be an essential aspect of any visit to Ramallah, why was it left off the itinerary?
The student Israel Trek leaders were very angry that the picture of the group at the Mukata had been the focal point of several news stories and much criticism. But if the decision was so clearly the right one, made for the right reasons – as these student leaders insisted – why the subterfuge? Why the anger over revealing an accurate picture of a decision about which they claimed to be comfortable? Had they posted the picture on their Facebook page – it is conspicuously missing – and provided their well-thought-out reasoning, the distraction about which they are so angry might have been avoided.
And if the controversy wasn’t avoided, perhaps that is because it is appropriate to have the discussion. Should a program funded by Harvard Hillel and Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies – all of which are funded by Jewish donor dollars – take students to Yasser Arafat’s shrine?
And if the Palestinian Arab leaders will only meet with American students with a “tour of the Mukata” as a prerequisite, what does that say about their openness? Should American students be turned into propaganda tools as a trade-off to get the leaders to sit down with those students…and it all begins to sound a bit like some of the distortions in the”peace process” negotiations.
Another group that was very angry about the Harvard student Mukata picture is Hillel.
David Eden, Chief Administrative Officer of Hillel International, issued a statement which was posted at another media site which covered the Harvard Israel Trek visit to the Mukata.
But, not surprisingly, Eden also appeared to be angry only that the picture was posted, and not that Harvard students were taken on a pilgrimage to the burial shrine of Yasser Arafat.
We did learn some things from Eden’s statement, however. It was the first time it was revealed that Harvard Hillel not only “supported” the Israel Trek, as was stated on the Trek website, but that it was a financial supporter. We also learned from Eden that all of the money for the trip came from “staunchly pro-Israel donors.” That had not been clear from the Trek website.
Eden’s statement contradicts some of what we learned from the itinerary posted online and which the people at CJP confirmed. Eden wrote that the “itinerary of the Trek, approved by the sponsors, includes a very impressive roster of meetings and outings with representatives of the very highest echelons of Israeli government, armed forces, business, and culture. The trip also includes a visit to Ramallah to meet with Palestinian leadership.”
The CJP people, as well as the student leaders, all admitted that most of the people with whom the Trek group met were not mentioned on the itinerary, and we know for sure that the visit to the Mukata was not approved, at least not by the CJP sponsors.
None of these squabbles necessarily means that the Harvard College Israel Trek 2014 will not do exactly what Gideon Argov and the Harvard Trek student leaders told The Jewish Press is the program’s goal: an experience for bright college students to learn about Israel and to return to campus as better, more informed and more committed advocates for Israel.
We hope it does achieve its goal. We cheer that goal. But the attempt to hide one piece of highly flammable information certainly threw off a lot of smoke.
Another article will discuss the wide variety of important, influential and interesting people with whom the Harvard students met while on their Israel Trek.
But the blog entry of one of the Harvard student participants after having listened to a talk by one of those interesting people does not exactly quell the concern raised by the Mukata incident.
JODI RUDOREN OF THE NYT IS STILL SPINNING THE ROMANTIC ROCK-THROWING THEME
The Harvard College Israel Trek 2014 students met with Jodi Rudoren, the Jerusalem bureau chief of the New York Times, on Saturday, March 15.
Rudoren, for those who do not recall, got into a bit of hot water when she first came to Israel. She was highly criticized for tweeting out friendly messages to people like Ali Abunimah, the editor of the Electronic Intifada. Abunimah is a devout supporter of the Boycott of, Divestment from and Sanctions against Israel movement.
In a previously unheard of form of reprimand, Rudoren was assigned a social media editor, in an effort to curb her public and repeated faux pas.
Last summer Rudoren was again widely criticized for an article that was understood by many to be not just justifying, but romanticizing the rock throwing by Arab youth.
As CAMERA, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, responded to the piece: “Stones kill, maim, wound and change people’s lives forever. Israeli infants have been slain, toddlers critically wounded and adults too have been killed, sustained severe head injuries or were hospitalized with lighter injuries, all due to Palestinian stone throwers.”
Just three quick examples:
•5-month old Yehuda Shoham whose skull was crushed by stones hurled at his car and who died after a six day struggle for life in 2001.
•3-year-old Adele Biton who spent four months in the intensive care unit of a hospital fighting for her life and is now confined at a rehabilitation hospital, relearning how to eat, talk and walk after Palestinian rocks struck her mother’s car this past March.
•1-year-old Yonatan Palmer and his 25-year old father who were killed in September 2011 when their car was struck in a Palestinian stone attack.
Given all the negative attention, you’d think Rudoren would stop romanticizing the conflict, and deal just with the facts. But if you thought that, you’d be wrong. This is how one of the Harvard students described Rudoren’s talk to the Harvard College Israel Trek 2014 group in her blog.
Our first speaker was Jody, who is the editor in chief for the Israel bureau of NYT. She’s so funny and chill, I loved it. One thing she said that really stuck out to me was that the “face” of the Israeli conflict is the Palestininan [sic] stone thrower. It’s painful to be in the face of guns and soldiers whom you feel have wronged you, your history, your family, and all you have are stones. But you make do, taking back some of the earth that was taken from you to gain it all back. Hope and resilience, anger and love. These emotions really rule the world, no matter what your background and where you come from. Although I would never want to compare the Palestinian experience to anything because there is nothing like it and that would neglect the nuanced complexity of the situation, I see similarities between the Palestinian struggle and other movements for justice, based on narrative. It’s painfully, beautifully sad, that no matter how much time has passed in history, suffering for the same reasons occurs time after time. (emphasis added).
If the goal of Israel Trek is to create students who are “knowledgeable student leaders who can advocate in an effective way for Israel,” this student’s “takeaway” from Rudoren is not reassuring.
Lori Lowenthal Marcus