California law students take pledge against Israel junket

Law students at UC Berkeley take a stand against Israeli propaganda tours. (Facebook)

Law students at the University of California, Berkeley say that almost 90 classmates have pledged not to participate in a privately funded free trip to Israel.

The trip will be facilitated by a New York City-based Israel advocacy organization that has received funding from the Israeli government.

“People said, ‘I wasn’t going anyway, I’m happy to sign [the pledge],’” Tori Porell, a member of Law Students for Justice in Palestine, told The Electronic Intifada.

Porell added that students who supported the pledge “acknowledged that there were plenty of issues with the trip.”

The junket “hides some ugly realities about Israeli society and law,” students wrote in an open letter to their classmates. “As law students, it is our responsibility to call attention to the ways the law is used to oppress people.”

Copies of the letter were posted to law students’ social media groups and were handed out to individuals. Members of Law Students for Justice in Palestine also tabled on campus and encouraged their classmates to sign the pledge.

The “Spring break in Israel” trip includes “all accommodations and travel expenses, excluding the flight,” according to an announcement.

An unnamed private donor is reportedly funding 30 law students to participate in the trip.

The tour will be facilitated by Israel & Co., a not-for-profit group founded in 2012 which purports to have a “distinct model” in “bringing present and future leaders” on its Israel tours.

Recent public filings show that Israel & Co. received a total of $5.2 million in donations from 2012-2015.

It has received funding in the past from the Israeli government but says it does not directly provide travel funds for most participants.

Former Israeli army soldier Gil Galanos, co-founder and CEO of Israel & Co., said his group has brought more than 7,700 US graduate students to Israel.

Borrowing the language of the tech industry, Israel & Co. adds that it “customizes content to the interest of participants” and offers “valuable programming and networking opportunities that connect students and educators to Israel.”

In 2013, the group hosted a meeting between “future business leaders” and former Israeli president and war crimes suspect Shimon Peres, who died in September.

Students on trips facilitated by Israel & Co. trips have also participated in “team-building exercises developed by the [Israeli army].” A trip leader noted that students “shatter[ed]” preconceived notions about Israel based on media portrayals.

Much like Project Interchange, an Israel propaganda tour organization operated by the American Jewish Committee, a right-wing Israel lobby group, Israel & Co. says its aim is “creating and influencing future leaders who care about Israel.”

Such junkets, author Max Blumenthal has noted, are “designed to impress suggestible American elites with the image of Israel as a dynamic start-up nation perpetually yearning for peace while struggling to defend itself from intractable foes” – especially the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement which is gaining support on US campuses.

Israel lobby groups have targeted almost every conceivable constituency with such junkets, from US local police officials to Muslim “leaders.”

Tori Porell, of Law Students for Justice in Palestine, said that trips like these signal a shift in Israel’s hasbara, or public relations, strategy: “Instead of trying to counter criticism of Israel, [advocacy groups] just totally ignore it and normalize Israel.”

“Law students should have a more critical eye to how the law is applied discriminatorily by Israel,” she added.

“Reason to think”

Dylan Saba, a fellow member of Law Students for Justice in Palestine at UC Berkeley, told The Electronic Intifada that he has been engaging in conversations with classmates about Israel’s violations of Palestinians’ rights.

“If part of the goal is to get people thinking critically about these issues, then there has been some success,” Saba said.

He added that even though the stated goal of the action is to urge classmates to commit to not participating in the trip, it is also “to politicize the trip, to politicize the issue.”

Even among those who are going, Saba hopes that his group’s outreach will “plant the critical seed in their mind that people are upset about this, that this is a controversial thing that [they’re] doing.”

Discrimination

The rejection of a trip to Israel by members of the legal community is not without precedent.

In 2015, the state agency that regulates the legal profession in Virginia canceled a planned seminar in Jerusalem following objections over Israel’s discrimination against American travelers of Palestinian, Arab and Muslim ancestry.

Dozens of lawyers who are members of the Virginia State Bar signed an open letter detailing Israel’s frequent denial of entry to such individuals.

This habitual discrimination, previously acknowledged by the US government, meant that in effect the trip would not be open to all participants on an equal basis.

Members of the Boalt Jewish Student Association, which is coordinating the upcoming tour, distributed an open letter to the UC Berkeley law school community rejecting tactics of “public spectacle and intimidation.” The letter was seen by The Electronic Intifada.

“The trip is not a referendum on policies. It espouses no political agenda,” the letter asserts. “Our aim is to simply bring Berkeley Law students to Israel, so that they can learn first-hand about the culture, history and complexities of the world’s only Jewish state.”

Palestinian students have expressed their opposition to the tour on social media, saying that if they wanted to participate in the trip, it would be nearly impossible for them to join the tour since Israel discriminates against Arabs and Muslims – as well as Palestinian American students and human rights activists – upon entry at its airport or land crossings.

Law Students for Justice in Palestine will be meeting next week with the administration to discuss the trip and the response by students to refuse to participate, Porell said.

Backlash

Saba said that although the organizers of the upcoming tour were upset that there has been resistance, student activists aren’t expecting the same kind of pushback as seen at another University of California campus.

In 2014, students at UCLA signed a non-binding ethics pledge asking candidates for the student government not to participate in all-expense-paid trips from outside political organizations with histories of discrimination and promotion of bigotry.

Those who signed the pledge were immediately condemned by the Los Angeles City Council, which accused the statement of being “a tactic of intimidation and harassment.”

The city council recommended that students who sign the ethics pledge be turned over to law enforcement and threatened with other legal consequences.

Gene Block, UCLA’s chancellor, condemned the ethics pledge and stated that students behind it were embracing “hostility” and had “sought to delegitimize educational trips.”

However, “throughout the campaign of legal bullying, [Students for Justice in Palestine] continued organizing for Palestinian rights on campus, and the following semester, they succeeded in passing a divestment resolution in their student government,” according to Palestine Legal.

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Congratulations to these Berkeley law students. It's refreshing to see manifestations of principle among those about to enter the world's dirtiest profession.

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It is always interesting to see the Israeli's asking for charity to feed their people, I see television ads repeatedly.. while they manufacture weapons with the money they get from the USA.. Most people do not know that Israel builds weapons which are bought by the USA and why are these weapons bought.. to outfit the Israeli military, yes, we pay for the guns they make and they keep.. all while the Israeli people go hungry.. thses are facts easily checked.. please do so before criticizing me..
My personal feelings are that Israel will not avoid the guerilla warfare which is taking place(called terrorism by pundits) so long as it has hard liner politicians screwing their own people over using fear and propaganda to maintain power.. should Israeli's maintain real and effective security.. YES.. but it is not possible without dealing with the underlying problem of Palestinian freddoms and security of the Palestinians for their own land and not the disposession of and land grab which occurs by the politicians in power today..

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Perhaps particularly in the light of current political developments in the USA I am encouraged to see there are indeed men and women of honour and humanity in that country who will stand up and be counted against injustice whenever and wherever it occurs.

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Nora Barrows-Friedman

Nora Barrows-Friedman's picture

Nora Barrows-Friedman is a staff writer and associate editor at The Electronic Intifada, and is the author of In Our Power: US Students Organize for Justice in Palestine (Just World Books, 2014).