Harvard’s Hillel sponsors Israel Trek, a student-led, student-organized spring break trip to Israel and the West Bank. Past participants speak of how the trip challenged their preconceived notions about Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One writes of his visit to Ramallah, where, at Fatah headquarters, his group heard “from a number of high-ranking [PLO] officials who discussed with us their views on the conflict, the state of affairs in Palestinian communities, and the prospects for peace going forward.” They had already met “members of the Knesset, a former Supreme Court justice, a prominent investigative journalist, and the spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.”
As this witness saw it, “our organizers truly strove to provide the broadest range of perspectives that they could” so that students could form their own judgments. Not that the student leaders weren’t Zionists. They evidently calculated that Israel’s reputation would benefit from the exchange of ideas.
Students who attend Israel Trek don’t necessarily emerge allies of Israel. Two participants wrote of their experience that they “had even more questions than we had before departing,” about, among other things, what a democracy is. On the question, “are you pro-Israel or pro-Palestine,” the students demur because they now think it “fails to acknowledge the deep nuances that complicate a conflict involving real people, each with their own experiences, politics, and pain.”
Those of us who are pro-Israel may find this a little too wishy-washy. We may find the students’ views of Fatah’s objectives naïve. But we can hardly, if we are also in favor of liberal education, object to a trip that dissolves a student’s sense of “Manichaean clarity.” Even a student who had done his best to understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by discussing it with friends and consuming news and opinion found this education no substitute for first-hand experience. He had, it turned out, “relied too heavily on external, and often biased outlets, both in favor and against Israel.”
These accounts suggest that Israel Trek does what one hopes higher education will do for students. That is, compels them to put their prejudices to the test.
It is, therefore, a natural target of the BDS movement. To the extent this movement has prospered on American campuses, it has done so by feeding students emotionally charged anti-Israel propaganda. Getting students to make grandiose pronouncements about the Middle East requires precisely that those students lack the intellectual humility that Israel Trek seems to instill in its participants.
It doesn’t sound as if the boycott call is putting a dent in Israel Trek, which has 400 applications. Since its inception in 2014, it has taken only 50 students. But the call, however ineffective it may be, is revealing. Though they treat their opinions as self-evident, pro-BDS activists have no confidence that students who hear from Israelis and Palestinians will come away with the correct view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
That’s the thing about marks: the swindle depends on their ignorance.