Sifting through the propaganda while touring Israel/Palestine

Tour companies operating in Israel often have a very specific political agenda and a deep impact on the perspectives of their participants. A critical approach is necessary to resist the propaganda that so often accompanies such tours.

By Gary Spedding

Quite often we hear Israel advocacy groups make the nefarious claim that if people would just visit Israel, they would see the truth about the situation. This is often chopped and paraphrased with appeals along the lines of, “Come see the real Israel – it’s actually a normal country.”

This framing plays on the well-known idea that to take a position on a political matter in a distant place, you have to travel there to gain a fuller understanding of “reality.” This approach, while not without merits, often undermines our efforts as intelligent, educated people to engage in critical thinking.

Today, we go almost anywhere – China, Indonesia, Dubai and India (to name but a few places with complicated social and political problems) – without fully comprehending that injustices are happening, unseen by our eyes, all around us. A typical tourist may notice one or two such things, but rarely are we compelled to actively involve ourselves while traveling.

This is where Israel advocacy comes in. People who take politicized trips to Israel commonly encounter a specific agenda. Exposure to propaganda dressed up as fact, though occasionally qualified with such additives as “opinion” and “experiences,” often goes unnoticed in the moment, but can have a profound influence on how the visitor views, experiences and talks about Israel.

A close friend of mine who recently traveled to Israel on a trip provided and funded by an Israeli advocacy organization proved this notion. Like so many questioning young minds before him, this dear friend returned from his trip with a changed perspective, along with as some eminently contestable information programmed into his mind.

The friend unwittingly provided a liberal legitimization of Israel’s PR efforts, claiming that that the program he took part in was “structured to show the whole deck.” But his guiding voices in the Holy Land were in fact overwhelmingly one-sided. During his six-day visit, he met a senior spokesperson for the Israeli government, David Horowitz (editor of the Times of Israel, former editor of the Jerusalem Post), a settler and rabbi-in-training, a former IDF commander, and one of the Israeli activists in last year’s social protest movement. True, he also met with One Voice Palestine and Journalist Khaled Abu Toameh, but the unbalanced nature of the program rendered their presence practically meaningless. As it so often is, the entire visit was framed around the “security” question, often used by those who oppose Palestinian freedom and equality.

Any free thinker is usually aware of Israel’s need for security. Such challenges are well known, mostly because we are constantly reminded of them by speakers on behalf of Israel. But are they reason enough to justify policies, activities and actions that keep Palestinians as prisoners in their own land?

Critical faculties should not be surrendered at the border 

Let’s be clear: any politicized trip to the Middle East, especially a first time visit to Israel, on a pro-Israel tour of sorts, can result in confusion for those who aren’t willing to question the narratives pumped into them by their guides.

Many trips, including ones organized by Palestinian solidarity groups, have an agenda behind them. (Though due to Israeli control of the entire area between the sea and the river, it’s hard for a pro-Palestinian visitor not to encounter the Israeli narrative, while ignoring the Palestinians is easy.) The traveler often finds himself subject to a set of specifically designed opinions and experiences that dictate a certain way of thinking. This form of information dissemination allow people to feel themselves to be engaged in critically thinking, while in reality they are being reasonably pliant.

Framing any visit must take into consideration the idea that it’s not only about visiting Palestine/Israel, but rather whom you visit. I know solidarity activists can’t stand the advocacy of a “balanced approach,” because oppressor and oppressed should not be confused and equated. However, I believe that an honest method of informing internationals will always leave them empowered rather than betrayed when they stumble upon the realities of this complex conflict.

Indeed we find it ever difficult to present an accurate reflection of Israel/Palestine. Lauren Gelfond Feldinger recently described this in an article in Haaretz, noting that it can be painstaking to present both sides of the reality in Israel/Palestine, and it comes with a  price.

Absurdly, many who take biased tours or volunteer with the Israeli side frequently try and frame a position on the oppressed after speaking only with the oppressor. Taking the time to visit actual Palestinians and Israelis, and even staying with them before assessing the narratives fairly, could result in critical thinking utilized appropriately. An honest person cannot ignore the difference in the simple realities of life for Palestinians and Israelis, regardless of the rationalizations his or her host may offer.

The challenge for the international and activist community is to highlight the problematic and disruptive nature of propaganda tours, funded by government agencies and affluent organizations, which presenting a one-sided story.

Gary Spedding is a student at Queen’s University in Belfast and a member of his university’s Palestine Solidarity Society and QUB’s students’ union.

Correction: An earlier version of this piece named Jonathan Spyer as a member of One Voice Palestine. This is not the case, and the post has been changed to reflect that fact.