The Shalom Hartman Institute’s “Muslim Leadership Initiative” (MLI) has been submerged in controversy since it was launched in 2013. The program “invites North American Muslims to explore how Jews understand Judaism, Israel, and Jewish peoplehood” and include a visit to Palestine. Defenders of MLI and programs like it argue first, that the program gives participants an opportunity to visit Israel and Palestine and second, that it allows participants “to find out exactly what was going on” and “bring Muslim voices to the table.” There is a very straightforward way, as a Muslim, to travel to Israel and Palestine and witness the injustices of the occupation: go.
The thing about going to Palestine is that if you’re attentive nearly every part of your trip will provide insight into the situation on the ground. The “political tour” starts at the border. My wife and I arrived at the Jordanian side of the King Hussein Bridge (or Allenby Bridge), around noon. The segregation at the border is stark. There is a bus for Palestinians and a bus for internationals. Our bus left about a half hour after the Palestinian bus but we passed it along the way. It had been stopped by the Israelis. The passengers had been ordered off and their luggage was strewn about. Our bus was waved through by Israeli guards and we arrived at the Israeli terminal.
Upon seeing my wife and I, an Israeli guard asked if we were married. I said yes and was then told to come aside for some questioning which included the following:
“Are you Muslim?”
“How long have you been Muslim?”
“You don’t look like a Muslim.”
“When did you meet your wife?”
“When were you married?”
“Why are you here?”
After a few minutes I was free to get back in line, only to be questioned in a similar fashion at the security counter. While in the crowded line the guard that had questioned me earlier looked at me and said, “Animals,” nodding his head towards the Palestinians in line, “they are all Animals.”
We eventually arrived at the passport-processing counter where I was questioned again. The Israeli guard noted that I did not “look Muslim” and that I looked “very modern” since I didn’t have a large beard (ninety percent of the Palestinian men in line didn’t have large beards either). They asked where my Father was born. I told them he was born in Beirut. They took our passports and told us to wait. We waited for three and a half hours. When we finally received our passports a young Palestinian-American woman who had been on our bus was just arriving at the passport desk. She had been strip-searched, her luggage had completely gone through security, and she had been interrogated.
All in all, it had taken us six hours to get through the border and it was a stressful and dehumanizing experience. Many Palestinians have to cross this border on a regular basis. It is ironic that participants in normalization projects would justify their trips to Israel and Palestine on the basis of seeing “what is going on,” since many times it is their very participation in these projects that prevents them from experiencing the blatant anti-Muslim and anti-Palestine dehumanization that defines the border.
Witnessing the Occupation and “Both Sides”
Participants in the MLI program claim they travel to the West Bank to talk to Palestinian activists and therefore gain insight into the Palestinian experience. However, working with the Hartman Institute, whose other programs seek to strengthen the “operation of the Israel Defense Forces” (IDF), is entirely unnecessary. Just as entering Palestine provides a mini-geopolitical tour so does being in Palestine. Our taxi ride from the arrival terminal to Ramallah was interrupted by Israeli soldiers who blocked off the road and our driver was forced to take a longer rout. Once in Ramallah the presence of the occupation is not felt as heavily since the Israeli military is not allowed in, although locals told us that the Palestinian Authority allows them in whenever they request it. However, even in Ramallah, nearby settlements are still visible and ubiquitous. It is almost impossible to take a picture of Palestine without having an Israeli settlement in the background.
Every Palestinian we talked to had a story about the brutality of the occupation. One Palestinian citizen of Israel told us about how Israeli soldiers had twice used him as a human shield, once tying him to the front of a vehicle. Our Palestinian guide in East Jerusalem explained how Israeli residency laws almost made it impossible for his children to become residents of East Jerusalem even though his family has lived there for generations. A Palestinian shopkeeper in al-Khalil pointed out the egg yolk that remains on a piece of his merchandise, courtesy of an Israeli settler. We also visited a Palestinian house in East Jerusalem, part of which had recently been taken over by settlers from New York.
Checkpoints became a regular part of travel, sometimes adding hours to our trip. At times, the Israelis would set up a temporary “flying checkpoint” in the middle of the road. In al-Khalil my wife and her mother could not walk down al-Shuhada street simply because they were Muslim (being white, I was able to walk down the street unquestioned). And of course, the apartheid wall is almost omnipresent.
Seeing “both sides,” of the conflict can also be readily accomplished without a normalization trip. I would encourage visitors to make an effort do so. If there is anything worse than the occupation itself it is how accustomed Israeli society is to it. We visited during Christmas time and Jerusalem’s streets contained signs saying Israel wishes Christians a merry Christmas. There was a stark contrast between the celebratory sign and the experience of the Palestinian Christians we talked to. Likewise, standing in a settlement overlooking overcrowded Palestinian neighborhoods and refugee camps just beyond the apartheid wall, one is amazed at the ability of settlers to carry on as if the other side of that wall doesn’t exist. Jewish-American tourists walk joyfully down Shuhada Street right next to a Palestinian woman being stopped by an Israeli soldier for doing so. The “other side’s” story is everywhere – and if anything it makes the occupation look even worse.
Normalization and the Erasure of Palestine
What normalization programs tend to do is reframe the issue of Palestine around “co-existence” rather than justice. In this way, normalization programs effectively censor the Palestinian experience by shielding participants from the harsh realities of the occupation. The Hartman Institute, which works closely with the Israeli government, never discusses “occupation” in official program material on its website. The Institute, much like the US, poses as a neutral arbiter while actively opposing Palestinian liberation. Rabbi Halevi, a researcher fellow at the institute featured in MLI materials, calls Palestinian refugees “chilling” and the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement (BDS) a “threat to peace.” Rabbi Halevi also denies historical realities, such as the ethnic cleansing of Palestine. How can the Hartman Institute claim to expose participants to “diverse narratives” while explicitly denying Palestinian history?
A non-normalizing visiting Palestine is illuminating. Muslims and individuals of Arab descent traveling to Palestine (without being escorted by normalizing programs) will experience discrimination and harassment at the hands of the Israeli authorities. Traveling with everyday Palestinians will make evident the regular hardships the occupation imposes. No words from Israeli officials or Israeli institutes espousing “multiculturalism” or “religious diversity” can erase these experiences. The “other side’s” narrative looks nothing but cruel and cynical when contrasted with daily life in occupied Palestine, but you actually have to see it as it is, not as Israeli apologists imagine it to be.