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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.

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    1. Palestinian

      Staying with an Israeli family in Tel Aviv or in Kiryat 8 isnt gonna inform the visitor of the conflict or the occupation.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Bluegrass Picker of Afula

      Think globally…. act locally. Please stop occupying Celtic land before you worry about the Arabic colonial occupiers of the Hebrew indigenous homeland. You do not come to this discussion with clean hands. You’re English. Go back to where you came from.

      Reply to Comment
      • Carl

        ‘Please stop occupying Celtic land’. It’s refreshing to see somebody fail to grasp the basics of a conflict other than the Is/Pl so comprehensively. Keep it up.

        Reply to Comment
      • Carl

        It’s worth noting that you can get an impromptu dose of ideology when you’re only on a normal tourist trip too. A relative of mine recently went on a one day tour of Israel as part of a cruise. Out of three buses, the guides on two delivered a fairly hard-right diatribe along the usual ‘villa-in-the-jungle’, ‘terrorists’, ‘it’s not a wall, just a fence’ type lines.

        Being as the trip included Bethlehem, the latter line just made a lot of previously apolitical tourists very suspicious of the right-wing Israeli narrative.

        Reply to Comment
    3. Y-Man

      Bluegrass! Did you get that Jewish charter school in South Sudan up and running?

      Reply to Comment
      • Bluegrass Picker of Afula

        it took 7 years to get a Hebrew Charter school going in Harlem, in Manhattan of NYC. Non-propaganda constructions take time. Believe me, there will be a Hebrew school in Juba one of these years. To be brutally honest, investing in Hebrew-as-Third-Language for Korean & Chinese kids is a better use of money, for now. Those are people that MAKE things happen; Africans WATCH things happen.

        Reply to Comment
        • Y-Man

          well it’s a good thing you’re not wildly racist and generalizing about a whole continent. It will be hard to teach gentiles to adhere to Jewish nationalism– good luck!

          Reply to Comment
    4. Mareli

      What is the author’s opinion of the Interfaith Peace Builders tours which spend two weeks and meet with both Israelis and Palestinians? I am considering going on one of their tours and if anyone has any knowledge of that group’s tours, please let me know.

      Reply to Comment
      • My view/opinion of the Interfaith Peace Builders tours depends entirely which tours and what context they use to approach the conflict.

        Whilst I respect Interfaith Peace Builders, for me its more about the politics and human rights focus than anything else and the accuracy of information given to those on tour.

        Reply to Comment
    5. reader

      Wrong use of the word nefarious in the opening sentence. I think you mean specious or spurious. Editor?

      Reply to Comment
      • The word nefarious is an adjective that describes an action or activity so my sentence is accurate as I describe the activity of making a claim. Yes I could have perhaps used specious or spurious in place of the word I used.

        Reply to Comment
    6. I went on a tour from the UK aged 17 which was subsidized by the IL govt in which we stayed with volunteer Jewish Israeli families and lived on a kibbutz. We also had daily brainwashing sessions which worked on many participants but backfired on me, because it just made me want to find out why so much resource was being put into shaping my opinions on the conflict. We met zero Palestinians on the trip. Later upon visiting West Bank and Hebron independently I was able to see the harsh reality inside the occupation. Seems to me it’s a waste of time trying to engage those who believe the hasbara from these kinds of trips – they usually develop such wilful blindness to the facts of the situation that the effort is better spent elsewhere.

      Reply to Comment
    7. sh

      I agree with Palestinian on this one. A friend of a friend made his first visit to Israel this summer. He’s an artist and was the guest of artists, travelled around quite a lot, was based in Tel Aviv. He went home uncritically ecstatic.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Joel

      “A critical approach is necessary to resist the propaganda that so often accompanies such tours.”

      Why not leave the tourists to sort out the propaganda?

      They’re not idiots.

      Reply to Comment
    9. ish yehudi

      i mostly agree with the authors critiques of almost all the tours to the land– And I’ll assume its equally rare to meet a participant on a Palestinian agenda trip that actually met with a settler/ victim of terror attack. I met earlier this year with a norwegian human rights activist who told me she was basically ridiculed by other activists for wanting to meet actual settlers…
      My general take on opinions from a distance- is anyone who walks away thinking one side is right and the other wrong- is not going to help our situation.

      Reply to Comment
      • First tour I ever did in Israel/Palestine they had me in a settlement listening to Ardy Geldman in Efrata.

        The second I listened to a talk by David Wilder in the Hebron settlement.

        Palestinian orgs & groups aren’t afraid to show people different perspectives.

        Some such as ISM are radical and don’t bother with other narratives but thats just one in hundreds of orgs.

        Even EAPPI visit Sderot etc

        Reply to Comment
        • RichardL

          B’Tselem took us through the deserted parts of Arab Hebron and on to David Wilder, who is a very accomplished speaker. I tried to get to Sderot on my own. Jerusalem Information Bureau knew nothing about visiting the town and did not try to help any further. An internet contact there got cold feet and would not entertain me. Finding the right bus is not straightforward since there are no bus maps in Israel. I did go through the town on the bus in the late afternoon but never saw a hotel so I stayed on the bus. OK so I’m not exactly the intrepid traveller, but I had expected more help from Israeli institutions to see the Israeli narrative.

          Reply to Comment
          • D. A. Terre

            That’s because the average Israeli attitude to providing service is “it’s your problem, not mine”. Much stronger than any need to tell a certain narrative.

            Reply to Comment
    10. Ali Saleh Shamkhani

      I encourage all of you to visit Iran to see our nations relentless efforts and sacriifices on behalf of Palestine

      Reply to Comment
    11. Barry Rosen

      Spedding the proven liar.

      Spedding also wrote this about the brutal murder of the Fogel family:

      “The J’post article sickening invokes the cloudy and unclear death of the Fogel family an attack which I have the report and pictures of in my email inbox from the day after it happened. I find it sick that the J’post is still using this attack for political gain suggesting Palestinians are to blame when there has been no further information, news or otherwise released about the murders since the IDF conveniently caught two Palestinians kept them in torture for a month until they ‘confessed’ and then announced they had caught the killers despite the evidence and speculation of it being the work of a migrant worker from asia.”

      This was published months after the murders, when it was clear that Palestinian terrorists were responsible for the murders. The theory about a migrant worker was put forth by the Palestinian Authority’s propaganda unit, and was discounted as agitprop months before Spedding’s comments.

      Reply to Comment
    12. Joel

      Good expose on Spedding.

      Thank you, Barry.

      You’d think that if the two Arab youths convicted in the Fogel murders were innocent, Spedding would be doing something to help their case rather than take us on camel rides.

      I’m guessing that Spedding believes Fogel convictions were just but that he’s not man enough to recant and admit his error.

      Shame on 972mag for giving Spedding a forum.

      Reply to Comment
      • Joel & Barry,

        Quoting a poorly written article by Sam Westrop (A right wing man who believes in using insults rather than facts) without even giving the source really does you no favors.

        If you can provide a link to where I wrote this please do so otherwise you are merely repeating a right-wing attack on me published in the Jerusalem Post which I ignored and which recieved massive negative feedback from readers as an obvious attack upon my character.

        Reply to Comment
    13. Joel


      Maybe you can spare us the paper chase and just tell us whether you believe the Fogels were murdered by the two youth convicted of the crime.

      Reply to Comment
      • Palestinian

        It took them several weeks to find the suspects ?!We arent talking about New York city !

        Reply to Comment
        • Joel

          In took the police minutes to trace the muddy footprints back to the youth’s village.

          It took the police several weeks to make the arrests because the youth’s families were uncooperative. Family members of the youths were later convicted of ‘aiding and abetting’.

          Reply to Comment
    14. Jonny

      What a fantastic, well written, and well researched article, literally no criticisms at all.

      Reply to Comment
    15. Gil Franco

      “Any free thinker is usually aware of Israel’s need for security”

      You must be new around here.

      Reply to Comment
    16. S B

      Spedding, above claims to have made those awful reclaims fogel family.

      After his political extremism was revealed in J Post, he went about deleting all the sources he could.

      The quote given by Barry Rosen is from here: http://abureesh.wordpress.com/2011/07/26/the-truth-about-flotilla-folk/

      Spedding deleted this link. However, here you can see where he publicised that link before: https://www.facebook.com/IrishShiptoGaza/posts/223403551036298

      Here’s the full exposé on the little thug: http://blogs.jpost.com/content/holocaust-industry-finkelstein-gary-spedding-and-anti-israel-activist-20

      Reply to Comment
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