Letter to Penn Law Students Considering iTrek

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Dear Fellow Students,

As you may have already heard, you are being offered the opportunity to travel to Israel over spring break as part of the annual Penn Law iTrek trip. While we certainly understand the appeal of a heavily-subsidized Mediterranean vacation, the trip is not what it may appear to be. The iTrek trip is a politically-motivated endeavor, meant to whitewash and perpetuate Israel’s decades-long oppression and dispossession of Palestinians. We urge you not to participate.

 

Israeli government-linked propaganda

While it may be presented as “neutral,” “balanced,” or “nonpolitical,” iTrek is part of a well-organized and well-funded campaign spearheaded by the Israeli government. Known as “Brand Israel,” the effort is designed to improve Israel’s image among Americans and deflect attention from its ongoing human rights abuses.

Israel & Co., the entity behind iTrek, was founded by a former Israeli government official and has received funding from the Israeli government. Recognizing that “[m]any people around the world associate Israel with religion and conflict, which often translates into an unfavorable public opinion of Israel[,]” Israel & Co. targets its programming at students at elite law, business, and policy schools--those it sees as “tomorrow’s leaders and change-makers.” The goal is for participants to return from their trips to Israel ready and eager to  “carry their impressions forward into their professional and personal lives, sharing their experiences and shaping the opinions of those around them.”

While the organizers of these trips are savvy enough to provide a semblance of balance, for example by including a meeting with a Palestinian professor or a visit to Ramallah, such activities do not negate the trips’ fundamental purpose. This approach is consistent with a strategy being advanced by right-wing billionaire Sheldon Adelson to make a pro-Israel message appealing to “progressive,” “social justice oriented” students by avoiding too much overt propaganda and providing the appearance of “showing . . . a lot of narratives.” Moreover, the few encounters that iTrek participants have with Palestinians do not even come close to giving them a sense of what life is actually like for most Palestinians.

 

Privileged access denied to Palestinians

The iTrek trip affords participants access that is denied to the indigenous Palestinian population. The majority of the native population who originate from the lands to be visited on the trip were forcibly removed in 1948 and 1967. Most were ejected to surrounding countries and prohibited from returning despite their right to do so under international law. Some of those refugees are internally displaced persons in the West Bank, many living in densely populated camps, or in Gaza, where they comprise a majority of the strip’s population. Those refugees, along with the other Palestinian residents of the West Bank and Gaza, would need a military-issued permit to access the beaches or vineyards that iTrek participants will freely stroll. The permit regime is an arbitrary system that controls the movement of Palestinians between the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Israel proper. Most young Palestinians have never seen the ocean that iTrek participants will walk along, despite living only ten to twenty miles away.

The exclusionary nature of the trip extends to fellow students of Palestinian descent, even those with American citizenship, who are regularly denied entry into Israel and the occupied territories, harassed, or detained, purely on the basis of their ethnicity. Even the U.S. State Department has expressed “concern[ ] at the unequal treatment that Palestinian-Americans and other Arab-Americans receive at Israel's borders and checkpoints."

 

Complicity or solidarity?

You might say, “Sure, I know it’s a propaganda trip, and since I know that, I won’t be susceptible to it. I’m just going because it’s a cheap trip to an interesting place!” We urge you to consider what your participation in a trip like this signifies. In 2005, Palestinian civil society organizations called for “a global citizens’ response of solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for freedom, justice and equality.” This large and ever-growing global movement to boycott companies and institutions that are involved in the violation of Palestinian human rights has the simple goal of nonviolently pressuring Israel to comply with international law by (1) ending its occupation of Palestinian lands, (2) recognizing the rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality, and (3) respecting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their properties and lands. Inspired by the South African anti-apartheid movement, this solidarity movement is supported by public figures including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Stephen Hawking, Alice Walker, and Naomi Klein.

When word got out last winter about a propaganda trip to Israel being offered to NFL players, scholars and activists including Michelle Alexander, Angela Davis, and Marc Lamont Hill signed an open letter urging players not to participate. The letter called for Black-Palestinian solidarity, explaining that “[w]hat Palestinians face due to Israeli policies is familiar to black and brown communities in the United States and vice versa.” The letter argued that participation would send the wrong message to the players’ fans and put them on the wrong side of history.

A few days later, Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett announced his withdrawal from the trip. He made his decision after learning that the purpose of the trip, much like that of iTrek, was to make him “an ‘influencer and opinion-former’ who would then be ‘an ambassador of good will’” for Israel. “I will not be used in such a manner,” Bennett declared. He continued, “Like 1968 Olympian John Carlos always says, ‘There is no partial commitment to justice. You are either in or you’re out.’ Well, I’m in.”

Are you in?

If you would like to visit Israel and Palestine without ignoring the experiences of Palestinians and being complicit in the systematic exclusion and institutional racism perpetrated by the Israeli state, please consider one of the trips organized by Interfaith Peacebuilders, Christian Peacemaker Teams, Alternative Tourism Group, or Jerusalem Reality Tours.

Finally, please consider signing the letter here to show your support for human rights and solidarity with the Palestinian people.

 

Sincerely,

Penn Law Palestine Solidarity (PLPS)

National Lawyers Guild (NLG) - Penn Law Chapter

 

and the following students

Aporajita Ali, J.D. 2019

Abdulrahman Alwattar, J.D. 2018

Patrick Berry, J.D. 2018

Chris Brigante, J.D. 2018

Beatriz Brown, LL.M. 2018

Shabel Castro, J.D. 2019

Alyssa Chai, J.D. 2019

Bobby Chen, J.D. 2020

Olivia Daniels, J.D. 2020

Elizabeth Fassih, J.D. 2019

Matthew Feldman, J.D. 2018

Matthew French, J.D. 2019

Lelabari Giwa-Ojuri, J.D. 2020

Kimberly Grambo, J.D. 2019

Maura Hallisey, J.D. 2020

Irene Hong, J.D. 2018

Erik Lampmann, J.D. 2020

Kelsey Lee, J.D. 2020

Patricia Liverpool, J.D. 2019

Jesse McGleughlin, J.D. 2020

John Morgan, LL.M. 2018

Shaunee Morgan, J.D. 2019

Emma Morgenstern, J.D. 2019

Eliza Novick-Smith, J.D. 2018

Caylyn Perry, J.D. 2019

Stefanie Ramirez, J.D. 2019

Arhama Rushdi, J.D. 2018

Karishma Shah, J.D. 2020

Erin Sweeney, J.D. 2019

Yuko Takahata, LL.M. 2018

Fatoumata Waggeh, J.D. 2020

Ian Wahrenbrock, J.D. 2019

Leah Wong, J.D. 2018

Brian Yeh, J.D. 2019

Gena Yoo, J.D. 2019

Meroua Zouai, J.D. 2020

 

We are grateful to NYU Law Students for Justice in Palestine for allowing us to use part of their letter about a similar iTrek trip offered to NYU law students.