In May 2006, I went to Israel for the first time on a subsidized trip called Hasbara Fellowships. Having been raised with a traditional Jewish upbringing, I was very excited to go to Israel and experience the reality behind all of the hype I had been exposed to since kindergarten. The "Birthright" trips had filled up for that summer, so I was encouraged by my local chapter of Hillel at Queen's University to attend a different subsidized trip. I was enticed by the prospect of extending the trip and having the opportunity to travel throughout the region. My best friend agreed to come with me, so I made the decision to go.
While I considered myself to be a supporter of Israel, I self-identified at the time as a "liberal Zionist", which in essence, meant that I was uncomfortable with Israel's occupation over the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, but was still committed to the Zionist vision of a homeland for the Jews in historic Palestine. I was, in other words, already critical of many of Israel's policies and was interested in grappling with these issues further. As I was also raised with the Jewish tradition of rigorous debate and the importance of asking questions, I expected an intellectually rewarding experience. I quickly realized, however, that Hasbara Fellowships was not interested in my critiques of Israeli policies and did not want to engage me in discussion on these issues. Their raison d'être was made evident from the start: to block honest discussion of Israel's human rights violations on North American campuses.
Hasbara Fellowships was started in 2001 by the right-wing Zionist organization Aish HaTorah and the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Its declared goal is to train students outside of Israel how to promote the Israeli state's image on their respective campuses. Aish HaTorah supports illegal Israeli settlements within the Occupied Palestinian Territory. From the perspective of international law and official Canadian public policy, Israel's settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem are both illegal. "Hasbara", which is the term used to describe Israel's public relations efforts, is widely seen as a euphemism for Israeli state propaganda. When a government is engaged in criminal behaviour, it is helpful to have students on campuses of higher learning in allied countries to serve as de facto ambassadors. Hence the program Hasbara Fellowships.
I recall from the Hasbara Fellowships program that we were instructed to make use of a set of talking points in our campus-based advocacy, such as "Israel wants peace and is willing to make painful concessions", and "Israel, like Canada, is a Western liberal democracy". Regardless of the criticism against Israel being levelled, we were trained to respond with such talking points in order to convince those around us that Israel is, indeed, the "good guy". Of course, the goal was never to discuss or debate the issue, but rather to obfuscate, and deliberately prevent our fellow students from engaging in critical thought with respect to Israel and its actions.
The following year on campus, I witnessed the degree to which this strategy was successful within certain segments of the university population. Jimmy Carter had released a book criticizing Israel's ongoing occupation and human rights violations entitled Palestine Peace not Apartheid. Rather than discuss the merits of Carter's arguments, the leaders of Hillel and the Hasbara community resorted to the familiar line: "Israel is a liberal democracy where Arab-Israelis hold seats in the parliament, so how could it possibly be compared to apartheid South Africa?" According to this logic -- employed forcefully at the time by Israel's key apologist, Alan Dershowitz -- Carter was "anti-Israel" for even suggesting that Israel's rule over Palestinians could be considered in any way comparable to apartheid.
I had read Carter's book, and knew that his analysis focused on the Occupied Palestinian Territory, rather than "Israel proper". When I mentioned this to my cohorts at the Hillel House, the talking point quickly shifted to "but Israel wants peace". The knee-jerk responses to my honest observation only served to pique an interest on my part to learn more. So, I went to the library and did some research. To my amazement, virtually all of the books I could find agreed with Carter's position and went further in factually demonstrating the ways in which Israel was behaving both immorally and illegally.
It was soon clear to me that what I had been raised to believe is based in mythology, yet is regularly preached as fact. Palestine was not a "land without a people for a people without a land"; Israel has never been the David and the Arabs the Goliath; Palestinians have never been offered generous proposals that they have turned down (including the UN Partition Plan); and Israel has never been interested in establishing a Palestinian state. My critical engagement with the historical record has compelled me to publicly challenge a range of Israel's reprehensible laws and policies. In joining a dedicated community that works in solidarity with Palestinians for peace and justice, I have come to realize that Hasbara Fellowships is simply the tip of the iceberg of a global propaganda effort aimed at silencing criticism of Israel's criminal behaviour.
Hasbara is a multi-billion dollar campaign carried out by several Israeli government ministries -- some of which have their own Hasbara units -- and engaged in internationally by hundreds of organizations whose purpose is entirely or predominately to promote a positive image of Israel abroad. Within the Hasbara framework, campuses in North America are seen as "battlegrounds" against "anti-Israel" activists. Hence, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, the main pro-Israel lobby group in Canada (with close links to the Israeli state), provides substantial resources for student groups involved in "Israel advocacy". The Jewish Agency for Israel, which settles Jews outside of Israel into the Occupied Palestinian Territory, has even linked up with Hillel International to challenge activism in support of Palestinian human rights on Canadian campuses.
In an atmosphere where students are becoming educated about Israel's very real system of apartheid, and grassroots organizing is creating effective campaigns to pressure universities to remove its investments from companies that are complicit in ongoing and massive violations of human rights and international law, Israel's apologists regularly resort to the use of intimidation in order to stifle and ultimately silence these criticisms.
The most commonly used means of intimidating those who support Palestinian human rights on campus is to label them as "anti-Israel", and even "anti-Semitic". Oftentimes, these labels are used interchangeably to muddy the waters, blurring any difference in meaning between them in the mind of the reader. A recent example of this can be found in an article written by pro-Israel activists at McMaster University, who referred to successful efforts on that campus promoting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) as "anti-Israel and anti-Semitic initiatives".
These defenders of Israel conveniently ignore the fact that the BDS campaign opposes unequivocally all forms of racism, including anti-Semitism, and that a significant number of Jews are active participants in it. BDS is a non-violent tactic used to support the human rights of Palestinians that in no way promotes a hatred of Jewish people. What Israel and its Hasbara supporters are really concerned about is that BDS is gaining serious traction on campuses and beyond.
Another commonly used means of intimidating Palestinian human rights activists and their supporters is to label them as "extremists" (oftentimes "Islamic", playing into the Islamophobic rhetoric of the times) who are always "hateful", and to give the impression that they are a tiny minority of the campus community. This is becoming increasingly difficult for Israel's apologists to claim since at least fifteen student unions in Canada have voted to endorse the BDS movement, calling on their administrations to divest from companies profiting from human rights violations committed against Palestinians.
This tactic has recently been employed at York University, where a coordinated attack led by Hasbara@York has been directed at Students Against Israeli Apartheid's (SAIA) divestment campaign; the campus-based union CUPE 3903, which has supported their divestment campaign; and the student newspaper Excalibur. Since CUPE 3903 supports divesting from weapons manufacturers which profit off Israel's war crimes, its members are being labelled as "racist". Excalibur, meanwhile, has been accused of being a mouthpiece for SAIA since it has published articles by SAIA members while allegedly restricting space for pro-Israel students. In the mainstream media, voices in support of BDS are rarely given a platform, so when campus-based newspapers give a voice to majority views in support of BDS, which have been heavily repressed by the administration, they are forcefully opposed by a campus-based pro-Israel lobby.
In an article published as a blog to the Times of Israel, York University student Danielle Shachar makes the case for why Excalibur is merely a mouthpiece for "anti-Israel" views held by SAIA. Shachar refers to SAIA's mere criticisms of the Zionist movement -- a movement that has dispossessed Palestinians of their homeland and continues to deny Palestinians equal rights simply because they are not Jewish -- as reflective of SAIA's "genocidal, unilateral ideology." In an interview on Sun News, she told host Jerry Agar that SAIA activists are "radical extremists". Interesting that she uses this language to describe human rights activists, considering she wrote this piece for the pro-settler organization Aish Hatorah, in which she writes that God has delivered the Jewish people who "continue to live as a free people in our ancestral homeland, in Jerusalem, in Netanya, in Be'er Sheva, in Eilat, in Ariel...." Readers might be interested to learn that Ariel is an illegal Israeli settlement located in the occupied West Bank of Palestine.
What does Shachar expect will become of the Palestinians who are living under Israeli occupation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory? It is as if pro-Israel activists do not consider Palestinians to be human beings whose rights and needs are worthy of consideration. Sadly, this racist perspective, which denies Palestinians basic human rights, is being echoed by Harper's government, whose ministers have said that BDS is anti-Semitic and have signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the government of Israel to oppose it.
Considering the fact that Hasbara@York's executive leadership is made up of Hasbara fellows, it is my view that they are serving as agents of Israeli state propaganda and can be accurately described as campus-based lobbyists acting on behalf of a foreign state. And now that Canada has aligned itself entirely with the policies of the Western world's only apartheid state, these pro-Israel activists are echoing the Harper government's propaganda.
We can expect the pro-Israel lobby to continue its intimidation tactics, both on and off campus. But I am convinced that activists will resist this intimidation as they continue to persevere in support of Palestinians' human rights until Israel is transformed from an apartheid state into one that respects the human rights of Palestinians and Israeli Jews equally.
Tyler Levitan is the Campaigns Coordinator for Independent Jewish Voices -- Canada. He is based in Ottawa on unceded Algonquin territory.