Each year, select Oscar nominees are offered a “swag bag” worth tens of thousands of dollars with gifts including items ranging from lifetime supplies of high-end cosmetics and sessions with a private trainer to luxury holiday packages.
One of the items this year is a 10-day trip to Israel for two – valued at $55,000. It is this trip to Israel that has caused a storm of publicity.
Since the luxury trips are paid for by the destination countries, some observers wondered if the itinerary amounts to a whitewash of Israel’s decades-long occupation of the Palestinian territory.
According to an Israeli spokesman, there is no itinerary at all.
Uri Steinberg, Israel’s tourism commissioner in North America, told Al Jazeera the recipients would decide how and where they wanted to enjoy their holiday experience.
“If they want to spend the entire time sitting in Tel Aviv cafes, that’s fine and up to them,” he said.
Steinberg said: “We have no interest in politics. We think it’s important for people to come with their own eyes and see unfiltered and uncensored how things really are.”
And if the nominee requests that this uncensored 10-day trip includes, for example, a day spent following anti-occupation activists as they demonstrate while the army demolishes a Palestinian house in the West Bank, would the ministry regard that as a success?
“No, of course not,” said Steinberg.
“We know that some people will try to spin this, but I believe we are doing the right thing.”
Citing Israel’s so-called mixed towns, where Jewish and Palestinian-Arab citizens live alongside one another, he said, “We believe that once you see the situation with your own eyes, you see how complex it is. We are ready for this.”
The idea for the trip was pitched to the ministry by a 26-year-old Brooklyn-based ultra-Orthodox man named Sam Gee.
Gee, who spoke on the phone in a reticent and shy manner, said it was “an honour” to talk with a reporter for Al Jazeera about his brainchild.
He explained that he had developed software that allowed travellers to customise a “boutique” itinerary online, choosing from various options – such as a day visiting specific museums or holy sites.
Gee emphasised that his was a customisable platform which he planned to use for a variety of holiday destinations.
He chose Israel as his test market, he said, because he knew it well and had good connections there. Describing himself as a “proud American” who had been born and raised in Brooklyn, Gee said his goal in partnering with the Israeli ministry of tourism was purely to promote his technology.
“I really didn’t know it would be so controversial. We see this as a business opportunity.”
“I’m not a politician,” Gee said. “I’m a businessperson and it’s not my job to change the image of Israel.”
And if they wanted to see a West Bank destination, such as Bethlehem, which would involve crossing a checkpoint?
Gee hesitated and answered: “The celebrities will have more pull, so we’ll work with the ministry to make it happen.”
Then he expelled his breath in an audible sigh and asked, “How did I do? I was nervous, talking to a journalist for the first time.”
‘Ready to get high?’
The homepage of Gee’s website features the slogan “Ready to get high? Let’s find you the perfect flight.”
The search technology is much like Airbnb’s – but here, instead of filtering by city and neighbourhood, the user filters by activity and destination.
Gee’s and Steinberg’s protestations aside, Explore Israel Dot Com is unquestionably a site that offers trips from a Jewish-Israeli, right-wing perspective.
The wine-tasting tours are almost exclusively to wineries in the occupied Golan Heights, for example, rather than to those inside the Green Line.
The search option for “holy sites” is indicated with a Star of David, the symbol of Judaism, and all the suggested tours are to Jewish holy sites. Searches for Church of the Holy Sepulchre and Al Aqsa brought up zero results.
Gee, when asked about the very Jewish and politically right-wing angle of the tours offered on the site, sounded surprised and said he had not noticed.
The media liaison at the Permanent Observer Mission of the State of Palestine to the United Nations was not available for comment, but Omar Barghouti, one of the founders of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, told The Washington Post that the free trip to Israel indicated that the government was “desperately trying to fight its increasing isolation through bribes and intimidation rather than ending its occupation and apartheid”.
It remains to be seen if any of the nominees will accept the gift of a free trip to Israel. Since the swag bags are so valuable, they are subject to income tax. And surely a Hollywood movie star can afford to pay for his or her own vacation.