Hasbara tourism in Israel

Hasbara tours want to “excise every bit of Palestinian reality from the landscape” to showcase a fantastic Jewish state.

Backdropped by the Dome of the Rock, Isr
The Taglit-Birthright Israel programme offers 10-day, all-expenses-paid trips to Israel for international youth in possession of at least one Jewish grandparent [AFP]

One of the mainstays of Israel’s international propaganda efforts is its tourism industry, which comprises an array of specially designed excursions catering to visitors with varying backgrounds, needs and interests. 

As long as you’re not Palestinian, Lebanese, or some other undesirable entity, chances are there’s a tour for you. 

The Taglit-Birthright Israel programme, for example, offers 10-day, all-expenses-paid trips to Israel for international youth in possession of at least one Jewish grandparent. 

The range of “special niche trips” offered within the programme underscores the notion that there’s something for everyone in the Jewish state. According to the Birthright Israel Foundation’s annual report for 2012, recent niche trips have included “Architecture”, “Bioethics”, “Extreme Outdoor Adventure”, “Fashion”, “Israel by Bike”, “LGBTQ”, “Russian Speakers” and “Shakespeare in Israel”, among others. 

The report specifies that, “[a]mong all of our niche trips, none are more meaningful that the special-needs trips for young Jewish men and women who are developmentally or physically challenged”. 

In hasbara-land, after all, there’s no reason a state engaged in the chronic maiming of Palestinians can’t be sold as a conscientious champion of disabled rights. 

The ultimate mission 

Of course, Israel tours also abound outside the aegis of Birthright. 

A 2012 Mondoweiss report on Project Interchange, an institute of the American Jewish Committee, notes that “[t]he organisation has sent nearly 6,000 people on their trips [to Israel], which have included ‘counterterrorism‘ training for [US] police departments and customised programmes for US elected officials” as well as excursions for university presidents and chancellors. 

The Israeli experience is no doubt instructive for US officials given the shared US-Israeli penchant for oppressive racial profiling and terrorism disguised as counterterrorism (see Israel in Gaza and Lebanon; US in Afghanistan, Pakistan, etc). 

In light of Israel’s established existence as an apartheid state, it is particularly ironic that – as the Mondoweiss article explains – “[e]ach year Project Interchange also runs a handful of programmes designed specifically for minority groups, including trips advertised for ‘African American leaders‘, ‘African American Clergy‘ and ‘Latino Leaders'”. 

The minority tour presumably does not include a spin on Israel’s newly inaugurated Palestinian-only buses, a visit to internment camps for Africans, or a lively re-enactment of the Israeli practice of forcible sterilisation of Ethiopian immigrants

“Were there an Ultimate Mission to Palestine, the experience might of course involve being on the receiving end of anything from bulldozers to raw sewage to white phosphorus.”

Another tour option for gung-ho travellers is “The Ultimate Mission to Israel“, organised by the Shrat HaDin Israel Law Center and billed as “An Israeli Adventure of a Lifetime”. 

Highlights of the mission, which is staged multiple times a year, include an “[i]nside tour of the IAF unit who carries out targeted killings”, a “[l]ive exhibition of penetration raids in Arab territory”, a meeting with “Israel’s Arab agents”, and attendance at “a trial of Hamas terrorists in an IDF military court”. Also included are “[t]hree lavish meals a day” and a “[p]ersonal cell phone for each participant”. 

The next installments of the mission will take place from June 10 to 17 of this year and October 21 to 28. One wonders how live penetration raids and military trials are scheduled so precisely in advance. 

Mini Palestine 

The Ultimate Mission itinerary assigns a theme to each day of the trip that ostensibly corresponds to the nature of the day’s activities: “The Judicial Reality”, “The Military Reality”, “The Human Reality”, “The Historical and Religious Reality”, “The Political Reality”. 

The actual ultimate mission of The Ultimate Mission and other hasbara tours, however, is to excise every bit of Palestinian reality from the landscape in order to showcase a fantastical version of the Jewish state. 

Were there an Ultimate Mission to Palestine, the experience might of course involve being on the receiving end of anything from bulldozers to raw sewage to white phosphorus. Instead of “[t]hree lavish meals a day”, tour participants could have their minimum caloric needs specially calculated by the Israeli military. Pregnant travellers could avail themselves of the option to give birth at an Israeli checkpoint

As for visitors to Israel who don’t have time or are too lazy to take in all the sights – or who just have a thing for miniature replicas of countries – the “Mini Israel” park near Jerusalem is advertised as “an exciting attraction… featuring over 385 beautifully crafted exact replica models of Israel’s most important historical, religious, archeological and modern sites, at a scale of 1:25”. 

A painfully exuberant Jerusalem Post  feature from 2010 describes a typical visit to the peculiar locale: 

Children often wander through Mini Israel calling out “Trees! Trees!” And no wonder: actually, every one of the park’s 70,000 plants – including 17,000 dwarf trees – are real! Visitors often have to rub their eyes, as they view ‘people’ eating at tiny picnic tables in Jewish National Fund Forests.

Unfortunately for the real-life people atop whose decimated villages the forests were erected – and whose territory continues to shrivel at the hand of Zionist expansionism – the name Mini Palestine already applies. 

Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, released by Verso in 2011. She is a member of the Jacobin Magazine editorial board, and her articles have appeared in the London Review of Books blogThe BafflerAl Akhbar English and many other publications. 

Follow her on Twitter: @MariaBelen_Fdez