Can we share what we learned (and didn’t) on Paltrek and iTrek?
By Will Whitehurst (MPP 2022)
The author of The Citizen’s recent op-ed “What they didn’t tell you on Israel trek” didn’t attend iTrek and assumed how participants processed the published itinerary. Neither he nor I can project 282 attendees’ individual experiences. However, I’m compelled to share my perspective as an actual attendee. The status quo has serious justice implications; however, we must foster dialogue about iTrek and PalTrek instead of resorting to polarized rhetoric. Given Shireen Abu Akleh’s murder and The Crimson’s BDS endorsement, our need for dialogue intensifies.
I attended iTrek to 1) engage the region’s geopolitics, religions, and cultures and 2) learn various Israeli and Palestinian perspectives, while sharing meaningful experiences with HKS classmmates. My experience exceeded all expectations. In one day, we met investigative journalist Ilana Dayan; dined in an Arab family’s restaurant in Abu Ghosh; and toured Jerusalem’s Old City. This intense programming illustrated Israel’s asymmetrical power over Palestine, various peace obstructions, and “Israeli schizophrenia”- the contradictory pursuit of liberal democracy while securing a Jewish homeland. The previous author is correct that our visit to Gush Etzion Winery lacked necessary context about “wine-washing” and our stay at Merom Golan referenced only “kibbutzim.” However, my experience was nuanced, moving, and memorable – hardly the alleged “propaganda” caricature.
Before sharing specifics, I thank the author. We deserve frank conversations about HKS’s engagement with pressing issues. I simply aspire to The Citizen’s goals of challenging assumptions, sparking meaningful dialogue, and holding ourselves accountable in seeking truth. Three critically overlooked aspects are:
1. An itinerary isn’t independent analysis
He assumed, bafflingly, that iTrekkers shallowly concluded Israel is, “a fun, normal Western country with a ‘complicated’ political situation.” While meeting Mayor Oded Ravivi in a West Bank settlement, many iTrekkers understood our location. My bus leaders (iTrek organizers) fact-checked the mayor before and after the event. Attendees questioned the settlement’s power dynamics. The first audience question accused Mayor Ravivi of moral equivalence to Putin. Policymakers like Ravivi are ascribed as why two-state solutions “won’t work”; however, I appreciated the opportunity to understand and challenge his justifications.
Challenging continued in the Golan Heights where Syrian and Lebanese borders were cited as security concerns. Encouraged by iTrek organizers, we questioned the morality of settling land seized during the Six-Day War. In Netiv HaAsara on the Gaza border, we met families facing regular rockets, with mere seconds to seek shelter. We learned Israel subsidizes residents’ lower living costs through policies like tax breaks and insurance guarantees. Afterwards, iTrekkers and leaders debated these incentives’ justification given the community is within the 1967 borders, proximate to Gaza, and Israel’s overpopulation. I disagree with these incentives, but at least I could navigate this conversation with people living this reality. Consequently, I now understand part of the human impact: young families building communities where jungle gyms shield toddlers from Hamas’ rockets.
2. We engaged Palestinian perspectives
Before iTrek, some warned of a curated experience. However, iTrek intentionally provided earnest opportunities to engage Palestinian perspectives, including meeting Palestinian officials, activists, and ordinary citizens. In fact, Prime Minister Shtayyeh’s condemnations of Israel received standing ovations. However, iTrek organizers also suggested questioning Shtayyeh’s legitimacy given his 2% popular support and party’s 16-year legacy of canceling elections.
We met Mahmoud Muna, an East Jerusalem grassroots activist who openly calls Israel an apartheid state and Zionism racism. The venue, the Yabous Cultural Center, defiantly celebrates Palestinian culture. Born a refugee, Muna forthrightly shared Palestinians’ sufferings: legal statelessness, regular harassment, and lost autonomy. Mandela-like in conviction, Muna earned the trip’s largest welcome. Afterwards, Palestinians shared their experiences with the Nakba and led us through East Jerusalem’s militarized checkpoint and neglected “no man’s land” to Ramallah’s Am’ari refugee camp. I trust our classmates were subsequently moved.
The most profound experience, not in the original itinerary, was The Orchard of Abraham’s Children (OAC)- an educational organization promoting peace, reconciliation, and transcending fear and ignorance. Founded by a Muslim Arab and his Jewish Israeli wife, OAC educates Arab and Jewish Israelis through interfaith programming and is scaling nationally. This interfaith community exemplified successful solutions outside political systems and closest to the problem. Thus, we should commend iTrek’s progress, however incremental, of providing Palestinian perspectives.
3. HKS needs constructive dialogue
Despite these experiences, many iTrekkers knew a week couldn’t provide all Palestinian perspectives. Did PalTrekkers experience all Israeli perspectives? Luckily, HKS now has ~450 students who can share these perspectives. Through Paltrekkers’ social media, I saw Bethlehem’s poverty, Hebron’s cruelty, and Haifa’s beauty. HKS’s environment, though, made it difficult to engage PalTrekkers, especially people I didn’t know personally. Moreover, I’ve been disheartened by PalTrekkers disengaging iTtrekkers “to refute” Israel. As a classmate eloquently said, “It’s critical we listen to each other and engage in empathetic, compassionate conversation…while holding steady our strongest moral convictions.”
We fail each other, Palestinians, and Israelis, by permitting separate debriefs and showmanship virtue signaling. I want to comprehend classmates rebutting IDF classmates and classmates believing a Jewish homeland is necessary. I am making a radical call for empathic attempts to listen to each other without authorizing opinions or losing relationships to challenging conversations. A community dedicated to “Learn, Lead, Serve,” we should “Ask what you can do.” What we can do, for HKS, Harvard, and society is to role-model preserving our moral clarity while listening to those we disagree with. If families living with this conflict can pursue peaceful dialogue, why can’t the world’s aspiring public servants ~6,000 miles away?