The Duck of Minerva

About Those Israel Academic Study Trips…

23 July 2013

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Kavita Khory, Professor of Political Science at Mount Holyoke College.

Last spring the Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP) of Boston invited me to participate in a weeklong study tour to Israel.   Designed for scholars of international relations, political science, and public policy, the purpose of the educational tour was to provide an “in-depth firsthand exposure” to Israel and promote a “deeper understanding” of its politics and society.  The faculty study tour, now in its fourth or fifth iteration, is billed as the cornerstone of the organization’s public diplomacy initiative and its program for Israel advocacy.  I never made it to Israel, but I quickly developed a profound understanding of the Israeli government’s double standards and the limits of an American passport.

I was excited at the prospect of visiting Israel for the first time and yet skeptical about the value of a politically motivated program.  I wondered whether my participation would be seen as an endorsement, as some colleagues argued, of the Israeli government’s policies toward Palestinians.  If I did not go on the trip, would I be passing up a unique opportunity to learn about Israel in the company of exceptional scholars and teachers?  Conversations with colleagues, including past participants in CJP tours, convinced me of the educational benefits of the program, despite its obvious drawbacks.  So I set aside my reservations and signed up.

A week before our departure, the CJP informed me that I (the only member of the group and a US citizen) would need to carry a separate identification document at all times—a “card” certifying that I had been “prescreened” by the Israeli Consulate in Boston.  While “technically traveling with a U.S. passport is sufficient in Israel,” additional documentation, I was told, would ensure a “smooth” trip.

As I began reading the consular official’s questions, I realized that the only issue was my place of birth—Pakistan.  Because of the circumstances of my birth, over which I had no control, I was being singled out for “special” treatment that did not in any way make me feel confident about my own safety and security while traveling in Israel.

The assumption that individuals with any connection to Pakistan would immediately be seen as a potential threat is infuriating.  Equally if not more troubling, the Israeli government, as I discovered, employs a two-tier system to screen U.S. citizens.

I no longer felt I was part of a group of my peers, having already been assigned a different—and subordinate—status without any regard for my professional accomplishments, which I assumed was the reason I was invited in the first place.

I couldn’t choose my place of birth, but I could choose not to acquiesce to the Israeli government’s discriminatory practices toward U.S. citizens.  So after mulling it over for a day or so, I decided against traveling to Israel and declined the CJP’s invitation.

At first I was ambivalent about sharing the saga of my aborted trip to Israel beyond a close circle of friends and colleagues.  My experience was hardly unique.  The Israeli government’s “entrance exclusion” of U.S. citizens on the basis of national origin and ethnicity is well documented, and a U.S. State Department travel advisory warns of Israeli authorities’ discriminatory practices toward U.S. citizens “suspected of being of Arab, Middle Eastern, or Muslim origin.”

Over the past few weeks, I have had a chance to get over my initial disappointment and to think more about the inherent contradictions of such tours and the questions these raise for us as scholars and teachers of international politics.

What is our professional responsibility when colleagues are treated differently because of national or ethnic origin?  How should we respond when faced with such examples of exclusion and discrimination?

What are the implications of our involvement in academic programs with an obvious political agenda, despite claims of fairness and nonpartisanship?  How should we address concerns that our participation in such initiatives amounts to a tacit approval of brutal regimes—a controversial but nonetheless important argument?

Someone asked me the other day what advice would I give colleagues considering similar opportunities.  Given my experience, would I advice them against going?  I don’t think so.  I do believe these are individual choices and should not be seen as a litmus test of one’s political beliefs and values.  But before signing on, I would urge colleagues to examine closely the organization’s aims, program itinerary, featured speakers, etc.  What sort of “firsthand exposure” do we gain by traveling in a highly controlled environment, where every activity and event is thoroughly choreographed?  How much do we learn when exposure to ordinary citizens is fairly limited?

As a scholar of international politics, I genuinely value and appreciate the opportunity to gain first-hand knowledge of areas of the world that I am deeply interested in and teach about in my courses.  And who can resist the allure of an “all-expense paid” trip?  But sometimes, as I have learned, it is simply not worth it.