I don’t know if President Barack Obama reads all the e-mails that Harvard sends to its alumni — speaker notices, faculty updates, appeals for funds, and occasional promotional materials from the Harvard Alumni Association (HAA).
I do hope he paused when he received a recent promotion titled “Israel/Exploring the Holy Land.” Well-designed and enticing, it’s an appeal to Harvard alum to take an October 2013 tour to “Explore the Biblical, archaeological and cultural heritage of the stunningly beautiful land of Israel,” by which they really mean, as the itinerary makes clear, Israel, occupied Palestine and occupied Golan Heights.
It’s an eye-opener, a presentation that reinforces establishment American and Orientalist prejudices and preconceptions of the Holy Land; it is a message that disenfranchises millions of residents of Palestine and Israel.
Advertising a tour to a region plagued by conflict makes me worry that there are academics, journalists and politicians who can’t perceive that a Middle East peace process is a vital national security concern and that they have become complacent to occupation and instability.
Whether that comes from indolence or ignorance is irrelevant to me.
It is a dangerous posture to assume.
Nowhere in the HAA presentation is Palestine or the West Bank mentioned. Other than a reference that, “Meetings with local experts on contemporary politics will complement our visits to ancient sites,” there is nothing to suggest that conflict and occupation roils the “stunningly beautiful” lands that Harvard tourists will visit. Nowhere is there a suggestion that they will cross the separation barrier Palestinians call the “Apartheid Wall.” Nowhere does it admit that parts of the tour will take place on lands illegally annexed, colonized and occupied by Israel.
Nowhere does Harvard suggest that by visiting this, “stunningly beautiful land of Israel” that it is visiting lands claimed by two peoples, each with its own compelling historical narrative.
Nowhere does it suggest that Harvard, arguably America’s most prestigious university, finds issues of occupation and colonization relevant.
In advance of his fellow alums, President Obama is traveling to the Holy Land this week. His itinerary suggests that he is traveling less as peace-maker, more as tourist, than his status as president of the United States entitles him.
Both President Obama and HAA will visit the Church of the Nativity, no doubt being driven to occupied Bethlehem on roads forbidden to Palestinians, where they may meet with high-ranking dignitaries, but I doubt they will meet with representatives of the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center who are working to empower local Christians to work for justice.
Unfortunately, neither HAA nor Obama are scheduled to visit Hebron where, on Aug. 24, 1929, 67 Jews, many of whom were members of families who had peacefully lived alongside Muslims and Christians for centuries, were massacred by Arab mobs who were incited by rumors, which turned out to be false, that Jews were slaughtering Muslims in Jerusalem and were planning to attack the al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam. Thankfully, not all Palestinians supported mob violence. As Israeli historian Tom Segev described in “One Palestine, Complete,” many of the 435 Jews who survived the massacre were protected by local Arab families who sheltered them until order could be restored.
Avraham “Avrum” Burg, former chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel and once a speaker of the Knesset, has written that were it not for Arabs giving shelter to his mother Rivka, who was born in Hebron, he would never have been born.
Unfortunately, neither HAA nor Obama are scheduled to visit Hebron where, on Feb. 25, 1994, 29 Muslim worshippers were massacred while praying inside the Mosque of Abraham at the Cave of the Patriarchs by Baruch Goldstein, an Israeli colonist and member of the terrorist Kach movement.
During the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel gained control of the West Bank and not long afterward, colonized parts of Hebron. Today, Hebron is the worst face of oppression and occupation: Around 800 Jewish colonists live among more than 200,000 Palestinians in the city and thousands more Israelis live in the adjacent colony of Kiryat Arba.
In 2011, Hebron residents decided to change the name of downtown Shuhada Street to “Apartheid Street” to protest the conditions under which they are forced to live. Hebron’s Palestinian occupants are daily harassed by colonists with no protection from occupying Israeli military forces. Unchallenged authority and privileges for the Israeli colonists has divided a once vibrant city into intolerable ghettos for the Arabs.
Avraham Burg wrote in 2003, “Israel, having ceased to care about the children of the Palestinians, should not be surprised when they come washed in hatred and blow themselves up in the centers of Israeli escapism.”
Too much not caring.
Too much blowing up and terrorism.
Too much disenfranchisement, occupation and colonization.
If President Obama and the Harvard tourists value peace and security, if they wish to honor the Prophets whose messages echo still throughout the Holy Land, if they wish to embrace the call of those Prophets for social justice, dignity and equity, if they wish to acknowledge the rights and humanity of all Holy Land residents then they should stand and affirm not only a message for peace but a commitment to act.
But they won’t.
Unless academics acknowledge injustice, unless journalists speak truth to power, unless politicians embrace a vision that provides security and peace for Israelis and Palestinians while providing long-term strategic benefits to the United States then the hatred, the not caring, the blowing up and occupation will continue.
Unless President Obama transforms himself from tourist to peace activist then his travels, like those of the academics who follow him, will only be a signal that the status quo of occupation and misunderstanding will continue.
This column appeared originally in the Portsmouth Herald.