Features  SSMU, AUS, and SUS Leaders Offered Free Propaganda Trip by Pro-Israel Organization

The Past and Present of Hasbara Tours to Occupied Palestine

Authors’ note: Due to technical errors and issues of miscommunication, SPHR and IJV were not able to contact the BSN prior to this article’s publication. SPHR and IJV therefore apologize for the fact that the BSN was not given the chance to include its own statements in this article.

Early this October, two members of SSMU’s executive team, Samuel Haward (VP Finance) and Sanchi Bhalla (VP Internal) received a strange offer: a free trip to Israel. In addition to Haward and Bhalla, other SSMU staff members were also offered trips: SSMU Indigenous Affairs Commissioner Tomas Jirousek and two executives from the Black Students’ Network. Haward, Sanchi, Jirousek and the BSN executives all rejected the offer.

According to Haward, both he and Bhalla were initially approached separately during their respective office hours by Hillel McGill representatives, who pitched the offer. A week or so later, only Haward received a formal written invitation from Hillel Montreal (Hillel McGill’s parent organization) about this “once-in-a-lifetime, unique opportunity.” In the interests of transparency, Haward agreed to provide a copy of this invitation to McGill Students in Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR), who shared it with the Daily. It reads: “We’ve identified you as an invaluable student to have for this trip due to your student leadership experience and connections on campus.” On this “all-expenses paid” trip, intended for 20 selected McGill students, participants would be treated to “a roundtrip airfare from Montreal-Trudeau International Airport, 10 nights at hotels in Israel, 2 meals per day, and other programming costs.” The trip is planned from December 29 to January 8.

One SSMU executive reports that they were offered, in the words of the Hillel McGill representative, “a free trip to Israel so [they] could better understand the context of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and educate others on campus” upon their return.

The actual objective of the trip is far from clear. One SSMU executive reports that they were offered, in the words of the Hillel McGill representative, “a free trip to Israel so [they] could better understand the context of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and educate others on campus” upon their return. BDS is an international movement launched by Palestinian civil society in 2005, urging states and individuals to place economic and political pressure on the Israeli state and its institutions in order to pressure Israel to comply with international law and end its human rights abuses against Palestinians.

The written invitation was more careful to obscure the precise objectives of the trip. It vaguely offered “an intensive experiential seminar that will explore the region’s deep history and grapple with nuanced political and religious realities,” in which “a top cohort of student leaders […] will learn about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and examine its complexities and nuances while travelling throughout the region.” Furthermore, while Bhalla was approached in a closed office and told that this offer was “strictly confidential, Haward was approached openly and told SPHR that “no such confidentiality was mentioned.” The SSMU executives in question felt these inconsistencies were “deeply troubling.” In a collective letter to Hillel McGill on October 15, the SSMU executive team expressed “discomfort with the process by which invitations of ‘free trips to Israel’ have been extended to SSMU and SSMU-affiliated Executives and Staff” and collectively rejected the invitations. They also demanded that Hillel McGill immediately publicize the following information: “The fact that these invitations have been extended”; “Who they have been extended to and why these individuals were chosen”; and “The details and specific purpose of the trip being offered.” Although Hillel Montreal responded to the SSMU executives and stated that the invitations were “by no means confidential,” at the time of publication, neither Hillel McGill nor Hillel Montreal have offered any public explanation or clear justification for offering this trip to so many McGill student representatives or clarified their selection process. The Daily also reached out to Naomi Mazer, the Director of Youth Engagement at GenMTL and Hillel Montreal, who has not responded to request for comment.

Neither Hillel McGill nor Hillel Montreal have offered any public explanation or clear justification for offering this trip to so many McGill student representatives or clarified their selection process.

One thing is clear: this is not an isolated incident. Last year, two SSMU executives, former President Tre Mansdoerfer and former VP Student Life Sophia Esterle, were also offered a similar trip. This year, Hillel McGill and Hillel Montreal have offered the trip to a large number of “student leaders” in the Arts Undergraduate Society (AUS) and the Science Undergraduate Society (SUS), in addition to inviting SSMU executives and staff. The Daily has confirmed that the following student officials have either accepted the offer from Hillel, or applied for the trip on their own initiative: Adin Chan (Arts Representative to SSMU and Incoming Director – SSMU Board of Directors); Andrew Chase (Arts Representative to SSMU); Paige Collins (Incoming Director – SSMU Board of Directors); Jonah Levitt (Director – SSMU Board of Directors); Stefan Suvajac (AUS VP Finance); and Jordyn Wright (Science Representative to SSMU and Director – SSMU Board of Directors). Adin Chan, Paige Collins, Jonah Levitt (who is also President of Hillel McGill), and Jordyn Wright are all currently up for approval by online vote to the SSMU Board of Directors.

Hasbara on North American Campuses

For a number of years now, free trips to Israel for student leaders have become an important feature of Israeli hasbara (a form of Israeli propaganda aimed at an international audience) on campuses in the United States. According to the St. Louis Jewish Light newspaper, Hillel chapters in the United States had organized more than 40 organized trips to Palestine-Israel for university students from 2014 to 2018.

The trips are funded by the Maccabee Task Force (MTF), an organization “aimed at combating the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel” by funding both overt and covert anti-BDS initiatives. According to its executive director, David Brog, “the deal with our partners was, if these are things you want to do, here’s the deal: you do them, we pay for them, and you don’t have to put our name or logo on it.” According to the Times of Israel, “one of MTF’s strategies has been to recruit what it calls ‘influencers’ on campus – including student leaders who might already favor BDS – and send them to Israel and the West Bank on fact-finding trips.” According to MTF’s own website, “returning from these missions, students are more likely to work against BDS activities, protests and resolutions on campus.” In 2018, MTF “expanded its footprint even wider, operating on 80 campuses, including several in Canada for the first time.” Given that the first trip of this kind was allegedly offered by Hillel Montreal in the same year (2018), it is reasonable to suspect that MTF is providing much, if not all, of the funding for Hillel Montreal’s initiative.

All these trips aim to promote Israel’s image, while paying lip-service to the “complexities” of its systematic oppression of Palestinians.

MTF was founded in 2015 as an initiative from conservative, pro-Israel billionaire Sheldon Adelson. Adelson also funds Taglit-Birthright Israel, an organization that sponsors free trips to Israel for Jewish youth, and he has contributed significant financial support to US President Donald Trump. Jewish Voice for Peace’s #ReturntheBirthright campaign has long highlighted the ethical issues of free trips to Israel mostly funded by a major Trump ally. Other wealthy donors have also poured resources into anti-BDS organizations like MTF – for instance, real estate millionaire Adam Milstein is another prolific donor to right-wing, pro-Israel causes. According to The Intercept, Milstein’s strategy is “to get ugly with BDS supporters, humiliate them, and tar them as racists.” To do this, Milstein has funded groups that “accuse student activists of ties to terrorists, monitor student supporters of Palestinian rights, plaster students’ names on shadowy websites, and file legal challenges that pose a threat to activist work.”

As the McGill example demonstrates, organizers will sometimes seek to obscure their political objectives of countering BDS and other forms of Palestinian activism. All these trips aim to promote Israel’s image, while paying lip-service to the “complexities” of its systematic oppression of Palestinians. Hopkins Hillel announced that its trip for students at John Hopkins University was meant to “deepen our understanding of the complex and beautiful region that is modern day Israel […] while developing a textured understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

This is a propaganda tour with a new veneer” – Philip Weiss, writing for Mondoweiss

Northwestern University’s Hillel chapter also offered a “new leadership journey to Israel and the Palestinian Territories.” Similar to Hillel Montreal’s “intensive experiential seminar,” its stated purpose wasto educate emerging and current Northwestern undergraduate student leaders about Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, shining an intentional light on complexities and nuances in an immersive and experiential way.” According to Philip Weiss, writing for Mondoweiss, “the draft itinerary […] makes it clear that student leaders – apparently from all backgrounds – are to be propagandized to love Israel, but with a little more realism thrown in. Like a flyby in Ramallah with ‘Palestinian leaders,’ on the same day that the students drink beer at Taybeh brewery in the West Bank and do three other events. Also they’ll meet an Arab-Israeli journalist, in between learning about the thriving LGBTQ culture in Tel Aviv, startup nation, and co-existence projects. So there’s no real doubt about the thrust of this tour. The student leaders are [also] going to visit the illegal Efrat settlement and meet the mayor, and tour the occupied Golan Heights too. This is a propaganda tour with a new veneer.”

In University of Wisconsin-Madison Hillel’s version of the trip, recounted by Milwaukee’s Jewish Chronicle, “they took the group to the top of the Golan Heights; to see Jewish and Arab women working together to make fair-trade olive oil; to see Israel’s role in helping Syrian refugees at a Galilee hospital; to tour the Old City of Jerusalem; to a security barrier tour; and to meet with former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel B. Shapiro, among other activities.” The Golan stop in particular illustrates the not-so-subtle propaganda of this kind of trip. Rather than face the reality that the Syrian Golan Heights, like the West Bank, have been conquered by military force and increasingly colonized by Israeli settlers since 1967, participants are encouraged to applaud a Jewish-Arab fair-trade olive oil initiative. Thus, a regime of military domination and illegal settlement expansion gets repackaged as a heart-warming example of interethnic “harmony.” In the gleeful words of one supportive participant, “Hillel got to control the narrative.” Another participant, dazzled by their free trip to Israel, exclaimed: “It felt so cultured and happy and so first-world.”

Conflict of Interest?

It is especially concerning that so many members of the SSMU Board of Directors, AUS representatives to SSMU, and the AUS VP Finance have accepted this thinly-disguised hasbara trip, given SSMU’s fraught history with BDS and AUS executives’ unconstitutional approval of POLI 339 last winter. In addition, no one has yet investigated the possibility that some of the officials responsible for those decisions may have attended similar trips to Palestine/Israel in previous years.

Andrew Chase (Arts Representative to SSMU) claimed that the trip will be “completely independent,” because Hillel Montreal “strives to give a balanced and nuanced view.”

McGill SPHR asked some of the AUS Representatives to explain their participation in the trip. Andrew Chase (Arts Representative to SSMU) claimed that the trip will be “completely independent,” because Hillel Montreal “strives to give a balanced and nuanced view.” In his own reply, Adin Chan (Arts Representative to SSMU and Incoming Director to the SSMU Board of Directors) stated: “Hillel has insisted many times that they have no political expectations on our return.” When SPHR provided him with evidence to the contrary, he acknowledged that “it was incorrect for me to characterize Hillel as a neutral or independent group.” Nonetheless, he has not changed his intention to participate.

The least we can ask of our student leaders is that they refrain from participating in these kinds of propaganda tours. Far from being “balanced,” the evidence shows beyond doubt that this trip is part of a broader campaign of hasbara in North American academia, which is funded by avowedly right-wing, pro-Israel organizations and individuals, and which seeks to whitewash Israel’s image and undermine the international struggle against Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people.

In addition, the fact that so many student officials have accepted Hillel’s offer raises the issue of SSMU’s Conflict of Interest Policy, which binds all student officials under SSMU jurisdiction “for the duration of their involvement with the Society.” According to Article 4.F, officials cannot accept gifts which “possibly would influence the Concerned Individual in the performance of their duties [… and] if a Concerned Individual has any doubt about the appropriateness of accepting a gift, hospitality, donation, or other benefit, the Concerned Individual must refuse.”

Far from being “balanced,” the evidence shows beyond doubt that this trip is part of a broader campaign of hasbara in North American academia, which is funded by avowedly right-wing, pro-Israel organizations and individuals, and which seeks to whitewash Israel’s image and undermine the international struggle against Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people.

We also support the SSMU executives’ demand that Hillel McGill immediately make public: the fact that these invitations have been extended; who they have been extended to and why these individuals were chosen; and the details and specific purpose of the trip being offered.