Zionist lobby trips to Israel, taking politicians, journalists and trade union leaders, have been occurring from Australia for over a decade. New Matilda can reveal that these visits are also commonplace among student leaders and politicians from Australia and New Zealand. Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC), one of Australia’s most powerful yet secretive lobby groups, has been organising short, all-expenses paid expeditions to the Middle East.
New Matilda has obtained documentary evidence, photos, Facebook posts and comments that detail the visits and provide a unique insight into the sophisticated tactics used by AIJAC to counter the changing nature of public opinion over the Middle East.
The latest public surveys in Australia show growing support for both the Palestinian narrative and opposition to Israeli militarism. The Zionist lobby is keen to find allies at a young age and offering free trips to student leaders in their late teens and early 20s is an effective way to mitigate decreasing support for Zionism.
A Palestinian student at UTS, who asked for anonymity, confirmed that the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies and AIJAC were concerned about the growth of pro-Palestinian activism on campuses across Australia. Support for BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) among the Labor Left and Greens is on the rise. "Most students want to be in the position where they’re asked by AIJAC about the trip," the student told NM. "The Israel lobby know they’re young, naive and up for a free overseas trip." The visits, she told me, were framed as "political education."
In July 2012, Jade Tyrrell, the current president of the Students’ Association at UTS, was sent to Israel by AIJAC. New Matilda understands that this was because she’s an upcoming candidate for president of the National Union of Students (NUS). "AIJAC approached and sent all the people who they believed might get the position", a source said. Tyrrell did not respond to multiple requests for interview.Other 2012 participants included Jon Barlow, the National General Secretary of NUS, currently a student at Victoria University, (New Matilda spoke briefly to Barlow but he didn’t respond to further calls for comment), Hannah Pandel, a member of the Young Liberals in Victoria from Melbourne University and Arena Williams, President of The Auckland University Students’ Association. Williams’ Twitter feed from the trip features excited tweets about the beach in Tel Aviv and from the predominantly Israeli spokespeople who gave lectures to the group. Also present was Hannah McLeod, student president at Flinders University, Glenn Riddell from the University of Auckland and Gemma Whiting, President of the Western Australian Union of Liberal Students, who also sits on the NUS National Executive.
Photographs posted on Facebook from last month’s visit show images of the Israeli flag, collected fallen rockets in the Israeli border town of Sderot near Gaza. Journalists say the Zionist lobby takes participants to Sderot to defend and explain IDF policies towards the Strip — and to meet young IDF men and women standing near the Western Wall in Jerusalem. "Were all the military men and women hot or what?, one girl asks. "Every one of them", responds Jon Barlow. "700m from Gaza!" writes Gemma Whiting on an image tagged from Sderot.
Other photographs show the separation barrier in the West Bank, chocolates and sweets on a plate in Israel and alongside a group photo a comment by Jade Tyrrell that reads, "It is so awesome. So much history." Another post features Tyrrell writing, "Just chilin’ in Israel, as you do."
New Matilda spoke to a Labor Left participant from 2010, Jesse Marshall, who was National President of NUS in 2011. He said that he was "happy to be asked to go on the trip, as I have a long interest in the Middle East. International relations is a main interest and I’ve studied the conflict quite a lot. I heard about the trip as an opportunity." He liked that AIJAC presented a range of different speakers and there was a "conscious effort to hear both sides of the story." For example, he appreciated going to the occupied West Bank city of Bethelem to meet its mayor. Every year the group spends one day in the West Bank and the vast bulk of time in Israel.
"My main reason for going was on the ground understanding about barriers to peace", Marshall told me. "I’m somebody who has peace at heart as my interest and we met people who were involved in peace negotiations on either side." His understanding of the conflict deepened, he said, including "exposing the ugly underbelly of Israeli society" in the settler movement. Marshall argued that the six-day visit didn’t change his attitude towards the Jewish state but he came away believing even stronger in a two-state solution. "I favour human rights of people on both sides and depriving the Palestinian people of a state is a clear injustice. Giving them sovereignty and independence, as granted by the UN, must happen."
Since Marshall has returned to Australia, he said he’d seen many examples of previous AIJAC trip participants being more open to debate about the conflict, "to hear the pro-Palestinian point of view."
The aim of the AIJAC trips, and my interviews prove that they’re successful, is to convince students that the two-state solution is the ideal outcome for the conflict. Students hear spokespeople from both sides who talk about an equitable partition of the land. The reality on the ground, and I’m writing this in Palestine, is that Israel has colonised the two-state solution into oblivion. With more than 600,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank, Israel long ago decided between Jewish or democratic and chose the former.
A two-state solution would not bring any justice for the occupied Palestinians in the West Bank and entrenched discrimination against the Israeli Arabs in Israel proper. AIJAC and other Zionist lobby groups are desperate to continue the illusion of the obtainability of the two-state solution because the alternatives are unpalatable.
Another recent student leader, who asked not to be identified, told New Matilda that she was 22-years old when she went. On her trip, like all years, there were two Young Liberals, two from Young Labor Left and two from Young Labor Right. "Going over there makes you realise there are complexities between Israel and Palestine", she said. "If anything I returned thinking that Israel was fantastic, but a greater appreciation of internal complexities within the country. Israel has many issues and that’s why we haven’t seen any peace."
The woman told me that the low point of the trip was visiting the Israeli settlement of Gush Etzion. "We saw people as crazy religious. People associated with AIJAC knew my views. Settlers are a real obstacle to peace. Many don’t understand that settlers have taken land off Palestinians. They’re extremists."
The real purpose of the trips, she stated, was to "stimulate debate. I’d like to go back and spend more time, including in Gaza. One of the benefits of the trip is that I realised Israel wasn’t going anywhere. They’re proud they’ve turned the desert into a thriving economy."
In 2010, the AIJAC-led group, according to The Jerusalem Post, visited the Negev desert to examine water preservation techniques by the Jewish National Fund (JNF). Ignored on the trip was the reality of the JNF program — to ethnically cleanse Palestinian villages across Israel and Palestine in the name of greening the environment.
In America, Zionist lobby groups and Jewish student groups are ramping up their campaign on university campuses to silence criticism of Israel by labelling it as "anti-Semitism".
The ability to honestly discuss Israel/Palestine is close to impossible within the Labor party in Australia, New Matilda is informed. The issue is used as a battering ram against opponents, and there is fear amongst the higher levels of the party that BDS is an appealing, non-violent tactic that appeals to average consumers who want to take a stand against Israeli companies. The AIJAC trips are one way to challenge this position, to show young students a small slice of Israeli society. Previous participants return with the view that the conflict is "complex" and no easy solutions are available. Although this is true, the aim of Israel and its Diaspora supporters for decades has been to argue this very point, ignoring their own complicity in continuing to expand illegal colonies in the West Bank and pursuing racially discriminatory policies against Palestinians.
Another recent AIJAC trip, for Victorian and NSW members of parliament, revealed the uncanny ability of participants to repeat Israeli talking points. The Victorian Minister for Multicultural Affairs and Citizenship, Nicholas Kotsiras, told the Australian Jewish News that, "despite all the challenges and threats, Israel’s most precious resource is the ingenuity of its people; honest, happy, genuine and a sincere desire to find a peaceful solution to the challenges facing Israel. Israel has done what it can to bring peace to the region".
The lack of information online about the AIJAC trips for students stems from an embarrassment felt by some participants that they’re visiting Israel on a free trip in the first place, NM was told. Some students even shut down their Facebook pages while there, but, many are pleased to be going and celebrate by tweeting seemingly innocuous comments about Tel Aviv or fun times in Israel.
While past participants are reasonable and intelligent people, unwilling to be completely brain-washed by the experience, the broader issue is one of white-washing, green-washing and pink-washing the situation as "complex" when there are two fundamentally unequal sides — occupier and occupied. AIJAC trips deliberately aim to obfuscate this truth by dishonestly framing Israel as desperately looking for peace. The opposite is true and every recipient of a free AIJAC trip would understand this if they spent more than a few hours in the West Bank.
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