In the wake of the United Nation’s condemnation of Israel’s settlement activity in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, 17 Brown students traveled to Israel and Palestine over winter break on a trip sponsored by Project Interchange.
Project Interchange, a self-described “nonpartisan and apolitical” educational institute owned by the pro-Israel American Jewish Committee, seeks to “advance understanding of Israel across key fields and diverse constituencies around the world,” according to the project’s website.
Though the project’s goal is to educate individuals about Israeli culture and society, it has been criticized for presenting a slanted narrative of the Israeli and Palestinian conflict to college students.
Accessibility and appeal
Project Interchange is one of a few opportunities for Brown students to travel to Israel and Palestine. Students can also take a similar trip through UNIV 1001: “The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Contested Narratives,” a destination-course offered during the Wintersession, or through Birthright, a Hillel International sponsored trip run by Brown/RISD Hillel.
Keiner Oliveira ’19 said that Project Interchange was an appealing option for him because he “didn’t want to take a course … I wanted to immerse myself immediately.” Because the trip was free, it was “more accessible” than Wintersession, he said. Wintersession courses cost over $7,000, though financial aid was available for students. Additionally, Birthright trips are only available to Jewish students.
Project Interchange works to “present perspectives well beyond the Zionist spectrum,” said Seffi Kogen, AJC’s assistant director for campus affairs who accompanied Brown students to Israel and Palestine in 2016. A trip was created exclusively for Brown students, partly due to the project’s desire to return “a full cohort of students that could introduce nuance that they gleaned” from the trip to campus dialogue, he added. But the trip’s accessibility and its ability to effectively engage with campus dialogue has been a sticking point among Brown students. “The kids who go on these trips are not seeing everything,” particularly an Arab’s experience of trying to visit Israel, said Sara Al-Salem ’17, a former Herald columnist from Saudi Arabia who argued the project cannot achieve its aim to influence campus dialogue without including anti-Zionist perspectives. Al-Salem has not gone on the trip herself and said she would not consider going on the trip in the future.
“If Israel is really a country for all … tell me why can’t I get in without facing harassment or (extensive) questioning?” Al-Salem said. Al-Salem also said her brother, a U.S. citizen, was detained for eight hours upon reaching customs in Israel, highlighting alleged discrimination that Arab Americans face while traveling through the area.
Caroline Jones ’19 who went on the Brown-exclusive trip said that, on campus, students frequently “pick a side and don’t talk about it for fear of offending the wrong person … My default was to side with Palestine but (my opinion) wasn’t nuanced enough (for me) to take ownership of it.” Jones expected the trip to be “very pro-Israel,” but said she still agreed to go on it based on her desire to learn more about the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Matthew Jarrell ’18, a former senior staff writer for The Herald who went on a Project Interchange trip in 2015, said Brown students who are passionate about the conflict tend to be “very set in their beliefs,” and their advocacy work deals less with “promoting dialogue and more with convincing people that their side is the right one.”
Influence on campus dialogue
Students appeared to have learned about Project Interchange by word of mouth. Jarrell said he learned about the trip from Jillian Lanney ’16, a former Herald managing editor. Jones, a current section editor at Brown Political Review, and Samantha Kiernan ’19 said they learned about the trip from Jarrell, who is currently the content director at the BPR and a college student-ambassador for Project Interchange.
Project Interchange offers trips tailored for specific colleges across the country. The Brown-specific trip was offered for the first time in 2016 in response to a “disturbing trend” in the way Brown students have protested against Israel, Kogen said. “What we’ve seen is that Israel’s detractors are moving toward a strategy that is built more around disrupting events and working to exercise the heckler’s veto,” he said, referencing the Janet Mock petition and Michael Douglas protest Spring 2016.
Al-Salem agreed with Kogen’s position that student protests have led to silencing speakers on campus. But she disagreed with his characterization of this tactic as being limited to anti-Zionist students on campus.
Prior to offering university-specific trips, Project Interchange offered media trips for student journalists and leaders of different student organizations in the United States. “These trips have included members of The Herald and the Brown Political Review,” said Lanney, who went on the media trip in 2014. “The media trip (was) specifically geared toward student journalists and expose(d) you to a lot of people in journalism in Israel,” Lanney added.
Applications for the media trip required student journalists to disclose their school newspaper’s circulation and staff size. Myra Clark-Siegel, Project Interchange’s director of communications and senior strategic counsel, said this information was necessary because “when you’re looking at bringing a group of student leaders, … you want to make sure you have a nice cross section” that represents their college campus.
Though the institute offers trips to college students, Project Interchange “usually focuses on mature audiences like professors, researchers and academics … people with more power than Brown students,” Oliveira said. “Focusing on these individuals is important because then the conversation transitions onto other areas in the world.”
“That they are targeting student leaders (to go on this trip) … should be an immediate red flag” that this could be a propaganda tool, said Al-Salem, questioning the project’s desire to recruit individuals who wield considerable influence on college campuses.
Post-trip, some students stay involved with Project Interchange and go on to work with AJC. Project Interchange alums have received opportunities to attend “conference call briefings and earn alumni venture funds … (they) are also connected through AJC advocacy work,” Kogen said.
After finishing his trip with Project Interchange, Jarrell said he was invited to a retreat with AJC’s board of directors.
Accusations of bias in the itinerary
From Dec. 27 through Jan. 4, students with the Brown-exclusive trip met political and cultural leaders from both Israel and Palestine. Speakers included Likud politician Amir Ohana, former director of the Israeli Security Agency Ami Ayalon and CEO of Wassel Group Huda El-Jack.
The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement was brought up frequently as a topic of discussion by speakers in response to students’ questions, Kiernan said. “Many of the speakers that we interacted with, even those from Palestine, seemed to convey that BDS … is going to put a lot of stress on Palestine given that Palestine’s economy is intertwined with Israel’s,” she added.
Oliveira said El-Jack argued that BDS would not “help the economics of the region at all and, instead of boycotting goods, they should be creating new innovation … and push for negotiating.” Paraphrasing El-Jack, Oliveira added, “Increasing boycotts could create a negative effect where Israel might take boycotting their products personally … and decide not collaborate with Palestine.”
However, Al-Salem, who is also a former member of Brown Students for Justice in Palestine, which supports BDS, said that having “two people speak on behalf of all Palestinians” is dangerously misleading. Current members of SJP did not respond to multiple requests for comment from The Herald.
Clark-Seigel said the trip exposes students to realities that are not apparent from the outside and that “co-existence” could be found in Israel. “Go into any Israeli hospital, and there are Muslims and Jews working side by side together … often on campuses, that reality is not shared … people don’t even realize that that is a reality.”
But Al-Salem pointed out that “as an Arab-Israeli citizen you don’t have the same rights of a regular Israeli citizen.” She questioned whether the program provided students with an accurate picture of what being Palestinian or Arab in Israel actually involves. “Did they go into Gaza? No. Did they go into settlement camps?”
Students who went on the Brown-exclusive trip met Arab-Israeli citizens and talked with litigation lawyers covering discrimination cases, Jones said.
During his 2015 media trip with Project Interchange, Jarrell visited Ariel, an Israeli settlement that is situated in the Central West Bank, Jarrell said.
Jarrell said he was surprised there was a settlement so far into the West Bank, but the deputy mayor of the settlement allegedly justified the settlement’s location citing Israeli security concerns. “The mayor said that it was essential for Israel’s security — they (needed) … to have these outposts in the hills to have high ground,” Jarrell said.
“I’m not sure how that argument stacks up logically … the settler perspective was not one that I had heard before, so to be exposed to it on (the media) trip was a good thing,” he said.
Jones said she believed all perspectives were well-represented throughout the trip. “A big focus of the program was that we were supposed to come away from it thinking that there is no easy solution.”
“I don’t think there’s such a thing as neutrality … in any issue,” said Oliveira. “Instead of seeking neutrality, it’s better to seek understanding.” While it is unfair that Palestinians do not have an opportunity to run a similar trip, “I think (AJC’s) purpose is to expose that there is more to the conflict than to impose an opinion,” he added.