58 members of Congress will be in Israel in the coming days on a tour sponsored by the America Israel Education Foundation, an arm of the pro-Israel lobbying organization, AIPAC. Though AIPAC claims the trip is an annual ritual with no connection to the increasingly rancorous debate over the Iran nuclear deal, the trip offers Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a key opportunity for face-to-face fear mongering with some of the lawmakers who control the deal’s fate.
After the Republican delegation visits Israel, 22 Democrats — including several who represent key swing votes on the deal — will be shepherded through the AIPAC tour by House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, an Israel lobby favorite. The freshmen legislators will visit all the requisite destinations, from the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum, which has featured exhibits accusing Palestinians of a central role in the Jewish genocide in Europe, to the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who likes to present influential visitors with a special ring he purchased in a local pawn shop that supposedly legitimizes Israeli control over Jerusalem.
As a journalist who has covered the crisis in the Holy Land for several years, I have composed a tour route that might allow congressional newcomers to the situation to expand their understanding of Israel beyond the strict limitations imposed by their AIPAC-endorsed guides. They should engage with the reality of Israel, not only within the illusory realm of “Israel proper,” but in the Jews-only settlements and Palestinian ghettoes that make up the Occupied Territories. And they should meet the people who elected Netanyahu and the most right-wing governing coalition in Israel’s history.
So here is a list of a few places every member of Congress — and every American — should consider visiting on a trip to the Holy Land.
Israel is the only country in the Middle East that possesses nuclear weapons. Yet according to its policy of nuclear ambiguity, which the US government has faithfully honored, the self-proclaimed Jewish state refuses to acknowledge its arsenal and will not allow International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) officials to inspect it. Unlike Iran, Israel has refused to sign the Nuclear Non-Profileration Agreement. Away from the scrutiny of international inspectors, Israel has produced scores of nuclear warheads along with a Jericho missile delivery system that puts much of Europe within striking range. According to journalist Seymour Hersh, Israel received an emergency package of military aid from the US during the 1973 war through “nuclear blackmail,” or threatening to blanket the Middle East in a hail of nuclear destruction if Washington failed to accede to its demands.
For those lawmakers who aren’t too hung over from the drunken skinny dipping outings that AIPAC has sponsored at the Sea of Galilee, a detour to Dimona is a must. In this economically depressed southern Israeli city, members of Congress will find the location of the nuclear weapons plant that the Israeli government officially refers to as a “textile factory.”
But a word of caution: When former Israeli member of Knesset Issam Makhoul publicly condemned his country’s nuclear program, he was targeted with a sophisticated car bomb. Mordechai Vanunu has not yet escaped the nightmare that began when he blew the whistle on Dimona. After being kidnapped by Mossad agents in the UK, Vanunu spent 12 years in tortuous solitary confinement in an Israeli prison. He is still prevented from traveling outside the country and barred from speaking to the press.
2. “The Arab room”
Members of Congress don’t have to travel far to see one of the first places many Americans are forced to visit as soon as they arrive to the Holy Land. It is the so-called “Arab room” inside Ben Gurion International Airport where Americans of Palestinian and Arab descent are interrogated and humiliated by Israel’s Shin Bet. The Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee has said it registered around 100 complaints a year from Americans of Arab descent who said they had been denied entry by Israeli security services on the basis of their ethnicity. Before being deported, these unfortunate travelers were first flagged by racial profiling agents and sent to the “Arab room.”
Among the Americans most recently deported by Israel is Susan Abulhawa, the best-selling author of the critically acclaimed book, “Mornings in Jenin.” “This is our Israel. This is for Jews. No Palestinian should come to Israel,” an Israeli security officer said a few days later as he deported George Khoury, a Palestinian-American professor on his way to visit his birthplace in Jerusalem. Though Israel’s policy of denial focuses disproportionately on Arabs, American Jews like Julia Carmel Salazar have been deported as well on suspicion that they were on their way to meet Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.
A State Department webpage where Americans can report discrimination and denial of entry by Israel is currently out of service. “File not found” is all that appears when you click over to it.
3. Ofer Military Prison
Just inside the occupied West Bank stands a gigantic military prison called Ofer. Inside are Palestinians who have been jailed for crimes against the occupation. Many are children who were arrested, often late at night, by Israeli soldiers and coerced into confessing to stone throwing. Others are leaders of unarmed protest movements like frequent Ofer resident Bassem Tamimi, who was named by Amnesty International as a prisoner of conscience. Prisoners like Tamimi are usually jailed without charges and wait months before being sentenced by a judge who works for the Israeli military. The conviction rate in Israel’s kangaroo courts is 99.74%.
While many diplomats from the EU have visited Ofer, to my knowledge, no sitting member of Congress has been inside its gates. The Real Israel tour would not be complete without a visit to Ofer’s children’s court, where defendants as young as 13 are brought in chains to testify before military judges and prosecutors.
4. Teddy Stadium
Members of Congress who want to see one of Israel’s best soccer teams in action should make their way down to Jerusalem’s Teddy Stadium for a Beitar Jerusalem match. There, they can witness Beitar’s “ultras” — its hardcore fan base — bellow out “Death to Arabs!” after goals while waving flags honoring the late terrorist gang leader Meir Kahane. Beitar ultras have also participated in lethal attacks on unarmed Palestinians around Jerusalem, rioted against Arabs in the local Malha Mall, and attacked leftists protesting last summer’s assault on Gaza. When Beitar captain Aviram Baruchyan mentioned that he wouldn’t mind playing on a team beside an Arab, he was immediately forced to apologize to outraged fans for the grave transgression.
5. Zion Square
Zion Square is the heart of central Jerusalem’s commercial district, a favorite haunt for international revelers, and the site of an increasing number of “Death to Arabs!” marches. After grabbing a cup of frozen yogurt, lawmakers should make their way over to the organizing table manned by Lehava, an organization dedicated to preventing romantic relationships between Jewish women and Arab men. For legislators representing districts located below the Mason-Dixon line, this stop on the Real Israel tour might offer a trip down memory lane.
Led by Benzi Gopstein, a disciple of the late terrorist leader Meir Kahane, Lehava supporters have been involved in an array of attacks on young Palestinian, menaced African asylum seekers, incited against homosexuals just hours before a stabbing spree at this year’s Jerusalem Pride Parade, and torched the only integrated Jewish-Arab elementary school in Jerusalem. Lehava leaders like Gopstein were invited to testify before the Knesset on the dangers of integration by Tzipi Hotovely, who currently serves as Israel’s acting Foreign Minister. Lehava’s sister organization, Hemla, which was also founded by disciples of Meir Kahane, has received hundreds of thousands in annual funding through the Israeli government’s Social Affairs Ministry.
Evangelical members of the Republican congressional delegation are encouraged to quiz Gopstein about his recent call for the mass burning of churches.
6. Kiryat Arba and Hebron
There are few sites in Israeli-controlled territory that contain as much recent historic significance of the memorial constructed in honor of Baruch Goldstein.
A hero of hardcore settlers, he emigrated to Israel from his ancestral homeland of Brooklyn, NY before massacring 29 Palestinian worshippers in cold blood at the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron in 1994. The killings touched off a wave of retaliatory suicide bombings and sent the Holy Land spiraling into violence.
In a neatly tended park in the illegal Israeli settlement of Kiryat Arba, not far from the site of the massacre, stands a stone grave memorial honoring Goldstein and his legacy. Members of Congress will find little stones left on Goldstein’s grave by visitors expressing their mourning — and respect — for the terrorist. And they can read the inscription on his grave: “The revered Dr. Baruch Kapel Goldstein… Son of Israel. He gave his soul for the sake of the people of Israel, The Torah, and the Land. His hands are clean and his heart good… He was assassinated for the Sanctity of God.”
After visiting Goldstein’s shrine, lawmakers should take a stroll through the narrow lanes of Hebron’s Old City, which lies just a short way from Kiryat Arba. There, Palestinian shopkeepers rely on a steel net to protect themselves from the bricks and soiled diapers that settlers and their children dump on them each day. Beyond the market is Shuhada Street, a Jews-only road where hundreds of Palestinian shops have been closed by the Israeli military. Lawmakers from New York will immediately recognize the accents of the settlers parading down the eerily empty street, while those from open carry states like Arizona might appreciate the sight of the machine guns slung over these patriotic rebels’ shoulders. The settlers have also put their artistic talent on display with graffiti on Palestinian homes that reads, “Gas the Arabs.”
7. Al Araqib
Lawmakers seeking a first-hand look at how Israel makes the desert bloom might consider a trip to the little Bedouin village of Al Araqib. Nestled comfortably inside the territory that Peter Beinart refers to as “democratic Israel,” Al Araqib is among the scores of unrecognized villages dotting the Negev Desert whose residents are unable to receive public services because they are not Jews. In order to make way for a forest planted by the Jewish National Fund (JNF), a tax exempt US-based non-profit, Israeli bulldozers and riot police have destroyed Al Araqib over 80 times, forcing its homeless residents to live in the village cemetery while billing them $500,000 for the demolitions. The JNF’s planned forest has received handsome financial support from British End Timers Rory and Wendy Alec, who have urged their followers to help them “beautify the land of Israel for the return of the Messiah.” The project shows how Israel creates interfaith opportunities in the unlikeliest of places — even on the ruins of a demolished Bedouin town.
“This country belongs to us, the white man.” Those were the words of former Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai, who promised non-Jewish African migrants that he would “make their lives miserable.” In keeping with Yishai’s vow, the Israeli government has constructed Holot, an internment camp in the Negev Desert for African asylum seekers who committed the crime of attempting to live in Israel while non-Jewish, and whose lack of J-Positive blood prevents them from a path to citizenship or even asylum. (All Jews can receive immediate Israeli citizenship according to the country’s “Law of Return”). For the thousands of African residents of Holot, Israel is a giant Sundown Town that forbids them from staying outside the camp’s gates past 10 PM.
Rep. Mark Takai is one of the House members joining Hoyer on the Democratic AIPAC tour. Takai has taken a special interest in commemorating the internment of his fellow Japanese Americans during World War Two. For him, Holot offers the chance to visit one an active internment center for ethnic outcasts, complete with barbed wire and special ID numbers. Israeli President Reuven Rivlin has called Holot a “concentration camp,” but the Israeli government prefers to call it an “accommodation center.” African-American members of the Democratic delegation should beware: Unless they find Holot’s notoriously threadbare accommodations attractive, they had better not overstay their visas.
9. Deir Yassin
When members of Congress visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum in Jerusalem, they will emerge from a heart-rending exhibition documenting Jewish genocide in Europe and find themselves on a veranda that offers a sweeping view of Israeli-controlled Jerusalem — the supposed answer to thousands of years of Jewish suffering. In the valley below, they might see the ruins of a village called Deir Yassin. On April 9, 1948 the Zionist militia known as the Irgun massacred over 200 of Deir Yassin’s residents, triggering a wave of terror throughout Palestine and accelerating the forced expulsion of 750,000 indigenous Palestinians. In order to preserve Israel as an ethnically pure Jewish state, those refugees have not been allowed to return. And while over 400 Palestinian villages were destroyed, Deir Yassin’s homes were converted into wings of a mental hospital for patients suffering from Jerusalem Syndrome. Legislators should not expect to learn about this critical piece of Israeli history from a Yad Vashem staffer. Indeed, when a Yad Vashem guide named Itamar Shapira informed a tour group about the massacre in Deir Yassin, he was quickly fired.
* Due to the US-backed Israeli-Egyptian siege of Gaza, members of Congress will not be able to meet any of the 1.8 million people living in the ruins of this stateless coastal enclave, where Israel killed over 2200 people in 51 days last year, including 550 children.