Free Congressional Trips to Israel: Learning to Embrace Your Narrative

by James M. Wall

On March 23, the Chicago Tribune presented one of its periodic reports on  overseas travel by Chicago area members of the US Congress. The country most often visited? Israel.

The Tribune‘s interest was primarily on what motivated the trips. Were they junkets to resorts or would something really be learned by actually visiting other nations?

Trips to Israel are not junkets. They are described as “educational seminars”.

The report revealed that US Senator Dick Durbin made 14 overseas trips in 2009-2010.  He did not, however, visit Israel. No need, Durbin has been one of Israel’s strongest allies in Congress since he first won the House seat previously held by Paul Findley.

Illinois’ junior senator, former House member Mark Kirk, did go to Israel in 2009-2010, as did one other Republican, House member Peter Roskam, now occupying the seat formerly held by Henry Hyde. All other Chicago area members who traveled to Israel in 2009-2010, were Democrats, members who were either new or in need of some additional education on the Israeli narrative. These members were Debbie Halvorson, Daniel Lipinski, Jesse Jackson, Jr, Mike Quigley. Melissa Bean, and Bill Foster.

Jackson is the son of Jesse Sr. and Quigley now holds the seat once occupied by former Obama chief of staff, and Chicago’s new mayor, Rahm Emanuel, who needs no introduction to travel to Israel. Three of those six Democrats lost their seats in 2010: Halverson, Bean and Foster. Mark Kirk has left the House for the Senate where he occupies Barack Obama’s old seat.

The organization that funded, planned, organized and directed the trips to Israel in 2009-2010 was the American Israel Education Foundation, a tax-exempt affiliate of AIPAC.

We will hear more from AIPAC May 20-21, when AIPAC conducts its annual Policy Conference in Washington. Since presidential primaries are less than a year away, this year’s conference should attract every living Republican presidential candidate and a large majority of the members of Congress, including some members who have recently traveled to Israel.

One recent traveler was former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. Governor Palin was escorted on her visit to the Old City of Jerusalem  by Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitz (left in photo here) and Israeli lawmaker Danny Danon (right) as she emerged from the Western Wall tunnels in Jerusalem’s Old City, March 20. The closest Palin got to the West Bank was to the checkpoint between Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

Also expected to be on hand for the May AIPAC conference will be Israeli officials, beginning with Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, pictured above addressing the 2010 Policy Conference.

In John J. Mearsheimer’s latest book, Why Leaders Lie: The Truth About Lying in International Politics, he examines the importance of national narratives.

Mearsheimer is the other half of the team (with Steve Walt) that wrote the book, The Israel Lobby, which made such an impact on the formerly impenetrable Iron Wall that protects the “Israel narrative as the only truth” in American culture.

Mearsheimer writes that elites create and dominate “a nation’s discourse”, a version of the state’s founding and ongoing purpose that is a mixture of deliberate lies and patriotic enthusiasm.  They do so for two reasons: False stories about the past “help create a powerful sense of nationhood, which is essential for building and maintaining a viable nation-state.”

In particular, these fictions help give members of a national group the sense that they are part of a noble enterprise which they should not only be proud of, but for which they should be willing to endure significant hardships, including fighting and dying if necessary.

These dominating elites first develop the myths, and then control each succeeding generation through internal education that constantly reinforces the myth of the nation’s founding. In the US, think the Fourth of July, Memorial Day, Veterans Day, Presidents’ Day.

The internet-inspired uprisings in the Arab world is a concern to the Israeli authorities, as an increasing number of younger Jews in Israel have joined hands with Palestinians in protests and demonstrations against Israel’s current right wing government with its tight control and denigration of Palestinians.

Ilan Pappe, the Jewish scholar who literally wrote the book on Israel’s ethnic cleansing of Palestine, wrote in the March 22 issue of the political newsletter Counterpunch, that the current Israeli government has been rapidly expanding its “apartheid laws” against Palestinians inside Israel and in the Occupied Territories.

The most recent apartheid law passed by Israel’s Knesset “allows Jewish settlements built on state land inside Israel not to admit Israeli Palestinian citizens as residents and  legalizes the wish of these new settlers not to sell land to  the Palestinians citizens of the state.”

This is one of many such laws passed recently (the loyalty oath law that turns the Palestinians in Israel to second class citizens by law and one which does not allow them to live with their Palestinians spouses from the occupied territories are two of the more famous apartheid laws passed recently).

The new law, like the previous others,  institutionalize the Apartheid State of Israel,  or for short, ASOI.

ASOI is now one of worst apartheid regimes in the world. It controls almost all of Palestine (apart from Gaza which it imprisoned hermetically since 2005). .  .  .

Its policies against the discriminated native population, now composing nearly half of the overall population in ASOI,  include atrocities such as  barring people from using water sources, from cultivating their fields, building more houses, from getting to work, schools or universities and it bans them from commemorating their history and in particular the 1948 Nakba.

This treatment of a sizable minority of Israeli citizens and Palestinians in the OPT, is an affront to the national myth of Israel as a righteous democracy. The national myth is being exposed as a fraud by the actions of its leaders.

This, in turn, makes it even more imperative that the national Israeli myth be reinforced in other nations.

John Mearsheimer points out any new state must look for support and alliances with those nations who have within their borders “an influential diaspora” to which the new state (in this case, Israel) can export and reinforce its national founding myth. The best example of this phenomenon involves Israel and the American Jewish community.

There was no way that the Zionists could create a Jewish state in Palestine without doing large-scale ethnic cleansing of the Arab population that had been living there for centuries. This point was widely recognized by the Zionist leadership well before Israel was created.

The opportunity to expel the Palestinian came in early 1948 when fighting broke out between the Palestinians and the Zionists in wake of the UN decision to partition Palestine into two states. The Zionists cleansed roughly 700,000 Palestinians from the land that became Israel, and adamantly refused to let them return to their homes once the fighting stopped.  . . .

Not surprisingly, Israel and its American friends went to great lengths after the events of 1948 to blame the expulsion of the Palestinians on the victims themselves. According to the myth that was invented, the Palestinians were not cleansed by the Zionists; instead, they were said to have fled their homes because the surrounding Arab counties told them to move out so that their armies could move in and drive the Jews into the sea.

The movie industry has been a reliable diaspora ally. Movies shape a culture, reinforcing the control that AIPAC, which is the American diaspora command center, has over US media, politicians and churches.

At the slightest sign that any narrative contrary to the Israel narrative might emerge in a film, AIPAC and its media allies go into their first line of attack: This Film is Not Yet Balanced.  That usually frightens away film makers and distributors, until now.

Miramax, a company with an advertising budget ample enough to cover a two page ad in the New York Times, has entered the game. Miramax also has the media outreach to place directors and stars of films it is promoting into such outlets as the Charlie Rose television interview program. Miramax has won four best picture Academy Award Oscars, including its most recent winner, The King’s Speech

Miramax is distributing the new film Miral in North America. Is it possible that Miral, which has just opened in New York and Los Angeles, might emerge as the film with the power to threaten the decades old power of Exodus? Probably not, but the Israeli government and its US allies are taking no chances.

Freida Pinto, (shown at right) who was introduced to world audiences in Slumdog Millionaire, plays Miral in the film.

What makes Miral such a threat to Israel’s narrative myth is that Miral begins with the Deir Yassin massacre and ends by commemorating the history of the Palestinian people and the Nakba.

Sandy Tolan, an associate professor at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at USC and the author of The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East, considers the way in which the novel and movie, Exodus, has shaped the Israeli narrative in American culture. He wrote in Al Jazeera:

Most Americans, Jew and Gentile, grew up with the Leon Uris history of the struggle for the Holy Land. Exodus chronicles the heroic birth of Israel out of the ashes of the Holocaust. There the story ends; there is no other narrative.

This politically convenient and magnificently incomplete version of history remains the dominant American narrative of the tragedy known as Israel and Palestine.

Despite the cracks in that narrative in recent years, the über story of Exodus – Uris’ 1958 mega-bestseller, and the subsequent Hollywood film starring Paul Newman – still holds a tremendous grip on the American imagination. It may be one of the most influential pieces of fiction ever written in the US.  .  .  .

In Exodus there are only heroic or victimised Jews; only malicious, pathetic or cowardly Arabs, driven not by a love of their land but by fear and manipulation. As Uris tells the story, the Palestinians have no legitimate claim to their homeland: “If the Arabs of Palestine loved their land, they could not have been forced from it – much less run from it without real cause.”

Here there is no Deir Yassin massacre; no “Plan Dalet” and its blueprint for sowing fear and fire in Arab villages; no Nakba and its dispossession of 750,000 indigenous Palestinians.

How eager is Israel to protect its national myth? Consider a bill now moving through Israel’s Knesset that would make it illegal for an individual or an organization to endorse and support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.

A word of caution on your next trip to Israel: If you want to make it safely through the Tel Aviv airport, leave your BDS buttons at home. There will be buttons available when you reach your destination.

If you have a DVD of Miral in your carry-on, and your interrogator objects, offer it as a gift to her. Consider it as missionary outreach.

The Palin picture above is from Reuters. It was taken by Ronen Zvulun. The picture of Netanyahu was taken in Washington by Jonathan Ernst, also of Reuters.

About wallwritings

From 1972 through 1999, James M. Wall was editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine, based in Chicago, lllinois. He was a Contributing Editor of the Century from 1999 until July, 2017. He has written this blog, wall, since it was launched April 27, 2008. If you would like to receive Wall Writings alerts when new postings are added to this site, send a note, saying, Please Add Me, to Biography: Journalism was Jim's undergraduate college major at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. He has earned two MA degrees, one from Emory, and one from the University of Chicago, both in religion. He is an ordained United Methodist clergy person. He served for two years in the US Air Force, and three additional years in the USAF reserve. While serving on active duty with the Alaskan Command, he reached the rank of first lieutenant. He has worked as a sports writer for both the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, was editor of the United Methodist magazine, Christian Advocate for ten years, and editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine for 27 years. James M Wall died March 22, 2021 at age 92. His family appreciates all of his readers, even those who may have disagreed with his well-informed writings.
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17 Responses to Free Congressional Trips to Israel: Learning to Embrace Your Narrative

  1. Cotton Fite says:

    I’m particularly pleased to see Sandy Tolan’s comments in Al Jazeera regarding the holding power of the Exodus narrative which he describes as “this politically convenient and magnificently incomplete version of history ….” Many who took their first step into understanding the Israel-Palestine conflict by reading Tolan’s The Lemon Tree may listen more openly and give more credence to this source.

  2. Harris Fawell says:

    Your very dilgent reporting is appreciated. Harris Fawell

  3. Roy Hayes says:

    It was like you said, with me. I was very much an adult before I realized that Christians who live in the Holy Land are Palestinians and that Christians and Muslims suffer together under Israel’s occupation. I, too, was influenced by Leon Uris’ book, Exodus. I read the book twice and saw the movie. I had been thoroughly brainwashed. Peace, Roy

  4. Sam Jones says:

    Your article reminds me of the Entertainment Weekly review of “Miral” by Owen Gleiberman. I can’t speak to the accuracy of his review from a technical perspective since I haven’t had the opportunity to see the film, but his brief review betrays his own acceptance of the dominant Israeli narrative. He writes first: “it [Miral] tells the story of Israel from the viewpoint of the Palestinians, which is a perfectly valid thing to do.” and further, “The central character, Miral (Freida Pinto, from Slumdog Millionaire), is born in 1973, but the film flashes back to the touchstones of Israeli history — the founding, the 1967 war — which are staged as a catalog of abuse against Palestinians.” Notice that he references “the story of Israel: and “the touchstones of Israeli history.” Is it inconceivable that the story has to do with story and touchstones of Palestinian history from the point of view of the indigenous people? In other words, the central actor is Israel with the secondary actors only moving around it. Also, note he says “staged as a catalog of abuse,” implying that these incidents are little more than directorial or artistic license employed for effect, not they represent an intentional campaign of abuse, dispossession, and ethnic cleansing. It is in Gleiberman’s use of language that his lack of objectivity, that his parroting of the singular Israeli narrative become apparent. And yet, the fact that Miramax is marketing this film, the fact that it was made, the level of vitriol surrounding it from the lobby and the Israeli government, is a sign that the times, they are a changin’.

  5. jack graham says:

    On the one hand, we have a President who promised to get us out of wars in the Middle East, then unconstitutionally initiated war in Libya without a war powers resolution, but quickly tried to beg out of his imprudent adventure, making a laughing stock of the United States. Yes, last in war, last in peace, and unworthy of the praise of his countrymen. But one of his main contenders in 2012, who cannot even finish one term as governor of Alaska, saw her poll numbers drop, so she took a trip to Israel for a consultation with her boss, the prime minister of Israel, hoping to boost her campaign. So is the choice is really between an incompetent President, or a patsy of Israel while their lobby in Washington D. C. bribes Congressmen with junkets? If so, the United States have abdicated greatness on the world stage, and we should concede leadership of the world to the Bilderberg group. — John Remington Graham of the Minnesota Bar (#3664X)

  6. Awad Paul Sifri says:

    Thank you for summing up the various aspects of how the Apartheid state of Israel has thoroughly manipulated and brainwashed the population of the world’s only super power.
    I still remember how shocked and down-hearted I was when I first came to America for my college education back in the early 1960’s, when I found out that everyone’s knowledge about Israel-Palestine conflict was based on “Exodus”. They would admit that it is “only” a novel, but in fact, their primary source always revolved around this deceptive Israeli narrative.
    Perhaps, “Miral” will help to counter some of the foundational deception, but one needs to ensure that more Jewish, Christian, and Muslim youth are exposed to it. Churches in America should take the lead in exposing their congregations to the truth in Miral’s story.

  7. Martha Reese says:

    These propaganda-trips are paid for, as you note, by American Israel Education Foundation. AIEF gets its funds from donors who are impassioned about supporting Israel. Those of us who passionately support a peace based on justice and equality for BOTH Palestinians and Israel have work to do. We need to build organizations and institutions that advocate tirelessly for our principles. We need to fund them so they are able to operate with professionalism, accountability, continuity, and credibility.

  8. Bill Gepford says:

    Our problem, as you point out, is still the ignorance of most Americans concerning the truth of what really happened back in 1948. What is happening now around the Arab Mddle East is quite obvious: the Arabs want freedom, justice, and democracy, just like Americans, but on their own terms. They no longer need the United States Government (“AIPAC”?) to make their decisions for them. Definitely, the American government has fallen into disrepute on the world stage of greatness. The changes that are coming definitely will not be popular with the neocoms, ideologs, Zionists (Christian and Jewish), and the likes of Sara Palin.

  9. Arthur Preisinger says:

    The apartheid South African government offered free propaganda trips to South Africa, much like the present state of Israel does. I was Lutheran campus pastor at Texas Tech in the ’70s. In those days the editor of the Lubbock (Texas) Avalanche Journal took such trips annually, then came back to report on how the blacks were so happy with their condition, strummin’ banjos on the ol’ plantation.

    An aside: Last Friday the Houston paper reported that President Obama called Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu on Thursday to offer condolences for the bombing which killed a British tourist in Jerusalem. The same article reported that last week Israeli shelling in Gaza had killed three children and their uncle. Gaza, however, didn’t get a phone call from our President. Instead, Secretary of Defense Gates said about Israel that no country could tolerate the “repugnant ” attacks on its soil. We, apparently, can tolerate such attacks on Palestinians.

  10. Father Dave says:

    Spot on once again, dear brother. This is the only way to challenge the destructive myths – by continuing to challenge the narrative and broadcast the untold story of the voiceless. God bless you.

  11. John F. Kane says:

    Please allow me to add two questions about “Exodus” and recommend another film touching on Western views of Islam. On “Exodus”: I just happened to see some of it because it appeared the other night on my Direct TV offerings. I did fine it strange that it would appear “out of the blue,” but only now am I wondering whether this recent showing is somehow related to the concurrent opening of “Miral.” Secondly, since I don’t remember ever seeing “Exodus” previously, I was struck by (and would appreciate your or anyone’s comments on) what seemed to me the racist casting of two fetching blonds (Eva Marie Saint as the female lead and the young pre-teen she was caring for) opposite Paul Newman’s male lead. Is this Uris and/or the filmmakers casting sexy “Jewish” Newman with clearly sexy-innocent Western blonds — or am I being racist for even wondering about that. Finally, I highly recommend “Of Gods and Men” — the recently released in the US French film about the eventual execution in the mid-90’s, of 7 Cistercian monks from a rural monastery in Algeria. It presents a far more nuanced and ultimately very positive view of Islam and its relationship with Christianity.

  12. Jim,

    Thanks again for another inciteful at Israeli mythology as it has been depicted so often in books and movies. On the other hand I know how powerful “The Lemon Tree” was for me. I hope I get to see Miral as that story needs to be seen. We have had several trips to Israel taken from here in Youngstown with clergy, business persons and politicians going on the trip through the support of the local AIPAC folk. We held an “other side of the story “press conference” here at the Arab-American Community Center with very little press showing up.

    Rev. Jim Ray

  13. Robert Hannum says:

    Jim: Yes! Pappe’s book is a must read, to see the plan to rid Palestine of the Palestinians. We landed in January, 1994 to represent a large denomination in Jerusalem, and it took one month to see without prompting, that the Israelis wanted the Palestinians out!

    Part of our job was to educate folks from our own denomination and any other church related group about the situation in Israel/Palestine. Some folks simply said, “You are just pro-Palestinian.” “No”, we replied, “We can have two friends at the same time” as my mother once told me. “One Israeli death is one too many and one Palestinian death is also one too many.” We must get to the point where this is commonly held understanding or nothing significant happens, and the endless talk goes on in the meaningless “peace process.”

    AIPAC wants to maintain the status quo as do those who sponsor these one-sided trips to Israel for our Congresspeople. But, the status quo will one day backfire. It cannot stand! We took groups which saw a comprehensive view of the situation. The refugee camps at the bottom of the hills, the Jewish settlements at the tops of the hills. 15% of the water for millions of Palestinians, 85% for the settlers, who control the water. 24-25,000 Palestinian homes destroyed since 1967 and hundreds of thousands destroyed since 1948. A 29 foot concrete wall which cuts through more Palestinian land in the West Bank, separating farmers from their fields, people from their jobs, and kids from their schools. And – 500 military checkposts at which Palestinians are harrassed daily.

    Our Congresspeople do not see these obscenities. As one person from my own church denomination asked, as our bus sailed through a checkpost, “Is that a toll booth?”

  14. Janet Gunn says:

    Am I alone with my heeby-jeebies about Miral, the full pages given by Sunday’s N.Y. Times to its opening and, in a facing page, a Jewish apologia for the film’s Palestinian slant on the founding of the State of Israel? True, A.O. Scott pans the film in a review several pages later, but Charlie Rose recently closed his show by interviewing director Julian Schnabel and the Palestinian woman who wrote the autobiographical account on which Miral is based and who has become Schnabel’s companion. That the signing of the Oslo Accords brings the film to its close adds to my unease. What’s the story?

  15. Patricia Pynchon says:

    The movie MIRAL which I saw last night, is very moving, but it is not totally clear because it shows Palestinians who punish their own people for defection from resistance groups. It does not show walls, nor the theft of trees and water, it does show one house demolition (but there have been thousands.) In short, it does not show the full horror of the situation, however, it is a thoroughly sympathetic picture to the culture of Palestine. Something must be done, and I am wondering why the entire Christian community does not descend upon the government to change our policy. This nation is supposed to be majority Christian, yet they are not coming on as a group against the official AIPAC. There exist Jewish organizations, such as the JVP, who themselves are outraged at the Israeli injustice against the Palestinians., and the Jewish population which numbers only 5 million. does not lack those who think Israel is destroying itself by such atrocities towards the Palestinians. I suppose Christians are too afraid to appear anti-semitic, or not respectful of the Jewish religion, but what are they really afraid of? They are showing themselves to not be truly living up to Christian values by not stepping in and protesting the inhumane behavior to Palestinians, really monstruously inhumane as has rarely been done before, unbelievab ly inhumane. Why don’t the great mass of Christian Americans start to complain about behavior that should shock them, why don’t they as Christians overwhelm, congress and force our policy to change.

  16. wallwritings says:

    In response to Janet, this film covers a specific period in Palestinian history, starting with the Dier Yassim massacre in 1948 and concluding in 1993 when the Oslo Accords were signed. The book on which the film is based covers that period. The closing comments, in print, at the film’s conclusion, acknowledge the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993. The comments close with the statement that to this date the Accords have not been implemented.

    In response to Patricia, since the film is set prior to 1993, there is no reference to the Wall Israel built to imprison the Palestinian people. This film is not a study document. It is a rarity, a major motion picture that reflects the Palestinian narrative. Julian Schnabel is a film artist; he lives with ambiguity. And for this reason, he deals with the entire Palestinian situation, which includes fathers who abuse their children, mothers who commit suicide, and resistance fighters who punish those within their organization whom they consider disloyal. Most of us will not like those actions, nor their portrayal. But Schnabel tells the story as honestly as he, the artist behind the film, feels he must do. Jim Wall

  17. Steve Keep says:

    I am so thankful to have found your blog. As a retired guy, I am old enough to NOT know how to get one of these started. My hat’s off to you.

    I am so in tune with a part of Roy Hayes, 3/27/2011 remarks. “I realized that Christians who live in the Holy Land are Palestinians and that Christians and Muslims suffer together under Israel’s occupation. I, too, was influenced by Leon Uris’ book, Exodus.” My wife and I have been involved in the effort to bring a true “Relationship with God” belief to the problems and crimes occurring in the HOLY LAND area, for 6 years now. The information available through the internet is endless! Your blog and the responses are tremendously thought provoking. Many in our own Church will simply refuse to acknowledge any problem in the HOLY LAND area. The blame is put on “Centuries if disagreement.” The word NAIVE races across my minds eye and I immediately ask for forgiveness for my fellow church attendees. However, the pastor does exhibit a deliberate Naïveté and responds with comments that could be construed as complicit or supportive of the events of a serious (extremely sinful) nature, between The government of Israel and the Palestinians or other NON supportive of Israel government, people, living in Israel. It is very difficult for me to remain at peace inside, when I hear Church members and even some staff, citing the BIBLE as the source of justification for any such action! I must quell the feelings of insult and internal resentment and quickly offer a prayer for those folks.

    Just Quickly: I am a grad. in US History, World history as well as other technical Engineering Stuff. I say that because I believe that I am as intelligent as most that can research issues and seek a deeper source and meaning of our worlds problems. AND to be succinct, the primary motivation is a two word / one word: Power/Greed OR Greed/Power. I have never truly read any information that did not try to smother or cover up the greed and power motivation behind so much of what seems to be evolving, particularly within our own US of A! I am so remorseful to think of the years I spent believing in, the worlds very best propaganda campaign, for all of my life! (my yr.o’Birth: 1949)

    I must apologize for my ramblings. I have not found a site that impresses me as much as yours, that I have been moved to submit so much of my thinking in print. Thanks for your efforts and work for a issue that calls for an old/new concept, a moral approach!

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