When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came to Washington two years ago, the US Congress gave him 29 standing ovations, four more than they had given to President Obama during his State of the Union address earlier that year, leaving some to wonder which leader is the real decider-in-chief of the US.
Last month at the confirmation hearing for her new role as US ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power's short opening statement to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee mentioned Israel eight times. She was confirmed immediately.
Yes, we all know that Congress hearts Israel. But supporting Israel is one thing; how is it possible that US policymakers are all Israel-firsters?
Well, every summer US legislators travel around the world on "fact-finding trips" at the expense of lobbyists. And over the years, their number one foreign destination has been, you guessed it, Israel. The American Israel Education Foundation recently financed two such trips to Israel and the West Bank for more than 60 members of the House of Representatives, both Democrats and Republicans, along with some of their aides.
The New York Times reports that, so far "hundreds of Washington lawmakers have" gone to Israel courtesy of this program. Indeed over the years, "the American Israel Education Foundation has been more prolific than any other in sponsoring overseas trips for members of Congress and their staffs." So much so that it has now become "the standard-bearer for foreign Congressional travel. 'We call it the Jewish Disneyland trip,' said one pro-Israel advocate in Washington."
These kinds of trips concern watchdog groups and ethics advocates. As Bill Allison, the editorial director of a group that advocates for government openness, told Reuters earlier this week, "It really doesn't accomplish the purpose of a fact-finding mission if the facts are being presented by a group with a specific viewpoint." Many also argue that lawmakers end up feeling indebted to the hosts that sponsor their travel.
And yet the practice seems difficult to shake off. According to Reuters, US lawmakers took nearly 5,000 trips back in 2005, costing lobbyists around $10 million. However Congress started to clamp down on such travel in 2007 after the scandal surrounding the disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who paid for lawmakers to fly "away for lavish junkets, including golf outings in Scotland," to sway them on legislative matters, including casino gambling. Reuters reports that since then, the duration of the trips has been restricted, however the new rules limiting travel also "contained exceptions, allowing educational and charitable groups to finance trips for lawmakers." And today, Congressional travel at the expense of lobbyists is once again on the rise. This year there have already been 1,363 trips so far, at a cost to the hosts of $3.2 million.
The American Israel Education Foundation is the educational arm of AIPAC, an arrangement that government watchdogs have criticised because it allows the fiercely pro-Zionist lobby group to bypass the recently passed restrictions. According to The New York Times, Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire casino magnate who is staunchly pro-Israel and spent millions on campaigns aiming to defeat President Obama in the last election, is key to financing these trips. In 2006 alone, the "charitable trust operated by Mr Adelson and his wife gave $1.2 million" to the American Israel Education Foundation.
So what might these "fact-finding" trips to Jewish Disneyland look like?
Most of the time information is not released for "security reasons." When a Florida newspaper recently asked AIPAC for the names of the legislators travelling this year, AIPAC refused to provide the full list. But some details of past trips have emerged. The New York Times reports that in addition to meeting Israeli politicians, lawmakers stay "in top-tier hotels like the King David in Jerusalem," as well as take "private tours of Bethlehem, the Dead Sea, the Yad Vashem museum commemorating the Holocaust and other important historical and religious sites." In other words, they are granted class privileges and the freedom of movement that Palestinians are denied.
The Wall Street Journal also reports that during one supposed "fact-finding trip" in 2011, "a group of lawmakers, aides and family members took a late-night swim in the [Sea of Galilee] where Christians believe Jesus walked on water." One lawmaker, Representative Kevin Yoder, a Republican from Kansas, sparked controversy by swimming in the nude.
But Congress is not the only target of the Israel Lobby; students, celebrities and others are also paid to visit Jewish Disneyland. Thus we can look at some of these other programs to get a better idea of what this Occupation Tourism really involves.
The Electronic Intifada uncovered this week that Teach for America (TSA) has a stake in the Occupation Tourism industry. TSA is widely known "for dispatching hundreds of idealistic college graduates to work in inner cities across the United States each year," a practice widely condemned by social justice activists who argue that the program undermines the public school system, and who are rightly critical of privileged students inserting themselves into deprived communities, without proper teachers, training or any intention of establishing long-term relationships within these communities. However it does not end there. Selected "corps members" of the TSA program, mostly Jewish, are also treated to an all expenses paid trip to Jewish Disneyland called "The Reality Israel Experience." As EI reports, "according to testimonies featured on Reality Israel's official website, participants are at times led by a 'military tour guide,' visit with Israeli military educators at an army base 'near Jerusalem' (in the occupied West Bank?), and enjoy 'ATV off-roading all over the Golan Heights,' an Israeli-occupied region of Syria."
Another organisation that arranges similar trips is Shurat HaDin, a Tel Aviv-based law centre that filed a lawsuit in 2011 against former President Jimmy Carter and his publisher Simon and Schuster for the publication of Carter's book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. Shurat HaDin recently announced what it calls "The Mission of a lifetime – an in-depth view of the war on terror" that promises Occupation Tourists the following: briefings by Mossad officials and commanders of the Shin Bet, as well as by officers in the IDF Intelligence and Operations branches; front row seats to military trials of Hamas "terrorists;" tours of the occupied Golan Heights, including "a moonlight boat cruise on the Sea of Galilee" and "traditional Shabbat diner in the Old City;" meetings with Israel's Arab agents who infiltrated "terrorist groups" and can provide real-time intelligence; and briefings by Israeli war criminals, I mean "heroes." But wait, there is more. David Schermerhorn, an American film producer and activist who was involved in breaking the siege on Gaza, told me that he also heard a rumor that Bibi Mouse may even pay a surprise visit. Perhaps on the moonlight boat cruise?
It really is a trip to Jewish Disneyland. No wonder the US Congress is whipped.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.