University of Connecticut Hillel is organizing a trip for a select number of students in leadership positions to visit Israel and learn about the “history, culture, human rights and political issues” in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Palestinian territories according to a flier.
The 10-day trip is expected to take place in the beginning of January 2023. Applications closed mid-October and approximately 20 undergraduate students will be chosen from all those who applied.
“We’re going to tour the land, see what there is to see, and we’re going to meet with literally everybody [that we can],” said Elena Gindin, who is involved with UConn Hillel and one of the trip’s recruiters. “Going to Israel is so amazing because you can meet so many different people with so many different backgrounds.”
The trip cost per participant is $200, which covers airfare, accommodations, meals and transportation.
The trip is funded by the Maccabee Task Force, an organization formed to combat antisemitism on college campuses, according to their website. MTF is providing a budget of around $110,000 for the trip, Gindin said.
Once the trip is over, students who participated will be asked to discuss their experience and will be reimbursed some money to spend in doing so.
“The $200 payment that the students are paying is more of an insurance policy [so] that they don’t back out last second,” Gindin continued. “We take that money that they’re putting in, and we’ll reinvest it after the trip. For people going on the trip, one of the things they have to do is talk about the trip [once it’s over]. They could have snacks [at a meeting], or if they wanted to rent out something, that money is for them to do what they want in terms of promoting their [trip] experience.”
UConn’s Students for Justice in Palestine recently released a statement regarding the trip, deeming it “unethical” since the trip is being promoted as an opportunity to learn about human rights while the UConn SJP contends Israel is on the forefront of human rights violations.
SJP president Layan Alnajjar expressed concern that any UConn student can apply to participate in the trip while many Palestinians are unable to visit the area since they do not have a right of return.
“Virtually, any UConn student is eligible to apply and visit Palestine, while many Palestinians don’t have a right of return to their own homeland, which essentially means that anyone has more right to their land than they do,” Alnajjar said. “Through forced displacement [and] land confiscation…Palestinians have no right to go home, when literally any UConn student can just go and visit for $200, including airfare.”
Alnajjar gave the example of someone being evicted from their home and compared it to the trip that Hillel is organizing.
“Imagine you lived in a house that you lived in for decades,” Alnajjar said. “Randomly, one day, you are evicted for no reason and forced out of your home and town, and never allowed to return. Then you hear that anyone is allowed to visit your house except you…for a whole 10 days and for only $200. But then, when you express your anger trying to stand up for your family’s home you are labeled as antisemitic, controversial or a terrorist. Inevitably, you are silenced.”
When asked about SJP’s statement, Gindin said that if a Palestinian student were to apply and be chosen to attend, the trip’s organizers would work to welcome the student and have them participate just as anyone else.
“Logistically speaking, it would be very hard for that to happen, but in the event that we had a Palestinian student who applied…if we went through the interview process with them and everything else worked out, I think we would do everything in our power–and there’s a lot of power that we have–to get them on the trip and participate just like everyone else would,” Gindin added.
Isabella DeSouza, who works as a teaching assistant and is also a trip recruiter, was not affiliated with Hillel when she heard about the trip; rather, she heard of the trip through a class.
“I took an English class and they actually promoted this trip there…that’s how I personally found out about it,” DeSouza said.
DeSouza said her involvement in the trip is academic and that the experience will allow for an open mind and personal growth.
“I just think it’s awesome to be able to go to Israel, Jerusalem [and] Bethlehem [to] see a lot of the history,” she added. “I think it’s also beautiful to learn about the Muslim culture and the Israeli culture. I think a lot of times media skews to one perspective, and sometimes going there for ourselves and opening our minds to see both sides is important [for] personal growth.”
Aside from being promoted in classes and student organizations, the trip was also announced via the University’s Daily Digest email.
SJP Vice President Jenna Rabah said she was disappointed that the University, which is not affiliated with Hillel’s trip, spread the word to the whole student body.
“I’m just really disappointed with the way the University blatantly distributed this flier [and] made sure maximum amount of people heard about it,” said Rabah. “[There is] an occupation where so many people are victimized and have their human rights taken away, and it’s so terrible that they’re advertising and pushing for that kind of stuff.”
Rabah also said she finds it upsetting that students are considering the experience as studying abroad or going on vacation.
“I have personally seen students advertise this trip as a place where they visit tourist sites,” Rabah added. “Many students were talking about it as if it’s their next study abroad or vacation trip, which is really unsettling.”
Since the closing of applications, Hillel has been in the process of interviewing applicants. Students will meet with Sapir Frieman, who is the Israel Fellow at UConn Hillel. A list of the selected candidates will be sent to MTF and from there the pool will be narrowed down to approximately 20 students.