On Scott Walker’s ‘listening tour’ of Israel, Palestinians aren’t heard
How the American Jewish establishment foists its isolation from Palestinians on American politicians.
Last week, Scott Walker went to Israel on a “listening tour.” To emphasize that he was going purely to learn, the Wisconsin governor and Republican presidential hopeful gave no speeches or interviews. “It’s an educational trip,” he explained. “It’s not a photo op.”
Here are some of the people Walker learned from during his five days in the Jewish state: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog, Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky, Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, National Infrastructure Minister Yuval Steinitz, Israel Defense Forces former Deputy Chief of Staff Uzi Dayan and U.S. Ambassador Dan Shapiro.
Notice anyone missing? Between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, roughly 50 percent of the people under Israeli control are Palestinian. That includes 20 percent of Israel’s citizens inside the Green Line. (Israeli and American Jews generally call these people “Israeli Arabs,” but according to a 2014 poll by the University of Haifa’s Sammy Smooha, they mostly call themselves some variation of “Palestinian.”) But during his five-day trip, it does not appear that Walker met with any Palestinians. When I emailed Saeb Erekat to ask about Walker’s itinerary, the longtime Palestinian negotiator replied, “I do not know that he met any Palestinian.” When I asked the same question to Matt Brooks, the Republican Jewish Coalition executive director who accompanied Walker on his journey, Brooks did not reply at all.
This is nuts. After all, Walker didn’t travel to Israel primarily to learn how Israel deals with intra-Jewish subjects like the relationship between secular and ultra-Orthodox Jews. He travelled there, in large measure, to learn how Israel deals with Palestinians. “I [now] see it even more,” he declared upon returning to the United States. “They’re not ready” for “a two-state solution.” By “they,” Walker presumably meant not only Israeli Jews but also Palestinians, none of whom he appears to have met.
It’s a bit like a foreigner visiting the United States on a “listening tour” aimed largely at better understanding race relations, listening only to white people, and then pontificating about what he has learned. It’s absurd.
But it’s also normal. When American synagogues, Jewish youth movements and Jewish day schools take trips to Israel, ignoring Palestinians is the rule. Birthright, which since 1999 has taken roughly 350,000 young Diaspora Jews – mostly Americans – to Israel, does not visit Palestinian towns and cities in the West Bank.
And in recent years, the organized American Jewish community has foisted its own parochialism onto the American political class. Since 2000, according to the website LegiStorm, members of Congress and their staffs have visited Israel more than twice as often as they have visited any other foreign country. Roughly three-quarters of those trips were sponsored by AIPAC’s nonprofit arm, and other establishment American Jewish groups sponsored many of the rest.
The trips Jewish groups organize for American politicians include more Christian holy sights than the ones they organize for their own members. But what they have in common is that Palestinians are talked about, yet rarely spoken to. Which means that politicians like Scott Walker return to the United States thinking they know something about Palestinians when, in important ways, they know less than when they left. They also return gushing about Israeli democracy without having learned anything about the daily lives of West Bank Palestinians who live without citizenship, without freedom of movement and without the right to vote for the government that controls their lives.
The best way to change this is by ridicule. When Walker – or any presidential hopeful who takes a similar trip – goes to Israel, every news story should mention that the politician met no Palestinians. Every interviewer should ask the politician to justify this absence. Some intrepid reporter might even ask factual questions – do Jews and Palestinians in the West Bank live under the same legal system? Under what conditions can West Bank Palestinians visit Jerusalem? – that expose how little politicians like Walker know about the territory they want to remain under indefinite Israeli control.
Given that Walker’s Israel trip was organized by the Republican Jewish Coalition, an organization bankrolled by Sheldon Adelson, who doesn’t think Palestinians exist, perhaps it’s not surprising that Walker acted like they don’t either. It’s up to the media to remind him that they do.