Estela Lacombe França ’23 spent two years waiting to go on Israel Trek. During her freshman year, she happened to befriend a Trek leader, applied for a spot, and was accepted. When the Covid-19 pandemic struck, the annual trip was forced to take a hiatus. This spring, França was finally able to visit the country she has “always been extremely curious to get to know.”
But this year, the Harvard College Israel Trek, a subsidized spring break trip to Israel and the West Bank, faced backlash from student organizers alleging that Trekkers are “complicit in apartheid and settler colonialism.”
According to Israel Trek’s organizers, the week-long program “aims to engage a diverse cohort of Harvard undergraduate student leaders of all faiths and backgrounds with Israeli history, culture, and politics.” Over spring break, about 100 Harvard students went on the Trek and participated in discussions with high-ranking Israeli and Palestinian officials, including the president of Israel. Participants visited Jerusalem, Bethlehem, the Dead Sea, Nazareth, Tel Aviv, the Sea of Galilee, and the Golan Heights.
However, Harvard Out of Occupied Palestine — a student organization led by the Harvard College Palestine Solidarity Committee, which advocates for Harvard’s divestment from its holdings associated with Israel’s presence in Palestine — disputes the Trek’s claim that it provides a balanced perspective on the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Israel Trek is no stranger to controversy. In 2019, the PSC sponsored a petition to boycott the Trek, prior to its cancellation due to Covid-19 the following spring. In February, HOOP again hung flyers across campus urging students to boycott the Trek, prompting pushback from students and faculty alike — including Harvard Hillel’s executive director, Rabbi Jonah C. Steinberg.
During a March 2 sermon at Memorial Church, Steinberg discussed the “war of words on campus,” decrying “the anti-Israel stickers appearing on Sabra hummus in the dining halls, the tearing down of Harvard Hillel posters all over campus, about which the Dean of Students Office had to issue a statement just this past week, and the black-colored posters everywhere against the Harvard College Israel Trek.”
Quoting the PSC’s posters, Steinberg continued, “Maybe you saw the posters on the way here this morning: ‘How about Spring Break without Breaking International Law?’, ‘Your Trip Is Free; Palestine Isn’t,’ and ‘Would you go on a trip funded by South-African Apartheid?’ So far as I know, not one of those posters has been torn down – and let me take a moment here to say that reflects some admirable restraint on the part of Harvard Hillel students.”
“I promise, there is a homily here,” he added, referring to the fact that a considerable portion of his sermon had been devoted to denouncing anti-Trek activism on campus.
Nadine S. Bahour ’22, a representative from the PSC, the group that posted the hummus stickers, says the Sabra boycott stickers were not “anti-Israel.” Rather, she says, they were intended to show that “by purchasing Sabra and providing it to students, Harvard is supporting a company that invests money in the Israeli Defense Forces — specifically in the Golani Brigade,” describing the combat brigade as a historically deadly force that “wipes out villages in Palestine.”
“[The stickers] were asking Harvard students not to eat that hummus to show students that Harvard shouldn’t be supporting ethnic cleansing of Palestinians,” Bahour says.
On Feb. 25, Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana released an emailed statement condemning the “disappointing news that posters put up by the Harvard Students for Israel organization were being taken down, and some had additionally been ripped up.” The posters, created by Harvard Students for Israel, included a QR code that linked to an eight-page “Israel Education” document, explaining why the authors “stand with Israel, and why you can, too.”
“The most important thing on this campus is freedom of speech and freedom to put up any posters that you want,” Bahour says. “We obviously did not take down any posters. It’s more powerful to even have all the perspectives that are placed for students to read.”
And despite Steinberg’s assertion that “not one of those [PSC] posters has been torn down,” Bahour says many of her organization’s anti-Trek posters were also removed — sometimes mere hours after they were posted. Neither the DSO statement — nor Steinberg’s sermon referencing it — made any mention of PSC posters being torn down as well.
“When it comes down to the posters, I think [Steinberg’s sermon] really elucidates the bigger topic at hand: that you have an institutionally-backed staff member that’s writing a whole speech about something so minor that a student organization is putting [up],” Bahour says.
She believes that Steinberg mischaracterized the PSC’s actions in his sermon, which “puts PSC at a disadvantage, because we don’t have the resources to be able to have a similar statement or hold a similar event where we share our perspectives,” she says.
Bahour sees this tension as “just another reflection of the reality on the ground, but at a Harvard level.”
“I think that the power imbalance that is lying between Hillel and its backing, versus PSC as a student organization, is only another example of the power imbalance that lies in the region between Palestinians and Israelis, and between attempts of Palestinians to share information and the power that IDF soldiers in the military occupation in Palestine have,” she says.
Steinberg maintains the importance of his platform as a way to share information with the Harvard community.
“Students come to Harvard seeking knowledge and in search of truth, or Veritas, to the degree it is attainable – if it is a ‘power imbalance’ for those here who have knowledge to teach from our learning and experience, so be it,” Steinberg wrote in an email.
After the posters went up, Israel Trek student leader Ty L. Geri ’23 sent an email to the members of the Trek addressing the situation.
“I assume many of you have seen the posters regarding Trek around campus,” he wrote. “We respect their concerns and where they are coming from but disagree with their conclusions about Trek. I reached out to the people who put up the posters and asked to meet and discuss their concerns but unfortunately they have declined my offer.”
Bahour, who is also an organizer within HOOP, says the PSC “didn’t decline talking to the organizers out of not wanting to have a conversation.” Instead, she says their reasons for declining the invitation were twofold.
First, Bahour points to the fact that those extending the invitation were Trek organizers, but the PSC’s campaign was not directed at them. Instead of attempting to educate the people who created the Trek agenda, the PSC aimed to “talk to the students who may not be as aware of what the problems in the agenda are, or what the problems with the trip are,” she says.
But the primary reason that the PSC declined to speak with Geri, Bahour says, was to preserve “the comfort level and safety of the Palestinian students” who would be involved in the discussion.
Bahour says the “power imbalance” stemming from the fact that some organizers are former IDF soldiers was one of the driving factors behind the PSC’s decision to decline his offer to discuss the posters.
“As someone who was born and raised in Palestine in the West Bank, it’s always hard for me to remember that the power imbalances that lie between me and IDF soldiers and me and settlers in the region still exist here today,” she says.
“When we go back [home], the IDF has the power to deny any Palestinian student the right to enter the West Bank,” Bahour says. “We both might be dressed the same and sitting in a dining hall — it does not mean that our experiences and the power that we hold is removed from reality just because we’re in the United States.”
Geri wrote in a statement that “it is really sad” the PSC raised concerns about the safety of Palestinian students in response to his “attempts to listen to them and hear their direct feedback over a coffee.”
“Unfortunately, leaders are too often unwilling to speak to each other and reach compromises in order to ensure mutual dignity and success,” he wrote. “I tried to meet them because I hoped it would be different here at Harvard between fellow students - apparently it is not.”
He added that his invitation to meet about the issue “will always be open.”
In his email to Israel Trek students regarding the posters, Geri also addressed potential concerns from Trekkers who may have been considering dropping out due to the backlash. “Israel Trek is a peer-led and organized trip, and coming on the Trek is not an endorsement of the Israeli government’s policies,” he wrote.
Indeed, some students attended the Trek despite being uncertain of their own stance on the Israel-Palestine conflict — or even because of this uncertainty.
“For me, the backlash served as a jumping-off point to learn more and drove a desire to understand both sides better,” says Trek attendee Elizabeth K. Roosevelt ’25.
França says she believes the Trek did an excellent job of showing participants “how complex the issue is.” Still, she says she respects those who decided to drop out of the trip. “I think people are entitled to make their own determinations about what aligns with their moral views and their opinions of the world,” she says.
Michael Montella ’21-’22, another Trek attendee, says he never considered dropping out.
“The world is full of complexity, and there are things that are challenging to deal with,” he says. “But I don’t think the response to that is to not engage and to not treat things as a learning opportunity.”
It baffles him that “some people think they can understand the complexity of the world without engaging with views they disagree with and find offensive,” he says.
In response to this sort of claim, Bahour says, “I don’t think that you have to visit the region to see the injustice that is happening there.”
“A lot of my friends at Harvard have stances on political situations and on injustices and on humanitarian crises that exist around the world, and we’ve never been to those places,” she says. “It just always seems that when it becomes about Palestine-Israel, it becomes the exception, or it becomes the one place where all the other rules that we have for how we view conflict or where our morals tend to take a backseat.”
Some students dropped out soon after HOOP organizers began protesting the Trek, though their individual reasons for dropping out may have differed. Nonetheless, Geri refutes claims that the Trek offers an imbalanced perspective on the conflict.
“The amazing thing about Trek is that we’re not trying to push an agenda. We’re showing a place as it is,” Geri says.
However, França says that while she believes Palestinian perspectives are included on the Trek, they are not the focus.
“It is Israel Trek,” she says. “I think it’s inherently a trip that is showing you Israel’s position in the world, but the Trek leaders do an absolutely phenomenal job of also showing you what Palestine was like.”
The 2022 Harvard College Israel Trek Resource Guide reads, “In choosing speakers for the program, we try to identify people who will represent dominant narratives in Israeli society. We engage with Palestinians, settlers, left-wing
politicians, right-wing politicians, musicians, activists, and every day people.”
On the Trek, students attended speaking events with: Isaac Herzog, president of Israel; Amir Yaron, governor of the Bank of Israel; Ali Abu Awwad, a Palestinian peace activist; Aida Tome, an Israeli Arab politician; Nasreen Hadad Haj-Yahya, director of the Arab Society in Israel Program at the Israel Democracy Institute; Ofer Shelah, an Israeli journalist and politician; Sabah Mustafa Issa, a professor of human rights; Ronen Manelis, former Israeli Defense Forces Spokesperson; and several Israeli business leaders.
Montella describes the Trek as a valuable “learning opportunity.”
When I ask him whether he believes that hearing from the president of Israel, but not Palestine’s foremost political leaders, reflected a bias on the trip, Montella says that my question implied “there would be a Palestinian president to speak with.”
“It’s not like there would be necessarily an equal counterpart to meet with,” he adds, stating that the Palestinian Authority is “frankly a lack of authority.”
When I inform him that the state of Palestine has a president — Mahmoud Abbas, who has served as the president of the State of Palestine and the Palestinian National Authority since May 2005 — Montella says hearing from the Israeli president “really wasn’t that big of an event.”
“I’m inclined to think that the President of the PA might not have wanted to meet with us,” he then adds.
Montella did not respond to a request to explain the basis for this speculation.
“I don’t believe they would have wanted to engage with the Harvard Israel Trek just like the people boycotting Israel Trek did not want to speak with the leadership of Israel Trek,” he later says.
“I did not create the speaker list,” he adds, and referred me to Trek organizers.
Beyond speaking with towering figures in academia, politics, and industry, it wasn’t all business. Trekkers had the chance to partake in leisure activities throughout the trip, including spending a night in the desert, folk dancing, attending Purim street parties in Tel Aviv, and riding ATVs in the Golan Heights — a region Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed in 1981, a move condemned by the United Nations Security Council later that year.
“Camping in the desert was fun. ATV-ing in the Golan Heights was really cool,” says Trek attendee Blake L. Koerber ’24.
Besides spending a semester abroad in Mexico, this was Koerber’s first time out of the United States.
“There were buildings that were abandoned and there were some bullet holes from past conflicts over the years,” he says. “I’ve never been in an area where there was war recently. So that was really cool to me.”
Bahour described the issues she sees with hosting a spring break trip with “fun” activities interspersed with visiting a region with settlements — housing units inhabited by Israeli citizens established on lands occupied by Israel during the 1967 Six-Day War, a practice the UN deemed illegal under international law.
“Growing up in Palestine, I see what settlers do. And I see the oppression and the colonialism that is enacted by the IDF and by settlements on a daily basis,” she says. “To think that my fellow students are going on a trip where they’re experiencing that reality in a glorified way — where it’s fun to go and visit the region, and it’s totally normal to go and visit a settlement — is definitely something that doesn’t sit well with me, because all that I experience is the oppression of settlements.”
In April, the PSC held an informal roundtable discussion for Trek participants, who had returned from the region three weeks prior. Only five Trekkers showed up.
“How could they use that experience — now that it happened — to better understand the reality on the ground and the reality that the Trek didn’t let them see?” Bahour asks. Though PSC organizers were “disappointed” by the low attendance, moving forward, the PSC hopes to continue outreach efforts to educate students about the conflict.
Bahour has a final request: “For anyone who went on Israel Trek, really spend time thinking about the trip.”
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to include the complete list of speakers who met with students on the Israel Trek and a statement from Trek leader Ty L. Geri ’23.