A group of just under 50 Harvard Law School students, mostly not Jewish, just completed a whirlwind first visit to Israel, in both the geographic and legal spheres.
In some ways, the Harvard law tour (not to be confused with Harvard undergraduates who also recently toured), sponsored by the American Israel Friendship League (AIFL) and some other anonymous sponsors, was a typical student tour of Israel, covering major cities like Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Safed.
The traditional tourist sites on the March 14-22 tour of Masada, the Dead Sea, a military base and Yad Vashem were also part of the journey for the students, who while all attending Harvard, hail from countries as diverse as Australia, Canada, China, Ethiopia, India, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore and South Korea.
But much of the tour was decidedly untraditional, delving into many of Israel’s legal controversies and issues.
The students met with a US Embassy official, Jerusalem Post Palestinian affairs correspondent Khaled Abu Toameh, the Tebeka Ethiopian legal aid group and Anat Hoffman of Women of the Wall to discuss many of those controversies.
They heard from a Knesset panel consisting of MKs Ayelet Shaked (Bayit Yehudi), Adi Kol (Yesh Atid) and Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz), moderated by Jerusalem Post senior political affairs correspondent Gil Hoffman.
They also met with Israeli- Arab students to discuss being a minority in Israel and met with Supreme Court Justice Neal Hendel, who himself made aliya to Israel from the United States.
Former UN ambassador Dan Gillerman, who besides major private sector roles is also chairman of AIFL’s Israeli board of directors, said in an interview that the AIFL “is not a Jewish organization. It maintains, promotes, take care of US-Israel relations, is active in many fields and brings delegates to Israel who are influential in their fields or who will be influential.”
Gillerman also said, “No matter how much public relations you do for Israel, it is hard to get away from the conflict and how Israel is perceived in the foreign media as a place of bloodshed, insecurity and violence.”
In contrast, he said that when you bring people with influence to Israel to see the country with their own eyes, they instead view the nation’s “compassion, innovation, [and] technology. The key is to get people here.”
Alan Dershowitz, who was involved with the trip and recently announced his impending retirement after around 50 years teaching at Harvard, said, “Israel doesn’t need propaganda. It needs open-minded visitors who can see for themselves and make up their own minds about the complexities of Israel’s situation.”
He added, “The Harvard Law School visits have been a win-win-win. The students win. Israel wins. And veritas – the truth – wins.”
A statement by one of the trip organizers said that the trip “is not designed to advance any particular position beyond Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish democracy within secure and recognized borders.”
Third-year law student Elizabeth Niles said “before I visited, I really thought security would be more visible” because of having heard so many “stories of the conflict,” and she “expected soldiers and police on every corner.”
Instead she said she saw that “life goes on as normal for the most part, which is reassuring,” adding in diplomatic language: “despite having some unstable relations with neighbors.”
Viewing the country through her legal lens, she said the group held many discussions on the “tension between being Jewish and a democracy – is that incompatible?” “We asked a lot about the rights of Israeli-Arabs (not just Palestinians) and talked about what are the rights of Palestinians and what gives a people a legitimate claim to a land,” said Niles.
She said that “Israel seems like a young country still struggling with what democracy means, whether it’s inclusive or exclusive of certain people, and how to balance it with security priorities.”
Foreign LLM student Utkarsh Saxena echoed Niles’s views about Israel being safer and less crawling with security than he expected.
He also said that he has a better feel for the conflict, which is “not about borders and religion and history but [about] people and their daily lives, whose voices get lost in the cacophony of politics.”
Saxena stated that “from my limited experience, I got the impression that people on the ground are much more amenable to negotiation and ending the conflict, so that they can get on with their lives, than those from the establishment.”
In addition, he said he was interested to learn from Hendel about the tensions between Jewish law and modern law on family status issues and on prayer at the Western Wall as well as the tension between the Knesset and the courts over how much authority each branch should have.