GUEST EDITORIAL: I used to promote Zionist propaganda

A Vanderbilt alum shares their journey from on-campus Israel advocate to Palestinian liberation activist.
Students hold Palestinian flag at rally, as photographed Oct. 27, 2023. (Hustler Multimedia/Barrie Barto)
Students hold Palestinian flag at rally, as photographed Oct. 27, 2023. (Hustler Multimedia/Barrie Barto)

As a Vanderbilt sophomore in 2016, I was recruited for a seemingly great opportunity: I could go on a nearly free trip to Israel with a national organization called The David Project (TDP). The program, called “Israel Uncovered,” specifically targeted non-Jewish students with an interest in activism and a desire to learn more about Israel and Palestine firsthand — and I fit the bill.

Before I knew it, I was in Israel with 40 or so other students from other top universities. Over the next 10 days, we went clubbing in Tel Aviv, swam in the Dead Sea and ate falafel in Bethlehem. As an Armenian, I had a powerful experience in the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem, looking at the walls adorned with flags and posters calling for recognition and remembrance of the Armenian Genocide. I felt a strong solidarity with Jewish people, as victims and survivors of untold atrocities.

As the trip went on, however, the focus shifted from unbiased education to propaganda, although I didn’t realize it at the time. We traveled to the Israeli settlement of Almog in the West Bank, where the settlers explained their moral responsibility to “take back their rightful land.” They did not mention that, according to the U.N. and Amnesty International, they are violating international law and committing a war crime by occupying Palestinian territory. We also spoke to people in Sderot, an Israeli city on the Gaza border, who told us they live every day in fear that a bomb will be launched at them and that they’ll have 30 seconds or less to find a bomb shelter. We felt their pain and cried with them; we did not, however, talk or cry with anyone less than a kilometer away in Gaza, who lived with that same fear but without any bomb shelters.

After we returned home, the propaganda intensified. We were all offered positions as paid interns for TDP, which I eagerly accepted. I started hosting collaborative events with various multicultural organizations on campus, talking to my friends at Vanderbilt about my trip and recruiting other people to join the organization. I happily checked my boxes and cashed my checks. I was then invited to participate in the Relationship Building Institute, a conference held by TDP supposedly about making positive social change on campus. In reality, TDP spread lies and half-truths to convince us that Israel cares about social justice and that young activists like us should support the country’s right to exist and defend itself.

For years, I lived with cognitive dissonance, believing myself to be a good-hearted and intelligent Israel advocate while simultaneously getting into Facebook-comment wars with progressive peers and learning that many of the activists I admired — like Angela Davis, Judith Butler and Malala Yousafzai — supported Palestinian liberation. At a political conference in April 2021, I attended a talk by Palestinian educator and organizer Noura Mansour, who shared sympathetic stories and statistics about Palestine that I couldn’t refute or ignore. 

Inspired by her words, I began doing research with an open mind. I read that Zionism is a justification for colonialism, similar to Manifest Destiny: both beliefs claim one group of people is spiritually entitled to land, even if a different group already lives there. In the U.S., settlers characterized the Indigenous people as savage, subhuman and less deserving than the “developed” Europeans. Similarly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed that Israel is fighting “a battle of civilization against barbarism,” while Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant called Israel’s targets “human animals.” These dehumanizing narratives seek to justify atrocities in the past and present.

 Armed with new knowledge, I started critically reflecting on my experiences, and I realized I had been deceived. Organizations like TDP spend inconceivable amounts of money on free or cheap trips, paid internships and conferences just to indoctrinate a handful of students and get them to proselytize to the rest of their campuses. They want to pressure well-intentioned students into supporting Israel, and unfortunately, it worked on me.

I often feel ashamed of myself for succumbing to the propaganda. I should have been more critical, done more research and avoided TDP in the first place. I’m embarrassed by how little it took to buy my support, how much harm I caused my peers at Vanderbilt and how long I believed the lies. However, rather than stagnating in the shame of my past, I want to build support and empathy for Palestinians going forward.

I am a descendant of Armenian Genocide survivors. My family and millions more were killed or displaced in 1915 while the U.S. and the international community turned a blind eye. In fact, Adolf Hitler justified his plans for the Holocaust by saying, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” In 2023, Armenians experienced another ethnic cleansing in the territory of Artsakh. While diasporans and allies around the world called for attention and support, very little was done, and Artsakh was violently seized and conquered by Azerbaijan — with weapons supplied by Israel. In the past month, armed Israeli settlers have attempted to seize land and property in the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem and faced no legal repercussions. Once again, no one remembers the Armenians. 

I cannot look at what is happening to my people in Artsakh and Jerusalem without also thinking about the Palestinians in Gaza. I cannot separate myself from their struggle, so I must dedicate myself to their liberation. I may lose friends, future job prospects and sleep, but I would not want to live normally in ignorance while my siblings in Palestine suffer. Now, I hope to support the Palestinian people by sharing my story and shedding light on the powerful, insidious nature of right-wing imperialist propaganda.

I cannot separate myself from their struggle, so I must dedicate myself to their liberation. I may lose friends, future job prospects and sleep, but I would not want to live normally in ignorance while my siblings in Palestine suffer.

It is so easy to fall into carefully set traps and use our power to harm and silence others. We must, therefore, remain challengeable and willing to challenge others. If our friends and family start internalizing and repeating the propaganda of oppressors, we must address it and offer education. In turn, we must also surround ourselves with trusted people who will do the same for us.

Most importantly, we must value every single life equally. It is true that 1,200 Israelis were killed in a terrorist attack on October 7, and those people had families who are grieving and suffering. It is also true that, as of publication, over 14,500 Palestinians have been killed from Israel’s retaliatory raids and airstrikes, and each of them is just as deserving of our empathy. Israel’s attacks have targeted Gaza’s largest hospital, Gaza’s largest refugee camp and several U.N.-run schools. Among the victims are children whose headless bodies had to be dug out of rubble, young men who were too shy to kiss each other while alive and reporters wearing press vests trying to do their jobs. They are not terrorists, and they do not deserve the horror Israel has brought upon them. We must all resist the propaganda that would convince us otherwise.

TDP has since merged with Hillel International and is now a part of the Hillel U Center for Community Outreach. The Israel Uncovered program in which I participated no longer exists, at least by that name. Universities and organizations host trips that promote Zionism, though, such as Birthright, Onward Israel, the Jewish National Fund’s Alternative Winter Break, Volunteers for Israel and Young Judaea’s Amirim internship program. With so many programs and so few critical evaluations of each of them, it may be harder than ever for students to make informed, moral decisions.

I no longer attend Vanderbilt, so I only know what I can see online. I see the organizations I used to lead, The McGill Project and Vanderbilt Lambda Association, raising awareness for upcoming events but not the genocide in Palestine, and I wonder if I had a lasting negative influence. I see the Vigil on Library Lawn to honor the Israelis killed on October 7, and I wonder if any of the attendees of that vigil also went to the community prayer for the Palestinians killed in retaliation. I see Dores for Israel posting in support of Israel’s right to exist and defend itself, and I wonder if any of their 1,400 Instagram followers have given a thought to Palestine’s right to exist and defend itself as well.

I sincerely hope there are hard conversations happening on campus and actions being taken in ways that I have not seen yet. I love the Vanderbilt community too much to let it fall into the pits of propaganda that I used to spread.

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About the Contributor
Lo Meisel, Guest Writer
Lo Meisel graduated from the HOD Community Leadership & Development program in 2019 and has since been involved with community organizing in the United States and Australia. They can be reached at [email protected].
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Anonymous
2 months ago

Palestines right to defend itself and Hamas committing a heinous act of violence and war are two separate things. What occurred oct 7th was not defense. it was a full scale attack. if we are going to talk about propaganda, maybe saying hamas is a defense organization would be part of that.

S
Seeking justice in all things
17 days ago
Reply to  Anonymous

You’re correct. The attack on oct. 7th was not defense, but it WAS resistance. Any people subjugated to oppression for so long will resist. In a best case scenario, that resistance is non-violent. In an imperfect reality, that resistance may cost innocent lives. My heart goes out to all who lost friends and family in the October 7th attack; no one deserves to go through that. But I ache even more for the many thousands of Palestinians who have lost their lives in response. Atrocities do not justify more atrocities, and one innocent life is not more valuable than another.