New Masa Restrictions May Prevent Students From Meeting With Palestinians in West Bank

Those who came to Israel with a Masa scholarship find out the funds are conditional on severe travel restrictions

Allison Kaplan Sommer
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The separation barrier between the Jewish settlement of Neve Yaakov (foreground) and the Palestinian area of al-Ram (background) in the West Bank, January 27, 2020.
The separation barrier between the Jewish settlement of Neve Yaakov (foreground) and the Palestinian area of al-Ram (background) in the West Bank, January 27, 2020.Credit: AFP
Allison Kaplan Sommer

Max Antman, 27, arrived in Israel last fall to begin his rabbinical studies in a year-long program at Hebrew Union College’s Jerusalem campus, determined to take advantage of living in the city “to experience everything going on both in Israel and in Palestine.”

But shortly after his arrival, he said, he was “surprised and upset” when Masa Israel Journey, which gave him a $3,500 grant for his studies in Jerusalem, asked him to sign a document severely restricting his ability to travel to any part of the West Bank as a condition for the funds.

Masa, a joint enterprise between the Jewish Agency and the Prime Minister’s Office offers grants for young adults enrolled in long-term Israel programs. The program includes scholarships for rabbinical and cantorial students during their year of studies in academic institutions affiliated with the Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative movements.

The document he was asked to sign required him to acknowledge that “movement within geographic borders – entering territories A and B independently, not as part of a trip organized as part of the program, is expressly prohibited for all Masa participants, whether independent or groups. Any independent movement of participants in the West Bank (Area C) requires the participant/s to inform the organizers in advance and receive the organizer’s authorization and relevant instructions.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (center) poses for a photo with members of Masa in Jerusalem, 2014.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (center) poses for a photo with members of Masa in Jerusalem, 2014.Credit: AP

Areas A and B comprise approximately 40 percent of the West Bank – including the cities of Hebron, Ramallah, Bethlehem and Nablus – and are either primarily or partially controlled by the Palestinian Authority. Area C, which is 60 percent of the West Bank, is under complete Israeli control and contains the majority of Jewish settlements. Some Masa-funded programs are located at institutions in Area C, like Yeshiva Har Etzion.

Antman says the restrictions are hampering his and other fellow Masa scholarship recipients’ ability to participate in a popular weekend program for international rabbinic and cantorial students in Israel. The six-year-old program, run by T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, supplements their studies with monthly activities and learning experiences designed to help them “develop their rabbinic voice on human rights issues in Israel and in the occupied Palestinian territories.”

The program offers “on-the-ground learning experiences” led by Israeli human rights activists and includes trips to the south Hebron Hills, a tour of Hebron with the anti-occupation veterans group Breaking the Silence, visits with Bedouin communities in southern Israel and meetings with asylum seekers in south Tel Aviv. Antman is part of a group of T’ruah Israel Fellows who help run the program for their peers.

Antman, in his capacity as an organizer, became concerned that the agreement meant he and his fellow students had an obligation to obtain approval from Masa before participating in a scheduled T’ruah activity: joining the Israeli-Palestinian nongovermental organization Combatants for Peace to plant trees in a Palestinian village in the West Bank.

Participants have long been told not to travel to Areas A and B, where the majority of Palestinans live. But T’ruah Executive Director Rabbi Jill Jacobs said that this year was the first time students like Antman were required to sign a document pledging to abide by Masa restrictions.

In compliance with the document they had signed, Antman and seven other students receiving Masa funding sent a letter to Masa asking for approval to attend the February 7 T’ruah tree planting trip in the village of Kafr Malik in Area C. Antman said he was surprised to receive a reply stating: “We are having difficulty approving your request … Masa policy requires any activity to be coordinated with the Moked Teva [a governmental organization that ensures security for hikers and tour groups] that does not authorize an activity like this in Area C.”

Antman said that a Masa official challenged his assertion that the village was located in Area C, claiming it was actually located in Area B. The confusion was understandable: 12.7 percent of Kafr Malik land is in Area B, and the remaining 87.3 percent falls under Area C.

The tree-planting was set to take place in the part of the village in Area C. But Antman said that after he clarified that point, Masa refused to approve the students’ participation, instead requesting more information about the activity, the organizers, the location and asking for a map.

Rabbi Rachel Kahn Troster, T’ruah’s director of programs (left) and Rabbi Jill Jacobs, Truah’s executive director, protest at Trump Tower, New York, October 9, 2017
Rabbi Rachel Kahn Troster, T’ruah’s director of programs (left) and Rabbi Jill Jacobs, Truah’s executive director, protest at Trump Tower, New York, October 9, 2017Credit: Christopher Parks / West End Strategy Team

It was then that Antman turned to Jacobs for assistance. Jacobs told Haaretz that in her conversations with Masa, she attempted to clarify who the “organizer” referred to in the document the students had signed. The students had agreed “to inform the organizers in advance and receive the organizer’s authorization and relevant instructions” for travel to Area C.

“From my back-and-forth with Masa, it’s still not clear to me whether the students need to ask permission from Masa or from the institution where the students are studying,” Jacobs said. “When I directly asked that question, I did not receive a straight response.” She said that she would “love some clarity” from Masa as to what the procedure should be: “This never came up before. We’d never seen this form before – it wasn’t clear if it was a new policy or not, and we couldn’t understand what it meant.”

Oshrat Eckhaus, a spokeswoman for Masa, said that it should be very clear to the students that “it is prohibited to go to A and B and they need Moked Teva approval to go to [Area C].” The Moked Teva approval, she said, needed to be obtained by Masa. “Every trip to Area C requires advance coordination from Masa. All of the Masa organizers know this,” Eckhaus said, referring to institutions like Hebrew Union College.

Asked to comment, Hebrew Union College Dean Naamah Kelman said, “HUC follows the rules that Masa has put in place for Masa recipients: We are very grateful for the Masa scholarships.” She did not clarify whether HUC or Masa was the party responsible for approving student travel to Area C with T’ruah, saying only that “our students’ safety is our top priority.”

Both Jacobs and Antman expressed deep frustration at the confusion – and the overall limitations that the Masa restrictions placed on them. Antman expressed skepticism that the roadblocks to interacting with Palestinians in the West Bank were being put in place strictly due to safety concerns.

“I think it’s fair to ask if there would be all of this back-and-forth and all of these questions about safety if we were going to go to [the Jewish settlements in] Gush Etzion or to Efrat,” said Antman. “Are the security concerns really so different regarding what area in Area C you were traveling to? What exactly is Masa hoping we will not see or experience?”

He added that the travel limitations tied to their scholarships has “discouraged classmates from engaging in programs and opportunities in A, B and C, and that has been a frustration for all of us.”

A demonstration organized by the Combatants for Peace NGO in Nabi Ilyas, West Bank, March 1, 2017
A demonstration organized by the Combatants for Peace NGO in Nabi Ilyas, West Bank, March 1, 2017Credit: Combatants for Peace

“There’s a lack of specificity and clarity in this agreement,” he said, referring to the document he had signed. “As future Jewish leaders, it feels imperative that we go to Palestinian cities and meet Palestinian civilians, if we are to become leaders who can speak informatively about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

Antman said he felt that “the money given to us by Masa is being leveraged to prohibit us from experiencing the land in its totality. That feels contrary to my goals as a future Jewish leader and contrary to what Masa says it sets out to do: educate people about the land.”

Jacobs said the tree-planting with Combatants for Peace – which was postponed for a month for reasons unrelated to the Masa restrictions – will proceed as planned. But like Antman, she fears that the document the students are now required to sign is having a “chilling effect” and that worry over losing their Masa scholarships will limit the education of future rabbis and cantors.

“They have to understand what’s going on in Israel, about the occupation, and know about Israeli human rights leaders who are trying to change the situation,” she said. “We think it is crucial for them to be able to talk intelligently with a moral voice and reflect the voices of Israelis who are working for human rights.”

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