“Continued impotence and incompetence in the (mis)conduct of Israel’s public diplomacy is becoming not only strategic threat to the country but is beginning to imperil Jewish communities abroad. ”Martin Sherman in the JPost
Sherman is not the first to have said this. It is not as though Israel makes no effort in putting its case to the wider public but that its efforts are inadequate and half-hearted. This is extraordinary coming from a people renowned for their robust expression of opinion and intellect. I’m going to come back to this but let’s review the background for the umpteenth time.
The Anti-Israel Project as embodied in the BDS Network and its various offshoots is a strategically conceived, PR paramilitary campaign using well-known, highly refined propaganda techniques. It is operationalised by a core of committed and experienced activists abetted by a wide fringe of fellow-travellers in for the ride for a host of reasons: psychological, ideological, ambition. In much of this sheer ignorance, often wilful, is a contributing factor.
All this is, or at least should be, old hat by now. The strategy is undermined, however, by the blindingly obvious collapse of much of the Middle East, North Africa and Muslim dominated areas of Asia or Eastern Europe into murderous violence, civil unrest, poverty and extremism. Much of this is for export into the West which because of, at least partly post-WW2 ideological currents and a overwhelmingly consumerist culture, appears to be a soft target to hardened activists willing to sacrifice themselves in a greater cause.
I say “appears” because it is clear that in many Western quarters (save for some of the wilfully blinkered denizens of academia and the media) the danger of the totalitarian Islamist drive towards global hegemony – or at least regional or local domination – is becoming too painfully obvious to ignore. It is also impossible to continue to deny that Islam-dominated Middle East, North Africa and similar regions within Asia-Eastern Europe are, in general, hotspots of murderous inter-religious, clan and tribal conflicts and the widespread denial of “human rights” which we in the West take for granted.
Even in countries like South Africa where the anti-Israel message (dressed up in anti-colonialist, anti-apartheid and similar slogans) carries weight in an ideologically primed “elite” and amongst the frustrated and angry masses with no prospects, no skills and no guide to an alien and unforgiving modern world, there is scope for bringing a more realistic and honest view of Israel in context.
Given this background and the solid support that Israel has within at least pockets of the West broadly speaking, and the USA in particular, there is clear scope for a coherent and honest pro-Israel message. In the support and management (not dictation) of this campaign Israel itself is in the position and has the obligation (even if only motivated by the need for survival) to play a central role.
Its failure to do so, as pointed out by Sherman and numerous others, is beyond reprehensible. My personal experience bears this out.
I have no doubt that my name and activism in support of Israel are known to the Israel Embassy. Not once over the past 12 years have I received a call from an Embassy official to offer assistance where required and to ensure that such assistance is in fact delivered. I would not mention this except for the fact that I am sure that similar stories could be told by others in my position.
I continue with my mission (though am nearing the end of my “term”) simply because I believe in the basic justice of Israel’s cause and because I identify with the Jewish people, and certainly not because I agree with every Israeli action or approve of every facet of Israel’s society. Such a stance would be simply idiotic Utopianism.
Some thoughts and proposals
Point 1: There is no shortage of pro-Israeli voices and activists in South Africa. Here are some suggestions to render this support more visible and effective.
- Call a national conference of all those who have proven themselves in terms of skill and commitment in order to thrash out a consensual message which integrates the different nuances and perspectives amongst the broad pro-Zionist community. This will not be easy and may require follow-up meetings to deal with contentious questions of fact and interpretation. Not only will this improve coherence but also be highly educational for all concerned.
- Provide the channel between pro-Zionist activists in South Africa and sources of reliable and honest information in Israel. If such sources do not actually exist, they could provide the necessary “kick in the pants” to Israel to ensure such are available.
- Develop an imaginative youth programme to engage Jewish youth which goes beyond tired rhetoric and mythology to inspire them to engage imaginatively with the historical motivations, context and implementation of the Zionist project and the complex but inspiring Israeli reality.
- Help pro-Zionist activists to reach a wider audience.
- Set up workshops to assist young activists in developing their skills. This need not come from outside the country; there are people here (including myself) with the experience and willingness to help.
I am proud to say that South African pro-Zionists are not short on energy and commitment, but any splitting of the effort is sub-optimal and I would like to see (and would support) an integrative role by the major communal organisations suggested above.
Point 2. We need to develop a more analytical and tough-minded defence of Israel while minimising hyperbole and undue rhetoric. There are certainly media activists who do this very effectively and I would like to offer some additional thoughts on this matter.
I am motivated to do this by some undue apologetics within our own (Israeli and Diasporean) communities or the converse: overheated arguments resting on a divine promise or some sort of nebulous, unspecified right of Israel to land in the Middle East denied only by anti-Semites and fanatics.
I am also motivated by evidence that within the broad, liberal-leftwing community (Jewish and non-Jewish) there is an unthinking, ignorant but deeply ingrained prejudice against what they see as an illegitimate, ethnic and colonialist Zionist project. If we are to engage effectively with such people it would help to have our ducks lined up. So here are some suggestions:
- The right of Israel to exist as a Jewish homeland is predicated upon the following broad, highly simplified set of propositions –
- The Jewish people originated there (initially expressing itself in religious terms) and existed for hundreds of years all told.
- They was expelled (on more than one occasion) by force of arms but continued in terms of its religious ideology, national identity and actual physical presence to retain a powerful link with the land of Israel through two millennia of dispersal.
- Their dispersal and subsequent conflicts with the dominant Christian ideology mainly (itself an offspring of Judaism) was marked by insecurity, dispossession, humiliation and exclusion and violence. This distorted Jewish society and the Jewish psyche but nevertheless Jews continued to play an important role within the majority cultures they inhabited.
- Emancipation in the past couple of centuries brought significant freedom and opportunity (eagerly grasped) for some Jewish communities but most Jews continued in their marginalised and constrained circumstances.
- Anti-Semitism did not disappear with emancipation but adopted new guises, especially negative racial stereotyping which, when allied to totalitarian and backward cultures, resulted in an upswing of genocidal violence culminating in the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust.
- Zionism rose in response to this broad historical trajectory and was the Jewish expression of the idea of the nation-state which was the dominant political philosophy within the Western world of the 18-19th centuries and which still holds powerful sway despite the counterclaims of cosmopolitanism and universalism. For an inspiring and informative defence of the “ethnic state” see Daniel Gordis “The Promise of Israel: Why Its Seemingly Greatest Weakness Is Actually Its Greatest Strength”.
- The natural place for the Zionist idea to be expressed was within the ancient birthplace of the Jewish people. In no sense was this a form of Western colonialism or an expression of racialism.
- Furthermore, though Arabs were the regional overall majority in the 19th century (though not everywhere) they existed purely as one of many ethnic groups within the Muslim Ottoman empire. There was no Palestinian people or nation and never has been.
- Nevertheless, the 20th century Jewish immigration and the formation of a majority Jewish homeland certain did involve displacement (partly deliberate) of Arab populations. This did cause hardship and understandable resentment which should be acknowledged.
- The main justification for this rests on the immeasurably greater, indeed desperate, need of the Jews for a homeland and the fact that displaced Arabs remained within their own linguistic, ethnic and religious communities – often only a few kilometres away from their former homes. Furthermore, Muslims in general and Arabs in particular remained majorities within enormous territories exceeding the size of Israel by at least two orders of magnitude. Finally, Jews were displaced from Arab lands in which they were minorities, existing in varying degrees of “dhimnitude” in numbers probably exceeding the number of displaced Arabs
- These historical and current realities were widely recognised and found formal expression inter alia in The Balfour Declaration, the San Remo Conference of 1920 and the League of Nations in 1922 and subsequently by the United Nations. They were not abrogated by the unilateral creation of the Kingdom of Jordan by the British or the partition of Palestine by the United Nations in 1947 which was never ratified by the Arabs (no Palestinian entity existed or was recognised at the time). By virtue of these and other historical events and agreements, the ethical and legal right of Israel to what is erroneously and maliciously termed “the occupied territories” is at least as strong as that of the Palestinians.
- These realities have important implications for the light in which we view the settlements, Jerusalem, the green line and indeed the whole discussion about the disposal of the disputed territories.
Until we assert these facts and arguments unapologetically and unambiguously, we will find ourselves always on the defensive. But there is more to it than that.
It is not necessary in defending Israel to depict the Arabs or Palestinian community as uniquely evil. There can be no comparison between the law-based, democratic, human rights-orientated Israel and the corrupt and backward Palestinian entity, but that does not bespeak some universal Palestinian evil or preclude sympathy for a people trapped by their own historical choices, corrupt leadership and closed, xenophobic and dysfunctional political culture. A great deal of talent is being wasted and misery endured.
This will continue until Israel and the community of nations make it clear that no “long game” is going to bring the Palestinians victory. What they need to recognise that they have become sacrificial pawns and start focussing on realistic goals rather than the fantasy of the death of Israel by a 1000 cuts.
We need to make that message absolutely clear for our sakes – and, as it turns out, for theirs as well.
Let the debate continue.
Addendum: I include a quote from Howard Grief’s thesis regarding Jewish rights in the Middle East:
“The establishment of a Jewish National Home in Palestine simultaneously
meant creating the state and country of Palestine which then did not officially
exist as a legal entity under international law. That in turn meant Palestine in
its entirety was reserved exclusively for the self-determination of the Jewish
People (my emphasis). These two new entities in international law, the Jewish National Home
and Palestine, were therefore synonymous since they were both created at the
very same time and for the very same purpose. The Jewish National Home was
to be housed in Palestine and Palestine was to be the Jewish National Home,
i.e., the Jewish State – otherwise, Palestine would never have been legally created
on April 24, 1920 as a separate country. It must always be borne in mind and
emphasized that Palestine was not created to satisfy Arab national aspirations in
any part of the country, whether east or west of the Jordan. Those aspirations
were duly taken into account at the San Remo Peace Conference in a different
paragraph of the San Remo Resolution, but it was decided that they would be
satisfied in the adjoining territories of Mesopotamia and Syria, in addition to the
already existing state of the Hedjaz in the Arabian Peninsula. Hence the idea of
the partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab States shortly to be introduced
by the British in regard to Transjordan and still later in Cis-Jordanian Palestine,
was a foreign idea that was never contemplated when Palestine was originally
created on April 24, 1920…”. From The Legal Foundation and Borders of Israel
under International Law by Howard Grief (www.einshalom.com/info/preview-legal-foundation.pdf)