It is the start of a new year and what better time to take a look at the what, why and, especially, the how of what we are doing. This is a longish post but I hope most of you will take time to read it and to think about its implications – and even about what you can contribute. One way would be by subscribing to this blog if you wish to get it and by bringing it to the attention of others.
We can start by stating plainly what we are doing. We are defending Israel locally in what is a global struggle with a multitude of dimensions. It is not our job to take positions on Israel’s policies, except insofar as they may impact on our ability to carry out our own tasks. Our ranks are made up of many individuals with their own motivations, world views and hopes for Israel’s future. Hopefully all these positions are also open to rational debate and, more importantly, to empirical evidence. But we are united by our desire to see Israel flourish in the face of enmity and hatred from whatever quarter.
Given the fact that the struggle has global dimensions, it is important that we are aware of the ramifications and the place of South Africa in it. Once again it can be quite simply stated. At the core of the struggle is an undeclared and complex WAR between the Palestinians and Israel. The word “war” is used deliberately. The de facto position of the Palestinians, stated openly most of the time, is that the Zionists (read Jews) are illegitimate interlopers in the Middle East who have stolen Palestinian land. They are not reconciled to the loss of any part of their land are hence engaged in A PROLONGED AND COMPLEX STRUGGLE WITH Israel until they emerge victorious. That does not preclude temporary peace deals or even limited cooperation. But so long as that basic narrative remains intact, the war continues.
Needless to say that regionally many other actors are involved in one way or another. Many buy wholeheartedly into the Palestinian narrative and many others, especially amongst the elites, cynically use it for their own purposes. A small minority reject it outright and would like to plot an entirely new course for the Arab-Muslim world in the Middle East-North Africa region. These are Israel’s natural allies but temporary alliances are possible with a wider cross-section of actors.
On the global scale Israel and the Middle East has economic, strategic and, especially, symbolic value. My concern here is with the symbolic value and the alliance this has generated between unlikely partners: (1) a leftwing, secular elite immersed in a worldview in which the West is automatically suspect and (2) Islamic ideologues. It may seem that these two are mutually incompatible but they are united in their hatred of Israel for somewhat different, but overlapping, reasons: both are happy to characterise her as a colonial militaristic power intent on stealing Palestinian land. This alliance is based on both rational and psychological foundations. South Africa is part of the global struggle but with our own unique features and characteristics.
For the Islamic faction, the Palestinian cause is a unifying factor, a strong motivator of collective identity and provides a convenient means of infusing communal life with a sense of existential meaning. It also provides career pathways for the ambitious. Moreover, the Muslim community (and, to a lesser extent, the non-Muslim sector) are immersed in a culture in which Israel is the stock villain and hence see their antagonism as entirely moral, indeed obligatory.
For the liberal-leftwing axis the situation is not much different. They are immersed to a variable extent in a cultural and intellectual milieu which focuses on Western aggression, exploitation and racism as the primary moral and even existential questions of the age. The very success of the West is to some extent evidence of its culpability and is an occasion for soul-searching and compensation. Those not adhering with sufficient conviction to such ideas and to the non-judgemental multiculturalism which accompanies it, are deemed conservative or even reactionary and racist. Belonging to the leftwing avant-garde requires adherence to doctrine.
It goes without saying that these factors are not cast into stone. They can change with events and shifts in ideas but they are powerful incentives at present. The recent bloodshed and turmoil around the “Arab Spring” has had an impact as has Jihadist terror in Western countries. The effect of these factors on Western worldviews are mitigated somewhat by increased propaganda and anti-Israel activism undertaken to counter potential shifts in Western perceptions and sympathies, and by the very success of Western counter-terror measures which has reduced the “fear factor” for Western populations.
It is important to understand that “rational” and “psychological” motivations interact with one another. Anti-Semitism, and now anti-Zionism (ASZ), have always served both purposes. ASZ can deflect attention from internal grievances and frustrations, can serve as unifying communal factors and as a path to personal power and wealth. It can be a means of keeping potential competitors in line or sidelining them…the list of potential real world uses are considerable. The psychological and sociological uses are equally diverse and beguiling. They serve as communal glue and as a mark of membership. They sanction a personal need to punish and harm without the downside of moral opprobrium. They satisfy the need for existential meaning and can enhance the sense of personal distinction. For Jews especially they may be a means of “revenge” on the broader community or their “parents”, communal or biological. Furthermore, once set, paradigmatic stances are difficult to change. Too much is invested in a particular ideological position to readily change tack and few have the desire or possess the intellectual resources to serious re-calibrate their views.
There is still another important dimension which requires mention: namely, the socio-cultural. By this I refer to the entire gamut from ideological to material conditions of life which constitutes the milieu of a particular society. And the Palestinian and Jewish populations could hardly be more different. Let us list some of the ways:
- The Palestinians live in a closed, fairly homogeneous (ethnically, linguistically and religiously), traditional and conservative society whereas Israel is diverse, open and innovative.
- The former stresses family and collective unity and punishes deviance from social norms and views whereas the Israel favours individualism including individual moral choice.
- Israel is closely connected to the wider Western world through history, the Jewish Diaspora and cultural preference whereas the Palestinians are relatively insulated from, and indeed antagonistic to, Western ideas.
- Palestine has a foundational tribal, honour-based culture whereas Israel teeters between tribalist and cosmopolitan poles.
- Islamism encourages martyrdom as a prime personal and collective value whereas Judaism favours self-actualisation.
- Israel is relatively wealthy whereas the Palestinians are poor. The former have more to lose; the latter to gain.
- Very importantly, the Palestinians are surrounded by a sea of ethnic kinsmen whereas the Jews are and feel isolated.
- Finally, deep within the cultural DNA of Jewish populations is an historical awareness of catastrophe and powerlessness whereas deep within the collective DNA of the Palestinians is an historical sense of humiliation and dishonour.
Thus juxtaposed are two very different (Darwinian) contexts: an open, innovative, individualistic society versus a closed, traditional, collectivist culture. One feels isolated and threatened (Israel) and the other feels angry and humiliated. One is technologically advanced but internally fractured whereas the other is unified but technologically and economically inferior. One is beset by moral qualms whereas the other feels righteous indignation. Israel’s external support is relatively ambiguous and qualified whereas there is a more powerful and secure external support base for the Palestinians. Israel has a lot to lose whereas the Palestinians have much to gain.
To end this section: this brief analysis is necessarily simplified. There is more flux and ambiguity than suggested here but, nevertheless, this survey lists some of the most important intangible factors determining both the psychological states of the antagonists and the potential determinants of outcome operating in the Israel-Palestinian conflict. To consider the deeper and wider historical and geostrategic factors the following papers may serve as an introduction: (1) http://mosaicmagazine.com/essay/2014/01/israel-in-the-eye-of-the-hurricane/ (2) http://mosaicmagazine.com/supplemental/2014/01/what-would-ben-gurion-do/?mode=print (3) http://www.stratfor.com/weekly/israels-new-strategic-position?utm_source=freelist-f&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=20131203&utm_term=Gweekly&utm. None of these should be regarded as the last word it goes without saying.
Why we defend Israel
The need to defend Israel may seem self-evident to many but is contested by those who assume the Jewish identity only as a form of body armour when they are attacking Israel or somehow believe that Jewishness can be sustained simply as an idea, possibly associated with a set of religious beliefs and rituals for religious believers. On the contrary, a full Jewish identity can only be sustained and flourish on the foundations of a community of actual people making their way in the real political world of nation-states. The Jews have attempted the first form of Jewishness which has historically led to insecurity and sociological and psychological distortions. A Holocaust or assimilation always looms as potential end-games for a dispersed, divided and high-profile minority carrying excess historical baggage. It is not necessary for every Jew to live in Israel but the embrace of Israel by the wider Jewish collective serves to unite the multitudinous strands of evolving Jewish identity and existence into a coherent form capable of survival and propagation. Without that loyalty and commitment from the Diaspora, Israel has no long-term future and neither, in my view, does the Diaspora.
There are 4 broad strategic imperatives:
- Be prepared for the long-term. Given the factors listed, there can be no simple resolution. The Kerry Peace Plan will not bring peace, though some may argue it could diplomatically advance Israel’s position (with which I disagree). The various factors listed above will ensure that the agitation against Israel will continue for the foreseeable future, and even increase to mitigate the impact of the failure of the Arab-Muslim states in the ME-NA region. As in incurable disease, the objective is to manage the condition until a new and drastic change makes it curable or leads to its disappearance. Since the struggle is long-term it is vital that we find, motivate and train young people to become leaders of the future.
- Search for allies. The Jewish community is small (globally and locally) and we absolutely need allies to counter the effects of the BDS paramilitary strategy. The search must be broad-based but not indiscriminate. Vital to Israel’s future is her reputation as a state committed to the major Western values of non-racism, human rights, freedom of expression, and tolerance for diversity. Some of the absolute tenets of these value systems may have to be abrogated for existential and strategic reasons, but that should be a considered decision and one not undertaken lightly. I believe Israel has a remarkable record which we should uphold within the limits of reason. Thus we must storm the intellectual bulwarks of the progressive and liberal sector of this society as well as embrace those attracted to Israel owing to their pre-existing religious or ideological beliefs – as, for instance, is the case for the Christian Zionists. Thus members of ZF-ZAC must be prepared to use contacts to explore possible avenues for productive alliances.
- Take on the mainstream media. In South Africa the MSM is still the major form of public contagion. Of course, with the rise of the Internet the Social Media and e-mails also are important and we need to get a grasp of what is going on there. I always believe the first weapon is facts. A start is through the media surveillance group Ornico which provides a more-or-less reliable survey of the media coverage of events relating, inter alia, to Israel. But while this provides an opportunity for communicators/writers in the pro-Zionist community to respond, it is not enough. We need in addition:
- A quantitative/qualitative analysis of the content on a weekly basis. The foundations for that were provided by the TIMER report on the Cape Times in 2012. This enables us to establish trends and to publish authoritative surveys and comparisons of the different groups. This can be used to expose and bring moral pressure to bear on those outlets which are providing clearly biased coverage.
- A legal/para-legal team to find those items/trends which constitute “hate speech” or actions by newspapers and other media which run counter to the code of ethical practice governing the media in this country.
- Investigative activities which reveal sources of funding and support which would embarrass the worst offenders.
- 4. Replace negative branding with positive branding. There is nothing mysterious about the PR campaign against Israel. It follows the well studied techniques of branding and is adept at tailoring the message to different audiences. It makes excellent use of high profile names to add weight and is flexible and opportunistic. We need to do the same. It is important that the message also comes from groups and even individuals not too closely tied to the official Jewish community. Subtle branding will in many, not all, cases be more effective than boasting. Gift of the Givers is an example of our enemies’ use of indirect branding. They have the advantage of a sympathetic media and cultural Zeitgeist. We have the advantage of a far more attractive client.
Besides these major strategic imperatives there are a number of other vital considerations. I will simply list these and as with the others they will need to be fleshed out and operationalised.
- Coordination and communication
- Stay on message
- Monitor and evaluate
- Enlist Israeli and other sources of expertise and credibility
- Activate the Jewish community
- Don’t hope for perfection
These are personal views. Others will have their own which hopefully overlap. I written this to provide stimulation and food for thought and to help clarify my personal position.
As always I am interested in reactions and comments – critical or supportive but hopefully constructive.