By DAVID BRINN
A panel at ‘The Jerusalem Post’ Conference in New York on how to combat delegitimization of Israel yielded differing opinions and passionate debate.
To make “invalid, illegal, or unacceptable.” That’s the simple definition of delegitimization, and everybody agrees on it.
What became evident on Sunday at The Jerusalem Post Conference in New York, however, was that almost nobody agrees on what constitutes a bona fide attempt to delegitimize Israel, nor on how Israel should combat those efforts.
Sure, the experts on the subject who sat on the panel I chaired – consisting of Prof. Alan M. Dershowitz, Ambassador to the UN Ron Prosor, Executive Vice Chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations Malcolm Hoenlein, deputy director-general of the Ministry of Public Diplomacy Daniel Seaman, former consul-general of Israel in New York Alon Pinkas, California-based Jewish media executive David Suissa, and novelist and Jerusalem Post columnist Naomi Ragen – all agreed that there are grievous attempts taking place around the world to make Israel invalid, illegal and unacceptable.
But that was where the commonality ended.
PROSOR, who regularly witnesses blatant attempts to invalidate Israel at the UN, and in Israel his role as former ambassador to the UK told the rapt audience that the big change in delegitimization efforts is that red lines are being crossed.
“People are beginning to say things that they have not dared to say in the past,” he said, referring to both the ridiculous and the outrageous. Prosor cited the Egyptian reports in 2010 suggesting that a spate of shark attacks were the Mossad’s doing. The laughable claims resulted in a BBC report headlined: “Israel ambassador denies shark is a Mossad agent.”
He also pointed to the widely covered story the same year in which British baroness and MP Jenny Tonge jumped on the bandwagon after Palestinian reports that Israeli rescue teams were in Tahiti following the earthquake there to harvest the organs of the victims.
“Part of the solution is Israel having the ability to stand up and do something about it, and at the UN, I succeeded in changing our code of conduct. Most of the time, we were sitting in different committees in silent mode, writing cables back to Jerusalem asking how or if to respond. That’s changed; I said ‘we don’t have a choice,’ we have to respond to everything that’s said against Israel,” Prosor added to applause from the crowd.
His statements were supported by Hoenlein, who reminded the audience that history teaches the issue is not what our enemies do, but what we fail to do.
“We too often accept that people can get away with it. But we need to understand that when they talk about Israel, they mean us – the Jewish people,” he said. “We have to hold into account every person who speaks against Israel and the Jewish state – zero tolerance.”
Dershowitz, who has long been one of Israel’s most eloquent defenders, went one step further than Hoenlein, saying that the problem is the legitimization of the most extreme kind of anti-Israel statements that are bordering on anti-Semitism. But Dershowitz laid the blame for that form of racism at a surprising source – Israelis and Jews.
“The attacks on Israel are coming from Israelis and Jews who use their Jewish heritage – these are people who never identified as Jews except to attack Israel,” he said. “Nobody could believe what [Israeli-born British activist] Gilad Atzmon writes – he apologizes to the Nazis for comparing them to Israelis, because Israelis are far worse, or writing in his book that Jews probably did kill Christian children and use their blood for matza – how could any rational person believe that?”
“But that’s not the problem. The problem is that [New York school] the Friends Seminary invites him to talk to their students; the problem is that [Stephen] Walt and [John] Measheimer endorse his book; the problem is that Richard Falk, the UN special rapporteur, says that Atzmon’s book should be read and widely discussed by everyone.”
Dershowitz claimed that the level of incitement against Israel is exceeding what occurred in South Africa during the worst days of apartheid and what was aimed at Jews during the buildup of fascism in Italy and Germany during the 1930s. He termed the irrational vilification of Israel “eroticized hatred.” Unlike Ragen, who spoke about countering slanted reports by the media, especially CNN, as one of the crucial ways to fight back against distortions about Israel, Dershowitz said that Israel supporters need to distinguish between misguided friends and real enemies.
“We should not be focusing on CNN and The New York Times, or Peter Beinart – friends who make mistakes. We should be focusing on people who genuinely believe that falsification of history is proper, that exaggerating Israel’s flaws to the point of making them Nazi-like is proper. That’s where we really have to draw the battle lines, and know the difference between friends we disagree with, those who may be somewhat biased, and with those who genuinely seek to destroy Israel – it’s the latter who pose a national threat to Israel, so we must get our priorities straight,” Dershowitz said.
For former diplomat Pinkas, the priorities are somewhat different. While acknowledging that there are serious efforts being made to delegitimize Israel that must be fought, he insisted that the country has “become normal enough to deal with it in a normal way.”
“Are we going to forever whine and complain that everyone is against us? Because that’s not an effective weapon,” he said. “We always seem to be panicking when it comes to the media – ‘we’ll boycott The New York Times or the BBC, or shut down CNN .’ ‘Did you hear what they said about us on the BBC?’ So what? Who cares what the BBC is saying about us?”
“For 64 years, we’ve been on the defensive, needing to justify our existence. Since when is Israel less of a country than Belgium? Israel is more of a country than Canada, but does anyone question Canada’s right to exist? Jews are fixated, obsessed and paranoid about the issue of the right to exist.
“1.3 billion Chinese don’t hate us, 125 million Japanese, 1.2 billion Indians, 310 million Americans and on and on. Half of the seven billion people on Earth don’t hate Israel – but they also don’t give a damn about Israel,” Pinkas said, adding that it was a healthy indication of Israeli normalcy.
Hoenlein suggested that the battle over support for Israel takes place in the middle – among the vast majority of Americans who are largely indifferent toward Israel.
“Our polls indicate that 25% of Americans are hard-core supporters and 10% are hard-core opposers. We have to focus our efforts on that middle, with positive messaging, telling the story of Israel.” He outlined efforts in the American Jewish community to foster stronger connections with Israel among Americans. Hoenlein said that the Jewish community is in the 18th century when it comes to electronic media “despite the fact that Jews control the media.”
“We’re taking steps to bring us into the 21st century,” said Hoenlein. “The truth is that the vast majority of Americans support Israel in record numbers, but we dare not take it for granted – not with our friends in the Evangelical community, not with our youth. We’ve taken it for granted for too long.” Hoenlein cited efforts like a lawfare project that has been launched with Dershowitz’s participation to mobilize lawyers around the world to fight delegitimization efforts, the Leadership Action Network which sends information and material on Israel electronically to 3.5 million people daily and the America’s Voices in Israel effort that brings US celebrities and talk show hosts for firsthand visits to Israel.
“Nothing sells Israel better than Israel itself,” he said.
During the panel’s question-and-answer period with the audience, a non-Jewish American attendee named Tom asked the panel why, since ideological arguments against Judaism and Zionism were used to delegitimize Israel, Israel supporters didn’t focus more on the role of Islam and Shari’a (Islamic law) in an effort to demonstrate that its ideology would never allow accommodations with the Jewish state.
“We are totally ignorant of the basis of this religion,” Ragen said, acknowledging the validity of Tom’s suggestion. “I’ve been reading book after book and there’s a certain basic fact – there’s nothing the Israeli government can do to appease radical Islam.” Dershowitz, however, rejected that strategy, claiming that it would be a form of anti-Semitism in reverse.
“The worst anti-Semites can cull through the Talmud and Mishna and find some of the worst aspects of any kind of humanity in the Jewish sources – and we have a name for that: anti-Semitism,” he said.
“We should not become anti-Muslim bigots, we cannot get into the gutter. It’s an absolute dead-end to start probing the writings of Islam; let’s instead focus on the actions of those misusing Islam. Our problem is not what’s written in the books of Islam, our problem is what’s carried in the pockets and jackets of Islamic terrorists.”
After a few more questions, the session wrapped up and the panel participants went their separate ways, concluding the formal part of the conference, though some stayed to hear Neshama Carlebach and the Green Pastures Baptist Choir, others schmoozed in the halls and some made a beeline for the exit.
I met an old friend at a nearby Times Square sushi bar. It was filled with mostly Japanese diners and staff. Nobody mentioned Israel, not even once.