On Friday night I had the privilege of being at the Inbal Hotel in Jerusalem to listen to Melanie Phillips address a group of visiting Americans from Kehillath Jeshurun.
The American group come regularly from Manhattan led by Rabbi Lookstein. They are strong supporters of Israel.
Melanie Phillips had been invited to speak to them after dinner, a difficult task in a hall where the acoustics were poor and Ms Phillips had to speak without electronic aids as it was Shabbat.
Nevertheless, Phillips’ message was loud and clear.
She quickly gave the history of her experiences in the UK and her gradual move through various stages of pariahdom in the UK, mostly due to her stand on Israel and her belief that Israel is the true victim of the conflict although the received wisdom, the default position in the UK media and in Europe is that it is Israel who is the aggressor.
Politicians in the UK, Europe and even the US have for years treated the conflict as if it were a mere border dispute.
According to Phillips – and I have always been in complete agreement on this point – the dispute, which has now raged since the State of Israel was declared, is ALL about Arab rejectionism. A true peace partner would continue to negotiate, they would not declare their intent to destroy the State and, in the case of Hamas and Hizbollah in particular, to kill Jews as a religious imperative.
What lies at the heart of the conflict, therefore, is Islamic Jew-hatred and a virulent anti-Semitism.
The Arab rejectionist narrative and the inversion of victim and aggressor has, according to Phillips, become the narrative of the UK, the US and Europe. They have adopted a false narrative which places the entire onus for progress and concession on Israel whilst the Palestinians have not only failed to make a single concession, but meet every Israeli concession with violence.
The West is rewarding the Palestinians for this aggression and rejectionism, and grants them a free pass.
Phillips bemoaned Israel’s failure to address this false narrative and, in some respects, adopts it itself. Israel always has to be explaining and defending its actions which are put under a microscope, whether it be Operation Cast Lead or the Mavi Marmara incident.
As a result of always having to explain its actions to a cynical world which has internalised as axiomatic that Israel is always to blame, Israel is always on the back foot.
This defensive position has been put forward not just to the UN but also to NGO’s foreign governments and international Human Rights organisations.
So what must be done to put Israel on the front foot?
Phillips offered some suggestions which were to delegitimise the delegitimisers. For example, as a counter to Israel Apartheid Week, why not hold Muslim Women’s Rights Week.
Israel must emphasise that the true story of Israel did not begin in 1967 or 1948 but much earlier. There is an educational problem and not just in the wider world but within the Jewish community worldwide and in Israel itself.
Israel’s claims to the Land are moral and legal and these rights must be trumpeted at all possible opportunities.
Although it may be politic for Israel to concede the West Bank as the basis for a Palestinian state, nevertheless, there is no legal imperative to do so and settlements are NOT illegal.
When Phillips puts these points to Israeli politicians they say that questions of legality of settlements are a legal minefield and that even to address questions about the legitimacy of the State is an admission that there is a question to be answered. No-one questions the legitimacy of New Zealand or Nigeria or Costa Rica (my examples)
Reactions from a conservative American audience were largely supportive and in some cases VERY supportive. A couple of speakers questioned this approach and said it had all been done before and that Israel’s case was constantly being put in the US by AIPAC, for example.
Phillips maintained that this was Jews speaking to Jews. The message requires to be heard outside the community of ‘believers’.
One speaker said that Christian Zionists were fully on message when it came to Israeli legitimacy. This is all very well, but even more needs to be done to reach a sceptical audience of neutrals.
This was, perhaps the crux. Is it really possible for a front-foot strategy to succeed? The walls of ignorance and prejudice are very hard to breach. The enemy is well-organised and has been winning the battle for hearts and minds for decades. To shift the narrative requires Israel to win battles in the UN, the media and in NGO’s.
The idea of countering the delegitimisers of Israel Apartheid Week with an attack on the Islamic world’s appalling record on women’s rights and human rights generally is attractive, but in the UK, for example, the pro-Israel support is so marginalised and small in comparison with the anti-Israel/pro-Palestinian side that the result could be extremely unpleasant and violent.
However, the idea of exposing Muslim and left-wing hypocrisy, beginning at the grass roots level on campus is an attractive one, albeit for the strong-willed and the thick-skinned. I am not sure if such a response could be organised in the UK where most Jewish students are far less radical than their Muslim counterparts and less willing to stir the pot. The diaspora fear of backlash is strongly engrained in the galut psyche.
The big question remains: do the Israelis really believe that such an approach is necessary?
A typical response is that of Asa Kasher who was an author of the IDF Code of Conduct
We as Jews ….. are acutely sensitive to every attack on us. Not only when it’s anti-Semitism or anti-Israel. Even when someone attacks us for this or that government’s politics. The lights go on. “They’re attacking us.” It seems to us to be absolutely terrible. I understand that feeling. We don’t have a history of being loved by everyone. Quite the reverse. But some perspective is required. Obviously we have to be active on all fronts. The international media is a front. So you have the IDF Spokesman. You have the Ministry of Public Diplomacy. Everyone must do what they can to improve this situation. But it’s not that important.
Look what happened after Operation Cast Lead. European leaders and the US president came here. That was a sign of solidarity with Israel. So I don’t think there’s a danger of us becoming [a pariah state] like South Africa. (my emphasis)
So if someone like Kasher is so sanguine about the outside world’s view of Israel, you have to wonder whether Phillips and all other pro-Israel journalists and writers and bloggers like myself serve any useful purpose as far as the Israeli government is concerned.
As they might say over here ‘Mah haBayah’ – What’s the problem?