The toxic context of ‘the Israel debate’

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 2-10-10

We have become so used to it we take it for granted, but one of the great scandals of modern politics is the way Palestinian negationism and terrorism have been facilitated by the UN and championed by the left, cloaking lethal desires to wipe out Israel in the language of human rights.

Moreover, as Professor Shalom Lappin of Kings College, London testified to Britain’s All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry Against Anti-Semitism, which issued its report September 2006:

The Israel-Palestinian encounter has been largely denaturalised and removed from its political and regional context. It is no longer seen as a political and military struggle between two nations with a long and complex history…. Instead, it has been endowed with the peculiar status of an iconic clash between good and evil. Israel has increasingly come to be construed as the purest embodiment of imperialism, racism and oppression whose sole national purpose is to dispossess the Palestinians.”

This inaccurate, Manichean misreading of the conflict encourages perverse behavior. Again and again, institutions violate their own core ideals. Again and again, the blinding bias against Israel obscures facts, precedents, common sense itself.

In this toxic context, the distinguished scholar and Israel’s Ambassador to the US, Michael Oren, was shouted down repeatedly while speaking at University of California, Irvine. The Muslim Student Union “strongly condemn[ed] the university for co-sponsoring, and therefore inadvertently supporting, the ambassador of a state that is condemned by more UN Human Rights Council resolutions than all other countries in the world combined.”

Note how the libels get recycled. The UN’s bias against Israel legitimizes the Muslim Student Union protest – which escalated into shouting and hooliganism, resulting in eleven arrests.

Fortunately, at least one academic with a conscience defended Oren. “This is beyond embarrassing…,” Professor Mark P. Petracca proclaimed. “This is no way for our undergraduate students to behave. We have an opportunity to hear from a policy maker relevant to one of the most important issues facing this planet and you are preventing not only yourself from hearing him but hundreds of other people in this room and hundreds of other people in an overflow room. Shame on you! This is not an example of free speech.”

Meanwhile, across the continent, a 20-year-old’s personal decision to join the Israeli army triggered a brouhaha in New York because his father is the New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief. Ethan Bronner, despite a distinguished decades-long record of reporting which includes some hard-hitting reports criticizing Israel, was accused of “pro-Israel bias” because his son enlisted in the IDF. Even the Times’s public editor Clark Hoyt suggested reassigning Bronner – although Bill Keller, the executive editor, refused.

Bronner’s response, “I wish to be judged by my work, not by my biography,” is perfect. But the operative assumption fueling the controversy is disturbing. The arguments against Bronner assumed the son’s actions reflected the father’s wishes and would bias the father in favor of Israel. Twenty-year-olds frequently defy their parents. And many Israelis criticize Israeli policy even more intensely because their children serve in the army. Especially given even very Zionist American Jews’ ambivalence about their sons enlisting, why assume young Bronner’s decision will make his father more sympathetic to Israel?

Yes, reporters have personal lives. Who knows how many Times reporters have army-age children serving in Iraq and Afghanistan? Journalists are not nuns, although they belong to a guild with its own assumptions, norms and narratives. Usually, reporters are judged but what they write, not who they are – until we get to Israel.

These two incidents put another raging controversy in context. The organization Im Tirtsu was called “McCarthyite” for issuing a report detailing “a staggering example of a self-propelled process: the very organizations that pressed for the establishment of the [Goldstone] commission provided the testimonies used by the Goldstone commission to justify its claims against the IDF and Israel, and most of these organizations are supported by the NIF [New Israel Fund].” The report also revealed that the Coalition of Women for Peace – also an NIF grantee – initiated the writing of a letter on December 22, 2009, to top British officials demanding they try top Israeli officials.

Israel is a vibrant democracy. I am proud that organizations like the New Israel Fund exist to support a full range of Israeli human rights organizations. However, I am frequently dismayed by these organizations’ one-sidedness. The report notes that few of these organizations bothered supporting Sderot or reaching out to Israeli victims of Palestinian terror – don’t Israelis have human rights too? Moreover, many of these organizations do not acknowledge the toxic context in which the discussion about Israel takes place, and take no responsibility for their role in further poisoning the atmosphere. The New Israel Fund would boost its credibility by refusing to fund organizations that single out Israeli leaders for war crimes allegations. It would increase the credibility of the organizations it funds if it demonstrated some sense of proportion, some sensitivity to the disproportionate, hysterical demonization of Israel emanating from the Arab world and, I regret to say, rationalized by the left.

Typically, while attacking Im Tirtsu for daring to look at who the NIF funds, Ha’aretz and other critics looked at who funds Im Tirtsu. And while objecting to criticism of the NIF’s chairwoman Professor Naomi Chazan, as well as making her a martyr to free speech, her supporters overlooked The Jerusalem Post’s justification for dropping her column; because she threatened legal action against the paper. None of us, reporters, academics, or politicians, can afford to turn our ideological battles into legal wars. Only the lawyers win.

Of course Israel should not be immune to criticism, and Israel’s democratic values must be maintained. Citizens should argue about the Im Tirtsu report, while the Knesset and Cabinet should keep away, demonstrating respect for free speech. But citizens have rights as well as responsibilities. Voices from the left should leverage their credibility – and ultimately enhance it –  by condemning the cycle of demonization rooted in Arab anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, then rationalized and perfumed by the UN and the left, resulting in hooliganism on campus, vendettas against reasonable reporters and a one-sided, hysterical discourse that makes the dream of peace appear ever more distant.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University on leave in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today. His latest book The Reagan Revolution:  A Very Short Introduction, was recently published by Oxford University Press.

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