Friday, June 15, 2007

Pox Brittanica

Boycotting Israel is now the rage in England, uniting lower class trade unionists with snooty academicians. Of course, the craze falls far short of Princess Di mania and even other contemporary descents into the cruel nastiness that appears to be a key element of British character. The country has an abundance of kooks, creeps and cranks who attach themselves to strange causes, some of them evil. While Communism and Nazism destroyed millions of lives, not to mention all traces of freedom, there were eminent people in the United Kingdom who endorsed and even embraced Stalin and Hitler.

This is scant solace for those of us who are repelled by the current frenzy of Israel-bashing. Nor is there any comfort in the Manchester Guardian item I read while returning the other day from Moscow, informing readers that twenty-four leading trade unionists, parliamentarians and academicians, as well as Nobel laureate in literature Harold Pinter, have applauded the closing down of an opposition Venezuelan television station by Hugo Chavez, that country’s emerging petty dictator.

The land that gave us Magna Carta and fundamental rights has become a cursed land. Maybe it was never much better. Maybe Shakespeare’s great paean to England in Richard the Second – “this scept’red isle… this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England” – was no more than literary exuberance by our greatest writer. Whatever England once was, in the words from the same speech by John of Gaunt, it has “made a shameful conquest of itself.”

I don’t give a farthing about the exclusion of Israeli academics from conferences in the United Kingdom or the refusal of British academics to journey to the Holy Land and I cannot see why anyone else should care. These expensive exercises are with few exceptions no more than a way of giving tax-free vacations to persons who are in the right place. They add preciously little to scholarship. Still, the underlying premise of the boycott is the delegitimation of Israel. That is serious business, as is the question of how to respond.

Although anti-Israel boycott fever is with the exception of the post-1948 antics of the Arab League a new phenomenon, hostility to Israel is not a new development in western Europe. As is known, the turning point came in 1967 with Israel’s triumph. Many in Europe liked Israel when Jews were perceived as weak; they could not accept the notion of Jews or Israel being triumphant.

The familiar response on our side to anti-Israel advocacy has been insipid and ineffective. We rely overly much on fact sheets prepared for those who are Israel advocates for use in their communities, on campuses and wherever else the Jewish State is being targeted. There are talking points about Israel being a democracy and the Arab states being anything but, about Arab citizens being treated better in Israel than they are in Arab countries and about the danger of terrorism.

This tired and lame approach has two flaws and they tell the entire story. First, those who think ill of Israel are not interested in the facts, no more than we are interested in their recitations. Their minds are made up and they are not going to be convinced otherwise. Second, it is demeaning for us to couch our responses in language that amounts to the argument that we haven’t been beating our wives.

Admittedly, there is little we can do about the first limitation. We can show more toughness and self-respect, more determination to go beyond routine advocacy by fighting for what we believe in and what we know is right. We should tell the Brits without equivocation that they are hypocritical and infested with anti-Semitism. This is what the Anti-Defamation League has done in a set of hard-hitting ads in the International Herald Tribune, which is where I saw them, and perhaps elsewhere.

It is likely that the anti-Israel claque in England will up the ante. As in other countries, it is being fed by a constant stream of negative reporting, specifically by BBC whose hostility to Israel extends over many years and is relentless. It featured the other day a long retrospective on the Six Day War that was one-sided and bigoted. Given the steady diet offered by the media, it is remarkable that there remains a body of opinion in England that is favorable to Israel.

As Jews who care about Israel should be more assertive in their reaction to the boycott and whatever else Israel-haters conjure up, the Israel government must go beyond the formulaic and meek responses cranked out by its battery of public relations experts. Israel must be tougher and angrier.

I am not a super-nationalist, far from it. I do not believe in either the religious or political necessity to hold on to every scrap of land. Israel needs to negotiate and this means with its enemies. It should take risks for peace and a separate Palestinian state may serve Israel’s interests. I also believe in the security barrier and in the obligation to challenge those who challenge its right to exist. The boycott is such a challenge. It is not sufficient to abide by the niceties of diplomatic exchanges. If the boycott movement gains further traction, as I think is likely, Israel must think and act out of the box, in a sense exploiting the greater freedom a country has when it decides to defy diplomatic custom.

If Israel wants to get across the message that it has taken enough guff from the sanctimonious British, one way to go is for it to call home for an extended stay its ambassador to the Court of St. James.

Interestingly, we now know, as some have surmised, that England’s Middle East policy has been severely compromised by corrupt huge arms sales to Saudi Arabia and, I believe, other Middle East “allies.” And these are the people who preach morality!