If you truly love Israel, don’t bury it in unexamined cliché

By Chas Newkey-Burden, March 8, 2013
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Next time you take part in a debate about the Israeli-Palestinian situation, here’s how to spot the people who care more about point-scoring than progress: they will be the ones saying Israel does nothing right, and also the ones saying that Israel does nothing wrong.

I love Israel. I love her scenery, culture and food. Most of all, I love the vigour, innovation and loving forthrightness of her people. I think Israel’s supporters in the UK could do with more of these qualities. The Zionist Federation’s almost prehistorically boorish rejection of grass-roots advocacy group Yachad as an affiliate member exemplifies how far we need to grow as a movement.

Many hasbara (Israel advocacy) clichés have become counter-productive. For instance, the claim that “the IDF is the most moral army in the world”. It may be true, but it is surely a nebulous contention unless you can prove you have measured the Israeli army’s ethos and record against those of every army in the world. In what specific ways does it trump the armies of, say, Panama and San Marino?

A new favourite is to claim that Gaza is a holiday camp, bursting with luxury swimming pools and decadent shopping malls. The same few photographs are re-posted across blogs and social networks to “prove” that talk of a humanitarian crisis is a con.

We present ourselves as either fools or liars

There is horrific suffering in Gaza. Selective photographs uploaded from the comfort of British living rooms cannot conceal that. By all means point to Hamas’s responsibility for the squalor but, by denying obvious truths, you lose the hearts and minds of any reasonable person. Similarly, the sweeping claim that every Palestinian who left in 1948 did so happily is as ridiculous as contending they were all driven out.

These topics are handled more honestly in Israel. Even among the most hawkish of my Israeli friends, debate is frank. People speak from experience more than ideology and fearlessly concede that their government has made mistakes. A case in point: British anti-Israel campaigners are denounced for saying Israel will have to choose between being a democracy or an apartheid state if it remains in the West Bank. Yet countless Israelis, including former prime ministers Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak, make the same prediction. Whether one agrees or not — and I’m not sure it’s that simple — the messaging is discordant.

What are we afraid of? Sometimes it seems that we don’t have enough confidence in the truth and think spin will be more effective. But in the advocacy I’ve done in schools and universities, polished arguments have been a hindrance, while simple truths, delivered from the heart, have won.

Before I spent much time in Israel, I parrotted the line that “Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East”. Now with some experience, I find it far more effective to share stories. At Eton, I told pupils about a gay Israeli Arab I interviewed, and how he looked directly at me as he said his trips to Tel Aviv had saved his life and given him hope. He cried as he revealed how close he’d come to killing himself and how even as an Arab he knew it was the acceptance he’d experienced as part of Israeli culture that had given him the strength to turn his life around. These kind of stories are more powerful than any sloganeering.

Like the Israeli people, we shouldn’t be afraid of admitting Israel’s mistakes and imperfections. A robotic defence of every government action — past, present, or potentially future — only convinces people that we’re too partisan to have a real debate. We present ourselves as either fools or liars, and that hardens people against us.

Even worse, there are people who could offer nuanced and effective contributions in support of Israel but who are staying away from debates because they don’t want to be shouted down by the usual suspects on both sides who don’t care about Israel or the Palestinians as much as boorishly trading well-worn arguments.

I’ve certainly been guilty of the mistakes I’ve outlined, and there are plenty of Zionists who are far more effective at the good stuff than me. We can all do better. As we watch Israel’s international image sink almost out of sight, will we try new ideas, or will we wave it off with one last shriek of: “But… Sharon withdrew from Gaza in 2005”?

Chas Newkey-Burden is a journalist and author.

Last updated: 9:45am, March 8 2013