Israel advocacy requires a firm grip on reality

By Robin Shepherd, June 10, 2011
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There are few clichés about the work of the professional psychologist more widely quoted than this: In order to deal with a problem you first have to acknowledge its existence.

Following the REUT report late last year describing London as a global hub for the deligitimisation of Israel, the debate among the pro-Israel community about whether there really is a fundamental problem for the Jewish state in this country is now over.

Thank heavens for that. It has been long in the coming but supporters of Israel of pretty well every shade of opinion have collectively had what alcoholics are reputed to refer to as "a moment of clarity".

This problem is real, it is multi-faceted, it is getting worse and, as outgoing Israeli Ambassador to Britain Ron Prosor said in a recent piece for the Daily Telegraph: "attitudes once considered marginal or extreme have drifted dangerously close to the mainstream".

A public campaign should be met with a public response

So, what is to be done? It is a question that I am asked constantly by those who are serious about making a difference. I always preface my response with the following two caveats.

First, given the scale of the problem, there will not be a quick solution. Even in the best case scenario it is about taking back the territory bit by bit, in sober appreciation of how badly the situation has deteriorated.

The second thing is that I never tell the Jewish community what to do. A non-Jew faces a different calculus of risk from a Jew in this discussion. All I can do is draw from my own experiences and explain, as best I see it, what has a chance of working and what does not. So here goes.

Before doing anything else, cut to the core issue: the deligitimisation campaign is a public campaign taking place on a daily basis in the newspapers, on the internet, over the airwaves, in the think tanks, and among the pundits.

The activists on the one hand and the politicians on the other are, of course, important. But it is that great, puffed-up mass of opinion-formers in between them that marks the ground where this battle will be won or lost.

A public campaign of deligitimisation therefore requires a broadly based, public response, and that means working with those journalists, policy analysts and think tanks that are (genuinely) supportive and helping develop and build up new ones if none can be found.

One reason why the pro-Israel community is so successful in the United States is that, far and wide outside the US-Jewish community, there is a vast network of individuals, journalists and think tanks that will promote the cause of Israel because they have concluded on their own that it is the right thing to do. Britain is not America. But there are clear lessons to be learned from this.

The corollary is that, given the broader context, direct lobbying of senior politicians is likely to have a far less decisive effect in Britain than might initially be assumed. Try it, by all means. But don't expect miracles. A meeting with the Foreign Secretary may engender a feel-good factor but it won't achieve much if the moment the meeting has ended, he steps back into a political culture in which the demonisation of Israel is ubiquitous.

It is also crucial to recognise just how easy it is to make the mistake of attempting to buy a little support from Israel's enemies by selling a little criticism of Israel oneself. It's tempting, to be sure. And in less fraught circumstances, it just might work. Not in the midst of a hate campaign, which is what the deligitimisation agenda against Israel amounts to.

To get the point, imagine a mother responding in such fashion to the bullying of her child at school. She decides to confront the bullies personally and tells them that little Johnny has plenty of shortcomings, it's true: he's a little unsophisticated, a little awkward, but he is loveable after all.

The next day, Johnny is brought home not with the usual cuts and bruises, but with two broken legs and a message pinned to his chest from his attackers. It says: "Even his mother said he had it coming"!

Finally, however daunting the odds may seem, understand this: we'll win in the end. If there is one thing I have learned from my dealings with the anti-Israel constituency in the media, the foreign policy establishment, the NGOs and elsewhere, it is that their dishonesty, their underhand tactics, their reluctance to debate the issues are a sign of their vulnerability.

Paradoxical as it may sound, they are frightened and they are weak. And they are frightened because at some level they are aware of the weakness of their case. It's time to expose them for what they are.

Robin Shepherd is the author of 'A State Beyond the Pale: Europe's Problem with Israel' and director, international affairs, at the Henry Jackson Society.

    Last updated: 10:43am, June 10 2011