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Let’s get this settled! (Part 3)

Lets’ Get This Settled

Settlements: A Good Idea or a Bad One?

We’ve spent two installments of this blog[1] looking at Israel’s legal claims to the disputed territories[2] . We reached the conclusion that Israel’s settlements are not illegal under international law and that the legal status of “belligerent occupation” doesn’t apply to the disputed territories [3]. If the conclusions we have reached are right, what is there left to talk about?

In the face of such evidence, can anyone argue that Israel should cede territory? The answer is, of course, yes. Just because you have a right to do something doesn’t mean it would be wise or just to insist on your right. In Israel an entirely legitimate debate goes on regarding the wisdom and/or morality of the settlement enterprise that has nothing to do with the legal status of the settlements or Israel’s territorial claims.

The proponents of settlements:

  • Point to the historical claims of the Jewish people (Jews come from Judea).
  • Assert the need to retain at least parts of the territories for security reasons.
  • Argue that, without Jews inhabiting the areas, it would be much harder to retain them in the face of international pressure.

The opponents of settlements:

  • Assert that at some point Israel will have to withdraw from the territories, since incorporating them into Israel poses a danger to Israel’s Jewish majority due to the higher Arab birthrate.[3]
  • Maintain that the disparity between the liberal democratic legal system prevalent in Israel and the modified system of martial law in effect in areas of Judea and Samaria under Israeli control are unsustainable in the long run.
  • Agree with proponents of settlement that the very presence of Jews in the territories make it more difficult for an Israeli government to withdraw from Judea and Samaria; however they see that presence as an obstacle to trading land for a peace agreement.

The fact that Israel has already actually uprooted settlements can be interpreted at least two ways. It could be viewed as proof that Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria are no more of an obstacle to withdrawal than those in Gaza were. On the other hand it can be argued that, if the uprooting of 8,500 Jews from Gaza was a national trauma, then the evacuation of 300,000 or more from Judea and Samaria is an impossibility.

What Are We Arguing About?

Despite the very real controversy within Israel regarding the settlement enterprise, it should be clear by now that it is not the “root cause of the conflict” as it is so often presented. The “1967 borders” were not borders at all but only ceasefire lines and were never recognized as borders by Israel, the Arab states, the PLO or anyone else[4]. When the PLO signed the Oslo accords with Israel in 1993, there was no mention of Israel’s settlement as being “illegal” and no requirement for any restriction on building new settlements, much less dismantling the existing ones.

If the debate on territorial concession and the related issue of settlement was only about the wisdom and/or morality of these policies, it would be a legitimate one. But the assertion that Israel has no claim on the territories and that settlement activity is inherently illegal strikes at the heart of Jewish claims (religious, historical and legal) to any part of the Land of Israel since there is no firm basis to differentiate Jewish rights on either side of the “green line.”

Since the debate over settlement almost always assumes that Israel has no rights in the territories, it forms the thin end of the wedge of the delegitimatization movement… unless it is firmly couched in terms of whether it is wise and/or just for Israel to insist on her full rights.

There are advocacy consequences to the way in which the debate is framed. If the assumption is that Israel is a thief who has taken what belongs to others, then the Jewish State can expect little, if any, credit for reluctantly giving up what she stole. International reaction to the withdrawal from Gaza (a traumatic and divisive episode for Israeli society) seems to bear out this conclusion.

Advocates for Israel, regardless of where they stand on the issue of territorial concession, have a duty to insist that this distinction (between the false allegation of illegitimacy on the one hand and the legitimate issues of wisdom and/or morality on the other) is always clearly made. There are precedents for insisting on this sort of clarity of public discourse.

Other areas of public discourse infected with bigotry

Take the issue of illegal immigration, for example. This has been a legitimate matter of debate in many Western countries over the years (and has recently become one in Israel). Reasonable people may differ over the relative weight to be attached to the problems caused by illegal immigration and the benefits the immigrants have brought to their host societies. Equally one can argue over the duty of compassion to the immigrant versus that owed to the native. The conclusions one draws from such analyses will lead to policies that are more or less welcoming to the illegal immigrants. However, the issue of immigration has been so widely used as a cover for racism that it is reasonable to insist that those who argue (say) for the repatriation of immigrants first clearly reject the racist attitudes that have come to infect the debate. The price one must pay to make an argument that calls for such policy is the explicit rejection of bigoted assumptions about Africans or Latinos or whoever the local ethnic communities of illegals are.

Similarly, we must insist that those asserting that Israel must cede territory clearly reject the assumptions of delegitimatization that underlie so much discourse about settlement policy. It may be unfair to the conservative opponent of illegal immigration to make them prove that they are not racists, but it’s necessary and justified. It may be unfair to the liberal opponent of settlements to insist that they prove that they are not a delegitimatizer, but to do so is equally fair and necessary.


1 Let’s get this settled! (Part 1), Reclaiming the frame and Let’s get this settled! (Part 2) What’s the law?.

2 While we were doing so an official Israeli government commission of enquiry headed by retired Supreme Court justice Edmund Levy reached the same conclusions we have. Not surprising, since these positions have been the official stance of every Israeli government – regardless of political color – since 1967.

3 The facts relating to birthrate and population figures are disputed. A 2006 study by the BESA center of Bar Ilan University suggested that Palestinian Arab population figures in Judea and Samaria were overestimated by one million and that figures for population growth rates were significantly exaggerated (http://www.biu.ac.il/SOC/besa/perspectives15.html).


Let’s get this settled! (Part 2)

What’s the law?

Almost no subject in contemporary Israel generates as much controversy (at home and abroad) as the issue of Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria. Let’s try and take as objective a view of the matter as we can. At this stage, let’s ask ourselves only one question; are Israel’s actions legal or not?

Legal status of the Territories: Occupied or Disputed?

Between it’s reestablishment in 1948 (after a hiatus of about 2,000 years) and the Six Day War of 1967, the Jewish State was a tiny thing. At its narrowest point only nine miles of Israel lay between the Mediterranean Sea and the boundary with Jordanian controlled territory. Jerusalem was divided.

On June 5, 1967 Israel went to war to lift the illegal blockade on Israeli ships traversing the Suez Canal[1]. In less than a week, Israel extended its control over Gaza[2], the Sinai Peninsula, East Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria and the Golan Heights.[3]

Israel distinguishes between greater Jerusalem, which has been annexed to Israel by Act of the Knesset, and the rest of the Territories that have not. Arab residents of Jerusalem are entitled to certain rights (they can vote in municipal elections, receive National Insurance payments etc.) and can obtain other rights by requesting Israeli citizenship. The rest of the world makes no such distinction, and when they speak of “occupied territory” they are including the Old City, the Western Wall and the Temple Mount as well as Jerusalem suburbs such as Ramat Eshkol and Gilo.

The Western Wall at night

It has been the position of every Israeli government since 1967 that the Territories are undistributed areas of the Mandate of Palestine to which the Jewish National Home provision still applies. As such, Jews have no more, or less rights to them than to Tel Aviv. The 1948 ceasefire lines were never recognized by anyone as permanent borders and represented only the places where Arab armies were halted in their attempt to destroy the nascent Jewish state. The Territories are areas of disputed sovereignty to which Israel has a strong claim under International Law.

If the Territories are areas without a prior, legitimate sovereign, then they cannot be “occupied territory” under the definition of customary international law.[4] Hence Israel’s assertion that she is not bound by the provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention (Geneva IV) when dealing with the Territories and their residents. Nonetheless, Israel has committed to apply the humanitarian provisions of Geneva IV, without prejudice to its claim on the Territories[5].

Others point to the sweeping nature of Geneva IV[6] as justification for its application to the Territories. Israel retorts that the very same clause cited limits the application to conflicts between states.[7]

Settlements: legal or illegal?

The legal status of the Territories is not the end of the matter. If they are not occupied, then Israel may have a strong claim to settle its citizens there. After all, the Mandate called for the “close settlement” of Jews on the Land.

But what if the Territories are, contrary to Israel’s position, occupied? And what of Israel’s unilateral decision to apply the humanitarian provisions of Geneva IV?

Article 49

The main accusation leveled against Israel (aside from incoherent rants about “stealing land”) is that the movement of Israeli citizens to the Territories constitutes a breach of Article 49 of Geneva IV. The relevant section of the text reads:

The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.

It’s this clause that is the basis for the accusation that the settlements are illegal. Its unequivocal and broad language seems to support such a position. Yet Israel’s High Court ruled that Article 49 clearly could not be taken as forbidding any population movement at all. It ruled that, since Geneva IV was drafted immediately following WWII, it should be understood in that context. The Nazis engaged in mass, forced population transfers in Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary before and during the war in order to displace the local populations and even endanger their separate existences as races. Indeed, the International Red Cross’ authoritative commentary to the Convention confirms that interpretation. Regardless of ones views on the wisdom or morality of settlement activity, it hasn’t displaced a single Arab from their homes in Judea, Samaria and Gaza.


1 The fact that Arab armies were massing at Israel’s borders with the express purpose of annihilating the Jewish state was not, technically, the legal basis for the war.

2 Most Western Governments are now non-committal on the issue of Gaza’s status. Campus radicals may use terms like “Gaza Ghetto” and “the world’s largest open air prison”, but even the UN’s official (“Palmer”) report of September 2011 recognized that “The naval blockade was imposed as a legitimate security measure in order to prevent weapons from entering Gaza by sea and its implementation complied with the requirements of international law”.

3 The Sinai was ceded to Egypt under the 1978 peace treaty with that State. Israel unilaterally withdrew its civilian population and troops from Gaza in 2005. Since then Israel has accepted no responsibility for the residents of Gaza, although she has not abandoned her theoretical claims on the area. The issue of the Golan Heights is a complex one and seldom comes up in debate. For all practical purposes the discussion on settlement is now limited to Judea and Samaria.

4 The Hague Conventions (1907) and the Geneva Conventions (1949) address issues of occupation of the territory of one state by the armed forces of another state (the “high contracting parties” mentioned in the conventions are sovereign states).

5 Despite many claims to the contrary, Israel’s own High Court of Justice has never ruled on the applicability of Geneva IV to the Territories. Although the court has invalidated certain orders and actions of the IDF on the grounds that they contradict Geneva IV, they have done so on the logical grounds that the orders were issued under the assumption that they comply with the convention. If they are found to not comply, they are void on what might be called a “can’t have your cake and eat it to” principle.

6 “the present Convention shall apply to all cases of declared war or of any other armed conflict…”

7 “…which may arise between two or more of the High Contracting Parties” Both citations from Article 2.

Let’s get this settled! (Part 1)

Reclaiming the frame

One of the major achievements of anti-Israel advocates has been to focus attention on Israel’s presence and actions in Judea and Samaria (the “West Bank”) and Gaza. It has become widely accepted, even amongst Israel’s friends, that Israel simply being in the Territories is the cause of the conflict and Jewish communities are a positive crime. The obvious anachronism of this view (the conflict existed before Israel entered the Territories, so her presence there can hardly be the cause of the conflict) does little to weaken a force drawn from repetition.

Ceasfire lines, not borders.
These were ceasefire lines and were never recognized as borders by any of Israel’s neighbors.

Recently the BDS[1] movement has sought to use the Territories as a beach head to a full-fledged campaign to boycott Israeli products and services. Produce and products from the Territories are forbidden by some European governments from bearing the “Made in Israel” label. At the time of writing, the South African government is proposing to have such products labeled as being from the “Occupied Palestinian Territories.”

Attacks on Israel’s presence in the Territories provides the perfect cover for attempts to delegitimatize Israel in general. It’s a short step from defining Israel as being a criminal state (for the “illegal occupation”) to being an illegitimate state (due to it being “born in sin”). It’s also a tactic with enormous potential to divide supporters of Israel; continued debate on the future of these areas is a real issue in Israeli politics and it’s therefore neither desirable nor possible to forbid Diaspora Jews from taking sides on the issue.

The way to draw the poison from the debate is to change the way in which it is framed. The discourse is currently framed as:

  • Israel is illegally occupying an area that belongs to someone else.
  • Israel must immediately withdraw, because every moment she remains there is another crime.
  • When Israel eventually, reluctantly, repents of her crime of occupation and does withdraw, she can expect neither goodwill nor concessions as a result.

We have to reframe the discourse so that:

  • Israel has a strong legal and historical claim to the Territories.
  • Israel is in control of the heartland of the Jewish people and the cradle of our civilization. This is an area that we claim as ours.
  • Notwithstanding her strong legal and historical claim to the Territories as part of the homeland, Israel has already compromised on their status and is willing to discuss further concessions if it will promote the even greater value of peace.

In short, we need to transform the discussion from one about whether settlements are legal or not, to one about whether they are a good idea or not.

(I’m breaking with my usual format to write much more than usual post on this topic. Since I’m suggesting a rather radical shift in the way we discuss the issue I think we need to look at the issue in more depth than can fit into one post. I’ll post two more installments of this over the next couple of weeks. If you’ve grasped the essential idea, you can stop here. If you want more detail, please read on.)


1 Boycott, divestment and sanctions.

The Red Queen’s Race

Red Queen and Alice“Well, in our country,” said Alice, still panting a little, “you’d generally get to somewhere else – if you run very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.”

“A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Caroll

I’ve written before about the need to take a pre-emptive role in advocating for Israel. Here I want to stress another reason why we need to take the initiative: it is physically impossible to keep up with the rate of accusation. Like Alice, we are forced to run as fast as we can just to keep up.

If you have been following my travels, you will know that I recently returned from a speaker tour of South Africa. There I visited the beautiful city of Durban, whose name is now inextricably linked with the 2001 international anti-Israel hatefest. One of the dedicated rabbis of the community later e-mailed me that one of his congregants had received a message from a friend who, to her horror, supported a cultural boycott of Israel. The rabbi (like most rabbis, overworked and underpaid) passed it on to me for comment. I won’t quote the whole message from the Israel detractor – it’s long, consisting of ten accusations against Israel. Here are my answers to two out of the ten points:

2) The denial of the Palestinian “Right of Return” as recognized by the United Nations Resolution 194

UN General Assembly resolutions neither create nor adjudicate International Law. They have exactly as much legal import as a resolution of the local Rotary Club. Only Security Council Resolutions are legally binding, and then only if they are made under Chapter VII (Action with Respect to Threats to the Peace, Breaches of the Peace, and Acts of Aggression) of the UN Charter. (See second to last paragraph here.) Israel can’t be committing a “crime” by denying a “right” that doesn’t exist in law.

9) The War Crime inherent in the use of White Phosphorus as a weapon during the Israeli Defense Force Operation Cast Lead of 2009

What war crimes are “inherent in the use of White Phosphorus”? The International Committee of the Red Cross said there is “no evidence to suggest” that Israel had used white phosphorus as a weapon. (See here.) Notice the shift to alleging that the supposed crime is “inherent” in the use of white phosphorus; that’s happened since the ICRC said that there is no evidence of there having been any casualties from its use by Israel (see here; it’s a long document, search for the word “phosphorus” to find the relevant statement).

I didn’t blame the rabbi for feeling out of his depth here; these are pretty arcane subjects that normal people don’t spend much time thinking about. It wasn’t hard for me to refute them, but that’s not because I’m particularly clever – it’s just that I do this for a living.

But look at the accusations and the refutations. The first thing that should strike you is the language. The accusations are replete with emotive terms (“denial” of a “right,” “war crime” and “weapon”). The refutations are technical (“legally binding”, “Chapter VII” and “International Committee of the Red Cross”). The second thing you should notice is the disparity in length between the accusations and the refutations. Even ignoring the texts referenced through internet links, the refutations are about four times as long as the accusations.

Whereas anti-Israel accusations can be manufactured out of a mixture of thin air and chutzpah at enormous speed, they need much more time to refute, and the refutations often make for turgid reading or listening. If I’d refuted all ten of the accusations in this article, I would have found myself without a reading audience.

Setting the Frame

Only half in jest the very talented David Jacobson of South Africa’s Jewish Board of Deputies recently mentioned to me that anti-Israel advocates can make us do whatever they want. A sham “court” (whose verdict is a forgone conclusion) is set up to put Israel on “trial,” and at once the local Jewish community must apply its limited time and resources to countering it.

Although it’s important to let no negative message about Israel go unanswered, as advocates for Israel we must realize that it is even more important to push our own conceptual frame. Communal decisions about how to apply scarce resources should be based on this fact as well as the impossibility of ever truly refuting every false charge.

The only way to get out ahead of the game is to set your own conceptual frame. To do so effectively requires two elements:

  1. Positive messaging about Israel to convey the basic truths about the rights of the Jewish people in their own land.
  2. Negative messaging about our adversaries to put them on the defensive and dissipate their resources answering us.

Of course, both of these objectives must be carried out by telling the truth (a stricture our opponents often seem to be untroubled by).

In a future article, I’ll go into greater detail about how to set the agenda and conceptual frame. Stay tuned…

Beyond the Flotilla

Engineering a flop

For most of the three months from May to July 2011, the Jewish world was abuzz with the impending Gaza flotilla and its higher-end cousin, the “fly-in.” After Israel’s mixed success in dealing with the 2010 flotilla, there was obvious apprehension that things might be disastrous. In the end, Israel’s diplomatic efforts and security measures turned the flotilla into a non-event. Instead of an armada, a single overcrowded French-owned yacht staggered in the direction of Gaza and was intercepted in international waters – with no casualties on either side and next to no media attention.[1]

An ambitious plan to fly over a thousand anti-Israel activists to Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv was largely preempted by Israeli liaison with foreign airlines, which prevented most of the agitators from even reaching the Jewish state. The minority who arrived were (briefly) detained and deported with little fanfare. A handful were even admitted to Israel.

I’d like to discuss what lessons we can learn from this whole episode: what we did well and what we can do even better.

Media events – the flotilla and fly-in

In a recent post (https://jccat.org/2011/06/13/the-media-and-israel-biased-or-just-dumb/) I wrote of the ease with which the media can be manipulated. One of the simplest ways to achieve this objective is through media events: incidents contrived solely to generate coverage from the media.

The flotilla and the fly-in were conceived of as just such stunts, actions designed to manipulate the media into covering events a certain way to produce the story that the anti-Israel organizers wanted. Israel responded remarkably well to the flotilla of 2010, realizing that they did not have to be passive victims of media manipulation. The IDF found they could add their perspective to the media stream by shooting their own footage of events in the Mediterranean and releasing the video directly through YouTube. This use of the Internet allowed them to bypass mainstream media outlets that had already fallen into the conceptual frame of the anti-Israel activists.

In 2011 Israel went one step further. The Israeli government asked itself the old philosophical question: “If a tree falls in the forest and CNN doesn’t cover it, has it happened?” By ensuring that the media event never took place, the message it was intended to convey was lost.

Another media event – the GA ploy

Through diplomatic and other means, Israel was able to control events surrounding the would-be flotilla and fly-in. But Israel had no way to control actions in countries hostile to Israel. In September 2011, the Syrian government and Hizbollah organized mass marches on their borders with the Jewish state. Forced to act forcefully to defend her borders, it was the IDF who were manipulated into falling into the stereotype of “brutality.” Fortunately for Israel the story picked up little momentum, perhaps because it was such a transparent attempt to divert attention from the real brutality of the Syrian and Iranian regimes’ suppression of domestic dissent.

With the prospects of a reprise, the IDF is straining to develop new tactics to minimize the potential damage from even larger mass demonstrations likely to coincide with the threatened appeal to the UN General Assembly to acknowledge Palestinian Arab sovereignty in September 2011.

Israel has grasped that the GA ploy is another media event and is using diplomatic efforts to try and stymie this stunt as well. By the way, those who – like myself – are critical of the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s advocacy efforts should take pause to congratulate the diplomats on their success when they do what they are supposed to do: exercise diplomacy. As I write these words, it’s too early to tell whether Israel’s envoys will succeed or not.)

What can we learn from the successes and failures of these attacks on Israel?

All politics are local

When Tip O’Neil coined that slogan in the 1930s, he was talking about the need to relate to the concerns of your local constituents. As local activists for Israel, we should apply the lessons of the flotilla successes and failures to campaigning for Israel on the local level. Local media is read, listened to, and watched much more than national and international outlets. If we are to define the parameters of debate we should learn the lessons of the crucial importance of media events, but translate them to a local level where we can have the biggest impact. To focus the attention of local media, we might try staging events such as the following:

  • Street theater dramatizing the plight of Gilad Shalit. Three volunteers (two dressed as Hamas terrorists and one as Gilad Shalit), a cage, a few people to hand out flyers, and a prime location (shopping mall, sports stadium, local legislature, or Iranian Airlines office) are all you need to get on the six o’clock news.
  • Placing anti-Israel terrorists on trial. Under Article III (c) of the 1948 “Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide” the “direct and public incitement to commit genocide” is a crime. That makes Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s call to “wipe Israel off the map” a crime under international law. Targeting Israeli civilians with rockets and mortars are war crimes. That makes the leaders of Hamas and Hizbollah criminals. Use local legal academics to set up a public tribunal to try any of the above on suitable charges. Take dramatic testimony from individuals who have suffered or are threatened by them. Invite the media. Repeat as necessary.
  • Celebrate your community’s links with Israel. When your community sends a mission to Israel, have local political leaders and/or celebrities welcome them back at the local airport. Get up a crowd with national and Israeli flags. Arrange some sort of award. Have the under-12 Jewish day school choir, dressed in white (always think about how to make an event photogenic) and holding candles, sing to greet them.

Generating our own stories gives us the edge. It’s much better to have Israel’s enemies loose sleep wondering how they are going to counter our campaigns than vice versa.


[1] If you are reading this blog you are probably well informed on the facts of what happened and I’ve no intention of reinventing the wheel. I would offer three links that didn’t get wide distribution in case you’d like to know more.

Melanie Phillips reveals the small Israeli NGO that lead the legal challenge to the flotilla. She also musters some compelling proof of the duplicity of the flotilla organizers in talking about the nonexistent “humanitarian crisis” in Gaza. http://melaniephillips.com/the-flotilla-and-the-third-intifada#.Tg9VJ4um1O8.facebook

Left wing, post-Zionist activist and journalist Amira Hass (who identifies so strongly with Palestinian Arabs that she lived for several years in Gaza) essentially derides the handful of foreign agitators who were on the final yacht for being “useful idiots” in this breathtakingly honest article, where she also gives the lie to the “humanitarian crisis” canard. http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/features/flotilla-activists-still-have-much-to-learn-about-gaza-siege-1.374913.

The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs offers one of its excellent analyses of the murky forces behind the flotilla. http://jcpa.org/JCPA/Templates/ShowPage.asp?DRIT=0&DBID=1&LNGID=1&TMID=111&FID=378&PID=0&IID=7745&TTL=Who_Is_Behind_the_Second_Gaza_Flotilla

The Media and Israel: Biased or just dumb?

Is it newsworthy?If you are a supporter of Israel, you don’t need convincing that most of the mainstream media is (at best) suspicious of and (at worst) openly hostile to the Jewish state.

If you are not a supporter of Israel, it is very likely that you would dismiss such assertions as paranoia. Most media consumers suppose that the information they are given, though it may lean slightly to the right or the left, is more or less balanced.

There is a clear discrepancy between the way Israel’s supporters view the media and the way everyone else does. What is the reason for this? Part of the explanation is that much of what we supporters of Israel perceive as bias is only discernible if you know quite a lot about the Middle East.

A generally well-informed reader, viewer, or listener might find nothing problematic in, for example, the following extract from an overview of the history of the Middle East in the newspaper USA Tody. Describing the events of November 29, 1947, the journalist writes:

The United Nations votes to Partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, with Jerusalem an International zone. The Palestinians reject the plan.[1]

One would have to be fairly well-informed to spot that although the Jewish residents did accept the UN partition plan, it was rejected not only by local Arabs, but all of the regional Arab powers (the term “Palestinians”  for Arabs wouldn’t emerge for another decade). The blanket rejection of Israel’s right to exist by the whole Arab world would be central to all further developments ― but it is absent from this account.[2]  With no obvious falsehoods, the description would pass muster as fair, unless you know that it is leaving out significant facts. Drawing attention to this sort of thing can look like nitpicking if you don’t understand the significance of the missing information, and you can only understand that if you are reasonably well informed.

This begs the question why the media consuming public are so ignorant of the background to the Arab-Israel conflict that they can’t spot this sort of thing. One of the answers is that the media doesn’t keep them better informed! (Someone once said that one of the advantages of circular arguments is that they are, at least, consistent!)

Some supporters of Israel will sniff a conspiracy here, and it’s easy to get the impression that the media people must hold a conference call every morning to decide what they can do to upset the Jews today.

However, the real causes of Israel’s problems with the media are both more, and less, sinister than an antisemitic plot.

Don’t Worry, Make Money

In a free-market, democratic society (like the United States) the production of news media is, overwhelmingly, a commercial activity. Whether print, broadcast, or Internet, almost everyone producing news for mainstream audiences is doing it to make money. They may have other objectives as well, including the well-worn journalistic ideals of informing and educating the public, but if they don’t make money, they will not stay in business long enough to fulfill their other aims.

Western reporting tends to be superficial, especially when it comes to the very influential electronic media, particularly TV. The reason it is superficial is that viewers, on the whole, don’t want much depth. There are instances of anti-Israel animus in the media, but most of the problems the Jewish state faces in reportage are due to superficiality not malice.

One can perhaps forgive the media for missing the founding of al Qaeda, in 1988. It was, then, only one of many obscure splinter groups, whose unique significance would only become apparent years later. Even its “re-launch” in 1998, as the World Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders, might have reasonably gone unnoticed. Yet today, more than two decades after it began, and a decade after the September 11 attacks, how much have we learned from the media about Osama bin Laden’s organization? How many people can describe the Salafist ideology that animates it, or distinguish it from the Salafi ideology that preceded it? Who knows what influence it bears on mainstream Islam? Surely these are the key questions that would help form a public policy toward the Islamist threat to the West, so why doesn’t the media cover them?

The answer is as frightening as it is simple: people aren’t interested. If faced with a choice between a one-hour-long “talking heads” show about the first three generations of Islam and their significance on the world today, and a “reality” show, most normal people opt for news from the “Big Brother House.” The media is superficial because that is what most of its consumers want.

The pro-Israel media watcher who notices superficial and sloppy reports should bear in mind that this is also probably true of almost any other story that the media is covering. It’s just that we tend to notice it when the issue is Israel. Talk to some of your friends who are sensitive to other issues (feminists, members of racial minorities, believers in other religions) and you will often find that their concerns about media bias mirror ours. It leaves you wondering if the media can be wrong about everything?

I’ve come to the conclusion that, with the possible exception of sports reports and the closing prices, they can indeed.

(Don’t think that that means that I view the situation as hopeless. In a future blog I’ll write about possible strategies for dealing with this problem.)


[1] The Mideast Conflict: A look at the region’s history, http://www.usatoday.com/graphics/news/gra/gisrael2/flash.htm as of August, 2004

[2] Analysis by Honest Reporting.com, http://www.honestreporting.com/articles/45884734/critiques/USA_Todays_Deceptive_Backgrounder.asp as of August 2004.


The Borders That Never Were

When the guns stopped. July 20, 1949Recent pronouncements by the US president have again focused attention on the “pre-1967 borders of Israel,” and they are being spoken about as if they lay in some golden age of legitimacy that Israel abandoned when it made war on the Arab world in 1967.

Some years ago I was on a cable TV show in Toronto, part of a panel of pro- and anti-Israel speakers, and one of my interlocutors was an attractive young Arab woman who represented the Canadian Branch of an Arab-American organization. The issue of Israel’s security barrier came up, and she trotted out the standard line about Israel lying about the anti-terror motive that Israel claimed for building it. Surly, she claimed, if Israel were only motivated by a desire to fight terrorism, they could have built it on “their own land” inside the “1967 borders.”

I asked her if she was actually stating, on national TV, that she as a leader of a major Arab organization in North America was publicly accepting the legitimacy of Israel within its pre-1967 boundaries – a recognition never before proffered by any Arab government (except for Egypt and Jordan)?

She spluttered and tried to change the subject, but the cat was out of the bag – and she was the one who had untied the string!

We all know that Israel is a unique country, but one of its lesser-known peculiarities is that for most of its history, it had no borders. The Jewish state’s first, recognized border only came into being in January 1980, with the implementation of the peace treaty with Egypt. Before that, all Israel had were ceasefire lines.

In 1947 the UN had proposed a partition of the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean into Jewish and Arab states. The Jews (reluctantly) accepted this suggestion; the Arabs rejected it. Local Palestinian Arabs and the armies of five Arab states set out to strangle the Jewish state in its cradle. The Jews stubbornly refused to die, and when the fighting stopped in July 20, 1949, they were in possession of 50 percent more land than had been allocated to them under the UN plan. But this was not some new agreement; it just happened to be where the Jewish forces had beaten their genocidal attackers to a standstill. That’s where the situation was and stayed until the attack was renewed against Israel in 1967.

The “pre-1967 borders” were really the post-1949 ceasefire lines. These boundaries of a failed genocide are today being spoken of as if they are Israel’s natural borders that the Jewish state is required to draw back to. She is not. Even the UN Security council accepted this point when, in the famous resolution 242, they looked forward to a peace in which Israel (like other states in the region) is entitled to boundaries that would be both “secure” and “recognized” – something the 1949 ceasefire lines manifestly were not.

Whatever your views are on the desirability of Israel making territorial concessions, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that Israel is required to return to the borders that never were.

What’s worse than a self hating Jew?

There have always been Jewish enemies of the Jewish people. The Talmud speaks of the moser (informer) as being comparable to a serpent. Often they were motivated by venality or personal vindictiveness, occasionally by apostasy.

In modern times, more complex psychological motivations also developed, resulting in the “self-hating Jew” — what one Israeli official describes as “people who are proud to be ashamed to be Jewish”! I could multiply examples almost indefinitely, but what’s the point? We all know the Noam Chomskys, Gerald Kaufmans, and Ronnie Kasrills of the world. (Ironically, anti-semitism is one of the few professions that has not discriminated against Jews — the Jew haters have always admitted Jews as full members in good standing.)

Jewish anti-semites are not going to go away, and we have largely learned how to deal with them. We have to put our feelings of betrayal and revulsion to one side and deal with them on the (de)merits of their arguments. If a gentile anti-semite is wrong, the fact that someone who shares the same views is himself Jewish, isn’t going to make him right.

Today, however, we face a much more dangerous phenomenon: the Jew who identifies strongly with the Jewish community, perceives himself to be “pro-Israel,” may even call himself a “Zionist,” yet has internalized the anti-Israel agenda.

The anti-Israel agenda
What is the anti-Israel agenda? For the last seventy years or more, anti-Israel and anti-Zionist rhetoric has asserted the same basic arguments:

  1.  Jews are not a nation.
  2. Jews are therefore not entitled to national rights. If they are entitled to national rights, they are not entitled to them in their ancient homeland.
  3. If their nationalism is illegitimate, it must be racist in conception and apartheid (and/or Nazi) in application.
  4. If they have succeeded in regaining control of their homeland, it is ipso facto by theft and not by right.
  5. 5. As an illegitimate state, Israel has no right to exist.
  6. With no right to exist, Israel has no right to self-defense.
  7. Any land Israel has gained through self-defense is held illegitimately.
  8. As an illegitimate state, Israel isn’t entitled to friendship, support, or allies.
  9. The crime of Israel’s existence is so heinous that it dwarfs all other issues in the Middle East, or anywhere else in the world for that matter.

This viewpoint has no nuance and no shades of grey. It is Manichean in it’s depiction of Israel as the ultimate evil and the Arabs and Muslims as the ultimate victims. It doesn’t matter where you board the train of anti-Israel ideology, it has only one destination: the eradication of Israel.

Taking antisemitism to the non-antisemites
The “trick” of anti-Israel advocacy is to take people’s legitimate questions about a specific Israeli policy and encourage them to segue into questioning Israel’s legitimacy. If you can find examples of unpleasant things going on (Israeli soldiers searching Palestinian Arabs houses for weapons, for example) then these are just further illustrations of how illegitimate the “Occupation” is.

Once you adopt the anti-Israel agenda, reasoned debate is no longer possible.

You might have a thoughtful discussion about what methods are both legitimate and effective for a country to use to defend itself against asymmetric warfare being waged against it from the midst of a civilian population, or you can talk about Israeli “war crimes” in Gaza. You can’t have both. The first is an open ended discussion (that may or may not include legitimate criticism of Israeli actions); the latter is just a slide down the ladder of its own logic to the inevitable conclusion that the Jewish state can’t redeem itself from the original sin it was born in.

To put the anti-Israel agenda in a nutshell, “Israel is the problem.” Put that way, the ultimate (or perhaps, final) solution is self-evident. Framing the debate as being about Israel, rather than the ongoing rejection of Jewish rights in our own homeland, poisons discourse in two ways. It traps supporters of Israel into a constantly defensive position, and it urges critics of Israel down the slippery slope of demonization.

What is singularly lacking in current discourse about Israel is a sense of the fundamental rightness of Israel’s case. We have spent so long explaining why we are not as bad as our enemies claim we are, that we have forgotten to say that we are better than anyone could imagine. There needs to be talk of Jewish heroism, humanity, and ingenuity. We must go beyond the mild admiration generated by Israel’s advances in hi-tech, to the inspiration of a nation winning back its ancient patrimony after an unprecedented exile, of the vision needed to achieve that goal and the greatness of spirit required to defend it.

In order to get away from the Israel-is-the-problem approach, we need a collection of stories. (These come from aish.com)

  • Major Roi Klein, who in battle in Southern Lebanon on July 25, 2009, threw himself on a hand grenade, stifling its explosion and saving the lives of his comrades. His last words were the heartfelt recitation of the Jewish declaration of faith, “Shema Yisrael, HaShem Elokeinu, HaShem Echad” (Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One). These were the same words spoken by Jewish martyrs down the ages.
  • Sherri and Seth Mandell’s teenage son, Koby, and his friend Yosef Ish-Ran were brutally murdered by Arab terrorists on May 8, 2001. The Mandells rose above their tragedy to found an international foundation (The Koby Foundation) to help other families who have lost siblings, children, or parents to terror.
  • Shlomo Mula, as a teenager, set out to walk from his village in Ethiopia to his homeland in the Land of Israel in 1984. After a journey in which he faced wild animals, bandits, and torture, he was rescued by Israeli clandestine operatives and finally reached the Jewish state. In February 2008, he was elected to Israel’s Parliament (the Knesset).
  • Yisrael Meir Lau was born in Poland in 1937 and was imprisoned in Buchenwald as a child. Scion of a family of Jewish scholars that boasted 37 generations, son after son, of rabbis, he felt that he had been rescued from the jaws of the beast to pick up the fallen torch of his heritage. He dedicated his life to religious studies and ministering to the needs of others, and in 1993 became Chief Rabbi of Israel.

If the “not quite self-hating Jews” of the world, including the young adherents of J Street U, saw the story of Israel as being reflected in these accounts, they would have a firmer grasp on the truth of the Middle East.