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COUNTER-POINT: How best to support an imperfect Israel

COUNTER-POINT: Boycott the boycotters?

by Michael Berenbaum

January 5, 2011 | 4:24 pm

What a wonderful idea. Let us counteract a boycott by engaging in a boycott of our own; let us boycott the boycotters who in turn can retaliate by boycotting the boycotters of the boycott.

There are several problems with the arguments advanced in this resolution.

The opening sentence troubles me: Should we really applaud the announced plan that the Federations and Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) are about to invest millions of dollars to counteract the delegitimization and demonization of Israel. Is there any empirical evidence that this investment of funds will be effective — or any more effective than the dozens of organizations large and small that are currently fighting Israel’s delegitimization? What will they do that others have not tried to do? The Federation is dealing with it.  Perhaps the money could be better spent by feeding the hungry in Israel and at home and teaching the young.

I have been in Jewish public life for more than three decades and have seen these fads come and go; these expenditures have usually been ineffective, and once they have given the funders a sense that “we are doing something about the problem,” they are usually buried quietly, having achieved exactly nothing.

The final sentence of that opening paragraph is equally troubling, equally exaggerated: The author suggests that there will be an escalation, first boycott the West Bank, then Tel Aviv, then the Jews in New York, Los Angeles and Peoria. Get serious! We’ve been down that road and it was called Nazism, which attempted to get the Jews out of German culture; ironically, the result has been that German culture deteriorated dramatically in its world influence in music, art, literature and science. American culture was the chief beneficiary of this boycott.

The author seems to have little confidence in the quality of Jewish creativity and its integration into world culture. If the English academics were serious about boycotting Israel, they would not use their Intel chips, Windows operating systems, their Apple iPads and iPhones, their cell phones and they would refrain from inoculating their children against diseases major and minor. They are making noise, and our major mistake is to take them seriously. Challenge them to be consistent. Israel is an integrated part of world culture and of the scientific and technologically interconnected global universe. Even its enemies now make use of its products. During the oil crisis of 1973 and 1979, we thought that power in the future would lie in the control of natural resources. We live in a knowledge-based universe, and Israelis and Jews have considerable power.

The issue of delegitimization is not a public relations issue but a question of actual policy not easily counteracted even by slick PR. Republican talking point guru Frank Lutz advised Jewish leaders as to how to package the pro-Israel message. His efforts were somewhat futile.

They cannot compete with what is happening in Israel. When prominent Israeli rabbis announce that Jewish law prohibits renting apartments or homes to Arabs within Israel, we don’t need our enemies to proclaim that Zionism is racism; we have rabbinical rulings endorsing a racial policy that reminds many Jews of German policy toward the Jews in the pre-exterminationist years. Their statement was so offensive that it drew the ire of the prime minister, virtually the entire non-Israel rabbinate whether Orthodox, Charedi or Liberal, and many Israeli rabbis.

When the foreign minister addresses the United Nations and undermines the policies of his own government or when he addresses Israeli ambassadors and undercuts the policies these ambassadors are assigned to represent, what is a PR effort to achieve?

Look at who is being targeted by this resolution.

Do we really want to drive these artistic men and women out of Jewish life? They are not dependent on the community financially or creatively so our only success will be in alienating them. I have known Theodore Bikel for decades. I have marched arm in arm with him to support Soviet Jewry, to rally on behalf of the State of Israel. I have seen him act in support of Jewish causes publicly and privately. His performances in cities across the world of “Fiddler on the Roof,” his shows of Yiddish songs and the way he has comported himself as a proud, informed, passionate Jew have brought honor to the Jewish people; and now this author suggests that he not be invited to Jewish events because he insists that settlements are antithetical to the interests of the State of Israel and to the Jewish people and refuses to perform in these settlements.

I have seen the work that Frank Gehry has done to recover his Polish Jewish roots. I have reviewed his unrealized design for the Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem. Do we want to circle the wagons so that Jewish life welcomes only those who endorse the right wing of Likud’s policies and that a rigorous standard of political enforcement determines who is kosher and who is not kosher to participate in Jewish life? Should we read out of the Jewish community talented and committed Jews who do not support parts of the current government policy and who see a danger that the failure to relinquish the territories will lead to the Jews being a minority in the lands between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea? Some of us believe that a two-state solution is the only way that Israel can remain Jewish and democratic, that a two-state solution is as important to Israel’s future as it is to the Palestinian one.

I prefer a Jewish world in which Jews care enough about Israel to be impassioned enough about its policies and its future to shout and scream even while I personally prefer civility. And I prefer a Jewish community that welcomes men and women of talent and of diverse views that contribute to this conversation.

Michael Berenbaum is professor of Jewish studies and director of the Sigi Ziering Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Ethics at American Jewish University.

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