The international community has imposed an “emotional blockade” on Israel that has prevented the world from sympathizing with Israeli citizens, according to France’s Ambassador for Human Rights Francois Zimeray.

“World compassion has not gone to Israel,” said Zimeray, noting that both Israelis and Palestinian have suffered as a result of the conflict. “The world does not realize how intense this [Israeli] suffering can be.”

He spoke to The Jerusalem Post during a visit last week to address the Seventh International Conference on Holocaust Education and Remembrance held at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.

The idea of an emotional blockade is not new to him. As an image, however, it carries a particular resonance now, as Israel works to reverse its three-year blockade of Gaza.

“I came to this idea when I was a member of the European Parliament. When bombs were exploding in Israel [there was little sympathy for the victims],” he said. “There is a denial in Western minds of Israel’s vulnerability. The feeling of compassion with Jewish suffering stops at Israel’s border.”

The international community is held hostage by the narrow prism through which it views the conflict, according to Zimeray. Israel, in turn, operates in survival mode under the mistaken belief that it is alone in the world, he said.

Zimeray described himself as “a friend of Israel,” even though he added wryly that this was the kind of statement that often “starts out well, but ends badly.”

Growing up in Paris to Jewish parents – one from Morocco and the other from Algeria – Zimeray sees himself on a personal mission to ensure that the Holocaust never happened again by working on behalf of human rights. As a high school senior, he became active on behalf of Cambodians who escaped genocide by fleeing to France.

“I come from a family that was not religious, but had a strong feeling of belonging to Jewish history and a secular Jewish tradition,” said Zimeray. “I had been raised on [the Holocaust slogan] ‘Never Again.’ I said if I do not do anything, Jews who died in the Holocaust will have died in vain.”

AS AN international human rights attorney, he has focused on issues from the Congo to Darfur. As a politician and a diplomat, he has watched the increasing, almost obsessive focus by the international community on Israel as a human rights abuser.

It was not easy for the 48-year-old diplomat to hear that nine Turkish passengers had been killed at the end of last month aboard a Gaza bound ship, after violence broke out when the IDF boarded to prevent it from breaking the naval blockade. But he was dismayed by the speed with which many in the international community condemned Israel without placing the incident in context.

His position on Gaza mirrors that of his country.

Zimeray did not condone violence nor has he supported the closure of Gaza to all but humanitarian goods. But at the same time, he believes Israel has a right to monitor goods that enter Gaza by land or sea.

Zimeray hopes that by taking this position he has walked a fine line between supporting Israel’s right to defend itself, while chastising it for harming the rights of civilians in Gaza.

“It would be egotistical,” he said, “to pretend that we would have reacted better. Honestly, among those who have condemned Israel, many would have behaved much worse, no doubt about that.”

Within the international condemnation’s explicit message was also an implicit one, said Zimeray: “Israel should not have been in that position where a flotilla comes across the sea to visit.”

Without the restrictions at the land crossings, there would have been no need for a flotilla, he said.

“I have been in Gaza twice and the only thing I would like to share with your readers is this: How would I see the world, what would my feelings be if I lived there?” he asked.

“Having said that, I know that if Hamas said tomorrow that it recognized Israel and renounced violence, [Israel would behave differently toward Gaza].”

Hamas, he said, should also release captive soldier Gilad Schalit, a dual Israeli-French citizen.

Gaza is not the sole reason that many nations are angry with Israel, Zimeray stressed.

It might not be fair, he said, but what exasperated the international community was that the conflict with the Palestinians had lasted so long. The world, he said, had projected onto Israel all that anger and frustration over the conflict’s longevity.

Some of that emotion stemmed from anti-Semitism, Zimeray said. But only some.

“This ingredient exists, but it pales in comparison to the calcification of more than 60 years of conflict,” he said.

Israelis care about peace, but they have given the world the impression that it can wait, said Zimeray.

As a result, the international community has the sense that the status quo was acceptable for Israelis.

“We do not have the feeling that every morning and every evening, Israelis work to achieve peace.”

Israel had to do more to show the world there was nothing more important than this, Zimeray concluded.

ACKNOWLEDGING THAT there were double standards in media coverage of the Gaza flotilla, he noted that the 400,000 Uzbeks who fled ethnic violence in Kyrgyzstan this month and the 2,000 who may have died received significantly less media attention. The same was true for those who died in Sri Lanka’s Civil War or the genocide in Darfur, he said.

He asked: Where was the concern for the plight of the Palestinians in Syria where they lived in horrible conditions? “If only the world would mobilize for other causes in the way that it has focused on Israel,” he said.

Equally problematic, he said, was the application of language from the Holocaust or apartheid South Africa, which had given people an exaggerated sense of what is happening in the Palestinian territories.

He has heard, for example, people comparing Gaza to Auschwitz.

“If Gaza is Auschwitz, then Auschwitz was not Auschwitz,” he said. “The situation in Gaza is sad and deserves our indignation, but it is not the same as the Holocaust.”

To truly achieve peace, he said, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should not be divided into good and bad victims.

“Human rights should not be a tool that is used in favor of one camp against the other. People who have nothing to do with the conflict and define themselves as only pro-Palestinian or pro-Israeli are bastards,” he said.

What did it mean to be pro-Israeli if one did not support the state of Israel living in peace with its neighbors, he asked. What did it mean to be pro- Palestinian if not to support a democratic Palestinian state living alongside Israel in peace. To be pro-Palestinian was to be pro-Israeli and vice versa, he said.

Instead, the international community and Israel were trapped in a kind of cyclical political phenomenon that had become like the relationship of the chicken to the egg; it was impossible to tell what came first. Israel felt like it was endangered, isolated and had no choice but to resort to violence to protect itself.

The international community didn’t understand Israel and condemned that action, often by simplifying the issue, which only impressed on Israel the very principles which pushed it to act violently to begin with, he said.

The cycle, he said, went something like this: “Brutality, condemnation, incomprehension, isolation and then self-protection.”

On the assumption that it was alone, Israel rejected all proposals by the international community, a move that put the two parties further at odds and made it appear to be rejectionist, he said.

“Israel is a prisoner of its own conviction that the world does not understand it,” Zimeray said.

The international community, he said, had to think of the consequence of its words before pronouncing them and to realize how vulnerable Israel was.

Israel, in turn, had to learn to distinguish between its friends and its foes. More to the point, it had to raise the drive to repair its international image to the level of a strategic imperative, or risk a situation in which the state itself was delegitimized.

“This is a very important arena. One has to deal with international public opinion exactly as one has to deal with internal public opinion. It means that one has to deal with prejudice and wrong information and misperception of reality [that were] inherited from a war of images,” he said.

“One has to consider it as a political fact and to work with it.

“I am concerned about the gap of misunderstanding between Israel and the rest of the world. It is not good for Israel, for the friends of Israel and for peace,” said Zimeray.

He added that he was also worried about the legitimacy of Israel as it moved into the future.

International consensus was one of the important foundations on which Israel’s existence as a democratic Jewish state rested, he warned.

“As a French citizen and as a European, I have to say that the legitimacy of Israel does not rely only on the blood and the sweat of the Jewish people,” he said.

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