The combination of the upcoming Israel Apartheid Week and the recent boycott/divestment/ sanctions (BDS) conference at the University of Pennsylvania has prompted much discussion about the need for a proactive public relations strategy rather than a reactive one. I couldn’t agree more. Disturbingly, however, even many “proactive” strategies are largely reactive: They focus almost exclusively on portraying Israel as a seeker of peace, in obvious reaction to the world’s tendency to blame Israel for the conflict with the Palestinians. And by adopting this strategy, Israel advocates are essentially adopting its enemies’ definition of it: a country defined solely by the ongoing conflict.
A column published in these pages last week offers a perfect example of the problem. In it, Natalie Menaged described how pro-Israel groups on 75 college campuses across North America are responding to Israel Apartheid Week by organizing Israel Peace Week, which “revolves around a simple, yet often understated message: Israel wants peace and has demonstrated its willingness to make painful sacrifices for peace.”
That, of course, is true, and it’s certainly a significant element of Israel’s identity. But it isn’t the only one, or even the most important – nor should it be.
A campaign that views Israel primarily through the prism of its peace-making efforts ignores most of what this country is about. And it thereby reinforces the perception that Israel is defined mainly by the conflict. If even its advocates treat Israel’s efforts to solve the conflict the most noteworthy thing about it – the thing they most want to share with their peers on campus – then why should those peers think otherwise?
The problem with this is twofold. First, it forces Israel onto a playing field where it can’t win. For if Israel’s sole claim to support and sympathy is its “willingness to make painful sacrifices for peace,” then it will inevitably face constant pressure to make more and more such sacrifices in order to retain the world’s support and sympathy. That’s precisely what’s happening now in the realm of international diplomacy: After Israel withdrew from every inch of both Lebanon and Gaza and got only rocket fire in exchange, the world didn’t turn around and tell the Palestinians, “okay, now it’s your turn to demonstrate your bona fides”; instead, it pressured Israel to demonstrate its bona fides by making further concessions – a freeze on settlement construction, additional handovers of territory to the Palestinian Authority, etc. – just to lure PA President Mahmoud Abbas to the negotiating table.
Sometimes, Israel can acquiesce in these demands. But inevitably, the moment will come when it must say “no” to protect its own vital interests. The current American/European/Palestinian demand that it agree to a border “based on” the 1967 lines is a perfect example: Israel cannot accede to this demand, because it considers the 1967 lines indefensible. Yet its refusal has led many Westerners to view it as unwilling to make the requisite “sacrifices for peace” – and hence, undeserving of support even by its own advocates’ definition.
Even more problematic, however, is that this focus on the conflict makes people view Israel as an “abnormal” state. After all, many other countries also have conflicts with their neighbors. Yet nobody dreams of defining them by their willingness (or lack thereof) to make “sacrifices for peace.”
India and Pakistan, for instance, have fought three full-scale wars since their mutual establishment in 1947, plus an ongoing, lower-level conflict in Kashmir that has killed more than 47,000 people over the past 65 years and continues to claim hundreds of victims each year. Yet when people think of India, the Kashmir conflict is rarely the first thing that comes to mind. Instead, they think of India’s thriving multicultural democracy, its booming high-tech industry, its enduring pockets of poverty, its award-winning novelists, its Bollywood movies, and so forth. Similarly, people don’t define South Korea by its unresolved war with North Korea, which has thus far lasted 62 years with no end in sight; they think instead of its flourishing high-tech economy and vibrant democracy.
This abnormal perception of Israel helps fuel the growing discourse over whether it – alone among the nations – has a “right” to exist. When a country is seen in three dimensions, the very idea of it ceasing to exist seems like an abomination: How could anyone countenance the disappearance of, say, India, with its rich mix of people, cultures, religions, industry, politics and arts? But when a country is reduced in the popular mind to nothing more than an endless war with its neighbors, then its eradication starts to sound logical rather than appalling: If Israel has no existence beyond the conflict, and the conflict is clearly undesirable, why not just solve the problem by eliminating Israel?
The truth, of course, is that Israel is vastly greater than the conflict: It is a vibrant democracy in a despotic neighborhood, a stimulating mix of different religions, nationalities and cultures, a flourishing first-world economy, an endless fount of innovative products and technologies that benefit the entire world. It is also the gripping story of a people reconstituting itself as a state after 2,000 years of exile, a people that picked itself up from the ashes of the Holocaust and defiantly started anew. And once, not so long ago, this was how the world saw it, too.
Nowadays, so much of the world does define Israel by the conflict that its advocates neither can nor should ignore the issue, and activists like those behind Israel Peace Week deserve full credit for their efforts. Moreover, even those who want to shift the focus away from the conflict find it difficult when so many prominent Israelis – politicians, journalists and academics – still talk and act as if Israel’s policies on the peace process were the be-all and end-all of its existence.
Nevertheless, the focus must be changed if Israel is ever to win the public relations war. That doesn’t mean abandoning conflict-related PR, which remains important. But in any truly proactive campaign, the main story shouldn’t be about what Israel isn’t – a brutal, oppressive warmonger – but about all the wondrous, exciting things it is.
The writer is a journalist and commentator.