Grumpy Old Man: Tell the truth
There’s plenty of blame to pin on the other side, but let’s be smart – and that means openly confronting our own foibles and even stupidity.
Israel Apartheid Week demonstrators. . Photo: REUTERS
I received an email last week from an organization calling itself Americans for
Peace and Tolerance. The email warned about Israel Apartheid Week, a
concerted effort by the country’s harsher critics (and, yes, enemies) to
solidify their claim that we are no better than white South Africa used to be,
and even worse. It’s become an annual event throughout the United States, Canada
and some other countries, primarily on campuses.
“What can our side do?”
the email said in part. “Tell the truth: that this is a lie and that the real
apartheid in the Middle East is Arab Apartheid, where women, gays, Christians,
Jews and other minorities are subjugated, humiliated, raped, and
Can’t argue with that.
“We need the Jewish students
on campus to use THIS argument – not to say, as some of our feckless leaders are
telling them to say: ‘We are not so bad as they say we are.’” With that approach
I can argue.
Although the organization includes in its email a link to an
article that can help students counter the apartheid charge, it will take far
more if we are to be truly effective purveyors of hasbara, the much-used Hebrew
word for public diplomacy, because the problems begin when we throw around
accusations. We tend to generalize. We lack or ignore precise facts and figures
to back up our assertions. We also succumb to our prejudices. And sometimes we
act as if we ourselves have no shortcomings, so when someone else brings them
up, we are totally unprepared with a counter-argument or absolutely unwilling to
say that our interlocutor is right.
AFTER FIGHTING as a reservist in
Lebanon in 1982, I joined a Jewish Agency project called the Zionist
Caravan. The Caravan was an annual undertaking that sent young North
American immigrants (and, later, young immigrants from elsewhere) back to the
old country for a few weeks of traveling from city to city, campus to campus, to
explain what life in Israel was really like. The idea was that if this could cut
through some of the misconceptions and perhaps even plant thoughts of aliya,
In November 1982, considering the Lebanon fighting and the bad
press Israel had received (much of it due to shallow and sloppy foreign
reporting, but some of it entirely justified and even understated), the Caravan
spent the majority of its time trying to repair the damage. As the “war veteran”
among its members, it fell to me to talk about what really had
We were on a campus in Michigan, a state with a sizable Arab
population, and had set up a table at the student center. A lot of the young
people seemed to ignore us, but some wanted information and others stopped to
debate. A few among the latter were loud, vehement and ugly in their arguments.
One brought to my attention a pamphlet on our table that had been prepared by
the Foreign Ministry.
A photo in the pamphlet showed an installation on
the roof of a building. The installation had a large, gun-barrel-like protrusion
reaching out horizontally over the edge of the roof. The caption said the
building was a hospital in Beirut and that the installation was a large-caliber
The message was clear: The Arabs do their fighting
while hiding not only behind civilians, but behind ailing and injured civilians.
What’s more, they do so in the hope that either the IDF will refrain from firing
back or that it will indeed shoot, launch missiles or drop bombs and kill so
many wretched, harmless people that the world will recoil in revulsion and come
down firmly on the Arab side.
As a soldier I knew that this reflected a
great measure of truth. But the student said this was no gun. When I
looked closely I saw he was right: It was a mechanized winch designed to lift
heavy loads, and was identical to winches on roofs I had seen just about
everywhere in Israel.
Not entirely grasping for a way out, I agreed and
said that perhaps it had been placed there to draw Israeli fire. Perhaps, the
student agreed. But it clearly was not a weapon, and if we were saying it was,
what else were we lying about? That one caption nullified everything we might
have gained with our arguments on that campus.
IT IS true that this
country is not nearly as bad as the Israel Apartheid Week people and their ilk
insist we are. But we can be bad, well beyond the bad of numbskull public
relations, and even disgusting. And in so doing, self-defeating.
those separate bus lines for West Bank Palestinians. Whoever thought them
up clearly doesn’t understand – as the activists at Americans for Peace and
Tolerance do – that a good part of the war for our survival is being waged on
the battleground of public relations. Israel Apartheid Week, after all, is a PR
campaign nonpareil. Look how it’s got us all atither.
the organization is recommending that students (and, by extension, the rest of
us) basically ignore what the people behind Israel Apartheid Week say about the
Jewish state and instead simply tell everyone that the other side is worse – as
if anyone cares, considering all the double standards with which we and our
supporters must contend. Even worse than that, it’s as if the group is saying
that doing bad or stupid things to a lesser degree than our enemy makes it all
I say there is nothing “feckless” in confronting our own mistakes
and shortcomings, even in public, as long as it’s put in the proper perspective
and given the necessary context. Further, there is nothing wrong in standing up
for contentious policies, as long as they can be justified. I personally believe
our settlement policy is unwise, primarily because of the cost, whether in
treasure or public perceptions. But someone who is willing to pay the price can
point to more than a few powerful and compelling reasons why Jews cannot be
barred from living in the heartland of their heritage.
Just know your
arguments. And don’t obfuscate.
That goes for you, too, Americans for
Peace and Tolerance.
You describe yourself as being “dedicated to
promoting peaceful coexistence in a [sic] ethnically diverse America by
educating the American public about the need for a moderate political leadership
that supports tolerance and core American values in communities across the
I’ll forgive your grammar. Yet a more than cursory stroll
through your website shows that your ire is reserved mostly, if not solely, for
extreme Islam. This is fine. But what about Christian extremists and Jewish
extremists? Granted, they don’t fly airliners into skyscrapers or blow
themselves up on city buses, but they are out there and they make their views
known and felt. They have their haters, too. And many are in
So just as I say to Israel supporters everywhere, I say to
Americans for Peace and Tolerance: Tell the truth. Call yourself
Americans for Peace and Tolerance among Islamists. Nothing wrong with that. You
do good work. Or leave the name and go after all dangerous fundamentalists. Were
I the joining type, I would join. But tell the whole truth.
We all should
tell the whole truth, even about our beloved Israel – smartly, without fear and
without shame. Like we say in Hebrew, call the child by its name.