Israel at 70: Not as isolated as Israelis think

Israel does have a major problem, but it is not the so-called “BDS.”

Participants carry Israeli flags at the 'Celebrate Israel'' parade along Fifth Avenue in New York City in 2017 (photo credit: STEPHANIE KEITH/REUTERS)
Participants carry Israeli flags at the 'Celebrate Israel'' parade along Fifth Avenue in New York City in 2017
In recent years, since the collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian political process, Israelis have become increasingly concerned with the so-called “BDS.”
It is deeply disturbing to witness how many Israelis are absolutely convinced that Israel is de facto isolated in the world. To them, it is an undisputed fact: Israel is being subjected to a mightily forceful, all-encompassing, new international movement that is meant to destroy the country. This unprecedentedly well-organized and well-funded movement introduced what they believe to be a brand-new tool in the warfare against the Jewish state: the boycott.
The fear among Israelis is that their country will ultimately face the same fate as South Africa. The government responded by creating a special agency to combat the delegitimizers, and in the organized Jewish world several advocacy groups have set their agenda accordingly. Millions of dollars are being spent annually to deal with the fear of boycott and isolation.
The facts do not support the hysteria.
For starters, Israel is not isolated. On the contrary, it is being celebrated worldwide. As the State of Israel celebrates 70 years of independence, and Zionism celebrates over 150 years of remarkable achievement, it should be noted that we have never had it better – economically, militarily and geopolitically.
Israel is an economic marvel, a major producer of conceptual products, a significant provider of content to Hollywood. Its cultural assets, although they face agitation from time to time, are being invited to perform all over the world. Israelis are welcomed to conduct business globally. Israeli companies are traded in foreign markets and Israeli talent is widely admired in all walks of life.
Israeli media routinely reports about Roger Waters and the few who do cancel their shows, but since the term “BDS” emerged in our lives (ironically the term BDS – Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions – is an Israeli invention. It was conceived and conceptualized by an Israeli policy group 10 years ago) dozens of the world’s greatest performers happily performed in Israel.
Industry insiders say that most cancellations are due to poor ticket sales and market saturation. It is true that some artists, such as Lorde and Lana Del Rey, caved in to the pressure applied by Israel’s detractors, but they represent the exception rather than the rule.
On the diplomatic front the situation is even more impressive with an unprecedented intimacy with the US administration and new game-changing alliances in the Middle East. In recent years Israel has become a magnet for foreign leaders.
On the academic front, Israel’s standing has never been better. Six of Israel’s nine research universities are included in the Shanghai Index, which ranks the top 500 universities in the world. Two of the six are ranked in the top 100 institutions in the world.
Another important indication as to Israel’s positioning in the global community is the massive presence of major multinational companies. Many global giants, such as Intel, Microsoft, Apple and Google, have established R&D centers here.
Second, there is nothing new about the attempts to boycott Israel. There was the pre-statehood Arab boycott of 1945 imposed by the Arab League, and we all know how that ended for the Arabs. Israel was forced to develop a knowledge-based economy and successfully carved new markets in Europe, North America and the Far East, turning the country into a globally recognized economic success story. Israel’s GDP per capita is dramatically higher than most of its neighbors and is higher than most EU countries. Those who urged the suffocation of Israel’s economy were left far behind.
There is also nothing new about the “systematic assault on the very legitimacy” of Israel. As a country born out of adversity, Israel’s detractors always questioned its legitimacy. Israel’s capital and boundaries are not internationally recognized. In fact, legally, Israel is in a state of war with its neighbors, militarily and diplomatically. Israel’s detractors were far more effective in the mid-1970s (with a UN resolution equating Zionism with racism) and the early 1980s following Israel’s invasion to Lebanon. Their assault then was significantly more intense than today. We just did not call it “BDS.” From its very inception, the Zionist enterprise faced opposition and the efforts to delegitimize Israel’s existence by our political adversaries never ceased.
In fact, Zionism is more popular today than it has been in the past. Historically, Zionism was not enthusiastically embraced by all Jews. Even post-statehood, most American Jews did not actively support Zionism. Israel was perceived as a needy sibling, stricken by a seemingly insurmountable set of problems. Members of the Jewish Diaspora saw their role to provide the fragile new country with charitable aid. Indeed, during its early years, this was the only aid Israel received. Today, thanks to organizations such as Birthright, JNF, iTrek and others, there is a profound change in the positioning of Israel in the eyes of young Jews worldwide. For the first time in decades young Jews see Israel as a place of opportunity.
Lastly, the so-called “BDS movement” is largely an online phenomenon that links a network of powerless fringe groups. Sadly, it’s the chronic misdiagnosis of Israel that elevated these fringe groups to the top of the agenda. Several years ago, Israeli diplomats in North America were instructed to assess the significance of the so-called “Apartheid Week” on campus. The organizers claimed that 80 campuses joined the effort. Israel’s diplomats were asked to report how many people attended, the scope of media coverage and the impact the event had on local political leadership. The reports came in and were essentially similar: all events were very poorly attended, attendees were overwhelmingly already identified as anti-Israel, media coverage was minimal and no impact on local political leadership was detected. There was only one exception, only one place where “Apartheid Week” was widely reported in the media and had tremendous influence on decision-makers: the State of Israel.
Despite these firm indications most Israelis accept, with no hesitation, the fact that the country is isolated in the world. Several psychohistorical reasons are in play here:
First, the historical omnipresence of very powerful anxiety agents in Israeli society. One such prominent agent is the political leadership from both ends of the spectrum. For the Left, boycott and isolation is what’s awaiting if Israel will not end the conflict. For the Right, boycott is proof positive of a longstanding belief that the world is out to get us.
Second, the radically ethnocentric news feed provided by Israel’s mainstream media. Global events, such as the Climate Summit, could be barely mentioned. But a car accident involving Israelis in Bolivia gets front-page coverage. The coverage of the boycott threat is completely blown out of proportion.
Third is the age-old perception as to the critical centrality of the UN where Israel suffers from a built-in disadvantage. Many Israelis still view the UN as the country’s only source of legitimacy. If the UN is where one measures international standing then, indeed, Israel is isolated. Sadly, as far as Israel is concerned, the UN has become merely a public affairs arena. Israel’s diplomacy has disproportionately invested efforts in this arena, thus amplifying its isolation beyond the UN itself. Most Israelis are unaware of the UN’s rapid decline. Plagued with unfairness, inefficiency, bureaucracy and hypocrisy, the UN of today is a failed institution that is increasingly becoming irrelevant.
Fourth is the traditional lack of understanding how diplomatic warfare has changed in the age of information. The Internet did not invent misinformation campaigns. “Fake news,” the detractors’ main tool, is as old as human interaction itself. Ultimately, the so-called “BDS-ers,” preach to their own choir in a digital world of niche conversations. In fact, the plight of the Palestinians, the chief agitators, has never been more marginalized.
Fifth, is Israel’s deeply-rooted perception as to Europe’s global prominence. Certainly, this was the case in the early days of Zionism. No doubt, Israel is highly unpopular in some classic European countries and Zionism is rejected by much of the intellectual elite. However, Israel’s hyper-sensitivity regarding Europe, reflects an outdated view of geo-politics and a profound diplomatic inadequacy. Consider this: The number of Israel’s diplomatic missions in Europe is three times the number of missions in North America and more than five times the number of missions in China. While Europe cannot be completely discounted, as Israel’s largest trade partner, Israel’s diplomatic priorities do not reflect the dramatic rise of Asia, where they never heard of the so-called BDS.
So, what is the solution? A multilayered approach is needed: not to view the issue as a crisis but rather as a long-term strategic problem; break the “twinning” with the Palestinians and engage in a broader conversation about Israel’s place in the world; highlight Israel’s relevance by emphasizing its competitive edge, unique advantages and value proposition; engage in a systematic effort to bring to Israel, in a Birthright-like fashion, hundreds of social-media influencers every year; launch a national program to increase the number of foreign study-abroad students from the current 2,500 to 30,000 per year; establish a national faculty exchange program for doctoral candidates in the humanities and social studies; avoid the disastrous curse of self-fulfilling prophecy (as was done with Argentina’s national soccer team) and realize that the majority of people are not interested in the conflict. Most importantly, we must avoid responding directly to the source of agitation. A golden rule in issue management is never to inform the audience of the very issue one is trying to contain.
Israel does have a major problem, but it is not the so-called “BDS.” It is the inability of people, especially younger, to relate to the narrow and self-centered messages Israel communicates to the world. If only given a chance, Israel could sell itself. Often, these are the Israelis themselves who do not give their own country a chance.
The writer is a former Foreign Ministry official, former Israeli consul-general in New York and a Global Distinguished Professor at New York University’s School for International Relations.