Orit Farkash-Cohen brings new energy in the fight against BDS

DIPLOMACY: Sitting in the Strategic Affairs Ministry, Farkash-Hacohen fights in Israel's corner.

Strategic Affairs Minister Orit Farkash-Hacohen (photo credit: COURTESY OF BLUE AND WHITE)
Strategic Affairs Minister Orit Farkash-Hacohen
Weeks after the Second Lebanon War ended in 2006, Orit Farkash-Hacohen arrived in Boston with her husband and three children in tow, to start her masters’ degree in public administration at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
Farkash-Hacohen, now strategic affairs minister, admits that as someone born and raised in Israel, she was “tone deaf” about what life was like for a Jewish person in the Diaspora.
“Native Israelis grew up as the majority. We don’t understand what it’s like to be a minority,” she said, but that year in Boston was an “eye-opening experience” for Farkash-Hacohen and her family.
Farkash-Hacohen took a class on negotiations with a popular professor, only to be shocked to find that the class had been assigned to read a speech she considered anti-Israel and antisemitic. There was no other background information or consideration of the Israeli side, which she was sure her classmates were unfamiliar with, in the required reading.
“There was incitement and lies and antisemitic overtones, against Jews and Israel,” she recounted on Thursday. “I was shocked to have to read this very long speech and discuss it in class.”
When Farkash-Hacohen brought up her objections to the professor privately and before the entire class, there was hardly any acknowledgment, she said.
As former chairwoman of the Electricity Authority, Farkash-Hacohen’s resume shows years of experience in the areas of infrastructure and economics, and she is vocal on those issues, as well.
But that story and others gave Farkash-Hacohen an acute awareness of what Israeli and Jewish students face on campus, and the lessons of her year in the US had a deep impact that emphasized for her the importance of a ministry to focus on fighting delegitimization of Israel.
“When I finished that year, I understood that the connection with Jewish communities abroad is an important strategic asset for Israel, and how vulnerable they are and how they pay a direct price for Israel’s status in the world,” she said. “I came back with a great appreciation for the different Jewish communities and the challenges they experience. I understood that we, as Israelis, have a great responsibility for Diaspora communities that I didn’t understand before living there.”
As strategic affairs minister, Farkash-Hacohen is now prioritizing calling out social media companies for providing “a haven for misinformation and classic antisemitic tropes.”
The first thing she did in office is write a letter to Twitter regarding tweets by Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei calling Israel “a cancerous growth” that must be cut off, and comparing Israel to the COVID-19 pandemic. Weeks later, a Twitter representative dismissed Khamenei’s comments as “saber-rattling” that does not violate the company’s terms of use.
“I’m still conducting a dialogue with [Twitter],” she said. “Their response is totally unacceptable. They think that when it comes to political leaders in Iran, publishing incitement is ‘in the public interest.’ They seriously think leaving those tweets untouched is in the public interest.”
Twitter and the Strategic Affairs Ministry formed a working group to address the problem of antisemitism on the platform.
Farkash-Hacohen cited a range of measures Twitter could take to respond to such tweets, from labeling some tweets or removing others that raise serious concerns of provoking violence.
Farkash-Hacohen also revealed for the first time that TikTok reached out to her ministry to discuss antisemitism and incitement, even though the Chinese-owned social media platform declined to attend a Knesset meeting on the matter this month.
“In the end, you can’t deny that social networks shape our perception of reality.... It has the power to corrupt people’s minds,” she warned.
Farkash-Hacohen called for greater accountability for the consequences of racist and antisemitic incitement on social media platforms, and for them to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism.
She’s also called for social media companies to be more transparent and provide public reports on incitement and disinformation on their platforms.
AT THE same time, Farkash-Hacohen’s own ministry has come under fire for a lack of transparency. Under her predecessor, the ministry rejected Freedom of Information requests to see where the hundreds of millions of shekels dedicated to the fight against delegitimization of Israel are allocated.
Farkash-Hacohen said that the ministry will still use some “hidden tools” that cannot be revealed to the public. However, she hopes to be as transparent as possible, “because we work for the public and don’t have what to hide,” and plans to make her schedule and that of ministry Director-General Ronen Manelis public.
A large part of the Strategic Affairs Ministry goes to its work with a broad network of pro-Israel NGOs around the world. Some do not openly admit to working with the Israeli government, and the ministry respects those policies.
Farkash-Hacohen would also not relay specific details of what her ministry is doing to prepare for a possible war crimes trial in the International Criminal Court, though it is known to have a network of lawyers, as well.
The minister warned that “Israel is facing a year of delegitimization,” between the ICC proceedings, the UN Human Rights Council blacklist against more than 100 companies operating in Judea and Samaria, and a spike in antisemitism that has come with the social unrest amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“The ICC turned into a political tool in a way that goes against the rules of the UN itself, which is committed to acting equally and fairly,” she said. “The ICC acts in a way that is discriminatory and illegitimate against Israel and other democratic countries.
“How did the ICC get form being a body that was supposed to be a check on acts of genocide and such, to turning young Israelis who defend Israel’s borders from terrorism into potential defendants? I don’t understand it and can’t accept it,” she said.
The Strategic Affairs Ministry’s role is to be the coordinating body for all of the challenges related to delegitimization, whether they’re economic – like the UN blacklist – academic, diplomatic or security issues.
Farkash-Hacohen warned that “delegitimization against Israel and calls for the destruction of the Jewish state is growing. It isn’t disappearing; it’s getting worse.”
MUCH LIKE her predecessor as strategic affairs minister, new Ambassador to the UN Gilad Erdan, Farkash-Hacohen is a skilled political pugilist. She’s a very outspoken defender of Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz and Blue and White, and is one of the party’s MKs who has appeared the most on TV and radio interviews day after day to defend its positions.
“I’m a fighter in my personality. I’m not afraid to fight for what I believe in,” Farkash-Hacohen said.
When it comes to the current political crisis, Farkash-Hacohen said the dispute over whether to have a one-year budget for the remainder of 2020 – as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants – or a two-year budget for 2020-2021 – as Gantz wants and the coalition agreement states – is “fake news.”
“It’s between those who want to dismantle this government because it doesn’t serve his personal interests, and to drag the people of Israel into an election, and those who don’t,” she said.
Though she said the budget is not the real reason for the dispute, on the economic side, Farkash-Hacohen said Israel needs a budget to last through 2021 to encourage economic stability and growth in the coronavirus-induced downturn.
It’s a matter of principle for Blue and White that Netanyahu and Likud keep to the terms of the coalition agreement, so that Gantz can keep “a hand on the steering wheel and a foot on the brakes” of this unity government, she said.
“Unfortunately, Prime Minister Netanyahu is trying to find cracks in the agreement so he can escape it due to his personal considerations,” she lamented.
As for the negotiations to end the political crisis, Farkash-Hacohen said it’s too early to say where they will go, but that Blue and White “decided to act responsibly” by supporting on Wednesday the bill to postpone the August 25 deadline to pass a budget.
“When there is a will there is a way. The real challenge is that I’m not sure there is a will,” Farkash-Hacohen said. “The real question is what is [Netanyahu’s] intentions in this crisis. We in Blue and White are sure it’s a manufactured crisis. We hope the prime minister and Likud will behave responsibly.”