Interesting Times: We have met the enemy and . . .

Economic and technological prowess buys you some respect, but it rarely buys you friends.

Masbirim Israel 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Masbirim Israel 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
You might easily miss it as you’re rushing to your plane at Ben- Gurion Airport. Right by the gate where the ticket agent checks your passport and boarding pass is a display stand containing a multilingual assortment of pocket-sized brochures called Masbirim Israel – a guide produced by the Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Ministry that offers people leaving the country some tips on how to present Israel in a positive light.
In its own way, the booklet doesn’t do a bad job. True, the cover relates back to a theater-of-the-absurd campaign the ministry has been running that seeks to break the stereotype of Israel as technologically backward (we ride on camels, our homes don’t have electricity), accusations even our worst enemies have never made. But in the brochure’s favor, it does give a reasonable guide about how to talk to people (listen to them, make eye contact, employ personal stories) and avoids the traditional hasbara (public diplomacy) boilerplate on history and politics to focus on Israel’s many accomplishments in science, technology and humanitarian efforts. It even contains a map that shows the Gaza Strip and the West Bank as separate from Israel.
Strange that the settlers haven’t demanded the brochures be shredded and its authors sued under the anti-boycott law.
Spreading the word about how we developed the PillCam or the cherry tomato smooths out the rough edges of our global image. Yet, while economic and technological prowess buys you some respect, it rarely buys you friends. No one likes China just because it makes the world’s iPods or Germany because it builds such good cars.
Tel Aviv’s winning a gay-friendly award does a lot more – just witness how gay anti-Israel activists went into overdrive when American Airlines published the poll – because it shows Israelis as friendly and welcoming people and the country as a tolerant place. The city’s campaign to turn itself into a global center for start-up companies may help Israel’s image, too, even if the goals are economic, by creating a brand for itself as a place for entrepreneurs developing cool technology by day and partying by night.
INDEED, BY portraying Israel as a Western country that is economically advanced and politically democratic, the Masbirim brochure inadvertently plays into Israel’s biggest image problems: namely that we are considered a Western country, economically advanced and politically democratic.
It invites Israel’s centrist critics to hold us to the same standards as Canada or Ireland, not those of Egypt or Lebanon, even though the kinds of neighbors we have to deal with are, in fact, Egypt and Lebanon. To those on the Left of the political spectrum, Israel’s being Western and therefore white is not just a higher standard but an indictment – prima facie evidence that Israel is a colonial holdover that belongs in the dustbin of history along with Rhodesia and British-ruled Hong Kong.
Some Israelis and their supporters in the Jewish world would like us to believe that any and all criticism of Israel is cut from the same cloth. Criticizing Israeli policies is opposing Israel and its right to exist, and opposing Israel is anti-Semitic. It makes Obama look no different from The Guardian, which is no different than Noam Chomsky, the global boycott movement or radical Islamists. Open or hidden, they all have an agenda of delegitimizing Israel.
Besides the obvious fact that this isn’t true, it is a barrier to countering the claims of Israel’s real enemies. After all, if everyone who opposes settlements is an anti-Semite, there’s no reason to follow the advice of Masbirim Israel and spend time listening to them. No need to make eye contact either. It’s enough to engage invective, preferably over blogs and Internet talkbacks where you can express your opinion unilaterally. No need to consider whether a particular policy or practice is wrongheaded because those who say it is are motivated by the worst intentions.
Yes, Israel is free and democratic like the Masbirim pamphlet says, but the entire country – including its universities, its media and its non-governmental organizations – should all march under the Zionist banner.
Let’s face it, though: Israel does have more than an image problem and the heart of it is the settlements. All of Israel’s claims to be seeking peace with our neighbors ring dubious while we keep building and expanding our presence on the same land we insist is subject to negotiation.
Israel’s worst human rights violations occur on the other side of the Green Line as an inseparable part of the settlement enterprise. The racism that exists inside Israel proper – which, despite what our fiercest critics say, is no worse than the sort common in the enlightened countries of the West – becomes notorious in the West Bank.
By making Israel and the settlements one and the same, we are telling the world not to look at the settlements as an exception like segregated buses or our treatment of refugees, to the rule of an otherwise free, democratic, egalitarian and progressive society. Rather, the settlements become an inseparable part of Israel; indeed (as the settlers like to think of themselves), the perfect expression of Zionism, the home of the nation’s most loyal sons and daughters and the future of the country. When we go out and fight the battle for global public opinion, we have no shortage of enemies, but one of the most daunting is us.