My Word: BDS, boos and Jerusalem

I’m more of a “laugh out loud” or “laugh in your face” type of person than a heckler.

International Jerusalem Post editor Liat Collins interviews Prof. Alan Dershowitz (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
International Jerusalem Post editor Liat Collins interviews Prof. Alan Dershowitz
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
I’m more of a “laugh out loud” or “laugh in your face” type of person than a heckler. The only occasion I can recall doing something that could be construed as heckling was in the late 1970s when my sister and I went to a concert in London by Joan Baez. I was young and not foolish, but less inhibited.
It wasn’t her performance that made me uncharacteristically call out during Baez’s show. It was her politics, the subtle Baez bias. At some point between her folksy songs delivered in that clear voice I love, Baez used her spot in the limelight to praise Egyptian president Anwar Sadat for making peace with Israel. It was 1978 or 1979, shortly before I left England for good.
Like Baez, I was thrilled at the Egyptian-Israel peace treaty.
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Unlike Baez, I thought it should be publicly acknowledged that the kudos did not belong only to Sadat. The courage of Sadat was met by the bravery of Menachem Begin, and I felt obliged to stand up and shout out that there were two partners to the treaty: You can’t praise Sadat without mentioning Begin, I informed Baez and the audience.
The issue of heckling came to mind following the behavior of a few attendees at the Jerusalem Post Conference in New York this week. Behavior that did no one proud.
Those who shouted down, or turned their back on, US Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, because they did not like all he had to say, or the person they see him representing, displayed a small-minded approach.
Agree with him or not, his standing and the particular forum required a certain level of politeness if not respect.
If you don’t want to hear what someone says, leave the room; don’t stop others from listening. It’s always easier being among like-minded people, but it’s not the best way to broaden opinions and understanding.
The Baez phenomenon, as I’ve come to think of it, continues to haunt us.
Sadat’s biggest step to peace as far as the ordinary Israeli is concerned was the willingness to come to Jerusalem and address the Knesset. Praising peace from the podium of Israel’s parliament was an unforgettable gesture.
It’s extraordinary how far we have since gone in the opposite direction.
Now, Israel is told to release terrorists en masse as a gesture of goodwill simply to get the Palestinians back to the negotiating table in Ramallah.
THIS WEEK the city of Jerusalem was very much on the map. The “State of Israel” was not.
A decision by the US Supreme Court struck down a law passed by Congress in 2002 that says a US citizen born in Jerusalem may request his or her birthplace to be listed as Israel.
I could almost hear US Ambassador Dan Shapiro sighing “Why now?” as Israelis asked themselves “What’s next?” Shapiro posted on his Facebook page, a few hours after the decision was published: “I know many people in Israel are unhappy about today’s ruling in the US Supreme Court regarding how to list the place of birth in the passports of American citizens born in Jerusalem...
“The decision was not about whether Jerusalem is Israel’s capital. It was solely about the separation of powers between the Executive Branch (the President) and the Legislative Branch (the Congress) of our government, and which branch has the right to recognize foreign governments and their capitals. The Court decided, by a 6-3 majority, that it agreed with the position that has always been held by the Executive Branch – that only the President has that authority. That decision overturned a law passed by Congress that required the place of birth to be written as ‘Jerusalem, Israel’ instead of ‘Jerusalem.’ US policy on Jerusalem was not decided by today’s ruling. That policy has been the same under every administration since 1948 – namely, that the status of Jerusalem has not been decided and must be determined by negotiations.”
It was a valiant and diplomatic attempt to soothe matters at a time when Israel feels it is under attack from an organized campaign of delegitimization.
That “the status of Jerusalem has not been decided and must be determined by negotiations,” however, sounds more like a threat than a promise.
AS IT happens, soon after the US Supreme Court decision was announced, I was given the chance to play devil’s advocate with a particularly famous lawyer: Prof. Alan Dershowitz.
The renowned jurist who has been called one of the world’s “most distinguished defenders of individual rights” and “Israel’s single most visible defender” (as well as some far less flattering epithets) was guest of honor at the B’nai B’rith World Center Awards for Journalism held in Jerusalem’s Van Leer Institute, next door to the President’s Residence. There, in answer to a question, he described the Supreme Court ruling as “a tragic decision.”
The occasion was festive yet thought-provoking.
The Post’s Sam Sokol won an award for his series of articles on “the fast-changing situation of Jews in war-ravaged eastern Ukraine”; Channel 10’s Nadav Eyal received an award for his documentary series titled Hate, detailing the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe; the Lifetime Achievement Award was presented to Israel Radio’s Izi Mann for the Searching for Missing Relatives program, inaugurated in 1945 to help Holocaust survivors and still bringing former friends, family members and neighbors together. Singer David D’Or was given a special citation for his “contribution to Israel-Diaspora Relations through the arts.”
D’Or was a hard act to follow, I admitted, as I took to the stage to interview Dershowitz.
Fortunately, the hecklers stayed at home. The human rights expert, who was booed at a previous Jerusalem Post conference, noted that “freedom of expression has its limits.”
Dershowitz was both enlightening and entertaining, but I doubt there was a person in the auditorium who agreed with everything he said. He proudly stood by his right to criticize President Barack Obama for his policy on Iran, saying “I would not allow Barack Obama to negotiate a one-month lease for me. He is a terrible, terrible negotiator.”
Yet he claimed to have no regrets about voting for him – twice. Similarly, he both criticized Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and praised him.
“The job of pro-Israel advocacy is not to support a particular government,” he said. “We have to win in the court of public opinion.”
How? “By being better at it.” To be united, not divided, in Israel’s defense.
Dershowitz praised Birthright for bringing Diaspora youths to see Israel for themselves.
One of his major complaints was aimed at the ignorance of students abroad and those who teach them. Ignorance that has allowed the dangerous BDS phenomenon to flourish. “If they have an ideological predisposition, people will believe anything by making it conform to their ideology,” Dershowitz noted. “To be critical of a country’s policies is not to demand the unique capital punishment that is BDS,” said Dershowitz, adding, “BDS is antagonistic to peace,” making it harder for the Palestinians to come back to the negotiating table and internationalizing the problem.
Surprisingly, he said that legal recourse is not necessarily the answer. The answer is to be better at explaining Israel’s situation: “Whenever I debate BDS, I always throw out the following challenge to my students all over the world,” he said.
“Name a single country in the history of the world faced with internal and external threats comparable to those faced by Israel that has ever had a better record in human rights; a better record with compliance of the rule of law; a better record of concern for civilians.”
And he stressed, repeatedly, that “Israel is a democracy.”
“Compromise is essential,” he said. Both sides must compromise and give up preconditions before returning to the negotiating table.
Even then, he’s not confident that it would result in peace, given the examples of the offers made by the governments of prime ministers Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak and rejected by the Palestinians.
And he thinks Iran has been emboldened and will now export even more terrorism.
Dershowitz also reminded me of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty. It was perhaps Jimmy Carter’s finest hour. But how much suffering he has caused since: Dershowitz went as far as to say Carter has “blood on his hands,” claiming he pushed Yasser Arafat and the Palestinians to reject the peace agreement Israel was offering, launching the intifada that cost the lives of thousands.
There are risks, Dershowitz admitted, and those risks are felt more in Israel than anywhere.
“But Israel is a democracy. You get to decide your fate,” he said.
Nevertheless, it wasn’t Joan Baez singing “We shall overcome” that’s been going through my mind but the old hit by Lahakat Pikud Dizengoff, “Haolam kulo negdenu”: “The whole world is against us. Don’t worry we’ll overcome it.”