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Giving up on political propaganda, Israeli consulate turns to Ted-style inspirational conference

Israel/Palestine
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A pro-Israel “gathering of influencers” known as the Beyond Conference took place in The Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College last Friday on a beautiful New York afternoon. I showed up alone, as I always do at these sort of events, dressed like a banker at happy hour so as to fit in with the crowd of eager young professionals. The purpose of the conference – which promoted itself with the tagline “Inspiration. Innovation. Israel.”– was to promote Israel, particularly its booming high-tech sector, which raised a record $4.4 billion in 2015.

As an elderly man named James explained to me in the lobby, Friday’s event was organized by Ido Aharoni, the Consul General of Israel. James told me that Aharoni was a cultured man, a man of substance and sophistication who used to invite James and others to his home for various gatherings. Aharoni is leaving his post at the end of July to be replaced by controversial settler leader Dani Dayan.

An “Israeli culinary showcase” featured a variety of suspiciously Russian-looking flaky meat-filled pastries along with tables selling Dead Sea soap and homemade day-glo rayon jewelry. After wandering around the various tables, I walked across 68th street to the auditorium. As I sat in the seat of the plush theater waiting for the program to start, I struck up a conversation with the middle-aged woman sitting a couple seats over with her husband. She told me how much she was enjoying the day so far, and that she thought it should be brought to college campuses. When I asked why, she said it would be a good defense against BDS, which after all was just “sanitized anti-Semitism.”

Trying to get a better feel for the crowd, I tapped a young woman on the shoulder who was speaking Hebrew to her friends and asked whom she was there to see. It turns out she was a an “Israel Fellow” for the Jewish Agency, tasked with quelling the rising tide of anti-Israel sentiment on American college campuses. She gave me her card, which showed that she had been assigned to Northeastern’s Hillel chapter. I couldn’t help but wonder how many Israel Fellows there are on campuses nationwide, taking up the mantle of McCarthyists in their brave fight to censor free speech and delegitimize Palestinian struggle (according to Hillel’s website, there are currently 65 Jewish Agency Israel fellows serving more than 100 campuses).

(Photo: Consulate General of Israel in New York/ Facebook)

(Photo: Consulate General of Israel in New York/ Facebook)

Joshua Wolk, an easygoing fellow with salt-and-pepper hair and a goatee, took the stage to explain the wonders of the Feldenkreis method – a form of “somatic education” that uses gentle movements and concentrated focus to improve physical functions. Founded by Israeli physicist Moshe Feldenkrais, the practice resembles a sort of Jewish Tai Chi. Wolk spoke with a Jeff Goldblum-esque zen as he led the audience through a series of mild neck stretches, like a man who had spend the majority of his life listening to free jazz while surrounded by incense. “Now do a funny thing,” he said (this was his go-to way of introducing each new direction), “as you turn your head to the right, keep your eyes focused forward..that’s it, okay…and pause a moment, take your hand down…now do another funny thing…” As Wolk helped the audience to ease their tension, I couldn’t help but consider the metaphorical implications. “Turn rightward, away from the spectacle of Palestinian suffering,” I imagined him saying, “let the stress of a guilty conscience drain from your aching neck muscles.”

George Michael Logothetis took the stage with a supremely confident stride, wearing the classic TED talk uniform of jeans, button-down shirt, and blazer. Logothetis is CEO of the international conglomerate Libra Group (which operates in the areas of shipping, aviation, real estate, and other fields) and was born to a Greek oligarch who made his son CEO of Lomar Shipping at the age of 20.

“It is our fight against adversity which paradoxically enabled me to be placed here in front of you today,” he began. “The skills of impossible times sharpened our minds.” Who was the “our” he spoke of? Mankind? Greeks? Heirs to large shipping fortunes? Speaking of his wealthy family, he said, “We managed to harness the adversity, channel the others who did not believe in us into our own increased motives, and thus sow the seeds of innovation in our own inspiration.” Oh reader, if you could have been there to see how he delivered the words “sow the seeds.” The passion! The triumph! “Have I mentioned the nonbelievers?” he added (he had). “We needed them and we need them still today.” First “our,” now “they” – the man was addicted to pronouns with no antecedents. His shtick about “nonbelievers” seemed less religious and more like the viral videos of Palestinian-American rap producer DJ Khaled, who loves to warn about shadowy naysayers he refers to only as “they.” Perhaps in Logothetis’ eyes “they” were the Greek working class who wanted the oligarchs to pay them higher wages, or at least a fair share of taxes. By the time Logothetis went off on a tangent about the “dastardly deed” of the Holocaust, I had begun to daydream.

Beyond Logothetis’ rote platitudes lies a more sinister motive – whitewashing Israeli apartheid under a tech-friendly veneer. The nebulous, scattershot nature of the conference mirrored the dissembling nature of the speeches themselves; the less concrete the message the better. Israeli propagandists have realized that selling Americans on the idea of using billions of their tax dollars on high-tech weaponry to arm the IDF and enrich American defense contractors isn’t always the easiest sell, and it’s often much better to feed western audience warmed-over clichés that sound like rejected taglines for Gatorade ads.

Next up was Jennifer Teege, daughter of a German man and Nigerian woman who found out that her grandfather was Amon Göth, the real-life inspiration for Ralph Fiennes monstrous concentration camp commandant in Schindler’s List. After studying at Tel Aviv University during her 20s and becoming fluent in Hebrew, she ended up fully on board with the Zionist project and seemed untroubled by any parallels made (by Jews and Muslims alike) between Warsaw and Gaza, or between the treatment of Jews under the Nuremberg laws and the treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank. As with the other speeches, moments of insight were divorced from any political context that could give them real meaning. She described looking in the mirror and examining her face for any resemblance to her Nazi grandfather and concluded, “today, I of course know that only because you look like someone, it doesn’t say anything about who you are or about your character.” She spent the remainder of the speech talking about her wonderful experience in Israel, a country where Palestinians must use separate roads and racist lynchings have become increasingly common

The aim of propaganda is always, in some sense, to obscure true meaning. This can take the form of oversimplifying, dissembling, or straight up lying, depending on the propaganda outlet in question. For Israel (or at least for the Consul General in New York), it now seems that defending Israel on moral or political grounds to Americans is at best a tricky prospect, and at worst a disaster.

The marketing of the Israeli tech industry glowingly described in Start up Nation to American audiences is a way to gloss over Israel’s fiercely militaristic nationalism with a sort of TED talk-esque futurism, eschewing concrete political analysis for trite self-help and some light PR thrown in for good measure. In the tech industry, Israel has found an ideal façade – forward thinking and uplifting in an apolitical, technocratic way that promotes the “desert bloom” myth while encouraging continued investment and erasing the crimes which so much of that investment funds, both directly and indirectly.

Closing speaker Ami Dar was, thankfully, not terrible. Dar, founder and executive director of the popular job listing website Idealist, spoke of how he was stationed in a watchtower in the no man’s land of the Golan Heights and came to an epiphany while watching refugee children playing and laughing about the tendency to dehumanize the Other. “There was a moment when I realized they were just as human as me,” said Dar. “If that’s the case, this whole fence here that is running this way makes no sense at all. It should be running this way – all the good guys on one side and all the other guys on the other.” He went on to define the mission of Idealist as “working with others in a spirit of mutual generosity and respect.”

While Dar’s efforts to humanize Palestinians to a room full of gung-ho Zionists were admirable, they were also pointless. The message of the event, stated or not, was that Israel is a force for good in the region – an outpost of western progress and technology whose inhabitants share our values and goals. The kinship events like these try to foster is more instinctive and emotional than political, and that’s why Dar’s words rang so hollow. The context in which he spoke, and the audience he spoke to, rendered his pleas for understanding totally powerless, like a civilian pleading with a warden to be nicer to his prisoners. In the absence of any political critique, instructions to love thy neighbor come off more sanctimonious than sincere.

About Rob Bryan

Rob Bryan is a freelance journalist from New York City. Follow him on twitter: @rbryan86.

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20 Responses

  1. hophmi
    May 27, 2016, 11:58 am

    “taking up the mantle of McCarthyists in their brave fight to censor free speech”

    You’re projecting. No one is trying to censor the speech of pro-Palestinian activists on campus, a sector where free speech isn’t particularly valued today to begin with. On the other hand, BDS activist have repeatedly attempted to censor the speech of those who disagree with them on campus by trying to deny funding for their events, and by shouting them down if they do take place. They also attempt to restrict the campus from inviting speakers that express perspectives that they disagree with. So your free speech complaint rings very hollow.

    “The marketing of the Israeli tech industry glowingly described in Start up Nation to American audiences is a way to gloss over Israel’s fiercely militaristic nationalism with a sort of TED talk-esque futurism, eschewing concrete political analysis for trite self-help and some light PR thrown in for good measure.”

    Or, it’s just the marketing of the Israeli tech industry, which Israel markets just as other countries market their own industries.

    Hey Rob, do you own a computer? Did the presentation you saw make it impossible for you to read blogs like Mondoweiss so that you can regurgitate the anti-Israel propaganda that you read? No?

    Then I guess maybe your argument that the marketing is meant to gloss over this or that is a bunch of silly nonsense that you roll out to keep yourself from acknowledging that it isn’t possible to fully demonize the Israelis by transforming them into Nazis. So sorry for you, hater.

    • Mooser
      May 27, 2016, 4:32 pm

      Wow, that “Hophmi” does work hisself up to a regular lather, don’t he?
      No Dead Sea soap for you, very hollow-ringers and haters!

    • Elliot
      May 27, 2016, 11:03 pm

      Hophmi “You’re projecting. No one is trying to censor the speech of pro-Palestinian activists on campus”.

      That’s just silly. Palestinians (and Jews) who stand for Palestinians are routinely censored. I learned earlie today that Palestinian students at DePaul University face disciplinary proceedings for marking the Nakba in a public space. They were peaceful and calm but we written up by the administration. Meanwhile, the simultaneous pro-Israel demo was allowed t continue without interruption.

  2. Pixel
    May 27, 2016, 1:50 pm

    Great piece, Rob. Thank you.

  3. Marnie
    May 27, 2016, 2:01 pm

    Barf out, gag me with a spoon.

    Too little, too late.

  4. Helena Cobban
    May 27, 2016, 2:05 pm

    Re this Bar person:

    Him speaking of “how he was stationed in a watchtower in the no man’s land of the Golan Heights and came to an epiphany while watching refugee children playing and laughing about the tendency to dehumanize the Other… ” doesn’t make sense.

    There are no Palestinian refugees anywhere in or near the occupied Golan. If he was in the no-man’s-land area, that means he was in a forward observation position looking deep into Syria… No Palestinian refugee camps (such as would house “refugee children”) anywhere near. It is *possible* he might have watched some children from Syrian families displaced from Golan by the war of 1967, though by and large they didn’t stay close to the occupied area but were dispersed far and wide throughout Syria. But they wouldn’t have been refugees– they were internally displaced from one part of their own country (Golan, which is part of Syria) to another.

    Also, what’s with this desire/tendency to infantilize the “Other”?

    Finally, how disturbing is it that someone who runs a networking resource as crucial to the US do-gooding movement as Idealist is apparently of a strongly Zionist enough persuasion that he performs in this conference? Is everyone who uses Idealist to post jobs, find jobs, or do other networking things in the do-gooding world happy that their whole databases may be shared with various Zionist organizations? Just asking.

    • Shmuel
      May 27, 2016, 2:46 pm

      Also, what’s with this desire/tendency to infantilize the “Other”?

      Using kids makes the fuzziness go further. Can you imagine him saying, “And I saw a group of young men in their twenties or thirties, sipping coffee and laughing, and I thought to myself, hey they’re just like me, what’s this bad ol’ fence here for anyway?”

      Presumably, such young men would be on the other side of the fence in Bar’s “utopian” vision, over there with “all the other guys”.

  5. Kay24
    May 27, 2016, 2:15 pm

    “Last Friday, after weeks of political maneuvering, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed Avigdor Lieberman to be his defense minister. A longtime political hard-liner who has filled various cabinet positions for more than a decade, Lieberman made his career with coarse talk: Israel, he said, should “cut off the head” of a disloyal Arab citizen, or take “a lesson from Putin” on how to deal with terror. His appointment served as a climax to parallel dramas: a public dispute between Netanyahu’s most conservative ministers and the Israel Defense Forces, which Lieberman’s appointment will inflame, and a secret peace initiative prompted by Tony Blair, involving players from the opposition leader, Isaac Herzog, to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, which the appointment effectively scuttles.”

    How Israel lost its latest chance for a peace process.

    http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/how-israel-lost-its-latest-chance-for-a-peace-process?intcid=mod-latest

    • xanadou
      May 27, 2016, 10:06 pm

      Kay, thanks for the link. Nihil novi for most but, likely, a jaw-dropper for many.

      “Moshe (Bogie) Ya’alon, the minister whom Netanyahu fired to make room for Lieberman, spoke bluntly at a press briefing on Friday. “To my great sorrow, extremist and dangerous elements have taken over Israel and the Likud Party,” he said. Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who was Ya’alon’s predecessor as defense minister under Netanyahu, angrily reinforced Ya’alon’s message on television later that night. Israel “has been infected by the seeds of fascism,” Barak said.”

      …reap …sow

      It looks like Israel may have fallen into the sticky spiderweb that it has been so patiently weaving to trap anyone who would not tow the Israeli, even inner tribal, line. Now has come the time for those who are coming out of the coolaid stupor to grasp what is coming:
      “Yet the most significant portent of pressure came on that same television broadcast, not from any politician but from the channel’s military correspondent, Roni Daniel, who usually spars with others as the resident skeptic and hawk. Daniel could not hold back his anger at Netanyahu’s political machinations or his sellout to settler apologists. “I plowed the fields next to the Jordan River. They told us to go to the Army; we went to the Army. They told us to become officers; we became officers and commanders and served in the reserves. I went and fought all of the wars I was asked to fight, (…) For the first time I feel, because of this kind of politics, I’m not sure that I want my children to live here.”

      Considering the very long and elaborate psycho-programming of the Israelis’ who, overwhelmingly, even blindly, follow their leaders, (yet another commonality with 1930’s Germany’s populace), one wonders if the (b)light unto nations has reached the point of no return. And if so, it would behoove the global leaders to consider and prepare for the desperate measures the self-wounded might resort to next.

      Not least of all, it’s a wonder that The New Yorker has come to publish the article.
      Whatever next? NYT to realise that the good old days are no more? Chuck Schumer to reconsider his fanatical support? A nostra culpa by AIPAC, et al?

      Sic transit gloria mundi.

      • Kay24
        May 27, 2016, 11:09 pm

        Maybe this is the beginning of the Israeli implosion, brought unto themselves, by the fascists they have voted for. If the world dislikes Israel now, imagine how it would feel in the near future.

  6. talknic
    May 27, 2016, 4:07 pm

    “Closing speaker Ami Bar was, thankfully, not terrible. Bar, founder and executive director of the popular job listing website Idealist, spoke of how he was stationed in a watchtower in the no man’s land of the Golan Heights and came to an epiphany while watching refugee children playing and …. “

    Fantastic eyesight! The lying sack of sh*te! http://www.unrwa.org/sites/default/files/unrwa_fields_of_operation_map_2015.pdf

    • talknic
      May 27, 2016, 5:05 pm

      If they’d approached the fence he’d have shot them at a guess.

      • ritzl
        May 27, 2016, 5:15 pm

        In a heartbeat.

  7. ritzl
    May 27, 2016, 5:13 pm

    How much Hunter College money went into hosting this propaganda soiree?

  8. Brewer
    May 28, 2016, 6:25 am

    A Dialogue on Israel and Palestine with Tariq Ali and Norman Finkelstein

  9. Misterioso
    May 28, 2016, 11:30 am

    http://www.timesofisrael.com/dysfunctional-israeli-leadership-failing-utterly-in-battle-against-bds-state-watchdog-warns/

    Times of Israel May 24, 2016

    “Dysfunctional Israeli leadership failing utterly in battle against BDS, state watchdog warns

    “Highlighting dismal propaganda performance during 2014 war, comptroller cites lack of overall strategy, absent funding, divisions between ministries, failure to coordinate with IDF”

    • Shmuel
      May 28, 2016, 12:26 pm

      “Highlighting dismal propaganda performance during 2014 war, comptroller cites lack of overall strategy, absent funding, divisions between ministries, failure to coordinate with IDF”

      In other words, it approves of the government’s overall approach, but has some bones to pick over its implementation. That is to say that BDS appeared out of nowhere, for no real reason (except anti-Semitism and “incitement”, of course), and must therefore be countered exclusively with propaganda. Instead of saying that expenditure on PR will have only a limited effect until the government decides to actually deal with the root causes of the growing popularity of BDS (such as the siege on Gaza, repeated bombings and incursions, settlement policy, repression and collective punishment), the report recommends simply cranking up the “hasbara”, by streamlining it and throwing more money at it.

      Definitely a report worthy of this cowardly comptroller (Yosef Shapira). Netanyahu chose well.

  10. Marnie
    May 28, 2016, 1:50 pm

    “Turn rightward, away from the spectacle of Palestinian suffering,” I imagined him saying, “let the stress of a guilty conscience drain from your aching neck muscles ” !!

  11. Ossinev
    May 28, 2016, 2:17 pm

    @kay24
    “a secret peace initiative prompted by Tony Blair”
    I think it is yet another Blair initiative prompted by Tony Blair. Probably no squillions up front for him but hey it is more material for one of his £100,000 thank you very much after dinner speeches and guess what he is briefly back in the news as an “international player”.

    Anything,repeat anything involving Blair is bent ,tainted and entirely self serving. No coincidence that the UK Chilcot enquiry report into the UK involvement in the Iraq war is due out in early July and it is likely to accuse him of deceiving Parliament and the British people. There is even a school of thought which suggests that he may be charged with war crimes.This was at a time when he was striding the world stage as GW Bush`s European poodle.

    You may hear more from ” cuddly peace loving altruistic ” smiler Blair in the next month or so as he tries to portray himself as a man of peace and mediation in a futile attempt to water down the reality which will emerge from Chilcot.

    Most people in the UK loathe him a two faced self serving chancer.

  12. JWalters
    May 28, 2016, 8:01 pm

    What inspires me is justice, and fighting against injustice. That includes fighting against this sort of facade for despicable bigotry. The huge irony in this facade is that the Nazis also bragged about their technical prowess, and at one point had the most technologically advanced military on the planet.

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