Israel’s name is being tarnished in the media and its reputation is threatened by delegitimization, the Israeli Consul General of New York told a Manhattan crowd last week.
The “progressive elite” and intellectuals who want to dismantle the State of Israel are of great concern, added Ido Aharoni, a veteran diplomat who worked on “branding” Israel in 2007 in Jerusalem.
Aharoni’s comments, which reflected a deepening unease about Israel’s image in the West, were made to a crowd of about 50 who ate his remarks up at the CORE Club, an elite Manhattan space where the rich gather to eat, relax and attend events on politics and culture. The occasion for Aharoni’s short speech was an event meant to showcase The Tower, a magazine and website published by The Israel Project, an organization that pushes Israel’s side of the story to journalists. Aharoni added that he hoped for The Tower to be an incubator for a real, fact-based discussion of Israeli policy.
The Israeli Consul General delivered a broadside against media outlets that focus on the Israel/Palestine conflict instead of other domestic Israeli issues.
“Our Minister of Finance, Yair Lapid, who was elected on a strictly domestic agenda–social justice brought him to power–he’s in charge of dividing the Israeli budget and distributing it. Yet when he’s approached by the American media, the only thing they ask him about is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” said Aharoni. “The New York Times ran a story that they were somehow disappointed that [the Israeli social justice movement in 2011] were not marching because of the conflict. I’m telling you all of this because, you should know, Israel is like any other country. We have issues. We have problems. We have car accidents, we have friction between various groups.”
The address by Aharoni came a day after similar themes, albeit in more hysterical terms, were aired at Yeshiva University’s panel titled, “Will Jews Exist?” There, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach repeatedly brought up Israel’s negative image, particularly on college campuses. While overall poll numbers don’t bear out Boteach’s and Aharoni’s concerns, there is comparably less support for Israel among young Jews. But the lament that Israel’s image is nosediving also feeds the notion, pushed by the Israeli government, that Israel is an underdog surrounded by implacable enemies.
Aharoni also touched on other themes, saying that the Arab uprisings have boosted “political Islam” and have proved that the “linkage” argument is bunk. (He mischaracterized the “linkage” argument as one that posited that the root of all problems in the Middle East is because of Israel/Palestine.)
The panel discussion that followed Aharoni’s address veered all over the place, touching on women’s rights and the geopolitical situation Israel finds itself. The discussion, moderated by Tower editor David Hazony, featured Slate writer Dahlia Lithwick, Israel Project CEO Josh Block and Gabriel Scheinmann, a PhD candidate at Georgetown University and a fellow at the hawkish Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs.
The panel featured some interesting conversation and surprising nuance for a talk convened by a pro-Israel group. In response to a question about what the U.S. role in the Middle East should be, Scheinmann suggested that the U.S. should ally with Russia because of a shared fear of radical Islam and also ally with Iran–though not the regime itself–because of that same fear of radical Sunni Islam.
But the conversation circled back to Israel’s image in the U.S. One questioner in the audience fretted about the “demonization” of the state on college campuses. The panelists agreed it was a problem.
Block, a former spokesperson for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, answered the question by deriding “Arabists” in the State Department, where he used to work.
“There’s 22 members of the Arab League, and each of them has a desk at the State Department. That desk is staffed by foreign service officers who make a career of representing their clients,” Block explained. “So you’ve got an inbred kind-of industry in the foreign policy establishment and in dialogue fomenting a perspective that is not sympathetic to Israel.”
Block said that it’s not enough to talk about Israel beyond the conflict. He explained that it’s important to confront arguments against Israel with the facts, instead of skirting the conflict with the Palestinians, and suggested that efforts to do so would fail. “Afrikaaners loved Mozart and wine too. In South Africa, there were terrible things going on, but they were cultured and smart people,” he said.
In response to the questioner who mentioned Israel’s image on campus, Slate’s Lithwick, said, “I feel the same way. I’m terrified to send my kids to college.”