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).
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.