Challenging the elephant (and the horse and the ostrich)

Challenging the elephant (and the horse and the ostrich)

For Jewish News March 13 2022

The chief executive of the New Israel Fund, Daniel Sokatch, says that the conversation about Israel in the United States has become “an emotional minefield” which has got “harder and harder” to negotiate.

Sokatch, in London briefly during Jewish Book Week, told Jewish News that such conversations had become “more and more antagonistic and vituperative, and less and less appealing to people who would like a way in, but who are wary of what I might call the ‘hasbara’ [propaganda] line from either side”.

Rising acrimony within the Jewish communities of the diaspora and in Israel had partly motivated him to write his new book, “Can We Talk About Israel?”, which is a light-touch guide for the perplexed, rather than a manual for those people who want to make every conversation, no matter how remote, about Israel.

“It’s like the story of the blind men and the elephant. Each man touches a different part of the animal and says that’s what the elephant is. But that’s only part of the truth. And this is what is afflicting our communities, too often that discourse are people who are arguing that the truth is their part of the elephant — which may in fact, be true, but it’s not the whole truth”.

In his opinion, Sokatch said, “something has gone terribly wrong if people dismiss the humanity of ‘the other’, because of their adherence to the trunk or the tail or the ears of the elephant”.

He said he had been “surprised, and inspired” by the actions of the Board of Deputies in condemning the hard-right Israeli MK Bezalel Smotrich when he flew to London last month. Praising the Board as “courageous”, he said it had decided “not to be silent about Jewish supremacy and racism reaching these shores”.

At the same time, Sokatch said he had understood the response of Israeli president Isaac Herzog to the Smotrich row. [He attacked the Board]. “But the answer to the challenge is not to condemn the Board of Deputies, but to have responsible voices in Israel saying no, Smotrich, you do not represent us, this is not the image of Israel or Zionism that we want. And in the absence of that coming from Israel, it’s up to folks like the Board of Deputies to do the courageous thing”.

He added: “If Israeli officialdom appears to be offering carte blanche to the most extreme ethno-nationalist, supremacist views, by never commenting or criticising them out loud, but then is critical of those in the diaspora who push back against that, then we have a big gap. And I don’t think it’s incumbent on the diaspora leaders to re-evalue their views. That needs to happen on the other side of the ocean”.

Sokatch put part of the blame for Israel failing to understand the diaspora on what he called “The Former Guys” — Trump and Netanyahu. Each had presided over a climate of distrust, with Trump in particular “opening the Pandora’s box of race hatred and making that ok for bigots of every stripe, in America and beyond”. Netanyahu had “made common cause with an antisemite like [Hungary’s] Victor Orban”, while accusing “loyal Israelis and those abroad of treason because they opposed some of his policies”.

He was critical, too, of the debate surrounding Amnesty International’s decision to describe Israel’s treatment of Palestinians as apartheid. “That horse is not going to go back in the barn”, Sokatch said. “There is an insufficient response to the criticisms levelled not just by Amnesty but by Human Rights Watch, but also by Israeli human rights organisations. It is an insufficient response, whether you agree with the terminology or not, to just smear them with the brush of antisemitism.

“Those organisations are bringing up very real concerns”. In his book, he says that if he took a group of “intellectually honest critics of Israel” and showed them various aspects of the country, they would certainly see discrimination against Palestinians and also Black Ethiopian Jews, and would see attempts to “bake” such discrimination into law, such as in the Nation-State law. “But they would also see that there is a vibrant civil society movement which pushes back against that, that when the Nation-State law came to the president for signing. in his symbolic capacity, he said he would sign it — but in Arabic, to protest against it… those people would have to say, we see discrimination but we see response, we see that Israel has a lot of problems. It has systemic, institutional discrimination, like America, like Britain, but it’s in no way, shape or form anything like apartheid”.

On the other hand, Sokatch said, he could equally well take a group of “fierce, but honest, right-wing pro-Israel advocates” and show them much the same things — “and they saw the settlements next to Palestinian communities, and the inequitable distribution of resources such as land, electricity, water. building permits… and they saw the checkpoints, not only between Israel proper and the West Bank, but also between parts of the West Bank for the convenience of settlers. And they would see how Palestinians have their lives circumscribed by the Israeli matrix, in roads and tunnels that are for Israeli citizens only, that they are tried in military courts while Israeli citizens are tried in Israeli civil courts… those people would have to acknowledge that what they saw looked a lot like some of the most pernicious aspects of apartheid”.

The debate in the human rights community, Sokatch said, “was not really about whether Israel is South Africa. It is saying, Israel is committing crimes in the West Bank. But just denying that there is a problem and accusing those who use the A-word [apartheid] of antisemitism is like the ostrich sticking its head in the sand”. It was, he concluded “an inconvenient truth: but it is up to Israel, and those who care about Israel, to grapple with the reality”.

  • 13 March, 2022