Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Of Perceptions and Reality

I saw a piece in the Jerusalem Post online this morning that intrigued me. Apparently, last month the Cambridge University debating society held a debate on the motion that "Israel is a rogue state".

The "star" of the debate was a 19 year-old law student from Toronto name Gabriel Latner. He spoke for about 10 minutes, and in that time he apparently convinced the majority of the 800-or-so people in attendance that Israel is indeed a rogue state.

And he proved that this is to Israel's complete credit.

Here is the text of the speech, but I'll summarize it for any of you who prefer not to read it yourselves.

The young man argued that "rogue" does not mean "treating people badly" – whether your own citizens, or others. If behavior like that did qualify a country as "rogue", then Canada the US and Australia would all be rogue countries for their treatment of their indigenous populations, not to mention how England itself would be labeled for her history in Ireland.

But, armed with the Oxford English Dictionary's definition of rogue as “Aberrant, anomalous; misplaced, occurring (esp. in isolation) at an unexpected place or time,” he proceeded to give 5 examples in which Israel actually should indeed be considered a "rogue" country".

First of all, Latner said, just the fact that Israel is a Jewish state, makes it aberrant and anomalous enough from every other country in the world to justify being called "rogue".

Secondly, Israel's treatment of the refugees from Darfur was so anomalous as to make us a "rogue" state – none of our Arab neighbors have done even a fraction for these refugees that Israel has done, which explains why the refugees have risked so much to cross deserts to come to Israel.

The third point to calling Israel "rogue" is our willingness to negotiate with terrorists. As the dictionary also defines rogue as “behaving in a way that is unexpected, or not normal", then I can't argue with him on this one either.

Since part of the definition is "occurring at an unexpected place or time", then Israel's far better record on human rights than any of our neighbors provided Latner with his fourth argument. An example that he offered was Israel's treatment of the Gay community as opposed to the treatment Gays and Lesbians receive in the rest of the Middle East – at best, flogging and jail time at best, and at worst, execution.

The final example of Israel's "rogue-ishness" is our willingness to even discuss and debate such issues as our legitimacy in forums such as this particular debate. This point was accentuated by the presence of a senior Israeli diplomat as one of the speakers at the debate itself.

I have to say – I love this approach to the debate. What he said was – to my mind, at least – very simple, very basic, and very self-evident. And it completely hit the nail on the head.

And he said it in England. To a primarily British audience.

This is the same England whose media over the last several years has built a reputation of being extremely anti-Israel.

This is also the same England where a current Member of Parliament said a few days ago that Israel's treatment of the Palestinians is the root cause of worldwide terrorism. (if you're on the fence as to whether an opinion like that is "anti-Israel, or a "political analysis", then consider too that the same politician also referred to the power of the pro-Israel lobby in the US and the UK as a possible cause that the treatment continues. This was not the first time in the past few years that this parliamentarian has mentioned the pro-Israel lobby and its "financial grips" on the world).

But this is also the same England, where a 19-year student can speak in front of a very prestigious debating society and convince the majority of his audience that the world in general and the Middle East in particular are better places for the existence of Israel – doing what Israel does, and being a "rogue" state.

And the truth is (to my mind, at any rate) that it's very hard to predict what the longer-term effect of a presentation such as Gabriel Latner's will accomplish in the long run.

On the one hand, there is a hope for a lot of positive to come out of this. He successfully convinced a lot of listeners at the debate itself that evening, and who can predict how many of the several hundred people there will then go and, using the new arguments that they heard from that evening, convince others also of Israel's right to exist and of our "positive rogue-ishness"?

And who can predict how many hundreds of thousands of others have and will see his speech through various and sundry airwaves that it has reached – newspapers, blogs, YouTube, whatever.

The potential is tremendous.

On the other hand, it probably won't really make a far-reaching difference. Too many peoples' minds are already made up about Israel, that there's no use trying to confuse them with facts.

An example of this really hit me hard at work today.

There is a tour agent somewhere overseas (for obvious reasons I won't say where) with whom my company is in contact that is hoping to bring a group to Israel in a few months. This agent expressed a concern about having the group stay in a city that's too strongly identified as "Israel" – he was worried about the marketing ramifications that would go with that – that Israel's image is such that people would turn away from this trip.

Now, this is an agent who wants to bring tourists to Israel – he supports Israel, understands Israel, and knows that bringing groups to Israel nowadays is a very profitable destination.

He knows that Israel this year has won several awards and recognitions as a top tourist location, and that the number of tourists that have visited Israel this past year is on pace to set an all-time record (through October we had nearly 3 million visitors to Israel, which was more than all of 2009).

In short, this agent has absolutely no reason to not support Israel.

But obviously he knows his market and his clientele and responds to their sensitivities. And his clients' sensitivities say that he needs to "downplay" the Israel of a "Trip to Israel". They want to come to Israel, they just would rather not advertise to their neighbors too much where it is that they're going.

There are several ironies at play here, most of which I won't go into, but the one that stands out most blatantly in my mind is this: the group that this agent is bringing is coming for one of Israel's Gay Pride parades and events.

So, here we have a group, coming to the only country in the Middle East with open Gay Pride activities (as opposed to our neighbors who are more known for open Gay condemnation, imprisonment and execution), and they are worried about the "ramifications" of people knowing where they are visiting????

Are you kidding me???

One part of me can understand their concern. Israel does look bad when being seen from the world media. And we sure as hell have brought a fair share of this horrible image onto ourselves with some of the mistakes that we (partucularly our leaders) have made. So I can appreciate the reticence and the hesitation of this particular group in terms of Israel.

But another part of me - the harder, more cynical part - would love to let the group stay at a hotel in (the Arab city) of Bethlehem with a huge sign on the hotel saying who this group is. They might not be so well accepted by the local townspeople as they would be in Israel, but at least they could tell all of their friends back home how they stayed in "Palestine"...

But the biggest part of me simply continues to hope and pray that more debates will continue to take place like the one at Cambridge University last month, and with speakers like Gabriel Latner, who seem to get it advocating what I would think is a very logical and reasonable perspective on what Israel is and what it isn't.

And I hope that the more hearts and minds of reasonable people around the world will continue to open up, to allow more visitors to come and see this amazing country that we have here. And that the more people come to see this gorgeous country, the even more their hearts and minds will continue to open up.

Then perhaps Gabriel Latner will become the standard, the "norm" and no longer the rarity that stands out and gives us all a glimmer of hope.

No comments:

Post a Comment