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The Honest Israeli: Shooting Himself in the Foot

October 6, 2005 By:
Evelyn Gordon
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Hadag Nahash: Trying to help in its own way, but is it strumming the right tune?

Nobody ever accused Israel of effective public relations. But the latest tactic adopted by the Foreign Ministry and American Jewish organizations represents a new low: arranging speakers and cultural performances that openly slander the country as part of a misguided effort to demonstrate Israel's liberality.

A case in point was the recent tour of Israel organized by the American Jewish Committee for non-Jewish American politicians. It featured a visit to an Arab town where officials from Sikkuy - an Arab-advocacy organization - regaled guests with tales of how Israel mistreats its Arab citizens. For instance, Sikkuy's co-chairman, Ali Haider, said with a straight face that Arab Israelis are deprived of fundamental civil rights, and "the minute that Palestinian citizens of Israel try to protest, the police kill them."

Haider's charges are obvious nonsense: Arab Israelis enjoy the same civil rights enjoyed by citizens of any Western country. This is not difficult to demonstrate: You need only look at the many Arab newspapers, which routinely publish vicious invective against the government without fear of reprisal; the numerous demonstrations that take place unhindered despite speeches that border on criminal incitement (such as the Islamic Movement's annual "Al Aksa Is in Danger" rally, at which movement leaders tell tens of thousands of listeners that the government is plotting to destroy the Temple Mount mosques); or the unbridled election campaigns run by the several Arab political parties.

But those who hear Sikkuy will not come away with any of those facts.

What will stick is the idea that Israel oppresses its Arabs, because in the absence of facts, most people fall back on the "no smoke without fire" theory - that even if the claims are exaggerated, they must hold some truth.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry prefers its anti-Israel propaganda in the form of cultural events, to which it traditionally devotes about one-third of its P.R. budget. Last year, for instance, it financed a tour of American college campuses by the Israeli hip-hop group Hadag Nahash.

Many of the group's lyrics are "acrimonious attacks" on the government; for variety, it also has some songs advocating socially beneficial behavior such as drug use. Aviva Raz Schechter of the Israeli Embassy in Washington acknowledged to Ha'aretz that some of the lyrics are problematic, but declaimed: "The intention is not to be so caught up by the minutiae of the lyrics, but to create an atmosphere of peace. Pay attention to the big, bottom-line message - that we need peace like we need air to breathe."

Quite how "acrimonious attacks" on Israel's government create "an atmosphere of peace" remains a mystery.

Unfortunately, however, Israel's cultural exports almost all follow the Hadag Nahash model. Numerous Israeli films, for instance, have won awards at international festivals. But almost without exception, these films portray Israel as a brutal occupier oppressing the Palestinians for no good reason.

Several recent award-winners, for example, dwell at length on the hardships that army checkpoints or the security fence impose on Palestinians, while ignoring the suicide bombings that prompted these measures, or the fact that Israel offered to establish a Palestinian state, but the Palestinians rejected this offer and launched a terrorist war instead. Showing such films will not persuade uninformed viewers of Israel's tolerance toward its critics; it will merely persuade them that Israel is a brutal oppressor.

Similarly, the Foreign Ministry routinely finances translations of books by leading Israeli authors, as well as lecture tours. But most of Israel's award-winning authors - Amos Oz, David Grossman, Sami Michael - deem Israel to blame for the conflict, and espouse this theory in both their novels and their speeches.

It would seem self-evident that the best way to convince others of the justice of Israel's cause is not by underwriting vicious anti-Israel slander. But clearly, this is not self-evident to the Foreign Ministry or to some in the American Jewish establishment. Thus, it is the responsibility of ordinary Israelis and American Jews to teach the basic facts of life.

Eveyln Gordon is a writer living in Jerusalem.

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