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UIA chooses fear over hope

March 17, 2015 – 3:02 pm2 Comments

By Julie Szego:

Brigitte Gabriel

Brigitte Gabriel at UIA Victoria Women’s Division Campaign Launch Breakfast 3 March 2015

American author Brigitte Gabriel has been labelled a “radical Islamophobe.” In 2008, she told the Australian Jewish News: “Every practising Muslim is a radical Muslim.” A regular on the speakers’ circuit, Gabriel is a darling of evangelical Christians and Tea Party Republicans. She doesn’t directly assert that President Obama is a Muslim, but comes pretty damn close.

Daily Mail columnist Melanie Phillips started her travels on the political left before she was “mugged by reality.” She rails against multiculturalism, is a global warming sceptic and sees the gay rights agenda as an attempt to undermine Western society.

Both women were invited to speak in the United Israel Appeal’s recent campaign. On 4 March Gabriel also spoke to about 500 secondary students at a joint schools event at Mount Scopus. An audience member told me Gabriel recounted her moving story of survival as a Christian during the Lebanese civil war. She went on to claim the Sabra and Shatila massacre was justified on military grounds and characterised the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as between right and wrong.

Even before the Scopus talk, some in the community expressed dismay at UIA’s decision to host both individuals. “At this sensitive juncture when the multicultural fabric of Australian society is being tested,” said progressive Zionist group, Ameinu Australia, “it hardly makes sense to run the risk of two individuals with a divisive track record being perceived to represent our broader communal outlook.”

I’m also troubled at the UIA’s decision— it’s why I’m writing this piece. But I don’t entirely agree with Ameinu’s reasoning either. For one thing, I’m not fussed about what does or does not “represent our broader communal outlook.” Our community is a broad shule: no single organisation should be charged with the responsibility of representing the whole, better to let a thousand flowers bloom. And the euphemistic references to this “sensitive juncture” and Australia’s “multicultural fabric” being “tested” signify a misplaced political correctness.

Now more than ever we need robust discussions about the threats to Enlightenment values. Indeed shutting down these necessary, albeit difficult conversations, would do untold damage to the multicultural fabric. Certainly Phillips, who I profiled for The Age some years ago, makes some sharp points about the appeasement of political Islam in Britain.

Still, I’m troubled, even baffled, at the UIA hosting these speakers. I find it sad and foolish on a number of levels. While UIA does not claim to represent the Jewish community, it does hold itself out as something of an advocate, if not a quasi-bureaucratic arm, of Israel. By including these right-wing speakers in its fundraising line-up, the organisation risks linking Israel and Zionism to an ideological agenda.

It risks scaring off young Jews, who, like young people in general, tend to be more progressive than their parents. The decision also plays into the hands of the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement, which twists every opportunity to depict the Jewish state as inherently racist and reactionary.

So the invitations are foolish from a strategic point of view. They are also sad, because they assume depressing truths about the Jewish condition, namely that fear, rather than hope, galvanises Israel’s supporters. Ameinu says UIA’s decision is especially disappointing given the number of inspirational Israelis the organisation could have invited, and on this I wholeheartedly agree.

The positive Israeli narratives abound: Israeli doctors who treat Palestinians under occupation; social workers whose support programs for the most disadvantaged families are so successful we’re copying them here; rescue workers who are the first to arrive at disaster scenes around the globe. And the really good news is, hope sells.

At a JNF function last year the editor of The Jerusalem Post gave a two-dimensional rant about Israeli resilience in the midst of myriad threats, in which he included the Obama Administration along with Hamas and Iran. The speech left many of us cold. Then a woman from a fledging Negev community spoke of her aspirations to create an ethical, sustainable village in the face of Hamas rocket fire, amid other challenges. Despite the well-trodden pioneering theme, when she finished there was barely a dry eye at our table— and the chequebooks flew open.

I’m also reminded of Joanna Landau, who I met on my last visit to Israel. Five years ago the London-born lawyer-come-entrepreneur started the not-for-profit Kinetis— an amalgam of Israel and kinetic energy— which aims to rebrand the Jewish state from a place synonymous with conflict to a creative, start-up nation.

The organisation is behind an innovation program at the Porter School of Environmental Studies at Tel Aviv University and at the Shenkar College of Engineering & Design. It spreads the message about Israeli ingenuity to primary schools, the army and internet bloggers. Kinetis, and the Israeli foreign ministry, wants diaspora communities to promote innovators such as the founder of a solar energy company in Israel’s desert, a campaigner against workforce discrimination of minorities and an entrepreneur helping stem the spread of HIV in Africa through a device that non-surgically circumcises adult men.

To the roll call of Israeli success stories I’d add the relatively unacknowledged triumph of Israel’s film industry, which transformed itself from national joke to the toast of Cannes at a time when Israeli artists have come to expect a frosty reception from Europe’s cultural elite.

Landau’s crusade has encountered predictable hostility from the BDS crowd and sceptics of all political stripes at home. What sticks in my mind though, is an anecdote she shared about her little boy. Landau had been telling me that she started Kinetis because she became alarmed at the entrenched pessimism about Israel even among her affluent friends. Her son is growing up reading books about war, she said. When he was six “he could actually pronounce the name ‘Ahmadinejad.” A fleeting sadness passed over her.

“I think kids today need inspiration,” she said. She is determined to recalibrate her nation’s default thinking from despair. Wishful thinking? Perhaps. But at the very least Zionist organisations such as UIA ought to think twice before hawking the merchants of doom.

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