One of the biggest existential dangers facing Israel today may be not fully understanding how the country is seen by the world at large. The power of perception is significant. So too is the way we work to shape those perceptions. These ideas were presented by Avshalom “Abu” Vilan, a former Member of Knesset (MK), the Israeli parliament, during a talk last night at the Meretz USA offices.
By way of introduction for people who have never heard Vilan’s name and for those who are not experts on the ins and outs of Israeli politics, he was also one of the founders of Peace Now and in 2005 he co-founded “Bayit Ehad”; an Israeli organization that seeks to help West Bank settlers voluntarily relocate from settlements to homes in Israel proper. This short biography is also a way of saying that Vilan is a political progressive whose work has been and continues to be firmly rooted in the values of the left.
Vilan’s talk focused on the current political situation in Israel and Palestine. One of his most interesting assessments was that a primary threat to Israel right now is loosing legitimacy in the eyes of the international community. He also concluded that most Israelis appreciate neither the significance of world opinion of their country’s policies and actions, nor the shift in opinion that has occurred and is occurring because of the continued occupation of Palestinian land and oppression of Palestinians themselves.
This danger is actually two separate issues. The first is the lack of appreciation for the importance of world opinion. The world is now increasingly interconnected and information about events in one part of the world is instantly communicated to people around the globe. Israelis may wear Levi’s while tweeting on their Macs, but this new global reality has not seemed to permeate the Israeli consciousness at a level deeper than pop culture. What happens in Israel is no longer just the Israelis’ business. The whole world is watching. And Israelis need to understand that the policies of their government and the manner in which those policies are executed matter to a great many people around the globe. How world leaders, community activists, and casual news consumers view Israel matters a great deal. It’s time for Israelis to wake up to and fully embrace this reality, Vilan suggested.
The second piece is the changing perception of Israel among the international community. The days are gone when Israel was the darling of the international community. While some Israelis may still see themselves and their country as the victim, underdog, or the “David” the fact is, that is no longer the image of Israel in the global collective consciousness. It is not just a PR problem when so many around the world can compare Israel and the Occupation policies to those of Apartheid South Africa. I don’t want to get sidetracked into a discussion of whether this analogy is exact or not. The systems of power and policies of control that existed during Apartheid were unique, just as those of the Occupation are unique, and they are both similar to and distinct from each other in a myriad of ways. It matters not how accurate this analogy is; what does matter however is that this comparison is embraced by many around the world. Arguing that something is anti-Semitic until you’re blue in the face is not going to change the way many around the world now view Israel and the Occupation.
Action drives perception, and that is no less true in Israel’s case. Israelis and American Jews who care deeply about Israel need to stop worrying about the PR war and start concentrating on changing Israeli policies. For those of us who care about Israel and want it to be a democracy that lives in peace with all of its neighbors it is incumbent upon us to work to change the Israeli policies that are driving global perception. Just as Vilan made clear last night, it is a major problem that Israelis have not internalized the power of world opinion and their own ability to change that opinion by changing Israeli policy. Likewise it is critical for American Jews to understand that for most people it is Israel’s actions, and not anti-Semitism, that is driving this shift in global opinion. We have a unique role to play in changing Israeli polices that not only diminish Israel’s standing on the global stage, but more importantly cause Israel to fall short of being the democratic country it set out to be. What the world thinks matters, and the way to change opinion is to change policy.