Online bullying and Israel

About a week ago I received a mass email from Gil Lainer, the spokesperson at the Israeli Consulate in New York, urging folks to send messages to Tom Jones praising his decision to perform in Israel. The idea is to counter boycott calls by letting stars like Jones feel the pro-Israel love. Twice Lainer decried the boycotts as a form of online bullying.

I have no quibbles with Lainer’s email or the “online bullying” descriptor in particular. But it does strike me that some Israel supporters could use a talking to as well.


Just a few days earlier, in a post on Commentary’s blog titled “American Jewry’s Pro-BDS Fifth Column” (oy), Bethany Mandel essentially called for the firing of Isaac Zablocki, the film festival director at the JCC of Manhattan. What’s noteworthy is that Zablocki found himself in the Commentary cross hairs while actually speaking out against the very same boycotts that Lainer is lamenting.

At issue is a blog post that Zablocki wrote for The Huffington Post. It’s absolutely true that the original version did have one line that seemed to accept, and maybe even endorse, some boycotts: “…the importance of the use of boycott to get international attention towards pressuring Israel to end the occupation is unquestionable.” The line was subsequently removed. Rabbi Joy Levitt, executive director, told me it was removed because the line was poorly executed and ended up conveying the exact opposite message of the overall post (not to mention the JCC’s formal position opposing anti-Israel boycotts).

Zablocki said as much in an email to The Algemeiner:

“I want to clarify my position on BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions). I do not support BDS as has been claimed,” he wrote, “I oppose it in all forms. In my article, I only intended to assert the obvious, which is that while people have the right to boycott, I do not support it when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

And make no mistake, Zablocki’s point was to speak out against cultural and academic boycotts. Here’s the two key graffs, including the deleted line (in bold):

In the case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, nonviolence is a welcome form of protest for the region, and the importance of the use of boycott to get international attention towards pressuring Israel to end the occupation is unquestionable. However, the protest of art, culture and education brings up dangers in the realm of freedom and evolution of thought. Artists and educators have an important impact on changing society. Their diversity of opinions plant seeds of thought and help minds grow. Often artists and professors push the envelope of the mainstream and challenge the constructs. In many ways, filmmakers can be seen as the prophets of today — they bring visions to the people and try to change what is wrong with our society. When we start to boycott art and limit the reach of great minds and talent to places, we are limiting potential of change.

Furthermore, it is important to separate the message from the messenger. Some messages can positively impact our world, and should not be thrown out because of a blanket boycott. Israel needs to see films made by Palestinians. Palestinians need to see films by Israelis. Otherwise, both sides will remain with only their own narrative and never truly see the humanity of the other side. There are enough walls between people put up by politicians. Let’s not let politics close off our minds as well. We need to build understanding between both sides and for that we need to hear artists and educators and taste the other’s culture. Once we recognize the other, our society can start to create change. But if the voices of reason are hidden from the public because of where they are coming from or where they are going, there will never be understanding. Israel is resistant to these voices and should not be limited to accessing them.

So for those keeping score: Someone in the liberal Jewish arts space takes to The Huffington Post to fight anti-Israel boycotts — and now we have a Commentary blogger essentially calling that person a traitor to the cause and calling for his firing. (Mandel did write a follow-up post acknowledging that the line had been cut, but instead of taking yes for an answer, she’s still out for blood.)

And while we’re on the subject, check out this recent column by PR maven Ronn Torossian on the Arutz Sheva website blasting the American Jewish Committee and its executive director, David Harris.

OK, so Torossian thinks a Palestinian state is a bad idea, and doesn’t like that AJC and Harris have called out some Israeli pols who also want to stick a fork in the idea of a two-state solution. So call them dumb, naive, etc. But Torossian goes much further, saying that Harris and his organization are not pro-Israel and don’t care about the fate of the Jewish state and its citizens.

Sorry to repeat myself, but … oy. Few people have logged more miles than Harris traveling to capitals around the globe defending Israel in meetings with foreign officials. And he’s spent decades fighting boycotts of Israel. But he doesn’t qualify as pro-Israel? Why? Because he’s been defending the Israeli prime minister’s stated policy aim of reaching a deal with the Palestinians?

It looks like there are some Israel supporters who could also use a lecture on online bullying. Or at least some help distinguishing between friend and foe.

Ami Eden is JTA’s CEO and editor in chief, responsible for overseeing all aspects of the agency’s operations, including editorial, business, marketing and fundraising. Before joining JTA in the summer of 2007, he served as executive editor of the Forward newspaper and the founding editor of the Jewish Daily Forward Web site. He also worked as an editor of the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia.