How Israel stupefies so many brilliant Jews

It’s the occupation, professor. Deja vu from the Technion.

On the eve of Passover 1988, I was working at the Technion, Israel’s prestigious technological institute in Haifa, writing fundraising prose. It was a few months into the First Intifada, and Israel’s image had been taking a battering overseas like never before, with scenes being televised continually of heavily armed soldiers and tanks putting down a rebellion by teenagers with stones.

We workers in the administration building gathered for the traditional pre-Passover toast with the college president. In his remarks, he noted that many of us would be going abroad for the holiday, and that the issue of Israel’s high-profile behavior could well come up in our conversations with people who wanted to hear what Israelis had to say. His advice: “Speak in one voice.” All around me, people were nodding.

I found this pretty depressing. The president of a leading Israeli college sending the employees out into the world to be PR robots for the government and army. Did this happen in other countries, democratic countries? It was another example of the ultra-nationalism, conformist political thought and self-righteous paranoia that I didn’t like about the country – and it was setting the tone even at the top of one of its best colleges.

Since then, the Technion has come up in the world. Three of its professors have won Nobel Prizes for science, it’s going to share with Cornell a $2 billion campus being built in New York City, its international ranking has climbed and its fundraising has multiplied.

But in some ways, evidently, it hasn’t changed. This week the Technion’s current president, Prof. Peretz Lavie, wrote an op-ed in Yedioth Ahronoth telling of his dismay at all the anti-Israel activity, the BDS stuff, he saw in a recent visit to U.S. and Canadian college campuses. It’s so bad, he wrote, that “the Jewish students themselves hardly take part in events on campus and are not showing much interest in workshops and programs aimed at training them to represent Israel on the PR level.” His advice:

Israel’s decision makers should give this important issue a higher priority on their agenda. There is an urgent need for a reorganization of the system on Israel’s image on campuses in North America and Europe. The state must urgently appoint an official to deal with this issue and back the appointment with funds and authorities.

It didn’t enter the Technion president’s mind that Israel’s actions toward the Palestinians might have something to do with the anti-Israel mood on Western campuses. No, what we need is better PR, and an end to what he called the “outrageous lack of coordination” in this effort. We need to speak in one voice.

This thing that Israel has with Arabs, this need to forever keep them down lest they rise up and swallow us, combined with the need to forever justify this obsessive violence, has crippled so many otherwise brilliant Jewish minds, in Israel, America and elsewhere. This victim mentality, which brings with it an inability to admit any wrongdoing toward Arabs (who are misperceived as Israel’s victimizers), has hobbled the thinking of so many otherwise highly intelligent Jews in Israel and the Diaspora. On every other subject under the sun, they’re open-minded, they examine all sides, they try to weigh information objectively. But on the subject of Israel, they become propagandists. On Israel, they are literally stupefied by their need to proclaim this country’s innocence and defend or at least excuse its violent domination of Arabs, which they wouldn’t defend or excuse if it was any other country doing this to any other people. On Israel, these Jews’ otherwise outstanding minds are one big blind spot.

It was depressing on Passover 1988, and all the more so on Hanukkah 2014.

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