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Thursday, September 18, 2014

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Celebrate Israel, don’t defend it, diplomat urges

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McGill Friends of Israel president Lainie Schwartz, left, and vice-president Russell Sitrit-Leibovich pose with guest speakers Consul General Joel Lion and journalist Barbara Kay

MONTREAL — Pro-Israel students received conflicting messages on what they should be doing on campus to promote the state from Israeli Consul General Joel Lion and National Post columnist Barbara Kay.

Lion and Kay were guest speakers at a March 6 event sponsored by McGill Friends of Israel, as part of its Israel Peace Week programming, which overlapped with Israeli Apartheid Week.

Kay disagreed vigorously with Lion’s advice that students who support Israel should not defend it but rather “celebrate” it. She said the “demonization” of Israel must be combated aggressively with irrefutable data.

Lion told about 50 people who had gathered at McGill University’s Thomson Hall that factual arguments about whether the Israeli or Palestinian case is more just simply don’t work, either with Israel’s opponents or the great majority of students who take no side in the conflict.

The best strategy, he said, is to present a positive picture of Israel as it is today: a thriving, modern country that is sharing its expertise and resources with the world.

“Don’t defend Israel. We can defend ourselves,” Lion said. “We don’t need any help in defending ourselves. What we need is help in celebrating Israel… Don’t waste your time with counter-arguments. Nobody is interested in facts today.”

Lion continued that there are “two narratives in the Middle East – ours and the Arabs’ – and they will never meet. You don’t like me. I don’t like you. We have to live with it. The only solution is two states for two peoples… We have to find a way to live together.”

Lion, who has been in Montreal since last August, sees his job as “marketing a product, and I have the best product in the world.”

Kay thinks students who care about Israel “have to step up to the plate to defend it – in spite of itself.”

She compared confronting anti-Israel activity by saying “nice” things about the country to a parent dealing with the constant bullying of their child by pointing out how smart and beautiful she is to her tormentors.

“We have to be extremely aggressive. We have to go on the offensive,” Kay said.

Taking the approach of ignoring Israel’s enemies is a dangerous one, she maintained. Defending Israel is not only about helping that state, but is essential to Jewish students’ “feeling good about themselves.”

Promoting Israel on its accomplishments, she contended, “will not earn us friends, but rather envy and resentment.”

According to Kay, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not one of competing narratives, but of “fairy tales” versus “history.”

Pro-Israel students are up against “professional activists” on campus who have the time, money and smarts to propagate “lies,” while most Jewish students are only trying to get an education, she said.

Lion followed up by conceding both he and Kay were right. Her approach is the correct one when speaking to already convinced audiences like these students, but it doesn’t work in the bigger picture, he said.

“We tried for 150 years this way. We brought the best arguments, but the world did not change – not them [the Arabs] nor passersby.”

The best the approach today is “a message of affinity, common values and how we can help you… We have to attract people and begin a discussion.”

He gave the example of his visits to Quebec’s hinterland. “If I tell them that there is a fertility centre at McGill, led by an Israeli doctor, Hananel Holzer, that helps you in Baie Comeau to have more kids,” he said, it is more effective than trying to establish that Israel is politically in the right.

McGill Friends of Israel was founded last year to give a voice to pro-Israel students, across the spectrum, Jewish and non-Jewish, said president Lainie Schwartz. A few weeks ago, it received official club status at McGill, which means it receives funding and privileges such as use of university facilities. It has about 200 names on its mailing list.

The March 6 event was the subject of a complaint about its original name, “Israel A-Party,” which Schwartz said was a pun on “Israeli apartheid.”

After a complaint was made to the Equity Committee of the Student Society of McGill University, the group voluntarily changed the name to “Shalom: A Party for Israel,” fearing the event might otherwise be in jeopardy.

The Friends, however, are contesting the complaint. Schwartz, 20, a Winnipegger taking political science and Jewish studies, said they do not know who made it.

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