By Professor Alan Johnson
This article was originally published in the Jewish News.
Why am I speaking at an academic conference on Israel’s right to exist at University College Cork (UCC) in March? After all, “International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Exceptionalism and Responsibility” is the conference cancelled two years ago by Southampton University following protests from the Jewish community.
I am attending because I believe – like Marshall Brickman, Woody Allen’s co-script writer for the Oscar winning film Annie Hall – that “showing up is 80 per cent of life”. Brickman added: “Sometimes it’s easier to hide home in bed. I’ve done both.”
What does it mean to “hide home in bed” when it comes to defending Israel’s right to exist in today’s intellectual culture? And what does it mean to “show up”?
“Hiding in bed” can take many forms.
It can mean creating lots of nice warm echo-chambers where Israel’s friends get together, tell each other how right they are, how perfect Israel is, and cheer each other up. Nothing wrong with that. Israel’s friends need to be heard and we all need a bit of cheer sometimes.
It can mean the anachronistic (and convenient) belief that only the elite matters: if you have the ear of the right people, then why pay any attention to those intellectuals?
And “hiding in bed” can mean trying to ban things you don’t like.
But what all this has failed to understand, and for a very long time, is that Israel’s future will not be secured by organised home-team cheering, censorship or whispering in the ear of elites.
“Showing up” today means engaging in a public battle for the ear of what Israel’s own Ministry of Foreign Affairs has called the “global creative class”.
Like it or not, this class now sets the terms for the international standing of a country. The soft power of the world’s opinion formers – the public intellectuals, the commentators, the academics, the artists – is decisive in “framing” a state to world opinion. More: as with every other major attitudinal change in western societies in the last 40 years, it is those with soft power that eventually reshapes the decision-making of those with hard power, as the recent 14-0 UNSC vote should have made clear.
In our networked and media-saturated global society, to lose this class is the strategic danger to Israel. And the danger is real. For decades, an intellectual separation barrier has been built-up between Israel and this global creative class.
The barrier is formed by two things.
First, the creation of a sophisticated system of concepts and a detailed historical narrative which structures thought among the global creative class about Israel: “nakba,” “ethnic cleansing,” “apartheid state,” “settler-colonialism,” the Jews are an “invented people,” “Zionism is racism,” “one-state solution” and more.
Second, a cadre, a set of activists, serious people with authority and a record in their organisations, who translate this system of concepts into a variety of idioms and forms of activism, each tailored to their organisation, each experienced as immanent to the values of, and so each influential within, academia, the churches, the trades unions, the charities, the human rights communities, the arts world, the liberal and social democratic parties, and so on.
“Showing up” to defend Israel’s right to exist means challenging this system of concepts and these activists not only with glib talking points, lobbying, infographics, glossy brochures and bans, but by a rigorous, intellectually coherent, academically respectable, politically progressive defence of the Jewish homeland: a counter-frame with historical depth and explanatory power that can be felt on the pulses of the generally progressive global creative class, and to keep it up until that class is moved to support Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish homeland with full rights for its national minority rather than oppose that right.
It is that defence of Israel’s right to exist I will present when I “show up” in Cork. And which will be published in Fathom, BICOM’s online journal with its internationally-renowned writers and its quarter of a million (and growing) readers in academia, politics, the churches, the trades unions, the charities, the human rights communities, the arts world, the liberal and social democratic parties, and so on.
Professor Alan Johnson is Senior Research Fellow at BICOM.