Calev Myers - Planting the Israeli flag on the Left Bank

This article originally appeared in the Israel Hayom,

 

A joint campaign is underway to fill the "conflict" with statistics, facts and documentation of realities on the ground -- to counter the ignorance typical of many intellectual societies in contemporary Europe when it comes to Israel and the Palestinians.

 

At noon on a weekday, the area in front of the Paris Institute of Political Science (also known as Sciences Po), the research institute in the heart of Paris' Seventh Arrondissement, is full to the brim with young would-be politicos. Students swathed in dark-colored scarves and leather coats rub their hands for warmth, but as they argue about current affairs they generate enough heat to take off their gloves and light a cigarette. The bookstore across the way sells all the works of Patrick Mondiano, as is fitting for the time, but the works of Abba Eban and Edward Said are also available there in French translation. Georges Pompidou and Francois Mitterrand, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Bernard-Henri Levy and Nicolas Sarkozy all studied here, as did anybody who wanted to be somebody or something in the great democratic republic.

 

The institute's fourth-floor corridor is jam-packed. Even as the raised voices wrap the window glass in white vapor, an intriguing event is taking place in a small classroom at the edge of the commotion. It is an Israeli Zionist public relations event. Here of all places, in the main artery of the Seine's Left Bank, members of the Jerusalem Institute of Justice and The Face of Israel are arranging brochures with the Israeli flag depicted prominently on them. They are not afraid to talk about human-rights violations in Palestinian Authority territory -- not by the Israeli army but by the Palestinians themselves.

 

A few dozen students enter the classroom and sit down. During a brief round of introductions at the start of the event, most refuse to identify themselves and avoid being photographed. Although they are suspicious, they listen closely, absorbing information quickly and resisting it at the same time, as they have been taught to do. Attorney Calev Myers, the founder of the Jerusalem Institute of Justice, is not afraid of that -- he has the experience of countless public-relations events in many European cities that give Israel the cold shoulder -- and he needs no introduction. Coolheadedness is an important component in Israeli public relations in Europe, since this game does not begin with an even score of zero. There is a tremendous handicap to be made up even before the fight begins.

 

Myers gives the students a statistic: the $26 billion of European and American aid that were invested in the Palestinian Authority over the past two decades and that evaporated as if they had never existed. "Where are the new jobs? Where is the modern industry? Where are the infrastructures for water, power, sewage and roads?" he asks the students, who sit in silence. "Instead of building the infrastructure to set up a state, they built an infrastructure for terrorism. Instead of cherishing the Palestinians' human rights, they trample on them."

 

One young woman whose eyes had been buried in her MacBook throughout the lecture suddenly raises her head and says to him: "You, the Israelis, have no moral right to judge Palestinian human-rights violations as long as you are in the position of the occupier. You must withdraw from Judea and Samaria first."

 

Myers pulls out the topic of Gaza. "Did you know that more than 160 Palestinian children were killed digging the terror tunnels for Hamas?" he asks. "Did you hear about the building contractors for those tunnels, who were killed after they had finished their work to keep the tunnels' locations from being exposed?"

 

Myers is stubborn about human rights. The institute he set up in 2009 deals with legal and political activity on behalf of weak populations in Israeli society. His work includes assisting lone soldiers, women caught up in prostitution and new immigrants from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union. From time to time he says, "I am not an emissary of the Israeli government, and there are things about it that I criticize." As a lawyer who represented Palestinians in various lawsuits, he believes he has a mandate to criticize the Palestinian side. Eli Hazan, the vice president of the Jerusalem Institute of Justice, also offers the students a historical perspective. "In 1948, 900,000 Jews lived in Arab countries. Today, hardly 4,500 live there. They fled to the only place that was willing to take them in, and that is the State of Israel. They worked hard to rebuild their lives while the Arab leadership perpetuated the Palestinian refugee problem, even though there were many cases of population exchanges in the world," he says.

 

But the same old song can be heard at the event that takes place the next morning, at the European Communication School in the heart of Paris's prestigious 16th Arrondissement. "Israel is the occupier, and that is what is important," says Patrique, a young journalism student. The students do not back up their assertions with information. Instead, they spout slogans they read in editorials that they happened to pick up on the Metro, but it is a fact: the French elite, both young and old, is not on Israel's side. The symbolic vote in the French parliament to recognize a Palestinian state, which passed with 339 in favor to 151 opposed, only proves that reality even more.

 

A complete change of thinking

 

The Face of Israel, which was born during Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein's term as information and diaspora minister, is now subordinate to the Foreign Ministry and private donors. The purpose of its joint campaign with the Jerusalem Institute of Justice is to fill the "conflict" with statistics, facts and day-to-day documentation of what is happening on the ground. All this is done to counter some of the ignorance that is typical of many intellectual societies in contemporary Europe when it comes to Israel and the Palestinians.

 

That is why Christy Anastas, a Palestinian Christian woman from Bethlehem, has joined the campaign as well. The separation barrier surrounded her home completely, and every window of her home faced it. Anastas told the students her family's story, how suicide terrorism made the economic situation worse and how she lived in double fear -- of bombardments by the Israeli army and of the threats from the terrorists hiding inside her home. She now lives in Britain and can no longer travel to Palestinian Authority territory or to Israel for fear of reprisal.

 

The campaign's method is similar to that of a traveling circus. Panel discussions are held in front of audiences every evening. While students are given special emphasis, they are not the only group to receive it: on the first evening of the campaign, a panel discussion was held specifically for the Jewish community. The audience members, wearing caps, sat in the auditorium. They had been subjected to a meticulous body search before going inside. Myers says that public-relations for pro-Israel audiences is not a superfluous matter; on the contrary. "We give them tools and make them advocates for Israel in their own countries," he says. Ariel Bulshtein, CEO of The Face of Israel, says that it is important to show the world "the variety of voices in Israel, such as that of Father Gabriel Naddaf from Nazareth."

 

Bulshtein says that Father Naddaf, who calls for army enlistment for the Christian Arab community, travels all over the world as an emissary of The Face of Israel. He has been to the European Union parliament in Brussels and the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, and last weekend he went to the Spanish parliament in Madrid. "People who hear him for the first time get a shock," Bulshtein says. "They tell us that the prevalent view is that Israel means Jews against the whole world. But suddenly they see Christians, Muslims and Druze who speak in a variety of voices."

 

Although The Face of Israel is under most Israelis' radar, it has developed a system that it uses abroad. Its officials contact key people in five fields: politics, business, journalism, culture and academia. In some countries a sixth field -- that of religious institutions -- is added. Bulshtein and his people are well-versed in tomorrow's politicians and professors, learning their names by heart as if they were soccer stars. The Face of Israel initiates contact with these key people, hosts them for tours in Israel and gives them precise and specific information about the country.

 

"This is painstaking work. We look for the people so carefully," Bulshtein says, "and I become enthusiastic over the rebirth of these key people every time, as I watch them shed the cloak of ignorance that wrapped them round when they were abroad. People completely change the way they think about Israel. We are hosting a delegation of Asian-American television stars whose image of Israel was that of soldiers in hobnailed boots. But then they toured the hospitals and saw who the patients were, and who was giving them medical treatment. They went to the field hospital that was set up on the Golan Heights for Syrian refugees. They changed their attitude right away."