March may be the official start of spring in the Western hemisphere, but in recent years it has also spawned something of an anti-Israel season, time of the annual “Israeli Apartheid Week” on college campuses around the world, and of a regular consumer boycott of Israeli goods. For those on the other side of the discussion, there is now “Buy Israeli Goods Day” and innumerable programs emphasizing effective Israel advocacy.
Avi Melamed is an Israeli educator and lecturer who works to get people to slow down enough to understand the reality of the Middle East situation. A former professional in Israeli government and intelligence, specializing in counter-terrorism and Arab affairs, Melamed is an educator and lecturer on Israeli society, security, and fundamentalist Islam, and an analyst on the Middle East geo-strategy.
He is the founder of the website Feenjan.com, an online platform for constructive dialogue between Israelis and Arabs. Fluent in Arabic, Melamed earned a B.A. in history and Middle East studies from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and is a graduate of conflict resolution programs at the university’s Leonard Davis Institute for International Relations and George Mason University.
Melamed is on a six-week speaking and teaching tour in the U.S., and will make a stop in greater Hartford later this month to meet with college students and Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) representatives from around the state. He explained to the Ledger how language is central to the campaign for Israel.
Q: What do you see as the biggest challenge to speaking up for Israel?
A: The major point that I discuss with people who are not from the Middle East region is this: Most people in the West do not speak Arabic. This is an enormously important fact because the outcome is that people are being fed information solely from English-speaking sources. That information provides people with a very small fraction of the big picture. When people’s minds are exposed to a five-second message or to Twitter, they don’t really bother to learn the full story. Our minds are being shaped by rapidly changing pictures and messages on TV and the Internet. The outcome is that many people have a very narrow perspective that isn’t reflecting the reality of what’s going on in the region.
In addition, the Israeli-Arab narratives very easily appeal to the average person’s mind. People have inherited the tendency to identify with whom they perceive as the underdog and don’t stop to ask questions: What is this narrative about? What are its components? Is it accurate? What I say to people is, if you really want to express a point of view that indicates that you’re standing on more fair ground, you have to go deeper to learn and understand, you have to be more critical of the picture that is being presented to you.
In our times, everything is so fast and so shallow and changes in a matter of nanoseconds. People don’t talk any more; they send quick, short messages and there is no going in deep, going in to study or take time with a process of learning and investigating and asking questions and looking for answers. This is a process that combines the shallowness of dialog on the one hand and the tendency of people – especially young people – to be captivated by narratives that have nothing to do with reality.
People in the West have a different reality than people in the Middle East. There are certain people who, when they are focusing on the Israeli-Arab issue, tend to take a side that is critical toward Israel. Some take it to the extreme, delegitimizing Israel’s right to exist. As an Israeli, I’m ready to accept criticism of Israel. It isn’t 100 percent pure, we make mistakes. But there’s a major difference between legitimate criticism on one hand and delegitimization on the other.
Most Westerners won’t learn Arabic or Hebrew. So they rely mostly upon English-speaking sources. I tell them that they have to adopt a simple guideline: seek out diverse and many different sources if they want to get a picture of what’s going on.
Q: Students on college campuses today can encounter some pretty vicious anti-Israel rhetoric and activity; witness “Israeli Apartheid Week” and other demonstrations. How do you teach young people to deal with this?
A: When you talk with people who strongly criticize Israel – not those who take it to the extreme – remind them that they don’t speak either Hebrew or Arabic, so they are missing a part of the story. If the criticizer perceives himself with integrity, and because you are bringing up something factual, he should then at least confirm this to himself. I’m talking about people who are willing to hear. With those who are unwilling to hear, don’t waste your time. If a criticizer says, “I heard this about Israel,” encourage them to look again at the situation, and remind them that they are relying on English-speaking sources only. Ask who the sources are, and ask if the information is verifiable.
It’s also important to learn more history and facts and figures. For example, I was at an event in Connecticut where I was talking about UN General Assembly Resolution 181 from 1947, calling for the partition of Palestine. I said that the Jewish leadership at the time accepted the resolution. A woman in the audience said, “I was told that they did not accept it.” I told her that there are historical documents that support the case. That shows you that sometimes, when the accepted knowledge is so different from the reality, one has to address the issue of sources in a very serious way.
Q: What is of particular interest to you in the effort to counter delegitimization of Israel?
A: I’m trying to analyze and understand the source of this strange, unholy alliance of left wing radicals and liberals. The problem is that this is a very vocal group that pushes delegitimization more. This is something that occupies my mind: why has it become a must on the identify card of the left wing liberal to be so critical of the state of Israel, even to the point of delegitimization? I’m trying to understand the psyche of these people.
I think it has to do with the work of the late Edward Said, a Palestinian-American scholar who challenged American exceptionalism, especially as it shaped U.S. perspectives on other peoples and societies. In the context of the alliance between liberals and those with opposing values, this unholy alliance is related to a couple of major phenomena: the appearance of the relativistic approach; and the emergence of mass communication, where people’s minds are exposed to short, dramatic pictures, symbols and information bytes.
To a large extent, this leads to moral confusion among people, mostly in the West, where people try to take in all colors, all opinions. Some people forget that black and white are also colors. This whole cultural phenomenon is known by the term “political correctness.”
With the major events in the Middle East now, the West may be forced to stop and look at its major dominating themes, mostly in the U.S. and mostly in the context of political correctness. That should be one of the questions we ask when we start looking at the things that have shaped political alliances between the U.S. and the Middle East.
For example, what will be the position of the international community toward Syria, compared to its position toward Libya? I say that the U.S. won’t interfere in Syria. But what is the difference? Obama says that the world cannot stand still when people are being massacred. Maybe it’s not a perfect world we live in and maybe there are inevitable clashes between politics and values and maybe sometimes things are relative – but sometimes they’re not. The issue of the position toward Syria vs. the position toward Libya will be a question brought up on college campuses.
Q: What is Feenjan.com and how does it serve your mission to counter delegitimization?
A: I created it five months ago as a platform to allow people who might not have the opportunity to meet, to talk. In the Middle East, we have lots of physical obstacles and challenges to overcome but we are all human beings. Dialog on the most basic human level is not there at all, and people are looking at each other through distorted lenses. My dream is that an Israeli Jewish friend of mine, Orna, who is struggling with everyday life, will be able to enter Feenjan and talk to a woman in Syria about the most basic things, even exchange recipes.
There is radicalism, but there are other things as well. Radicalism is a problem that needs to be addressed very seriously. But it’s important to make the distinction between regular people and radicals. My project is to bring people from both sides to talk. Feenjan is the Arabic word for a small coffee cup, and is used in Hebrew to refer to a Turkish-coffee pot. So I want the site to be like Starbucks – a place for people to get together and just talk. We may have a difference of opinion, but that’s not to say that we can’t find common denominators.
Avi Melamed will speak in greater Hartford later this month, sponsored by Jewish Federation Association of Connecticut (JFACT) and Jewish Community Relations Councils of Greater Hartford, Eastern Fairfield County, and Greater New Haven, and funded by Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Hartford:
Sunday, Apr. 10, 1 p.m.:
“What Is BDS – Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions – and What Do We Do about It?”
Breakout sessions led by community relations specialists and Melamed
Open to college students. RSVP: firstname.lastname@example.org
Monday, Apr. 11, 8 a.m.:
“The Middle East 2011: Smoking Volcano – Fertile Land”
Briefing for Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of
Limited spaces available to the Jewish community; RSVP required: Jo LaRocco, (860) 727-6139 / email@example.com
Info: JFACT, (860) 727-5771 / firstname.lastname@example.org