Last Friday was a day filled with sorrow, festivity and nationalism, as three very different, yet oddly connected events took place. Somehow, in their very disparity, Israel’s unique and fascinating puzzle came together.
June 12, 2014 was the last day on earth for Eyal Yifrah, Naftali Fraenkel and Gil-Ad Shaer, three innocent high school boys. On that Thursday night, exactly one year ago, these three boys were kidnapped and brutally murdered on their way home from school. Twelve months ago their dreams, plans and desires were cut remorselessly by terrorists. In that instant, three innocent, private lives ended; and three new symbols were born: Eyal, Naftali and Gilad became all of ours; our boys, our sons and brothers. They were just three normal boys, preparing for school finals, excited about the summer to come, enjoying life as any other teenager would.
After 18 days of prayers, hope, tireless efforts and above all, unity, Gila-Ad, Naftali and Eyal were discovered murdered. Three families were forever changed. And three private citizens became public symbols, more bricks laid in the painful layers of our shared history.
Then, last Friday, a very different kind of injustice — one built from the very same bricks — was repaired. It all began when two weeks ago, while visiting Cairo, Egypt, worldwide mobile phone network Orange’s CEO Stephane Richard announced that he would be happy if his company suspended its operations in Israel. Following his statement Orange announced ending its contract with the Israeli company operating under the brand. As a result of protests across the board, from Orange employees, Israelis in general and Israel’s government, Orange announced that this is a business move rather than a political one — although announcing business decisions relating to Israel in Cairo didn’t really convince the public in Israel nor its officials. Once he realized this announcement had anti-Israel written all over it, Richard expressed his regret, said his message was misunderstood, and this past Friday arrived in Israel to personally apologize in front of Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the people of Israel.
This recent anti-Israel statement follows a series of worldwide anti-Israel sanctions and boycotts by universities, commercial companies, sports organizations and others. This global trend to demonize and delegitimize Israel is part of a wider phenomenon known as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
BDS is a global campaign attempting to increase economic and political pressure on Israel to comply with the stated goals of the movement: the end of Israeli occupation and colonization of Palestinian land, full equality for Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel, and respect for the right of return of Palestinian refugees. This vicious bias campaign began in 2005 led by 171 Palestinian non-governmental organizations. The BDS campaign called for “various forms of boycott against Israel until it meets its obligations under international law.”
One of the movement’s activities is the annual Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW). A series of university lectures and rallies, Apartheid Week aims to “educate” the public about Israel as an apartheid system and to build BDS campaigns as part of a growing global BDS movement. Since IAW began in Toronto in 2005, it has since spread to at least 55 cities around the world including those in Canada and the United States.
A city can choose to dedicate a full week to promote boycotts, hatred, racism and animosity; or it can choose to celebrate free will, democracy and acceptance, as did Tel Aviv this past Friday. Dressed up in lovely rainbow colors, Tel Aviv’s residents left behind the weight of Israel’s complexities, tensions and politics with the rest of the world to celebrate Gay Pride. They dressed up our first Hebrew City and welcomed hundreds of thousands of participants, among them 30,000 tourists from across the world, to dance and sing at what has become known as one of the outstanding inclusionary events of the LGBT community. Jews, Arabs, Christians and others marched together, celebrating life and emphasizing diversity AND unity in the only parade like it taking place the Middle East.
But Friday’s festivities, along with Friday’s public apology, and Friday’s commemoration, has very little impact on the way the world sees Israel. What is it about Israel that draws so much hatred, negativism and hypocrisy? Each of the 55 cities around the globe engaged in BDS has its own minorities, its own internal social injustices, its own challenges. But they choose to focus on Israel. Is their concern really and mainly about protecting the rights of the Palestinians? Or is it classic, old anti-Semitism, just another layer in that painful brick wall of history?
The state of Israel, supported by world Jewry, has made endless attempts since the day it was established, 67 years ago to reach out to its neighbors and withdraw from land that Arab countries lay claim to. We gave up water and other natural resources in order to gain peace. We evacuated Jewish families from homes more than once in order to reach an agreement, and we welcome Palestinian citizens to use our advanced medical system when needed, leaving all disputes aside, even during the war last summer.
I once believed that we should focus on Israel beyond the conflict and highlight Israel’s many accomplishments beyond the military, such as high-tech achievement, the arts, culinary creativity, social activism etc. Today, 55 cities promoting Israeli Apartheid Week later, I outgrew my naiveté and realized that everything in Israel is political, as it is across the world, and we shouldn’t pretend that it isn’t. On the contrary, we should focus on all that is beautiful in Israel, such as our inclusive Gay Pride celebration, Israel’s amazing art scene, Israel’s outstanding high-tech and social activism in light of our very complex reality and politics. These are facets of this country demonstrating that while we are in constant dialog with the conflict, that Jews and Arabs celebrate together, work together, create together, and craft our cultural future together. This is an outstanding demonstration of a real democracy that is strong, confident and stable enough to allow controversial performances and exhibitions.
It’s all part of our reality; that is until it gets twisted and distorted by those seeking to revive anti-Semitism under new forms and excuses, questioning our right to exist and demonizing the Israeli people.
While the streets of Tel Aviv were still filled with party ornaments and colorful rainbow flags, three mothers of three precious boys, our boys, lit Shabbat candles. They prayed for peace and for the people of Israel to stand together on days of sorrow and on days of happiness. Another remarkable week in Israel came to an end. Shabbat with its glory and majesty covered the land of the Jews, who despite external threats have chosen pluralism, acceptance, love and hope.
Leah Garber, Vice President. Director, JCC Israel Center