5/02/2016 Anti Semitism in England, Death in Syria and Trump

The long Passover vacation ended today in Tel Aviv, with kids going back to school for the first time in over two weeks. Government offices opened and the normal ebb and flow of life returned to the city (or almost). Immediately at Passover’s end, Israeli flags started going up all around the town. “Cofix”, the $1 (actually, 5 shekel) per item food chain, began selling flags at a nominal, symbolic price along with all of the supermarkets, as Tel Aviv and Israel prepare for a period of state holidays. Holocaust Memorial Day is commemorated later this week, followed by Israel’s Memorial Day, which leads directly into Israel’s Independence Day the following week. So, whatever passes for routine normalcy in this city and country will not actually begin for another couple of weeks.

It was a remarkably quiet Passover period, with little news emanating from within. The biggest local story focused on efforts of Tel Aviv police to start enforcing the law forbidding bike riders (especially those with electric bicycles – now ubiquitous in the city) to ride on sidewalks – unless they remain in the designated bike lanes. Palestinian violence toward Israelis continued to drop, so Israelis were able to turn their sights to events beyond their borders during this period. Three news stories, interested Israelis in the last week – the continuing bloodshed to our immediate North, despite a “ceasefire”; a scandal racking the British Labor movement over whether its members are anti-Semitic; and of course, the ongoing American story of Donald Trump.

Images of the hospital bombing in Aleppo, Syria was shown repeatedly on Israeli TV. The fact that the destruction of the hospital was caught on video made the event all the more vivid. After five years of bloodshed there is little news from Syria that could surprise, however these images did. The fact this attack took place in the midst of a ceasefire; a ceasefire to which the West and Russia were supposedly parties, once again underscored for Israelis how little international guarantees are worth – especially in an era in which the West seems tired and unwilling to exert itself.

The second story, the continued turmoil in the British Labor party over anti-Semitic /anti-Israel comments made by its leadership, came to a head over the weekend – when London’s former Mayor Ken Livingstone stated that “Hitler supported Zionism” initially before “going mad and killing six million Jews.” Livingstone’s suspension from the party for his remarks, came on the heels of the suspension of MK Naz Shah triggered by her suggestion that “Israelis should be transported to the United States”. Shah later apologized for her comment. These were just the latest in a list of statements and events that prompted the premier Jewish newspaper in Great Britain to write in a March editorial, “Labour now seems to be a party that attracts anti-Semites, like flies to a cesspit.”

The recent spate of comments has also prompted further examination into what constitutes legitimate criticism of Israel, and what should be considered anti-semitism. Jonathan Freedland did a masterful job of drawing the line in his article in The Guardian, “My Plea to the Left: Treat the Jews the same way you would treat any other minority” In his article Freedland states that criticizing the policies of the state of Israel is legitimate, however, comparing Israel to the Nazis is not – As it is an attempt to turn the victims into the perpetrators. An additional point inferred in the article is that it is legitimate to believe Israel should not exist as a nation-state, as long as you also believe that the Palestinians, the Kurds the French etc. have no such right. In other words, it is antisemitic if you believe that Israel is the only state that has no right to exist, and that only Jews have no right to their own state.

Finally, Israelis – like people around the world – remained riveted to the American election campaign and the successes of Donald Trump. Last week Israelis attempted to understand Trump’s foreign policy speech. Many Israelis took their cues from the Sheldon Adelson funded Yisrael Hayom, the most widely circulated newspaper in Israel (free copies are handed out daily). Yisrael Hayom headlined Trump asserting that as opposed to President Obama, who had treated Israeli badly, he (Trump) would be a ‘true friend of Israel’. As a result, when discussing the American election with a neighborhood barista this morning, he alleged to me – “Trump will be good for Israel”.

Talking to more sophisticated foreign policy experts the view is quite the opposite. There is real fear that if Trump were to become the next American President, the U.S. would withdraw from the world. The criticism of the policies of the Obama administration by policy experts here in Tel Aviv has been focused on the impact of the shrinking American footprint in the Middle East. There is concern that a Trump administration would accelerate that pull back. Many of those I have spoken to contend that having a powerless, unquestioning friend of Israel, cannot compare to the effect of a powerful America that criticizes Israel at times. Of course this forecast is predicated solely on the assumption that, if elected, Trump will actually do many of things he states in his campaign – which, without doubt, Israeli pundits are no more able to predict than their American counterparts.