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Do Israel Trips Help Change Hearts and Minds of Those Already Poisoned by Antisemitic Tropes?

A few months ago in a Jewish Link op-ed (Israel Trips Are the Best Way to Fight Anti-Israel Disinformation, Except When They Are Sponsored by J Street (September 28, 2023), I observed that the Jerusalem Post’s then editor-in-chief Avi Mayer’s claim that Israel trips could help sway progressives was correct except when anti-Israel organizations like J Street sponsor the trips. Mayer rightly cited Congressman Ritchie Torres (D-NY15) as an example of a progressive whose Israel trips helped affirm his already pro-Israel attitudes. I cited Congressman Jamaal Bowman (D-NY16) as an example of a progressive whose J Street trip only served to reinforce his already hostile Israel attitude.

Since the recent South African application to the International Court of Justice charging Israel with genocide in Gaza, I began to wonder if trips to Israel might have served to mitigate some of the anti-Israel hostility based on antisemitic tropes evinced by that country’s leadership, Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor being a case in point.

The question of Israel trips and their efficacy in countering trope driven South African anti-Israel animus prompted a recollection of past U.S. and South African leadership who had an “Israel problem” based on Operation Cast Lead, December 2008-January 2009.

If you had been following the 2009 Chuck Hagel controversy, after President Obama nominated him to his intelligence advisory board you may have heard about his comment in a 2006 interview with former Middle East negotiator Aaron David Miller. Hagel said that “the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people” on Capitol Hill (“Hagel named to intelligence board,” Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Oct. 29, 2009).

Many among the pro-Hagel apologist chorus dismissed his Jewish lobby reference, which he later changed to the Israel lobby, as a simple faux pas that at worst reflected a certain ignorance about the powerful negative and yes, antisemitic energy that term animates.

The fact is Hagel apologized for anti-gay remarks but has never done so for his “Jewish lobby” reference. Unfortunately, we have learned, or should have learned, the lesson that allowing such terms to creep into the lexicon without strong criticism leads to their acceptance along with all the unfounded antisemitic canards of Jewish domination of political and financial institutions and the media.

Would AIPAC-sponsored trips to Israel have helped reshape Hagel’s views? Perhaps.

Another Obama nominee, Chas Freeman, a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia and a known reflexive Israel detractor, was appointed chairman in 2009 of the critically important National Intelligence Council. It serves as the president’s main conduit of intelligence data. He withdrew his candidacy after it was revealed that unusually close ties to Saudi and Chinese interests could potentially taint his intelligence assessments.

The Freeman story, as one among a plethora of prematurely withdrawn, inadequately vetted Obama nominees and staffers considered Israel-unfriendly, may not have been all that newsworthy per se. But all that changed after Freeman’s withdrawal when he launched into a paranoid anti-Israel lobby conspiracy-laden diatribe. Even the Washington Post labeled Freeman’s remarks about a lobby which is “intent on enforcing adherence to the policies of a foreign government” a “grotesque libel.”

Would AIPAC-sponsored trips to Israel have helped reshape Freeman’s views? Probably not.

A few weeks before the Freeman nomination, South Africa’s Deputy Foreign Minister Fatima Hajaig of the ruling African National Congress Party made extremely disturbing antisemitic remarks at an anti-Israel rally which raised the ire of many Jewish organizations worldwide.

At a Jan. 14, 2009 Johannesburg rally organized by the Congress of South African Trade Unions, Palestine Solidarity and the SA Council of Churches, Hajaig said, “No matter which government comes into power, whether Republican or Democratic, whether Barack Obama or George Bush, the control of America, just like the control of most Western countries, is in the hands of Jewish money … If Jewish money controls their country, you cannot expect anything else,” referring to support for Israel by those nations.

Her words, reminiscent of the most virulent antisemitic fabrications of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, were greeted by resounding applause.

Would a South African Jewish Board of Deputies-sponsored trip to Israel have changed Hajaig’s views? Highly unlikely.

I was not surprised by Hajiag’s remarks. Months earlier, as the Zionist Organization of America Israel director, I opened a ZOA branch office in Netiv Ha’asara, a community abutting northern Gaza that had already by 2008 taken over 1,000 rocket and mortar hits. Like so many other small communities in Otef Azza (the Gaza Envelope) it received negligible attention from media and leadership so I hoped that an American Jewish organization’s presence would garner some interest in the plight of these communities.

Within days of opening the office we were graced with a visit by South African Embassy officials and members of parliament. They were taken on an informative tour by South African born Glen, a decades-long resident of Nativ Ha’asara. They got a detailed explanation of Netiv Ha’asara’s Gaza border area replete with sophisticated defenses designed to deter snipers and terrorist intruders. In addition, Glen provided them with a detailed account as to what life was like under the daily threat of rocket fire.

South Africa is a country known, among those of us who follow international affairs, to not be the most Israel-friendly. To be sure, post-tour conversations produced disagreements but to varying degrees; some like opposition MP Sheila Camerer (Democratic Alliance) were prepared to recognize the complexity of the conflict and at least consider reasoned arguments.

But as we were walking back to a light reception in the moshav’s social hall, I was totally unprepared for a conversation with veteran ANC MP Mewa Ramgobin who also was a member of the parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee. As we walked together, Ramgobin, a University of Natal graduate and divorced husband of Mahatma Gandhi’s granddaughter, questioned me about the relationship between ethnicity and politics in the United States. Given Ramgobin’s prior harangues, I thought I knew where his line of questioning was heading so I tried to deftly dance around his provocative remarks.

Imagine my shock when Ramgobin then proceeded to make reference to the disproportionate influence of the nefarious “Jewish lobby” that controls all the levers of power. At first I thought I misheard and asked him whether he meant the Israel Lobby of Walt, Mearsheimer, Carter infamy — a libelous canard in its own right.

Ramgobin responded, “No, I mean the Jewish Lobby” and with a twinkle in his eye he repeated, “you know what I mean, THE Jewish Lobby.” I said, “No, I don’t know what you mean. Could you please help me understand? How do you define it? Where is it headquartered? What are its constituent bodies? Do you actually believe there is such a Jewish cabal?

After repeating this line of questioning a couple of more times and getting nowhere I even tried humor. I told him the Jews were responsible for the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. After all, the Rosenbergs controlled the banks, the Goldbergs controlled the media and the icebergs controlled the high seas. He didn’t get it. Ramgobin and I parted ways, leaving me shaken and very angry.

Later I contacted Camerer and told her about my experience. She was horrified and said she was going to get in touch with the former head of her party Tony Leon, himself Jewish, but I never heard from her again.

Did the Israel trip and the Netiv Ha’asara tour change Camerer’s and her Democratic Alliance colleagues’ views? Probably for the better. Did it change Ramgobin’s anti-Israel views? Absolutely not.

So in our post-Oct. 7th world, I can no longer dismiss my personal experience with Ramgobin as a one-off with a lone misguided bigot. The worrying trend among otherwise bright and thoughtful members of a society’s elite, whether it be in the halls of power or the ivory tower, to blindly accept some of the most pernicious antisemitic conspiracy canards must give us all pause for thought and cause for concern and action.

Should that action include leadership missions to Israel? I believe it should but, given its finite resources, the diaspora’s Jewish leadership will have to decide which decision makers and influencers are still open to the pro-Israel case and which have been so badly poisoned so as to render them incorrigible.

For those of us in Israel, we must establish fitting and respectful memorials, including the preservation of massacre sites in Kibbutz Be’eri, Nir Oz, and the Re’im Nova site, among others. As was the case years ago when visiting dignitaries were taken to the Golan and Yad Vashem to gain an appreciation for Israel’s reality, our Ministry of Foreign Affairs must make the Gaza Envelope communities a sine qua non stop for every diplomat and/or delegation. If our South African “friends” can visit those sites and come away unmoved, as opposed to so many international personalities who have been profoundly shaken, then they must be included among the basket of incorrigibles and relegated to the margins of civilized society.

The writer was the director of the Zionist Organization of America’s Israel office and lives in Jerusalem.

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