Reflection of Anti Defamation League Trip
By: Yohan Senarath,
Head Delegate of Clark University Model UN Team

When I first arrived in the United States of America, there was very little that I knew about Judaism and the Jewish community. While I was more than aware about the shocking particulars of the Holocaust, my knowledge about Jewish culture and Judaism was confined to what I learned from Hollywood movies. In fact I had never met a Jewish person before setting foot in this country.  However the opportunity to study in a highly diverse campus in the States enabled me to consolidate strong friendships with many of my Jewish peers and in the process become intimately aware about the rich cultural heritage of the Jewish community and more importantly their richer contribution to humanity as a whole in numerous fields. The work of the Anti Defamation League in combating religious bigotry is a fine example in this regard.

As I came to learn more about Jewish culture and Judaism, I noticed the extremely close affinity that many Jewish people had for the state of Israel. In fact I noticed that the Israeli state for most Jews was inseparable from Jewish culture and Judaism. At the time this was a dilemma for me. As much as I had come to be fascinated by the rich cultural heritage of the Jewish community and admire their various contributions to the global community, I had my reservations about the state of Israel. Having been an avid International Relations enthusiast I often monitored the news which more often than not focused on Israel’s history of military aggression. I came to find Israel synonymous with military aggression especially when it came to the treatment of Palestinians. Little did I know that at the time that the treatment of Israel by the media was held hostage to parochial political interests, highly simplified, devoid of any contextual considerations and was often victim to selective reporting. However my perceptions of Israel were soon about to change albeit steadily as a result of a series of events finally culminating with my most recent trip to Israel as part of the Anti Defamation League’s Campus Leaders Mission.

Ironically enough my opinions on Israel started to change when I was working at an organization that many Israeli supporters would deem as being hostile to it. Watching and listening to the Israeli representative to the United Nations in New York, Ron Prosor at the United Nations Security Council meetings made me realize that there was more to this issue than what I had once believed. Many of the facts that were presented by the Israeli delegation were not addressed by other delegations, they were rather conveniently forgotten while they continued to expound on matters that tarnished the reputation of Israel. A scholarship to attend the Annual Policy conference of the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) served me well in clarifying many of the issues that were raised by Israel; such as the existential threat posed by the Iranian Nuclear Program, transnational terrorist actors such as Hamas and Hizbollah as well as a systematic and coordinated attempt by certain Arab states to undermine Israeli security interests. However it was the opportunity to visit Israel itself under the auspices of the Anti Defamation League’s Campus Leaders Program that provided me the opportunity to better appreciate the ground reality of the situation in Israel and in the process acquire a more accurate understanding of the situation in the country as well as in the Middle East.

This was largely possible as a result of having the ability to interact with a variety of stakeholders in the country-both Israelis and Palestinians from all walks of life; diplomats, journalists, soldiers and corporate leaders. Despite my perception of Israel having undergone some change, there were several key concerns that I wanted many of the persons that I met to address. I did not shirk away from asking difficult questions. To my delight and to the credit of the Anti Defamation League the speakers we spoke to were understanding and respectful of my concerns and provided well reasoned explanations for them, substantiated with the needful evidence addressing them adequately in the process. I came to admire and find endearing the average Israeli’s inclination for reasoned debate over dogma and censorship, a manifestation of the strong democratic culture that prevails in the country which I will address later.

One of the key questions that I raised in regard to Israeli policies was the concern by some that Israeli military and foreign policy was the product of a “siege mentality.” Seemingly harmless threats often magnified several fold resulting in policies that heightened tensions in the region. Midway into my trip, I realized that my initial assessment was indeed true. Israelis did suffer from a perpetual feeling of being under threat of attack. However, what I came to truly appreciate and understand was that they had good reason to feel this way given Israel’s very unique security situation which one simply cannot empathize with unless they had the opportunity to visit the country.  It was very difficult for me to empathize with this fear until I visited the country itself and became familiar with the geography, the people and the history of the Jewish people.

To the South and North of Israel lies two brutal terrorist organizations; Hizbollah lodged in the North cowering in Southern Lebanon and Hamas hiding amongst innocent civilians in the Gaza Strip. Given that they have refused to acknowledge the existence of the state of Israel any peaceful overtures are bound to yield no dividends. One should not be surprised, after all how can one expect organizations that preach Anti Semitic hatred to children as young as five, fire rockets and authorize suicide attacks against Israeli innocents to be familiar with the language of peace. No possible explanations can justify the killing of innocent civilians. Any attempt to justify such attacks are tantamount to legitimizing terrorism.  Israelis have even more reason to fear given that these two organizations are funded by other states in the region that have historically harbored much antipathy against Israel. The forerunner amongst these states is Iran who continues to not only finance but also offer other forms of assistance to these two organizations. Given this history, little is left to the imagination as to what the implications would be of a Nuclear Iran to Israel’s existence. Syria is another country that constitutes this potent mix. With Hizbollah propping Assad’s government as it ruthlessly massacres its own citizens using chemical weapons, one cannot fault many Israelis for contemplating a scenario where such weapons are passed onto Hizbollah.

Given this unique security situation, how could one possibly blame Israel for being extremely sensitive to the actions of its neighbors. The first and foremost obligation of any government is ensuring the security of its citizens and to achieve this objectives all governments consider the full range of options on the table. Furthermore we should bear in mind that not only does it face a unique security situation but Israel and the Jewish community have a unique history. For the outsider the world view of the average Israeli towards the current security situation it faces could be better understood by coming to grips with the traumatic history of the Jewish people, which is one of repression and exile. The culmination of the repression of the Jewish community was the Holocaust. This was followed by a number of wars waged against the Israeli state by its neighbors with the express purpose of destroying the state.

Despite the cries of certain international organizations and segments in the international community, history has taught Israel that when its security is threatened, these very individuals who cry “foul play” will not come to Israel’s assistance.  A prominent example that comes to mind was when West Germany released several Black September Palestinians who carried out the massacre of the Israeli Olympics team at the Munich Olympic games on the demands of Palestinian terrorists who had hijacked a Lufthansa airplane. Waiting on international institutions to reprimand aggression exhibited by Israel’s adversaries can be disastrous to Israeli interests. History has shown that Israel can only depend on themselves to protect their own country and its own people. Like with all governments nations should respect the right of the Israeli state to consider all options when it comes to protecting their own.

Some may misinterpret my last sentence as to mean that I am legitimizing impunity for all actions taken by the Israeli government. They are very much mistaken. In fact I have full faith in the Israeli state that when they take action it has been carefully arrived at after a careful cost benefit analysis. Its strong military apparatus is under the thumb of the will of the Israeli people like in any democracy.

Those that transgress military protocol are held to account and even Israeli politicians as many would tell you have been held to account for their indiscretions. Voter turnouts at election consistently rate over 70% and the state has been recognized for having the most journalists per capita in the world. In fact we learned that despite a systematic effort internationally to undermine its image, much of the press that is most critical about Israel is found in Israel itself. I found this to be a remarkable situation given its highly unique and challenging security situation. Historically most nations that face highly challenging security situations opt down the path of autocracy on the pretext that strong leadership is required to protect national security. This was not the case with Israel. It was an oasis of democracy in a region that is bedeviled by corrupt governments and autocratic rule.

In light of this situation it is indeed remarkable that certain segments of the international community continue to hound Israel for alleged human rights violations. It is unfathomable as to why Israel has turned into a punching bag for many in the international community especially other states in the Middle East. The latter claim that they are working for the well being of Palestinians but if anything they are far more concerned about using the Palestinians to secure their own political interests. For all of the talk about Arabs in Israel suffering by some states in the Middle East, their own citizens find themselves being repressed under autocratic governments. Arabs in Israel enjoy democratic freedoms. The Israelis would be the first to admit that there are concerns that should be addressed in the Palestinian territories. Even if the international community forgets the plight of the Palestinians, the Israelis wouldn’t given that at the end of the day they have to live side by side with the Palestinians.

It is this dogged determination to embrace a democratic culture regardless of the hostility of their neighborhood that made me leave Israel in admiration of it. Their determination to reach the pinnacle of human achievement is not only confined to the realm of government. It is palpable in the economy and culture. How can one not be impressed by the creation of a modern state with its capital being considered as a hub for international business and finance today while having to fend off powerful and external adversaries. Coming from a developing country with limited financial resources and studying here on scholarship, Israel made me believe that anything was possible given one’s commitment, dedication and love. As I left Israel several words of our tour guide sealed my admiration for Israel once and for all; “It is amazing how God selects the most seemingly insignificant of persons and brings them up to show humans time in and time again when they start to despair that the human spirit knows no bounds.”

To learn more about ADL’s Campus Leaders Mission to Israel, click here!