What does the European Union’s recent vote to prevent its institutions from providing “support in the form of grants, prizes or financial instruments” to companies or organizations with activities in the West Bank, East Jerusalem or the Golan Heights have to do with the fallout over the recent verdict in the Florida trial of George Zimmerman? Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch coordinator, 38, of European and Hispanic ancestry, was acquitted last week in a Florida courtroom of charges of second-degree murder and manslaughter in the shooting death of 17-year old Trayvon Martin, a local resident and an Afro-American. The jury that acquitted him also ruled that racism played no role in the shooting.
This verdict has enraged not just the Afro-American community, but also many political liberals who are stunned by what they decry as being a miscarriage of justice. Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. , in an opinion piece published in Commentary online (http://www.commentarymagazine.com/2013/07/16/deconstructing-reality-and-zimmerman/), addresses the blowback to the Zimmerman verdict as follows: “What we’re seeing from the left is post-modernism on full display. The facts, the truth and objective reality are subordinate to the progressive narrative…. What matters, after all, is The Cause. And everything, including basic facts, must be bent to fit it.” So, what is the connection to the EU?
Get on a plane and fly from central Florida to Tel-Aviv, including a stopover in Brussels at the headquarters of the European Commission, the executive body of the European Union (EU). The EU’s legislative body, the European Parliament, has ruled that all Israeli activity in the area to which it refers as “the territories occupied by Israel in 1967, namely the Golan Heights, the West Bank including East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip,” is “illegal under international law.” It is not only the EU that proclaims this. The many international visitors of diverse backgrounds with whom I speak in Efrat also employ this axiom and express it in mantra-like fashion. My experience with such critics, however, is that when asked, they are mostly unable to cite the source for the “law” to which they refer. Rather, it is an idea that they have internalized after reading it and hearing it ad nauseum; it simply goes unquestioned.
Individuals who are somewhat more knowledgeable are able to make general reference either to the United Nations or to the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Still, most are incapable of citing any specific ruling. Only a few have done their homework on this topic and they defiantly cite Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. However, the application of Article 49 to the circumstances of Judea and Samaria, the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem is, at best, debatable. The article in question speaks of:
‘individual or mass forcible transfers, as well as deportations of protected persons from occupied territory to the territory of the Occupying Power or that of any other country, occupied or not…The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.’
First, it relates only to sovereign political entities, “High Contracting Powers” in the actual text; the area of Judea and Samaria has been lacking political sovereignty since the year 70 C.E. It is not a country; technically it remains no man’s land. Second, the Jews who have populated this area from June 1967 were not forcibly transported or deported to it. Moreover, and with no little irony, this law was created in 1949 in direct response to the Nazi’s policy of forced transfer of populations, particularly Jews, during World War II. Its application vis-à-vis Israel’s administrative hegemony over this land is misplaced and fallacious.
Lay people may be excused for their ignorance. What about EU parliamentarians? We wish to think that as people who address weighty matters and are charged with making decisions that affect many lives, elected officials, even if not wiser than the average individual, at least take the time and trouble to research and understand the issues brought before them. Uh uh, not necessarily. Elected officials are also politicians who, in democratic regimes, if they wish to retain their seat must answer to their constituents. As far back as the 1970s, cowed by the murderous attacks on their cities and their airlines by PLO terrorists, Europeans with a political bent were quick to see the light of Palestinian nationalism.
What remains forgotten or ignored, even by today’s parliamentarians, is the long legal history of this contested area. This history extends beyond 1967 and beyond 1948, all the way back to the conclusion of World War I, nearly a hundred years ago. The Balfour Declaration of 1917, the San Remo Treaty of 1920, and the 1922 League of Nations Palestine Mandate all acknowledge the right of the Jews as a people to settle this area, today commonly referred to as the West Bank or, in partisan politicized jargon, “occupied Palestinian territory.” These enactments by the international community were never rescinded; in fact, their validity was enshrined in the charter that established the United Nations in 1945.
So, what is going on here? Does international law support or deny the right of Israel to administer the territory it captured from Jordan and Syria in June 1967? The answer is that to much of the international community, it doesn’t matter. What does matter to this crowd, as Wehner notes, is the “Cause.” And beginning in June 1967, with a significant increase in volume following the October 1973 Yom Kippur War, the “Cause,” as we are regularly reminded, is the “plight of the oppressed Palestinians whose lands were stolen by Israel (or Jews) as far back as (fill in whichever year you wish), who are not allowed to build homes or travel, and live mainly in hunger and poverty, even being denied sufficient water for its population.” That is the “Cause; that is the narrative.
Embracing this “Cause” irrespective of the details exemplifies the simple but apt adage that “perception is reality.” Another expression that conveys this mind set is “Don’t bother me with facts, my heart is made up.” The point is that under such circumstances both the historical record and current empirical facts have little if any bearing upon how people understand the Israel-Palestinian conflict. What counts, what motivates them, is how they perceive things and how they feel.
Information from the field is nullified through a dynamic known in the literature of Social Psychology as the “Social Construction of Reality” (Berger and Luckman). In this process individuals or groups mutually negotiate the content and borders of their reality. Once agreement is reached, this shared reality is as concrete as anything; it becomes something that “everybody knows.” A classic example of reality construction is when one population group establishes a prejudice based on the belief that another population group is physically or intellectually limited, irrespective of the latter’s actual performance, and relates to it accordingly.
Another more applicable example is seeing today’s Palestinian Arabs as a “people.” Until approximately the second half of the twentieth century, the world, including the Arab world, did not view the Palestinians as a people; today it does. Being convinced that Israel has imposed a policy of racially-based apartheid, some say only upon Palestinians, some say upon all Arabs, is yet another example of socially constructed reality. These perceptions are not without their empirical consequences and practical ramifications. A case in point is the new, now published, policy of the European Union that addresses key aspects of its relationship to Israel. Voila! Perception becomes reality.
Is there a lesson in this for Israel? First, Israel has to stop trying to influence people’s perceptions cognitively, mainly through the dissemination of facts. Either people don’t absorb this information, shortly forget it, or don’t care. This is not an effective method for changing people’s perceptions and attendant attitudes. In contrast, simple Palestinians play host to thousands of Westerners each year. If a picture is worth a thousand words, their experiences with Palestinian families are worth millions. No statistics, no colorful charts, no amount of professionally produced PowerPoint presentations by an Israeli official can compete with a week of warm home hospitality in Beit Sahour. In this regard Israel should steal a page from the Palestinians. The Israel Ministry of Tourism, along with NGOs, should develop programs to bring more tourists to communities in Judea and Samaria to meet and stay with Jewish residents. Only in this way will people discover that “settlers” are human beings and that “settlements” are the homes and communities in which they live, work, shop and send their children to school.
Second, as has been stated in other discussions, Israel must never equivocate over her rights to Judea and Samaria. That Judea and Samaria constitute the heartland of Biblical Israel, that the People of Israel are the indigenous inhabitants of the Land, that Gd’s covenant with Israel is eternal, that modern Israel represents the re-establishment of the Jewish nation in its historic homeland, are all notions that must be iterated and reiterated in forum after forum.
Finally, it must be remembered that this latest sanction imposed by the EU is not the first time that external political forces have attempted to interfere with Jewish life in Israel. The British White Paper of 1939 declared that Jewish immigration to Palestine was to be limited to 75,000 over the following five years, after which it would depend on Arab consent. A boycott by the Arab League Council of all products made in Israel has been in effect since 1945. And in November 1975 the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution equating Zionism with racism. Each of these decrees was intended to undermine and cause damage to the modern Zionist enterprise; each of these failed to meet its objective. Ironically, the new EU directive is liable to cause greater financial damage to the Palestinian community in Judea and Samaria than it is to the Israeli institutions it is intended to affect. Its authors did not take into account the full legal history nor the current social complexities of the region; rather it emanates from a socially constructed reality that is based on long established perceptions instead of facts. As a consequence, sooner or later, it too will fail and we Jews will continue to remember Europe.