By David Michaels
Giorgi Kvirikashvili, the prime minister of Georgia, visited Israel late last month.
Sadly, the visit was overshadowed by the violent attack on a security officer at Israel’s embassy in Jordan and tensions attributed to the short-lived introduction of basic security measures at Jerusalem’s Temple Mount after the gunning down of two (non-Jewish) Israeli policemen there. Coming in the run-up to Tisha B’Av, the date marking the destruction of Judaism’s single holiest place, the crisis again encapsulated the deadly consequences of wild anti-Israel and anti-Jewish incitement. Mainstream Palestinian leaders have both denied Jewish history on the Mount and claimed Israeli designs to “Judaize” it, even as Israel has remarkably preserved Islamic clerical administration of the site for 50 years and disallowed Jewish prayer there.
If widespread international ignorance of this Israeli conciliation weren’t enough, Palestinians again set a new standard for chutzpah by warning that the use of metal detectors outside the site—ubiquitous at vulnerable places worldwide, including at the adjoining Western Wall—would intolerably violate Muslim worshippers’ rights. The Palestinians have already long rejected the presence of cameras on the Mount to further document the vile agitation by clerics that ensures unending warfare against and with Israel.
While foreign capitulation to the Palestinian-led regional saber-rattling has been as dispiriting as it has been unsurprising, the overlooked visit to Israel by Georgia’s head of government deserves positive attention disproportionate to the size of a Georgian citizenry less than half that of little Israel. The trip, one of repeated and reciprocal high-level visits between the two countries, testifies to the strength and significance of Israel’s bilateral relations with an increasingly diverse set of states, even as conditions in the Middle East remain so precarious.
Although Israeli ties to foremost world powers, above all the United States—but also now India, whose prime minister made his own historic journey to Israel last month—will always be considered vital, some less powerful countries, particularly in Israel’s near-neighborhood, offer distinct importance on account of their geographic situation, natural resources, intelligence capabilities, market potential and shared strategic concerns, to name but a few tangible assets.
And so, size doesn’t always matter most in international relations; where once “traditional” powers like France and Germany, their continuing importance notwithstanding, may have privileged them among foreign policy priorities, today Greece and Cyprus, far smaller and less affluent than their northwestern neighbors, take a back seat to no one as focal points of Israeli diplomats and policymakers.
Similarly, the measure of Israel’s relationship with other countries cannot be contained to those countries’ votes on rote motions on Israel at the United Nations—even as there is cause for hope that member states can pull loose from ossified patterns of bloc voting on biased U.N. resolutions related to the Middle East.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—serving also as foreign minister—has sought positive voting trajectories in his broadening global outreach whose capstone undertaking, aside from the trailblazing alliances with India and the Aegean countries, has likely been the restoration of Israel’s long-dormant partnership with African states. Accordingly, now counted among Israel’s friends even at the inhospitable U.N. are not only the U.S., Canada and Australia but Togo and Burkina Faso. And these join Pacific island states like Micronesia and the Marshall Islands and such Latin American states as Guatemala and Paraguay, as well as central and southeastern European states including Bulgaria, Romania, the Czech Republic and Albania. And Georgia.
Some of these countries are courageous enough to vote outright against discriminatory motions at the U.N., while others at least begin to pull their neighbors in the right direction by refusing to support texts that recklessly malign Israel’s record or even whitewash Jewish history, discrediting the U.N. itself in the process.
Last month, B’nai B’rith leaders concluded a visit to Georgia, where we met with Kvirikashvili, and also to Azerbaijan—which Netanyahu recently visited in a first for an Israeli premier. Georgia is a historic Christian land, while Azerbaijan is predominantly Shiite Muslim; both are home to substantial, well-integrated Jewish communities largely spared the anti-Semitism found elsewhere, and both Caucasus countries maintain exceptionally close, critical ties with Israel. Tbilisi, Georgia, and Baku, Azerbaijan, are rare world cities where a visitor senses genuine safety in synagogues—and, even rarer, these are places where, walking down the street, one might come upon an Israeli flag flying side by side with a Georgian or Azeri one. Such a display of genuine international pluralism would not likely be found today in Brussels or Stockholm.
The upshot of Israel’s relationship with Georgia and Azerbaijan, as with so many other countries of varied location and culture, is that comity between peoples is possible. Indeed, it is here, even across faith boundaries. Israel is proud and eager to cultivate bonds of friendship with fellow members of the international community, whether of Muslim, Christian, Hindu or any other stripe. All that is needed for the achievement of a mutually rewarding coexistence in the Middle East is for Israel’s neighbors to recognize that it is at home in the region just as they are.
This week, the World Health Assembly (WHA), the U.N. body overseeing the work of the better-known World Health Organization (WHO), voted on yet another resolution targeting Israel. Let the complete absurdity of the situation sink in: Israel, a leader in the medical field, which provides medical aid throughout the world, likely including in countries that shamefully voted in favor of the resolution, was singled out for scrutiny.
No other state was on the agenda; there were also no other WHO reports on a specific conflict situation. Not even Syria received this kind of attention—and the Assad regime has been bombing hospitals this year as part of its ongoing military campaign/humanitarian catastrophe.
At last year’s WHA, the European Union states voted en masse for the anti-Israel resolution saying it was technical in nature. Even if this were true—and it was laughably false—the very nature of having only one country-specific resolution, and having that resolution attack the sole democracy and medical leader in the Middle East region, is inherently political. More to the point, it is a symptom of the dangerous selectivity and special standards that apply only to the Jewish state at the U.N.
This year’s resolution is more bare boned than resolutions from past years, but the main problem persists, and is a grave threat to the credibility of the WHO. After this year’s vote, in which most of the EU states again voted in favor (with the notable exception of the United Kingdom voting against and abstentions by Bulgaria, Croatia and Hungary), the German delegate made a statement on behalf of some of the European states that voted in favor urging the Israelis and Palestinians to work together on a text that could reach consensus. That request is bizarre and insulting—asking Israel to participate in a process where the designated end goal is a resolution that again perpetuates the singling out of the Jewish state.
The question that those that care about world health must ask is: Does the WHO/WHA want to go down the road of other politicized agencies at the U.N.?
We have seen this before, most notably at the U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), two agencies so well-known for being mired in obsession with Israel (UNHRC) and/or denying the history of the Jewish people (UNESCO), that the work of the entire organization is under threat of becoming delegitimized.
And, while human rights and preservation of history and culture are a vital part of our human existence, these two agencies have been problematic for a while now. The UNHRC, which has always had a special agenda item solely dedicated to attacks on Israel, was a politicized body from its birth over a decade ago. UNESCO has also had its own share of issues before. The United States stopped paying dues after UNESCO allowed a still-not-existent Palestinian state to join as a full-fledged member state, and the U.S. also refused to be a member of the organization for a long stretch of time due to what was a notoriously anti-American orientation at UNESCO in the 1980s.
The WHO, though, should be different. It must be above petty political attacks because millions of lives are at risk. We all need the WHO to improve lives and to stop the spread of communicable diseases before they become epidemics or global pandemics. Instead, the WHA stopped everything to engage in an hours-long session of speaker after speaker (mostly from dictatorships with appalling human rights records and health situations) bashing Israel. Does anyone aside from the Palestinian representatives and their allies in states hostile to Israel believe that this is the best use of the time of an expert health body?
After the vote at the WHA, the representative of the United Kingdom put it best by saying, “If we politicize the WHO, we do so at our peril.” Sadly, only six other member states had the fortitude to stand up to this politicization by voting against the resolution: Australia, Canada Guatemala, Israel, Togo and the United States.
World attention has recently been focused on the shameful passage of an anti-Israel resolution on settlements at the U.N. Security Council. Resolution 2334 contains a litany of criticism of Israel while absurdly striking a tone on incitement and terrorism that puts the onus on both sides of the conflict.
The resolution condemns all building beyond the 1949 Jordanian-Israeli armistice line—a line created after Jordan and other neighboring Arab states invaded the newly independent State of Israel in an attempt to annihilate it from existence. The armistice line (also known as the “Green Line”) stood in place until 1967, when Jordan and other Arab states again tried to destroy Israel, only to lose significant territory in the Six-Day War, when Israel liberated the eastern part of Jerusalem (including the Old City) and Judea and Samaria (which Jordan had by then re-named the “West Bank”), among other territories.
The section in Resolution 2334 that could prove to be the most problematic in the long term is a vaguely worded passage that calls on states to “distinguish” between their dealings with Israel and territories Israel gained during the Six-Day War. It’s not clear how states should “distinguish” their actions, but it is clear how the Palestinians and the anti-Semitic Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement will read this phrase—they will clearly try to use this as international cover for a boycott.
More on the Latest Anti-Israel U.N. Resolution
On the same day that the Security Council passed Resolution 2334, the General Assembly’s 5th Committee (the U.N.’s administrative and budget committee) decided, by its usually lop-sided anti-Israel majority, to fund a Human Rights Council (HRC) decision from March to create a database of companies doing business in areas beyond the Green Line. There is no ambiguity about what is happening with this decision—the U.N. is being willingly co-opted to become the secretariat of the BDS movement, creating a list of companies that activists can draw upon for divestment campaigns.
Israel submitted an amendment to this 5th Committee resolution to strip the funding from the mandate, but only Australia, Canada, Guatemala, Palau and the United States sided with Israel. The European Union (EU) gave a statement saying that EU member states would vote against the amendment as a bloc (even though the EU did not support the original HRC decision in March, albeit only by abstention), because it was important to stand by a principle of not letting policy discussion distract from the budgetary process, which is often run by consensus. Apparently that principle is more important than the principle that the United Nations should not be co-opted for anti-Semitic purposes.
The EU has been trying on this issue to have its cake and eat it too. Some EU members have laws against boycotts of Israel (and EU leaders pay lip service to opposing a boycott), yet the EU Commission put out guidelines by which member states should label all Israeli products from the disputed territories. While the guidelines do not explicitly call for a boycott of goods from the settlements, it seems only reasonable to deduce that it is meant to enable one.
The U.N.’s database will contain Israel companies based in the disputed territories, of course, but it will also likely target outside corporations that do business in the territories, multinational corporations that help bring security for Israeli citizens regardless of whether they reside within the Green Line or not. And it could very well be broadened to include Israeli businesses not even based in the territories, but those such as banks and stores that operate wherever their Israeli customers reside.
These recent U.N. actions may have created an overreach that provides an opportunity to move the U.N. in the right course. The Security Council resolution has created a furor in Congress and the incoming administration, which has led to threats of action against the U.N. Because of this, we’re now hearing the use of a word that we have not heard in a while at the U.N.—“reform.” If there is to be any reform at the U.N., one of the first priorities must be to reverse the barely concealed anti-Semitic efforts to boycott Israel that so many member states seem willing to either promote or at the very least tolerate.
Despite an astounding array of conventions, covenants, directives, framework decisions, case law and other existing legal instruments meant to ensure human rights and freedom from discrimination in the European Union, Jews continue to face high levels of anti-Semitism in nearly all of the 28 EU member states.
I had the privilege of participating recently in the 10th Israel-EU Bilateral Dialogue on Combating Antisemitism, Racism and Xenophobia at the invitation of the Israeli Foreign Ministry (MFA) in Jerusalem earlier this month. The forum was established to allow Israelis and representatives of the European Commission—the government of the European Union—to discuss their ongoing work in combating antisemitism, exchange experiences and compare best practices. Participants included high-ranking European Commission and Israel Foreign Ministry officials, experts and practitioners in the field of education and social media.
The meeting occurred after the failed attempt by the 57-member Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), to adopt the long-awaited Working Definition of anti-Semitism. Researchers, lawmakers and law enforcement practitioners have long complained that the lack of a generally agreed-upon definition of anti-Semitism—even if not legally binding—has helped confound efforts to combat the issue. So long as there was no definition, one man’s anti-Semitism could arguably be another man’s legitimate, albeit judgmental, opinion about Jews or Israel.
READ: A Potential Breakthrough in Defining Anti-Semitism
The definition proposed to the OSCE—only one sentence long with no mention of the State of Israel—goes on to provide 11 illustrative examples, most of which reference different manifestations of anti-Israel prejudice as forms of anti-Semitism: “Accusing the Jews as a people, or Israel as a state, of inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust;…Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g. by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor; Applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation; Using the symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism (e.g. claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel) to characterize Israel or Israelis; Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis...” – while adding the clear caveat that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.”
The definition was adopted in May by the 31-member International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (encompassing European states plus the U.S., Canada, Argentina and Israel), but due to an obstructionist role played by a single member, the Russian Federation, the definition did not pass muster at OSCE, leaving states wanting to do utilize this new tool in the fight against anti-Semitism to adopt it individually as local legislation. The UK’s new prime minister Theresa May has committed Great Britain—faced with an alarming 61% increase in anti-Semitic crime over the past year—to being the first country to formally adopt the definition as law.
Despite the palatable disappointment at the OSCE vote, the Israel-EU dialogue provided a useful opportunity for officials to restate the Union’s commitments to counter anti—Semitism. Daniel Braun, the deputy head of cabinet for Věra Jourová, the European Union's commissioner for justice, consumers and gender equality, declared that combating anti-Semitism is not the responsibility of the Jewish community alone but an assault on fundamental rights that affects all people and not only minorities. Paul Nemitz, director for fundamental rights and rule of law, said that the Holocaust is part of European citizenship and that everyone, not only Jews, suffer from the effects of anti-Semitism, adding that the dialogue on combating the issue must continue irrespective of the state of the political dialogue between Israel and the EU.
The dialogue also provided a platform for an exchange of views on best practices, latest research and technological advances in combating anti-Semitism and also for a reality check on the efficacy of some long-held axioms.
For example, the EU has put much hope—and funding—into education and youth action as a means of tackling radicalization and anti-Semitism. Indeed, the concluding sentences in the extensive 10-year review on anti-Semitism in the EU, published last month by the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights, states that “Education is essential to prevent intolerant attitudes. Through education that fosters socialization, tolerance, universal values and encourages critical thinking, children and young people can bring change to their families and communities, and ultimately to the broader society.” This was reflected in the message of Katharina Von-Schnurbein, coordinator for combating anti-Semitism, who said that to change attitudes in the long term, EU member states need to tackle hate through education by working among teachers and principals. Braun also said that tolerance education must involve the whole spectrum of Jewish history in Europe, not just the Holocaust, which has been the focus of EU efforts until now. He was concerned by reports of anti-Semitic acts in schools and universities in Europe, adding that newcomers to the continent are bringing anti-Semitic attitudes with them and that it is Europe's responsibility to inculcate its basic principles of respect and tolerance into these newcomers.
But putting this approach into question, Dr. Eyal Kaminka, director of the International School for Holocaust Studies at Yad Vashem, argued that in the current hyper-charged atmosphere at many schools across Europe today, it is doubtful that meaningful change could be affected in schools since, as reported by many of the European teachers his school trains in methods for teaching the Holocaust, they are unable to implement any Holocaust curriculum in the face of student’s raucous objections, fanned by attitudes of Holocaust denial at home. Kaminka called on the EU officials to review the telling testimonies he has compiled of teachers across Europe that reflect the true face of intolerance and anti-Semitism in the classroom.
Perhaps the most hopeful news at the dialogue came from reports on implementation of the new Code of Conduct on countering illegal hate speech online reached this May between the Commission and four major IT platforms: Microsoft, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. Social media is widely recognized as the principal platform for the promotion of anti-Semitic attitudes today. Under the Code, the IT companies must put in place a clear and effective process to review notifications regarding illegal hate speech on their services so they can remove or disable access to such content. Von-Schnurbein said that the Code establishes that the internet is no longer a legal black hole—, as it has been since its inception some 15 years ago, but that standards of incitement and illegal hate speech apply there too as it does in the print and broadcast media, terminating the privilege IT companies had claimed until now that they are not responsible for 3rd party content.
Although much hope was put in the Code, Von-Schnurbein expressed disappointment at the findings of the first review of implementation undertaken in October that indicated that only 28% of flagged entries have been removed by the platforms, a percentage she admitted did not meet expectations. When the fact that the flaggers are all vetted and paid for by the IT companies themselves, the percentage of takedowns pales even further (takedowns of flagged offensive material from non-vetted sources is even lower).
This led a number of participants in the dialogue to express incredulousness at the IT company's continued insistence on using manual flagging while objecting to the institution’s use of more uniform and reliable technological solutions for automatic removal as they already do to generate individualized advertising and content. As reported recently by Digital Trends, Google recently made improvements to its algorithm that will prevent Holocaust denial websites from appearing in search results. This improvement in the algorithm was made after Google came under fire for enabling neo-Nazi and Holocaust-denying websites to rank high up in search results for questions such as: "Did the Holocaust happen?"
Some of the most advanced technology available to cleanse the web from hate speech has been developed in Israel. One of these is Spot.IM—a fully automated tool that monitors the comments sections in online media outlets for hate and verbal violence, identifying individuals who prowl the internet hoping to spark violent discourse or aggravate them. The platform, now used by over 5,000 active news sites and online magazines in the U.S., Israel and Europe—automatically filters their activity up to and including blocking them and deleting their entire comment history.
Israel is also in the process of falling in line with the U.S., Canada, Australia and the UK after a new legislation, the Removal of Terror-Inciting Content from Social Media bill, dubbed the “Facebook bill,” passed first muster last week in the Cabinet. Under the bill, courts will be empowered to order social media companies to remove posts that the authorities consider “a criminal endangerment to personal, public or national security." Although in the past year, 71% of 1,755 requests made by the Justice Ministry to providers to remove content were met, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked said that while internet companies were cooperating with the government in cleansing the web of content that violates defamation, adoption, Holocaust denial, incitement and anti-terrorism laws, "it is important that this cooperation be required, and not according to their whims.” The bill would apply to posts that “call for an act of violence or terrorism" and demands that posts are removed from visibility in Israel.
The Jewish community in general and B'nai B'rith in particular, along with other watchdog agencies, have a responsibility to ensure that the Commission keeps up pressure on the providers to make the Internet and social media a safer environment. In fact, speakers at the dialogue expressed that the dedication and commitment exhibited by Jewish interlocutors on this issue could be duplicated among other targeted minorities in Europe. This is a distinction I believe many of us would be only too happy to concede.
B'nai B'rith International has widely respected experts in the fields of: