Talking positively about Israel

Talking positively about Israel

Middle East expert hopes to motivate young people during Paramus appearance

Dr. Eric Mandel, center, talks with IDF soldiers during Operation PIllar of Defense in 2012.

It is hard to defend something you don’t quite understand.

That is, it’s hard to defend it effectively, with ideas rather than raw emotion. Often young Jews find that their attempts to explain their support fail in the face of what seems to be superior knowledge – often it is just louder emotion – and so they fall silent. Even those who think they know a great deal find that they don’t know quite enough to be able to counter assertively worded disagreements.

Sometimes they just give up.

Dr. Eric Mandel will offer his perspective on the Middle East at the Jewish Community Center of Paramus on Sunday. A policy analyst and the founder and director of the Middle East Political and Information Network, Dr. Mandel is not a lobbyist, he stresses. Instead, he is passionate and dedicated to providing a clear-sighted view, as he sees it, based on a great deal of research, both of the literature and from first-hand reporting.

Dr. Mandel, who lives in Manhattan, frequently briefs members of Congress and their foreign policy legislative aides, he said; “They like me because for 15 years I have been providing very good and insightful analyses that they are not getting elsewhere, and I have been correct on a number of issues.”

He speaks frequently on college campuses, and “I am very troubled,” he said. “Most people on college campuses, whether they are Jewish or gentile, just don’t care about Israel. Israel is not on their radar screens. The ones who do care, who do realize that Israel is directly part of American national security interests, feel inadequate in confronting people who have their own set of facts.

“What I try to do is give them information, and put it in context. It’s not always pretty, but it enables them to feel stronger, to know more about what they’re talking about and advocating for, not just as a propagandist but as someone who can explain why the American relationship with Israel is so important.”

Why is it so hard for young Jews to care for Israel the way their elders do? “Our kids – secular young people – have been taught universal principles,” he said. “Particularism and tribalism are frowned upon. A Jewish state, seen that way, seems almost racist to them, so without knowing the full facts, they are able to put the template of apartheid South Africa on Israel.

“They are clueless about the facts. They want to know, but mainly it’s about being ill-informed.

“They have grown up in a place where whoever is perceived as the weaker party is always seen as the victim. The victim is always in the right, and the powerful one – the occupier – is always in the wrong.

“The anti-Israel movement has many faces, but a lot of it has morphed into true anti-Semitism. The best way I know to define anti-Semitism is to use the European definition of xenophobia and racism. Using that definition, if you treat Israel different than any other country in the world, or say that it has no reason to exist – that, by definition, is anti-Semitism.

“People come out with slogans. Somebody says, ‘I’m pro-peace, I’m with a human rights group,’ and you assume they mean it, but how can you explain those people of the far left who align themselves with people who don’t believe in pluralism at all? It’s illogical.

“Basically, Israel has become the stand-in for anti-colonialism, the idea that America is wrong, in the wrong, has done more harm than good – and Israel is seen as a little America.”

The only way to get out of this situation – the only way to get out of most deeply disturbing situations, in fact – is education, he said. “Young people should be idealistic, but they need to know the facts in context. We will always have to deal with people who have their own set of facts, but we always have to have the truth available.

“One of our problems is that too many of our young people get their news from Jon Stewart. That shouldn’t be our primary source of news. Many news sources, both in print and in social and electronic media, are echo chambers. To be a good consumer of news, you have to read multiple sources.”

Dr. Mandel’s own education in Middle Eastern affairs was largely self-taught, at least at first, he said. He always had been interested in politics; in 1983, he worked for the presidential campaign of Alan Cranston, the California Democrat who made a brief stab at the nomination. That’s when his education began. Politicians had to be able to rely on sources to fill them in on the many subjects that demanded their attention but whose intricacies they did not have the time to master. Dr. Mandel’s area became the Middle East. But his honorific, “doctor,” does not come from an advanced degree in political science. Dr. Mandel is a physician – he is a corneal micro-surgeon who has pioneered laser vision-correction surgery.

He is also a master multitasker. In his life outside medicine, he is active in Jewish organizations that work on U.S.-Israel relations; he chaired an AIPAC committee for eight years and has just finished creating the Five Synagogues of White Plains, an Israel advocacy group that brings together Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist shuls to advocate for Israel.

As his expertise grew, Dr. Mandel branched out from the secondary sources that gave him his initial education to meet actors on the Middle East stage. “I have met Israeli leadership, interviewed Hamas and Muslim Brotherhood members, and been at Syrian refugee camps,” he said.

He also has talked to Rachel Fraenkel, whose 16-year-old son, Naftali, was one of the three Israeli teenagers whose murders led to Israel’s war with Gaza this summer. “At her son’s funeral, she said that there are two Jews, three opinions – and one heart,” Dr. Mandel said. “There is no such thing as an unaffiliated Jew” – at least on that inchoate, preconscious level.

“And there are so many ways to be pro-Israel,” he continued. “We should take pride in our 3,000-year history. It is one of the unique civilizations in the world. People often don’t realize the modern miracle of this country, which after 2,000 years came back into existence. It should be one of the great success stories of the 20th century. To turn that into something horrible is obscene.

“I could write three long volumes of what’s wrong with Israel. But I could write 10,000 volumes on what’s right with it. It’s army is not perfect – but it has the most moral army in the world. I know that from the many interviews I have done. I wish that my own army was that moral. This is something that people should be proud of – but they have learned to demonize it, which is mind-boggling.

“People say that if there wasn’t an Israel, there would be a better Middle East. But the Gordian knot is not Israel versus the Palestinians. It is the Sunni versus the Shia. If we could untie that one …. But America should embrace Israel, both because of America’s own needs and because it is the right thing to do.

So does Dr. Mandel see any hope anywhere?

He does.

“The miracle of Israel takes my breath away,” he said. “It is amazing. We know about the innovation nation. We know that like your voicemail, your smartphone, the medical cures that are coming down the pipeline because of Israel. It is in the forefront of the world in terms of knowledge and innovation.”

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