Dundee recently witnessed a Zionist propagandist present a talk titled ‘Israel at eye-level, through the prism of a medical institution’. On the same day, a Palestinian prisoner was reported to have died of neglect in the very same institution. The story of Ha’emek hospital in Afula (1948 Palestine) was used as a narrative springboard to promote Zionism and whitewash crimes of the Israeli state.
The speaker was Larry Rich, an American migrant to Israel (he has been there since 1972). The talk was marketed as apolitical and unbiased, but was previously hailed by the Israeli ambassador to Ireland as "exactly the message that has been lacking in Israel's public diplomacy efforts". Rich was registered with the Israeli foreign ministry in 2007 to officially promote Israel abroad. He volunteered for the Israeli Defence [sic] Forces in the 1970s, remained for 17 years, and became a tank commander. He ‘served’ twice in Lebanon.
His talk focussed on the work of Ha’emek hospital, presenting it as doing miraculous work because it serves both Jews and Arabs (he did not say ‘Palestinians’), and both ethnic/national groups comprise the staff. Of course, he ignored the history of the region: that Muslims, Jews, Christians, Druze, etc. had all lived and worked alongside one another before the imposition of Zionism in the mid-20th century. The central, but implied, point was that Israelis are doing great work, extending their knowledge and technology to the Palestinians, who would have been in a far worse situation without their help. This ‘civilising mission’ argument is a key element of the colonial narrative, and has been used for centuries.
As a trained speaker in public relations, Rich had to veil the racism inherent in Zionism, but failed. One important argument he gave asserted that Palestinians in the area served by the medical centre need disproportionate care in regard to birth defects as a result of incest. He then claimed this was true of Arabs generally. When asked if he had statistics to back up this claim, he said he did not. When pressed for an answer, he guessed that this was a problem for around 90% of Arab society. Noting his active involvement with Israeli incursions of Lebanon, he was asked by one activist if he had killed people; “honestly,” he responded, “I don’t know”. He also admitted to never having visited the West Bank or Gaza. When activists mentioned the military occupation or colonial policies of the Israeli state, he simply ignored them.
The tone and style of the talk was bizarre. The Ha’emek centre was said to be in the biblical ‘valley of Armageddon’ – this reference was presumably included to appeal to any Christians present. Rich constantly emphasised that he was not a politician and just a “regular guy”, and played-down his expertise in any given field (apart from public relations). One listener thought him “somewhere between an evangelical preacher and a snake oil salesman”.
Some in the audience were Christian Zionists. A couple of them – older women – occasionally heckled the pro-Palestinian people, but their arguments went as far as saying “what about Hamas?” and “shalom, shalom!” while waving their hands in the air. The majority of the audience were anti-Zionist, of all ages, some secular, some religious, from various backgrounds. Our numbers ensured that neither Rich nor the Zionists could shout us down.
The Israeli state is currently losing the propaganda war; it is struggling to maintain the myth that it is the “only democracy in the Middle East”. People like Rich are crucial for countering the increasing awareness of the public internationally of Israeli policies and practices against Palestinians – his tour is, in other words, an extension of Israeli soft power. To disrupt this talk was not a civil (individual) liberties issue; he was a representative of the state. Speaking tours are an important part of Brand Israel, clear attempts to show people that not every Zionist is like Avigdor Lieberman or Naftali Bennett. As a public-relations man, Rich will reflect upon his reception in Dundee and alter his rhetoric for future performances. If he is to take back one message from us to the Israeli foreign ministry, it is this: Zionism is dead and buried in Scotland; we are now tramping the dirt down.