One of the most frequent questions that Brenda Katten is asked about her work is why she bothers. Why, that is, she returns to face some of Israel's most hostile critics in United Nations forums again and again.
"I understand why people ask the question, but I believe we have to take every opportunity to promote the Israel that many of us know, instead of the Israel that is presented in the news, day in, day out," says Katten, chair of the World WIZO (Women's International Zionist Organization) Public Affairs and NGO Department. The former Londoner, who is responsible for coordinating WIZO's representatives at the UN in New York, Geneva and Vienna, continues: "I know that at the UN and these international forums, most countries are going to vote against us anyway, but I think it's important that someone should get up and set the record straight, rather than allowing the distortion and lies to go answered."
Katten, who moved to Israel five years ago, is often the one to try and "set the record straight" at such forums. Since being elected to her WIZO post four years ago - a job which is likely to be extended to a second term at the 23rd World WIZO conference next week - she has attended four sessions of the UN Commission on the Status of Women in New York and led the WIZO six-member delegation to the highly controversial UN World Conference Against Racism in Durban in 2001, which she recalls as a "showcase for the hate of Jews."
While participating in her first session at the UN, Katten single-handedly wrote and prepared the official statement on behalf of the state of Israel - admittedly because the very experienced politician who was supposed to accompany her failed to show up - and she confronted senior Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi head-on about incitement to hatred in school textbooks, which made the news on Israeli radio.
Getting back to basics
"I have no problem in recognizing that we do not do everything right," says Katten, speaking from her office at the WIZO HQ in the center of Tel Aviv this week, "but in the international arena, we are selected for criticism over and above any other country." Katten does admit that representing Israel at the UN can sometimes feel like "bashing your head against a brick wall" and occasionally the work gets her down. She recalls attending the UN Commission on the Status of Women in New York in March 2002, when the Palestinian delegation leader, Somaia Barghouti, received huge applause for "giving the same speech she always gives," shortly before an Israeli delegate spoke about the killing of Israeli children - including the two teenagers who were stoned to death by Palestinians the previous year - and was received with silence.
That evening, Katten went to see the show "Cabaret" on Broadway, which is set in Germany in the 1930s. "I came out so depressed," she recalls. "I thought, `Is this where we've come to?'" But Katten does see the odd sign of change: At a session of the same commission in 2003, she says Barghouti was not applauded after her speech; perhaps, Katten suggests, because the speech was made on the day of a suicide bus bombing in Haifa, which killed 17 Israelis, including nine children.
In addition to her work with the UN, which has granted WIZO, among 2,000 other NGOs, "ECOSOC consultative status" (Economic and Social Committee of the UN), the other major task which falls on Katten's very full desk is hasbara, advocating on behalf of Israel. Again, she feels very passionately. Katten sees her role as providing the 250,000 WIZO members around the globe with whatever information and resources they need to serve as ambassadors for Israel, whether it be preparing material to help with a resolution to be presented at the UN Human Rights Commission or assisting women in Antwerp in monitoring anti-Israel and anti-Semitic articles in the Belgian press.
Katten reports she is asked to provide information ranging from "what went wrong" during the peace talks at Taba in 2001 to "what exactly happened" during Operation Defensive Shield in 2002. WIZO members were getting messages it was our fault, says Katten of the collapse of the peace talks. "I need to go back to basics and remind them this is not the first time the Palestinians have rejected the opportunity of statehood for themselves. I give the information to them chapter and verse."
According to Katten, lack of confidence in representing Israel's case before non-Jews is now a major problem. "It worries me that so many Jews are turning away from Israel and have swallowed lock, stock and barrel what they see and read about Israel in the news," she says. "We tend to forget that very positive things are going on in Israel, and they are especially important for Jews abroad to hear about, so that they can once again feel justifiably proud of Israel."
Katten aims to arm WIZO members with easy-to-digest facts about Israel, which she communicates, in part, through a bimonthly newsletter. The eight-page publication includes sections on "good news" in Israel, scientific and technological discoveries and coexistence projects, such as an item about a group of eight Israelis and Palestinians who are traveling to Antarctica together this month.
"There isn't a hospital in this country that isn't carrying out expensive operations on Palestinians from the territories, yet we're being presented to the world as if we don't give a tuppence about the Palestinians," says Katten. "These are the facts that I want people to be aware of, as they are in stark contrast to the negativity that they hear, day in, day out."Katten, whose involvement with WIZO stretches back almost 50 years, has also traveled extensively in her role to meet with WIZO federations around the world, often on speaking tours and running hasbara workshops. In the last couple of months, the grandmother of eight has spoken in Sweden, Denmark, Austria, Belgium and London; since taking up her post, she has also traveled to South and Central America, South Africa and Australia.
She was particularly struck by a visit to the city of Adelaide in August 2002, where the Jewish community is just 1,200 strong. "This tiny community has a different attitude to most," says Katten. "They are not afraid to address ordinary, non-Jewish people [about Israel]. The larger communities tend to be more conscious of rocking the boat or spoiling their relationships. Somehow, we Jews have lost confidence in ourselves."
Katten puts much of this lack of confidence down to "our lack of success in presenting Israel's case to ourselves." She says Jews as a people have failed to concentrate sufficiently on educating themselves about their history and the history of the state of Israel. "If we don't have the confidence to present our case as right and just, if we don't know the facts and we don't contradict what people see on the news, then for sure we won't be able to present our case to the outside world."
The lack of Jewish tourism to Israel is also a factor, she adds, as people lack "first-hand experience to counter what they hear." She also lays blame at the door of Israel for "failing to be professional about presenting Israel's case," a point she is constantly questioned about by Jews around the world. "We shoot ourselves in the foot, time and time again, sending ambassadors to countries who don't know its native language and presenting spokesmen who don't know how to use a sound bite. It's a very professional job."
Katten, who happy to be labeled a "political moderate," says she is sometimes asked whether she sees the Palestinian point of view. "I do," she says, "but my job is to ensure that [WIZO members] are armed with the facts about what has lead to the current situation. Does that mean I go along with everything the government here does? I don't, but I need to give the historical perspective, to tell people it's not all our fault, as the media projects. I also recognize that it is very fashionable to Israel-bash and we as Jews are very good at saying we should be better and more understanding. I see myself as endeavoring to see Israel as it is, warts and all."
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