Opinion

Israel to Declare a Boycott on Viktor Orban? Get Real

Boycotting countries with an anti-Semitic taint would make the activities of the BDS movement redundant. Israel would be waging a BDS campaign against itself

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban at the lower house of the parliament Bundestag in Berlin, Germany on July 4, 2018.
\ HANNIBAL HANSCHKE/ REUTERS

Israel must greet Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in accordance with protocol, without shrugging or grimacing. It would be bad counsel to make him feel unwelcome.

That doesn’t mean we have to accept his actions, which aim to undermine democracy and the rule of law. There are 50 shades of outrageous anti-Semitism in his administration. But uniform standards are necessary. There are similar displays in the Czech Republic, in Romania and most of all in Poland, as reflected by the disgusting anti-Semitic outburst after a minute change was made in the country’s new Holocaust law, at Israel’s request.

But not to host foreign leaders — including from countries such as Italy and Austria, whose governments ranks are rife with anti-Semitism — would be, to borrow a term from soccer on the occasion of the World Cup, an own goal. Boycotting countries with an anti-Semitic taint would make the activities of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement redundant. Israel would be waging a BDS campaign against itself.

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It’s clear that the democratic world has reservations about what is happening in these countries, in regard to both anti-Semitism and their attitude to the rule of law. Poland’s courts are collapsing; Hungarians are proud their state is no longer liberal and blame a Jewish billionaire for all its failings. But Israel needs to have a uniform standard. If it were to turn up its nose at every leader from anything less than a proper democracy, then it will have to consider what would happen if the presidents of Russia and of China agree to pay a visit. Their records on civil liberties is worse than those of a few of the European countries that have come in for criticism.

One could go even further and ask a hypothetical question: If Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan asked to visit Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque without having his passport stamped at Ben-Gurion International Airport, would Israel refuse, or grit its teeth and ensure his safety? The latter seems preferable, despite the rise of anti-Semitism in Turkey under his rule. As a result, we would gain an international reputation for hospitality.

Israel need not conceal its condemnation of reprehensible measures taken by these states. But the Foreign Ministry, which the government operates only partially worldwide, must compose and adopt a double rule: Israel treats all representatives of a member state of the United Nations and its institutions with full respect. It rejects boycotts, both as a matter of principle and because it benefits from dialogue with any state.

Had Israel adopted a broad policy of communication, rather than isolation and selective boycott, it wouldn’t have withdrawn from the UN Human Rights Council, despite the body’s hostility toward Israel. Nor would it have left the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, whose bias against Israel is an international scandal. A government that withdraws from UN institutions plays into its enemies’ hands. It’s better to remain and to fight and lose, then fight again and lose, than to walk off the field, to the satisfaction of BDS activists.

This ironclad rule should be adopted: Israel prefers all dialogue, even ugly dialogue, to boycotts and breaking off ties. But the government does not adopt the concept of dialogue at any price. Just the opposite. When it gags Breaking the Silence to punish the organization for its activities abroad and bars entry to a BDS activist, it saws off the branch it sits on.

At home and abroad, it is in Israel’s interest to maintain ongoing, multidisciplinary dialogue. Ram Cohen, the principal of Tel Aviv’s Tichonet high school, should not be prohibited from giving a stage to Breaking the Silence, but by the same token he must not be permitted to close the school’s gates to representatives of Im Tirtzu.

Advancing by means of disagreement, dialogue, is the life force of Judaism at its best. We can only to hope that opinions are like drafts — they always find a way inside.