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Neil Lazarus
By BERNIE BELLAN
Neil Lazarus is a London-born public speaker who travels widely educating audiences how to advocate on behalf of Israel. Over the course of any given year he says that he typically speaks to over 30,000 individuals in five different countries.

 

 

On Wednesday, October 24 Lazarus was in Winnipeg to speak first to students at Gray Academy, then later to an audience of all ages at the Shaarey Zedek Synagogue. His appearance here, billed as “effective advocacy for Israel” was sponsored by StandWithUs, an organization whose primary purpose is to enable students to be equipped with facts about Israel should they ever find themselves in a situation where they are put on the defensive by Israel haters – a frequent occurrence on university campuses.
During his appearance at the Shaarey Zedek Lazarus divided his presentation into two parts. The first, which took roughly an hour and a half, was spent on providing an overview of the current political situation in the Middle East. That was followed by a break for dinner. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to stay for the remaining part of Lazarus’s presentation but, as he told the audience prior to the break, he was going to be providing individuals with the kinds of information that would help them to counter typical criticisms that are leveled against Israel on university campuses. I was, however, able to find an excellent Youtube video in which Lazarus provides exactly that sort of information, which I’ve used here to write about Lazarus’s advice for students.

Lazarus is an excellent communicator. His constant self-deprecating sense of humour is a useful tool in keeping the mood light, despite the often quite serious nature of the themes he touches upon. If I had any qualms about his presentation though, it would have to be his somewhat facile approach to Israeli settlements on the West Bank. To suggest that the Jewish people have a historical connection to the area referred to as Judea and Samaria, as Lazarus and other defenders of settlements do, is not sufficient justification for building settlements there.
If I were a student who was asked to defend Israeli settlement policies I would be very uncomfortable resorting to a defense of those policies based on a historical connection to the land. In fact, I would try to avoid defending the settlements, pointing out instead, as Lazarus did do during his talk, that former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was prepared to abandon 96% of the West Bank in an offer made to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas – along with giving Abbas another 4% of Israeli territory, but was turned down.
That reservation about his approach aside, Lazarus did offer some excellent insights into the current Middle East. He suggested, for instance, that Israel is no longer at the centre of discussion when it comes to that area of the world.
Instead, referring to the Obama administration’s move to enter into a treaty with Iran that would ostensibly limit the possibility of Iran’s producing nuclear weapons, “by signing an agreement with Iran, the Obama administration reset the Middle East,” Lazarus claimed.
“Now, instead of Israel being at the centre (of attention), Iran is on everyone’s mind,” Lazarus suggested.
As for the Israel-Palestine conflict, Lazarus described what goes on between the two sides as akin to “a game of chess according to the rules of backgammon,” i.e., there is not at all a clear-cut path to negotiating any sort of real peace agreement.
At the same time though, Lazarus insisted that “supporting Israel is not negating Palestinians and their legitimate claims.” He also went on to say that one “mustn’t lose hope to have some sort of dialogue with people who are willing to engage in dialogue.”
Turning to the situation on university campuses across North America, Lazarus did not hold out any lofty goals that would result in convincing people who are vehemently opposed to the State of Israel to change their minds. Rather, he simply held out the hope that we could have “a situation on campuses which will allow people to have a conversation.”
Lazarus did offer this assessment of the mercurial president of the United States: “It would not surprise me if Donald Trump was the first president of the United States to recognize a Palestinian state…Israel cannot say no to Donald Trump” (after he moved the American embassy to Jerusalem).
“President Trump has said more than once that the Palestinians are going to get something and they’re going to be surprised,” Lazarus noted.
The problem, however, as Lazarus explained, is that while President Obama may have made Iran the cornerstone of his Middle East policy, President Trump instead has made Saudi Arabia the cornerstone of his Middle East policy.
Unfortunately, “the problem is you bring into question the whole problem of making Saudi Arabia a cornerstone of your policy when you murder a journalist,” he said, just before taking some questions and breaking for dinner.

As I mentioned previously, I wasn’t able to stay for the second part of Lazarus’s presentation, which he said would deal with practical methods by which students could equip themselves to defend themselves against typical criticisms of Israel.
In a Youtube video titled “Neil Lazarus answers difficult questions about Israel”, here is some of the advice he gives about defending against criticisms of Israel relating to: the accusation Israel is an apartheid state; the security wall; settlements; and alleged “massacres” in Gaza.
“One of the questions they’re going to ask you about,” he says in the video, is about “the wall – why did Israel build that wall?” and “the checkpoints” that prevent Palestinians from gaining easy entry into Israel.
“We built it,” Lazarus explains, “because of what happened in the second intifada, when day after day suicide bombers were coming into Israel and killing women, children, and families…The moment Israel increased its security those suicide bombings stopped.”
Turning to the issue of settlements (and this is what I referenced earlier when I said I had a real problem with Lazarus’s defense of the settlements), he says in the video that “Israel has a right to build in the West Bank because there’s a historical connection of the Jewish people that goes back thousands of years….The real question is: ‘Are the settlements a block to peace or is the real problem that Palestinians don’t recognize Israel’s right to be a Jewish state?’ ”
Lazarus also deals with the suggestion that Israel was “massacring” civilians in Gaza (although this particular video was made in 2015, shortly after Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014, when violence in that area had led to many more civilian deaths than has been the case since, notwithstanding recent outbreaks of violence during Palestinian attempts to break through the border fence between Israel and Gaza). Lazarus refutes those claims by pointing to the repeated use of civilians by Hamas, either as human shields or as tools to be launched against Israel so as to invite Israeli retaliation.
He also refutes the notion that Israel is forcing a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, noting that Israel provides Gaza with aid, medicine, and food daily. (Also during his talk at the Shaarey Zedek Lazarus pointed out that electricity for Gaza mostly comes from Israel, as well as partly from a power plant in Gaza which is fueled by oil coming from Israel.)
Lazarus deals with the accusation that Israel is an “apartheid” state, which he terms ridiculous. In Israel, he points out, you will find Arab and Israeli students sitting alongside one another at Israeli universities; Arab judges in Israeli courts; and Arab Members of the Knesset – as just some examples how Arabs are accepted within Israeli society.

Finally, Lazarus summarizes some specific tactics in countering criticisms of Israel on campus:
1.    Know your audience. “You’re going to have to change the language that you use according to the audience.”
2.    Have a message – but keep it to 30 seconds.
3.    Show empathy – talk about peace: “Keep positive; always look for the light at the end of the tunnel.”
4.    “Learn more: Go on to the internet and learn as much as you possibly can.”
5.    “Be prepared. That’s the most important tool you can have to be an ambassador for Israel.”

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