It’s very rare that you come across someone deserving of the title “hero” — or “heroine,” for that matter — but I just did.
Cliona Campbell is a 19-year old student from Cork, in Ireland. She is something of a prodigy; in 2008, she was a finalist in the Young Journalist of the Year competition run by British broadcaster Sky News. Last year, she won the essay-writing competition run by the law faculty at University College in Cork, one of the more prestigious institutions of higher education in Europe. She has, it would seem, everything going for her.
Except that right now, Cliona lives in fear. She’s become an object of vilification in parts of the Irish press. Grown men have walked to up to her in the street and abused her. Browsing in a clothes store, the security guard recognized her and showered her with insults. Threats have been emailed to her.
And all this because Cliona spent a couple of months in Israel as a volunteer for the IDF. When she returned to Ireland, she wrote about her experiences for her local newspaper, the Evening Echo. It was an eloquent, engagingly-written piece; even so, it’s rare that an article by a student recounting their vacation experiences becomes the focus of national — indeed, international — attention. Why this one?
So many additional questions flow from Cliona’s experience. Most obviously, there’s the character of those who have insulted and intimidated her. What is it about the nature of the Palestinian solidarity movement that enables a defenseless young woman to become an object of hatred? And how have those anti-Zionists who sit in the media and the academy, who would doubtless throw up their hands in horror at being associated with such thuggish behavior, contributed to the atmosphere of loathing which increasingly surrounds those who publicly support Israel? Are they in any way culpable for those spiteful individuals who email this pretty redhead to tell her that she “looks rough?”
What about the painfully obvious double standards that govern those who volunteer in that tiny strip of land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River? Why are participants in the antics of the pro-Hamas International Solidarity Movement lionized, compared to Anne Frank even, while someone like Cliona Campbell becomes an incarnation of evil?
Most of all, how is it that the well-established norms of democratic culture in Ireland can be so brutally pushed aside in order to ensure that, as Cliona puts it, “someone can’t express their own political standpoint without being publicly harassed, threatened and intimidated?”
In my view, Cliona nailed a large part of the answer in her Evening Echo article. “Ever since the age of nine, I have been captivated by the Jewish people,” she wrote, “a nation which has endured hatred, persecution and genocide, and yet still retains an unyielding will to survive, unifying them in an unbreakable kinship. So I had always wanted to see Israel for myself.”
She continued: “But why the army? Because over the years, I had seen the Israelis suffer incessant rocket attacks from terrorists and, when they eventually retaliated, be castigated when the same terrorists placed their own civilian people in the line of fire as ‘human shields.’”
This keen observation captures the essence of that much maligned word, “Zionism.” If Zionism is about Jewish empowerment — in other words, engineering a state of affairs in which Jews exercise control over their security and destiny — then the IDF is the most tangible expression of that principle. For someone who is intellectually sympathetic to the fate of Jews without sovereignty, the IDF becomes a compelling story.
But as Cliona Campbell has discovered in a shockingly personal manner, there is another view that brooks no dissent, one which depicts the IDF as an instrument of radical violence. So entrenched is that image becoming that the journalist who wrote a profile of Cliona for the Sunday Tribune casually remarked that the IDF had “murdered nine passengers” aboard the Mavi Marmara, the lead ship in the recent Turkish flotilla to Gaza.
I once wrote that anti-Zionism in our time is more bistro than bierkeller — it is a phenomenon which manifests primarily among intellectual elites who see themselves as progressive thought leaders. I think that remains true; what is also true is that the boundaries between these two worlds overlap more and more, at the same time that the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is endowed with an almost metaphysical power. That is why, when all is said and done, you are left with the spectacle of a young woman who visited just one of the hundreds of conflicts across the world returning home to a villain’s welcome.
I am certain that many of Israel’s forthright opponents would disavow the treatment meted out to Cliona Campbell. Good enough, yet not enough. This sorry affair illustrates that the western debate over Israel has gone way beyond concern with Palestinian rights into the realm of the irrational. The thugs picking on Cliona may be responsible for acting out the script, but they didn’t write it.
(Ben S. Cohen is associate director of communications at the American Jewish Committee.)