May 30, 2020

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The lesson for Israel from the NBA/China debacle

The recent NBA capitulation to agree to Chinese censorship of opinions not to that country’s liking reminds me of something that happened early in my career.

I was working for a major US telecommunications company and was in one of those corporate meetings about company ethics. We were told that not only does the company adhere to its standards (including, of course, non-discrimination) but that they require their business partners to follow the same standards.

I raised my hand and asked if Saudi Arabia wanted to give the company a multi-billion dollar contract, with the proviso that no Jews can work on the project in their territory, would they turn down the contract?

The hemming and hawing in response was most amusing.

Money makes the world go ’round. Not ethics. The percentage of times that companies, and countries, turn down a deal when it can bring in serious money is quite low. It happens sometimes, sure, but usually economics wins, not moral standards. (And moral standards sometimes only win when it can be argued that they can pressure the parties economically themselves – boycotting companies and advertisers, voting politicians out of office.)

Sometimes of course the moral imperative clearly outweighs the economics, but those are the exceptions.

What does this have to do with Israel?

In the 1970s, it took only a couple of years between Yasir Arafat being feared as the new breed of terrorist to him speaking at the UN pretending to be peaceful and demanding to get his way or “the olive branch [will] fall from my hand.” The reason was twofold: The West feared being the victim of terror and was willing to throw Israel under the bus so that the PLO would only attack the Jewish state, and the Arab oil embargo spooked the West into capitulating to the demands of the then-seemingly united Arab front.

Fear of violent terror and fear of an economic meltdown brought on by soaring oil prices brought Europe to its knees.

But Europe didn’t want to think of itself as quite that craven. It justified its actions by saying that Israel was immoral, not the terrorists. It allowed the UN to declare Zionism is racism. It voted against Israel in numerous other one-sided UN resolutions. It pretended that its fear of Arab violence and economic blackmail was a moral decision, and the Jewish state was the entity that needed to be condemned, over and over and over again.

Binyamin Netanyahu was one of the few to grasp that Israel’s security is as dependent on its economic might as much as its armed forces. He prioritized the free market replacing the socialist model and investing in R&D, and Israel became the “start-up nation.” Israel’s relations with the nations of the world is in no small part due to Israel’s strong economy and what it can bring to the table as a result. After all, no one has seriously discussed boycotting China despite its horrendous, well documented human rights record. The reason is money.

Even though Israel has been falsely tarred as an immoral state, its economic might has turned that around more than anything else (except in the Arab world, where the Iranian threat has changed Arab opinions of Israel.)

This isn’t a pretty view of the world. Everyone likes to think that they, and their nation, make decisions based on morality and the greater good. But this is usually a fantasy, with people, corporations and nations justifying their choice of hard cash over morality as moral itself.

 It really is all about the Benjamins, baby. Don’t pretend to be shocked. And the only way the NBA will change its direction is if it thinks it will lose more money (and its reputation translates into money) by allowing the Chinese to tell it what to do than by showing some backbone.

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