Minister says calls to boycott cultural visit are 'absurd'

Wed, Feb 29, 2012, 00:00

THERE HAD been a “slight improvement” in relations between Ireland and Israel in the past year, said Israel’s minister of public diplomacy and diaspora affairs Yuli Edelstein in Dublin yesterday.

He said Israel disagreed with various countries on many issues but this should not be an obstacle to a mutually beneficial bilateral relationship.

There should be no boycotts of Israel, he said: “Unfortunately I hear about certain artists and writers in this country who say, ‘We don’t want to have Israeli culture here, we don’t want to have Israeli representatives.’ This is absurd. How would you know anything about Israeli culture if you don’t want a theatre to come, a singer to come and sing, or a dance-group to come?”

He said boycotting should be “the last resort, when you are dealing with a terrible dictatorship that is oppressing its own people and is so terrible that you can’t find any other way”.

Mr Edelstein added that using “the language of boycotts” when two democracies were involved was “very counterproductive” for both countries. He said the public diplomacy part of his brief involved “trying to change the image of Israel for the better all around the world”.

Mr Edelstein’s first trip to Ireland coincides with a visit by a group of seven people in their early 20s, called Faces of Israel and sponsored by his department.

The group, which includes Adam Briscoe, a grand-nephew of former Fianna Fáil TD Ben Briscoe, is making a nine-day tour of Ireland to give its view of Israel to colleges and media outlets.

Mr Edelstein said the diaspora element of his portfolio involved developing connections with Jewish communities across the world and included “combating anti-Semitism where necessary”.

His schedule included meetings with Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Eamon Gilmore; Minister for Justice Alan Shatter; and the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Born in western Ukraine in 1958, Mr Edelstein was a “refusenik” who sought to emigrate to Israel, but was refused an exit visa. He recalled how he was arrested on a trumped-up charge of possessing drugs and sentenced to three years in the Gulag network of the former Soviet Union.

He was held in four labour camps. The first was beside Lake Baikal in south-central Russia and his wife, Tanya, had to travel for about 13 hours to visit him.

Later he was moved to Novosibirsk in Siberia. “It’s quite an experience,” he said. He was released in May, 1987, and went to Israel.

He was elected to the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, in 1996 and spent three years as minister for immigrant absorption under prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He has been back in Netanyahu’s cabinet since 2009.