Bibi’s Speech to the US Congress: A Flagrant Denial of the Autonomy and Diversity of Jews Worldwide

There were so many fictions and distortions in Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech to the US Congress on 24 May, so many demagogic assertions and flourishes, so much self-aggrandisement and self-promotion and so much that insulted and demeaned Palestinian hopes and aspirations that the flagrant denial of the autonomy and diversity of Jews worldwide could easily be missed. Among his last words was this:

I speak on behalf of the Jewish people and the Jewish state when I say to you, representatives of America, thank you.

It should be blindingly obvious that the prime minister of Israel has no mandate or right to speak ‘on behalf of the Jewish people’.

Less than 50 per cent of the world’s Jewish population lives in Israel. Among those who live elsewhere and are practising Jews, approximately 10 per cent are strictly Orthodox and don’t recognize Israel as a ‘Jewish state’. Between 30 and 40 per cent of Diaspora Jews are unaffiliated to any Jewish organization and therefore while we cannot be absolutely sure whether their feelings about Israel and its government are such that they would be happy to have Netanyahu speak on their behalf, it’s almost certainly the case that the vast majority of such Jews would not like it t all. Even among the affiliated, non-strictly Orthodox who declare themselves to be close to Israel when responding to opinion surveys, many would balk at Netanyahu’s claim.

Netanyahu is by no means the first Israeli prime minister to speak in this way and therefore exploit the transnationality of Jews for Israeli political aims. It’s a fundamental tenet of modern Zionism to see Israel as the centre of the Jewish world and therefore as having donned the mantle of world Jewish leadership. From David Ben Gurion – Israel’s first prime minister – onwards, Israeli leaders have regarded the interests of Diaspora Jews as secondary to those of Jews living in Israel. And, when it suits them, they sweep up Jews worldwide into their rhetoric in support of policies they choose to follow.

The use of this rhetoric follows a clear pattern. When Israeli governments feel isolated and threatened internationally and the ruling coalition is politically unstable, they tend both to exaggerate the external threats and claim that their battle against such threats is being waged on behalf of Jews worldwide. When they feel in a strong position internationally, they lay much less emphasis on claims to speak for Jews everywhere. The last time this situation prevailed was after the Oslo Accords in 1993 when Prime Minster Yitzchak Rabin, who was following a peace strategy that proved, at the time, internationally popular and also produced domestic benefits, deliberately began to distance Israel from the Jewish Diaspora. Today, for all his bluff and bluster, Netanyahu cannot hide the fact that Israel is being severely challenged on many fronts. These problems are being ratcheted up with spurious claims that Israel is being ‘delegitimized’ and faces murderous worldwide antisemitism. So when better than to play the card of world Jewish support framed as willing cannon-fodder under the leadership of Israel’s prime minister.

Ultimately, this shows just how bankrupt are the policies Netanyahu is following and how little he and most of his coalition partners truly care about the negative impact these policies have on the position and interests of Jews worldwide.

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From ‘Yes We Can’ to ‘No We Can’t’: Obama’s Middle East Speech Lowers Expectations of American Power

In a relatively low-key speech on his administration’s Middle East policy, deliberately short on high-flown rhetoric and, in terms of grand design, more Heath Robinson than Isambard Kingdom Brunel, President Obama set out to lower expectations of American power.

In recent times, American presidents have believed that their country could shape the world simply by the powerful exertion of its will. Today, America can state how it would like things to be – that is, if only it knew; in today’s incredibly complex world, it has become increasingly difficult for the administration to make up its mind and craft a vision that is coherent and hangs together for more than a week. But even when Obama presents a vision, the truth is that he can no longer do very much to make it a reality.

Judging by the tone and language of this speech, I don’t think Obama sees the limitations on American power as such a bad thing. In many ways, he’s stronger now politically than at any other time in his presidency, save for the first months. But he needs to use that strength to deal with major domestic problems and also to secure himself a second term in office. He may have achieved foreign policy success of sorts with the killing of Osama Bin Laden and he speaks of Iraq in the past tense now that troops are on their way home, but it’s a fragile world out there and he needs to be careful not to leave himself exposed. The last thing he wants is to get entangled in any more risky overseas wars that America can’t win and that just produce dead bodies to bring home. He knows that power is shifting to the BRIC countries and other states are gaining in regional importance – take Turkey for example – and they, as well as the UN and the EU, need to step up to the plate and take more collective responsibility for world conflicts and crises.

So the upshot of his remarks on the Arab Spring imply very little in terms of concrete action. They are meant to give the impression of a coherent policy but rather resemble an unevenly sown-together patchwork quilt. No doubt he would dearly love to see democracy and gender equality instituted in Saudi Arabia, as well as regime change and the introduction of freedom of expression in Bahrain and Syria, but by saying that ‘we will continue to [pursue a set of core interests in the region]’, Obama is signalling that he intends to follow a course of ‘safety first’: giving modest encouragement of a non-controversial nature, but no hostages to fortune.

Many commentators have noted that he devoted about four-fifths of the speech to the Arab Spring and one entire fifth to Israel-Palestine, as if this reflected a deliberate, wrong-headed and continuing over-emphasis on America’s relationship with Israel. But it seemed to me that what Obama was doing was simply reflecting a historical reality that he was saddled with by previous administrations and to which he initially contributed – the investment of disproportionate efforts in engineering a solution to the conflict. The content signalled a major effort to reduce America’s involvement in peace-making to a manageable minimum.

I don’t doubt that he cares deeply, in his own way, about the fate of both Israelis and Palestinians, and fervently wishes that this long-running sore would finally be healed. But I would guess that he’d rather not say anything at all just now about the future prospects for peace and America’s role in achieving it. Given their experiences so far, he and his advisers have surely concluded that they can’t see any practical way forward to achieve a two-state solution at the present time; that they cannot actually change attitudes on both sides decisively enough to produce credible negotiations that would lead to the implementation of a two-state plan.

But much as he might prefer to be playing golf rather than playing a game that leads to a dead end, he could not avoid making a policy statement about Israel-Palestine at the present time. First, having had to say where America stands on the Arab Spring, he couldn’t then just ignore the Israel-Palestine issue, especially as it’s coming back into the frame in some of the key Arab countries that have experienced revolution and ongoing turmoil. Second, there’s the very strong likelihood that Abbas will go for recognition of a Palestinian state in September at the UN, an issue on which Obama has to have a clear policy.Third, and most important, he needs to park this issue in as safe a place as possible, while making it look as if his administration is moving the whole caravan forward, so that it does not interfere with his bid for a second term. This is not just to ensure that it won’t blow up in his face sometime between now and November 2012. It’s also to ensure that he secures the financial backing of major Jewish Democratic Party donors without whose support he could find himself seriously disadvantaged. And that means showing, as clearly ás possible, the depth of his support for the security, safety and Jewish character of Israel.

He approached this task in his speech in a manner that echoed his reserved stance on the Arab Spring. He basically set out a picture of what his administration would like to have happen, but he made no promises, no pledges, that they we’re going to do anything concrete to achieve it. He skirted the fundamental issues, trying to avoid giving offence to anyone more than was absolutely necessary. As the estimable Professor Rosemary Hollis said on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme on Friday morning, this was Obama in his ‘City on a hill’ mode, but risking nothing. At one point he says: ‘What America and the international community can do is to state frankly what everyone knows – a lasting peace will involve two states for two peoples: Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people, and the state of Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people, each state enjoying self-determination, mutual recognition, and peace. ‘ The operative word here is ‘state’. He doesn’t promise any action.

Anyone who thought Obama would appear more even-handed in his treatment of Israelis and Palestinians was naive in the extreme. He unequivocally referred to Israel as a ‘Jewish state’ and acknowledged the validity of its concerns about ‘delegitimization’. He spoke of the ‘demographic threat’ to Israel if the status quo continues and set his face against the Palestinian plan to secure UN support for the declaration of an independent Palestinian state in September: ‘actions at the UN in September to isolate Israel won’t create an independent state’, he said. ‘Israel’s security concerns will be met’, he added.

While it’s true that he went further than any of his predecessors in his statement of support for the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state, this was hardly ground-breaking since, from the beginning of his presidency he had declared that a two-state solution was the only just was of resolving the conflict. And if, by clearly stating that agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority should first be reached on territory and security, with the issues of Jerusalem and refugees to be dealt with later, he thought this would go down well with both sides, he miscalculated. Abe Foxman, the National Director of the Anti-Defamation League, and usually a reliable bellwether for assessing how US policy will play with Israeli leaders, broadly welcomed Obama’s remarks on Israel-Palestine, but he did not like the bracketing of Jerusalem with Palestinian refugees Ron Kampeas of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported. Obama doesn’t get what the stakes are for Israel, he said. ‘Jerusalem is emotional, yes. Refugees is not emotional – it’s strategic.’ While this will go down well in Jerusalem, it’s an astonishingly insensitive assessment of what ‘return’ means for so many ordinary Palestinians. As Peter Beinart tweeted: ‘Has he met a Palestinian?’

Palestinians will surely feel let down by the tenor and implications of some of Obama’s remarks. He said that America will speak out for a set of core principles, including ‘the right to choose your own leaders’ – except of course when to comes to Gaza and the choice people made to vote for Hamas. He spoke of every state having a ‘right to self-defence’, but then said Palestinians will assume responsibility for their security in a ‘sovereign, non-militarized state’. While it’s understandable that Obama would want to allay Israel’s fears about its security – although subsequent Israeli insistence that troops would have to be kept stationed along the Jordan river after any peace settlement shows how inadequate Netanyahu feels this formulation to be – putting it this way looks like giving something to the Palestinians with one hand and taking it away with the other. Especially galling must have been the passage in which Obama said ‘Our own nation was founded through a rebellion against an empire’, and then went on to extol the virtues of nonviolence: ‘ I would not be standing here today unless past generations turned to the moral force of nonviolence as a way to perfect our union’. Coming so soon after Israeli security forces dealt brutally with nonviolent demonstrators over the Naqba weekend, this statement was detached from the reality he was supposed to be addressing. A word of admonition concerning Israel’s disproportionate and repressive response would not have gone amiss. And he also said he was not happy with Fatah’s pact with Hamas. Altogether, when it comes to self-determination for the Palestinians, Obama seems to treat them like a second-class nation.

Finally, the part of Obama’s speech that sparked greatest controversy was really one of its least contentious. When he said that ‘The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognised borders are established for both states’, he was effectively reiterating something both of his predecessors had made a feature of US policy and echoing the fundamental principle of the ‘land-for-peace’ UN Security Council resolution 242, on which all attempts at peace-making since the 6-Day War have been based.  Although this clearly means that it would be possible for Israel to incorporate major settlement blocs within its final borders, following the meeting between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu on 20 May, Bibi reacted as if the president had ended his sentence after the word ‘lines’, thereby ‘announcing’ that these blocs would now be taken away. Ian Black shows convincingly that Netanyahu’s outrage was ‘tactical and synthetic’, clearly designed to placate the far-right members of his coalition and other right-wing Israeli and Diaspora Jewish forces.

Before the speech, the likelihood of meaningful negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians recommencing was virtually nil. After the speech and Bibi’s petulant, crass and insulting response, we can remove the word ‘virtually’. Obama can’t afford to allow his 1967 reference to be trashed by Bibi and buried. He’s forced to make an effort to appear to be pursuing it in his forthcoming meeting with other world leaders and, presumably, when he addresses the huge AIPAC gathering this week. But nothing is likely to come of it and the most probable outcome is an extended stalemate with occasional reiterations of America’s ‘new policy’, punctuated by a flare-up in September over the attempt to declare an independent Palestinian state at the UN. And if a resolution is passed, against the will of the United States, it will only make the Netanyahu government even more intransigent and push any dismantling of settlements and withdrawal from the West Bank even further away than ever.

In the medium term – that is, between now and the presidential election – Obama may well succeed in marginalising the Israel-Palestine conflict as a factor casting a shadow over his prospects for reelection. There’s nothing in this speech for the Palestinians. The few lukewarm words of encouragement are far outweighed by the humiliation of having Israel’s every concern acknowledged and every fear assuaged, and no compensatory empathy with Palestinian yearning for self-determination. And there’s enough material in this speech to provide the Israeli right and the AIPAC crowd with spurious reasons for manufacturing indignation. The simply don’t trust Obama, have no real interest in the establishment of a Palestinian state and are fully aware of the ticking of the presidential election clock making risky, high profile interventions by Obama in the conflict, in order to further a policy with no teeth, inconceivable.

This was an important speech because a more sober, realistic appraisal of what can and can’t be done with American power is to be welcomed. If Obama is reelected and he can lay more stress on soft power in America’s foreign policy, all the while confronting the country’s domestic problems, so much the better for the rest of the world. But putting any serious Israel-Palestine activism by the Obama administration on hold is likely to result not in a benign stalemate but a dangerous and unpredictable one.

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The Jewish Chronicle’s Attack on the Pears Foundation for ‘Blindness’ Towards ‘Jihadi Propagandists’ is Shoddy and Undeserved

Splashed across the front page of the Jewish Chronicle on 13 May, like a sensational scoop, was the ‘revelation’ that the Pears Jewish family foundation funded an organization, Forward Thinking, which was responsible for bringing an associate of the 7/7 bombers to the House of Commons. The story was credited to Martin Bright, the political editor of the Jewish Chronicle, and published online on 12 May. And it appears at first to raise justifiable and serious concerns. Yet the story is not all it’s cut out to be, to say the least.

In Bright’s account, Tafazal Mohammad, who attended a training camp with the 7/7 ring leader, Mohammed Sidique Kahn, was invited by Forward Thinking, a body headed by former Catholic priest Oliver McTernan, which aims to work for a better understanding between British Muslims and the wider society, to attend a reception in parliament in 2008. Bright adds:

Mr Mohammad was last week named in the coroner’s report into the 7/7 attacks as someone viewed by MI5 as a ‘suspected terrorist sympathiser’. He was a trustee of the jihadist bookshop Iqra in Beeston, Leeds, which acted as a hub for extremists.

He later set up Muslim Youth Skills, which charges clients such as the Metropolitan Police for advice on how to reach alienated young people.

Bright, backed by the Jewish Chronicle‘s leader, makes a case for regarding Forward Thinking as virtually a front organization for Hamas. He seems to support the view, expressed elsewhere on the internet, that Forward Thinking’s founder, William Sieghart, is effectively a spokesperson for Hamas. In a short op-ed piece published at the same time as his news report on Pears’s role in funding Forward Thinking, Bright wrote:

I have always thought Forward Thinking were cavalier to the point of recklessness in their attitude to political Islam.

But I am still shocked that they did not carry out more rigorous checks when they invited Tafazal Mohammad, an associate of the 7/7 bombers, into the House of Commons to talk about youth engagement. For that matter, I am shocked that the Pears Foundation did not do its homework on Forward Thinking.

And in his news story, Bright quoted this comment from the Labour MP Denis MacShane:

There seems a wilful blindness on the part of elements of the London political class to the racist ideology of ultra Islamist jihadi propagandists.

Stephen Pollard, the JC’s editor incorporated his interpretation of McShane’s comment in the paper’s leader:

When the JC contacted the key communal organisations for their reaction to the news about the funding of Forward Thinking – a body which treats Hamas as wholly legitimate, even worthy – there was near-universal anger. But not one person was willing to say so publicly. Yet non-Jewish figures such as Denis MacShane MP are quite prepared to do so, attacking the Pears Foundation’s ‘willful blindness’ towards ‘Islamist jihadi propagandists’. There is something fundamentally wrong when our own leaders think one thing, say nothing, and leave it to others to do the job.

In a measured response the Director of the Pears Foundation, Charles Keidan, stressed that the same due diligence had been done as with any other charity the grant-maker funds. Bright asked Keidan ‘about Forward Thinking’s links to Tafazal Mohammad, [and] Mr Keidan said: “We are not familiar with the person in question. But we believe Forward Thinking does important and highly regarded work. We will seek to understand more about this particular situation”.’

But within hours, the story began to unravel. Pears published an angry statement from MacShane on its website, complaining that his comments, given by mobile phone while travelling on Eurostar, were taken out of context and distorted in the JC‘s Leader. MacShane stated:

I had no idea my brief quote which made no reference to the Pears Foundation  would be used to blacken the name of a man [Trevor Pears, Chairman] I respect as much as anyone in Britain for his commitment to Jewish causes and in particular his generous support in different ways for the common struggle against contemporary antisemitism.

MacShane could not emphasise enough his admiration for Trevor Pears and gave this piece of information:

On Wednesday night at a London University dinner I had the honour of greeting Mr Pears as a fellow Honorary Fellow of Birkbeck College and his Honorary Fellowship reflects the high esteem in which he is held after helping set up the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism at Birkbeck College.

post on Harry’s Place more than endorses Bright’s and Pollard’s attack on Forward Thinking, Sieghart and McTernan, claiming that Sieghart is ‘an outspoken Hamas supporter’ and linking, by way of proof for this assertion, to a piece Sieghart wrote for The Times website on 31 December 2008. In ‘We must adjust our distorted image of Hamas’, he concluded:

It is said that this [Israel-Palestine] conflict is impossible to solve. In fact, it is very simple. The top 1,000 people who run Israel – the politicians, generals and security staff – and the top Palestinian Islamists have never met. Genuine peace will require that these two groups sit down together without preconditions. But the events of the past few days seem to have made this more unlikely than ever. That is the challenge for the new administration in Washington and for its European allies.

It could be argued that this is a somewhat utopian idea, but the words of an ‘outspoken Hamas supporter’? Sieghart certainly is a strong advocate of the idea that Hamas, having been legitimately elected as the Gaza government, should be brought into dialogue withIsrael. But this is a view argued by many Israeli commentators, including former senior security and military officials. Are they outspoken Hamas supporters too?

It’s not difficult to find out information about Forward Thinking. Both on their website and in their annual reports and accounts, which are published openly on the website of the Charity Commission, they are quite transparent about their activities. What emerges is a picture of an organization very much at odds with that painted by Bright, Pollard and Harry’s Place.

For example, their most recent public event, held in March, was a meeting in parliament addressed by David Glass, an Israeli lawyer who advises Israel’s deputy prime minister (and this is not the first time that Glass has spoken at one of their events.) Look back at their list of earlier meetings and they seem to be very wide-ranging and certainly not obviously driven by ‘outspoken support for Hamas’. I have often heard Oliver McTernan delivering ‘Thought for the Day’ on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme and he appears to be extremely sensitive, level-headed, practical and with an unimpeachable moral and ethical outlook.

As for the event that Tafazal Mohammad attended, for Bright to give the impression that his discovery of the fact is some kind of scoop is disingenuous in the extreme. Forward Thinking make no attempt to hide it. First, it’s referred to quite clearly in the 2008 report and accounts as having taken place on 19 May of that year. Second, the event was a seminar in the House of Commons that the 2008 report says Forward Thinking was asked to hold as a follow-up to the launch of ‘Forgotten Voices’, the results of a project during which 73 open-ended one-to-one interviews were conducted with young British Muslims. Third, Tafazal Mohammad spoke on a panel with two other Muslims and discussed ‘issues relating to the engagement with Muslim youth and communities’.

Pears is not included in the list of foundations named as having contributed funds in 2008, but it is named in the 2009 report. This suggests that Pears was not even a funder when the meeting in question took place. To make it look as if Pears’s money was somehow responsible for Tafazal Mohammad’s appearance in the House of Commons is quite outrageous.

If, as Pears’s statement to the JC implies, its £23,000 was a grant spread over 2 years, given that Forward Thinking’s annual income was £399,000 in 2009 and £359,000 in 2010, Pears was responsible for supplying less than 4 per cent of the organization’s annual funds. The largest single donor was the highly respected Esmee Fairbairn Foundation (EFF), one of the largest grant-making bodies in the country – it gave away £27.9 million last year. During the 2 financial years ending 31 July 2009 and 31 July 2010, EFF gave a total of £313,000. Forward Thinking are completely open about the fact that William Sieghart is a trustee of EFF. And it is by no means unusual for the interests and preferences of trustees to be, at least in part, the basis upon which foundations allocate their funds.

If Forward Thinking were such an evil outfit, it’s hardly the Pears Foundation that deserves sanction.

But the evidence suggests precisely the opposite: that Forward Thinking are doing rather good work. There is nothing at all to indicate that they are in any way encouraging the propagation of terrorism or Jihadi extremism. On the contrary, combating these things is precisely what Forward Thinking is about. And in my view Pears has no case to answer.

So what drives the intemperate attack on Pears and Forward Thinking mounted by Bright and Pollard?

There’s certainly no denying that antisemitism figures quite prominently in the ideological outlooks of radical Islamists and Jihadi extremists, and it’s plain for all to see in the Hamas Charter. Bright and Pollard are among a number of people who see it as their duty to make a special point of exposing the antisemitism of such Muslims and their terrorist objectives. And the  two journalists are driven by the perception that Western Arabists and left liberals are particularly susceptible to whitewashing groups like Hamas either because such groups conform to the stereotype of the underdog, the modern-day oppressed, or because the Western sympathisers romanticise Islam and the Arab way of life, or because it’s an outlet for Arabist and left-liberal antisemitism. While there are elements of truth in all of these characterizations, Bright and Pollard obsessively take them to extremes. And a manifestation of that obsessiveness is regarding any attempts to open a dialogue with representatives or sympathisers with Hamas and similar groups as not only reprehensible, but actively encouraging their racism, antisemitism and terrorism. Whether intended or not, this emerges as a generalised anti-Muslim discourse.

All of these factors come into play in this instance. Whatever his views, or his association with the 7/7 bombers, it’s hard to believe that Tafazal Mohammad’s appearance in parliament represented the kind of danger implied by the tone and content of the JC‘s reporting and editorialising. Parliamentarians may not all possess great intellects, wisdom or judgement, but are most of them really so naive that they are incapable of resisting being brainwashed by this one individual? And given that he spoke at a seminar on engagement with Muslim youth, the whole representation of him as a threat in this particular context seems absurd.

Moreover, the judgement of Bright and Pollard on these issues is highly suspect. Bright wrote a highly inflammatory article about antisemitism in Scotland last year, in which he misrepresented the response of the Scottish government to the problem and the danger it represented to the Jewish community. As for Pollard, if Denis MacShane is to be believed, he seems to have tripped himself up rather badly in his rush to make Trevor Pears personally responsible for allowing an alleged ‘Islamist Jihadi propagandist’ into parliament. Pollard’s championing of the Polish MEP, Michal Kaminsky, whose antisemitic past was well documented, as fully suitable to head the right-wing group in the European Parliament to which the Tories stupidly agreed to attach themselves, on the grounds that his support for Israel outweighed his racist views, makes him utterly unreliable when it comes to assessing the salience of an individual’s antisemitism.

Now just because an organization is a registered charity and a grant-making foundation with laudable aims does not mean that it is above criticism. It’s perfectly right that such a body as the Pears Foundation be subject to scrutiny. I myself have questioned Pears’s activities in the past. But what Bright and Pollard have done in this instance is shoddy and entirely undeserved. If they had any decency, they would withdraw the story and the leader and apologise.

Posted in British politics | 2 Comments

‘Push and Press Israel’ New Israel Fund President tells UK Jews. So Why is NIF Supporting a Whitewash Israel conference?

Naomi Chazan is a class act. Professor emerita, former Deputy Speaker of the Israeli Knesset, former Member of the Knesset for the Meretz civil rights party, feminist, President of the New Israel Fund – I doubt whether anyone can better articulate the argument for a liberal Zionism that genuinely seeks justice and liberty for all Israel’s citizens, which will only come about when the Palestinians have a state of their own. She set out her case for an Israel that fulfils its international obligations and rigorously adheres to human rights values at home and in the occupied Palestinian territories in a long question and answer session with Jonathan Freedland organized by the UK New Israel Fund and hosted by the New North London Synagogue in its magnificent new building. And along the way she had much of interest and importance to say to the full hall about the Arab spring, the late conversions to Palestinian self-determination of three former Israeli prime ministers, the need for Diaspora Jews to speak out on Israel’s mistakes and the baseless allegations made against NIF that it funds organizations devoted to the delegitimization of Israel. Her voice is mellifluous, her manner engagingly polite and, possessed of great timing, she deploys humour with natural talent and great skill. But she’s steadfast in sticking to her principles. The gentle treatment she applies to friend and foe alike is inevitably followed by the delivery of a steely, uncompromising message.

Curiously, the NIF organizers decided they needed to ‘balance’ Naomi Chazan’s views with the responses of three leaders of the Jewish and pro-Israel establishments. This seemed an odd idea to say the least, given that Jonathan Freedland acted very effectively as devil’s advocate in his questioning, despite the fact that he freely admitted that his sympathies lay with Chazan and her views. Hers is a hard act to follow and Lorna Fitzsimons, Chief Executive of BICOM (Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre), Doug Krikler, Chief Executive of the United Jewish Israel Appeal (UJIA) and Vivian Wineman, President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews were simply unable to say anything of any substance, depth or relevance. Fitzsimons virtually ranted scarily about fear, Krikler was engaging but wishy-washy and Wineman was rambling and confused. I don’t think this was just because they wilted in the glare of Naomi Chazan’s intellect and articulacy. It seemed to me that they had nothing to offer either in terms of an alternative to Chazan’s relentless emphasis on liberty, freedom and human rights for all – although they all appeared to want to dissent somewhat from her position – or in terms of a translation of the principles Chazan enunciated with which they did agree into a way forward for British Jews confronting the fallout from the Israel-Palestine conflict. Chazan was crystal clear on one of the key arguments that so many in the pro-Israel lobby utterly reject: Every Diaspora Jew I know, she said, is affected by the Israel-Palestine conflict and therefore every Jew is perfectly entitled to tell Israel what it thinks about what Israel is doing (I paraphrase). Mick Davis, the Chairman of the UJIA, has said almost the same thing and was splattered with ordure for his pains, although some significant senior Jewish establishment leaders did not dissent from his views when given the chance.

Naomi Chazan and people like her – and there are many in Israel – are Israel’s last best hope for guiding the country to the end of occupation and a just peace. But there aren’t enough like her, their message is largely falling on deaf ears and they’re fatally distanced from the levers of power. Nonetheless, they speak truth to power. They don’t come to Diaspora Jews armed with buckets of whitewash. When Chazan was asked by a member of the audience how Diaspora Jews could help move Israel in the direction she advocated, she replied: ‘Jews should be pushing and pressing Israel’ to change its policies. You can’t get much clearer than that.

Which makes it altogether puzzling why NIF is supporting and participating in the ‘We believe in Israel’ conference organized by BICOM and taking place ‘somewhere’ in London on Sunday 15 May. This event is straight out of the modern hasbara (propaganda) handbook. Its fundamental premise is that there’s hardly anything wrong with Israel except the way it’s presented. Marshal your arguments, use the right means of communication and get the branding right and Israel’s image in the UK can be transformed. This approach is so far removed from the message Naomi Chazan delivered at the New North London Synagogue that it raises serious doubts about the judgement of the UK NIF leadership. Jews should be spending their time pushing and pressing Israel not devising ways of presenting its repressive and undemocratic policies in more palatable forms to the British public. There may be a few sessions in which the odd word of criticism and dissent can be expressed, but look at the list of speakers and you’ll see they’re almost all of one stripe.

But worse even than the programming is the very concept of the event (as I noted in an earlier post). By framing it in terms of ‘belief in Israel’ the organizers and supporters are shooting themselves in the foot, or possibly worse: pointing a gun at their own heads. An underlying theme running through the whole conference is the fear of delegitimisation, the casting of doubt on Israel’s legitimacy by the country’s perceived enemies, which leads to the questioning of its very existence. What could be more calculated to reinforce these fears, to give credence to delegitimisation, than to attempt to encapsulate collective feeling for Israel’s permanence in words that imply that there is indeed doubt about its existence. The phrase ‘belief in’ is often used when the entity is not real or its existence is in doubt. It’s as if the pro-Israel sector is so lacking in confidence about Israel that rather than simply take it for granted that Israel exists and firmly establish that engaging in the discourse of delegitimization is counterproductive, it’s reduced to shoring up support for Israel using language more commonly associated with those who are convinced of the existence of fairies and UFOs. If this approach weren’t so tragic, it could almost seem Pythonesque.

Belief also brings to mind religious belief and it’s no accident that it has this echo too. As I wrote on 25 April:

What other country needs to ground support for itself in a quasi-religious formulation? If it all comes down to ‘believing’ in Israel as one ‘believes’ in Judaism, something has gone terribly wrong. It only confirms the fact that the confused, misplaced but widespread equation of Israel with Judaism – as if the former is by definition synonymous or interchangeable with the latter – has taken deep and dangerous hold on the psyche of those who make it their business to come to Israel’s defence no matter what it does.  It seems to me that these people do not have have Israel’s true interests at heart.

There’s no disguising the fact that Naomi Chazan certainly implied, and possibly even clearly said, that if delegitimisation is occurring, Israel is responsible for it. (Others have already said this.) Its propensity to make enemies out of friends, its refusal to engage with the Arab Peace Plan, its refusal to enter into dialogue with the Goldstone mission, its growing disdain for freedom of speech and democratic procedures, its lamentable response to the Arab Spring, its condoning of racist orthodox rabbis – these developments, and many more like them, exemplify how Israel is undermining itself.

Naomi Chazan issued a wake-up call at the NIF event on 10 May at the New North London Synagogue. The only way to peace, justice and liberty for all, she said, is through a 2-state solution. And I would add that the only alternative is a repressive, undemocratic, exclusivist, single state: an Israel that has given up on the fundamental human rights that Chazan told us so passionately are enshrined in the country’s Declaration of Independence.

Posted in British Jews, Middle East | 3 Comments

Backlash Hits CUNY for Denying Honorary Degree to Tony Kushner, Top US Jewish Dramatist and Israel Critic

The plays of the award-winning US Jewish dramatist Tony Kushner are remarkable for the empathy he demonstrates for the ‘other‘. Whether the ‘other’ is a Jew, a gay, a Mormon, an African-American, the people of Afghanistan, Kushner tries to get under their skin, explore why they are as they are. He is, though, no moral relativist. He has a very strong sense of right and wrong. And it is no doubt for all of these things that the City University of New York originally decided to award Kushner an honorary degree, a decision that was dramatically reversed when a CUNY Trustee raised objections on the grounds of the playwright’s outspoken criticism of Israel.

But if the trustee, Jeffrey S. Weisenfeld, and the CUNY authorities thought any controversy over the decision would rapidly disappear, they were very much mistaken. Not only has Kushner robustly defended himself, prominent academics have attacked the university’s decision and, according to the New York Times, ‘Ellen Schrecker, a history professor at Yeshiva University who received an honorary degree from CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice in 2008, said she planned to return it in solidarity with Mr Kushner.’

In an interview with the paper Kushner said: ‘I have been honored many times by prominent Jewish organizations, proudly identified as a Jew and maintained a passionate support for the continuous existence of the State of Israel . . . An apology should come from the Board of Trustees for not following the dictates of simple fairness and decency when this happened, and allowing someone who deserved better treatment to be treated shabbily.’

Numerous groups and individuals have rallied to Tony Kushner’s support. Even Ed Koch, the former Jewish mayor of New York, a staunch supporter of the state of Israel, who is receiving an honorary degree from CUNY, publicly stated that Kushner should receive the degree and that Weisenfeld should resign.

Kushner has often been vilified for his views on Israel. In 2006 he was among a number of Jewish writers, intellectuals and academics attacked for giving succour to antisemites in a notorious pamphlet,  Progressive Jewish Thought and the New Anti-Semitism, written by Professor Alvin H Rosenfeld for the American Jewish Committee. Rosenfeld’s paper was hugely controversial. It was greeted with glee by the McCarthyite Jewish and Zionist right and attacked by progressive Jews and Zionists. The national press on both sides of the Atlantic gave extensive coverage to the story.

Regrettably, this latest attempt to punish and blacken the name of a Jew who has a strong sense of his Jewish identity and whose right to express dissenting views should be cherished, exemplifies the extent to which the pattern of tarring Jewish critics of Israel with the brush of antisemitism has become an ingrained part of intra-Jewish discourse. And it’s not just Jews levelling such accusations against other Jews. The non-Jews who love us too much, defend Israel’s indefensible human rights violations and stand ready to fight Islam down to the last Jew and Israeli, do it too. The neo-conservative David Pryce-Jones gets up to such tricks in a 5 May op-ed piece in the Jewish Chronicle, ‘Israel’s blinker-wearing, self-righteous detractors’, in which he dredges up the hoary accusation of ‘self-hatred’.

Kushner is hardly in need of another honorary degree – he has 15 already, as well as the Pulitzer Prize – but he clearly cares enough about asserting the moral fundamentals of his Jewishness to want to stand up in public and defend himself against his detractors. His is a powerful voice and he sets an example we should all follow. But this is a battle in which there can be no knockout blow. For now, it looks as if the cycle of demonisation will be endlessly repeated in various guises, at least until events beyond our control in a region experiencing the most far-reaching upheaval for a hundred years render such such internecine quarrelling utterly redundant.

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When the New is Not So New: The Radical Right in Europe Today

Political observers and analysts always seem to be on the lookout for the ‘new’; that new political movement – on the right, or left, or even in the middle – marking a significant break with the past and telling us much about how politics will be in the future. Nowhere is this more common than in discussions about radical right movements and ideologies.  In the United Kingdom, the growing political presence of the British National Party has been largely attributed to the way it has developed a ‘new’ approach and therefore sanitised itself. And some are arguing that if there is a majority ‘yes’ vote’ in the 5 May referendum on the alternative vote proposal, this will be of great benefit to the BNP. What has happened in the UK is seen as part of a wider development of a ‘new’ radical right politics across much of Europe, of which the party of Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, the Party of Freedom (PVV), is regarded as its most important example.

But a persuasive and sober assessment of what’s new in the ‘new’ radical right in Europe today, written for openDemoracy by Professor Cas Mudde, a veteran and highly perceptive expert on far right politics in Europe, casts serious doubt on whether the ‘new’ label is appropriate.

This new movement, some have argued, is ‘able to overcome its external and internal isolation by downplaying classic ethnic nationalism and focusing primarily on Islamophobia’, writes Professor Mudde. ‘The phenomenon is said to encompass two types of organisation: old radical-right parties that have transformed themselves, and entirely new formations.’ Professor Mudde adds: ‘The new radical right has, it is said, de-emphasised ethnic nationalism and embraced the United States and (particularly) Israel, reflecting the importance of its acquired view that there is a “clash of civilisations” between the west and global Islam.’

The genuinely new organizations and parties that have emerged have ‘even reach[ed] out to domestic ethnic minorities in their Islamophobic struggle’ and also to international collaborators. The PVV and English Defence League (EDL) have found collaborators in the US among neo-conservative and islamophobic activists and the EDL has found some sympathy among some small extreme right Jewish groups.

The propensity for pockets of Jewish opinion to be seduced by the sanitised radical right expressing regret for the Holocaust, admiration for Israel and struggling against Islam is a worrying phenomenon to which I and others have drawn attention in recent years. However, it is mostly the heirs of pre-war fascist parties and groups, such as the Alliance National in Italy and the Danish People’s Party (DFP), which have adopted these new positions.

But Mudde argues that this does not mean that ‘a new unholy alliance is emerging on the radical right’. First, despite the change of rhetoric – ‘Muslim’ exchanged for ‘Turk’ – the core business of these parties remains ethnic nationalism. Second, the new forces don’t see eye-to-eye and some of the individual parties, such as the PVV and the DFP, try to plough their own furrow, seeking allies outside of the some of the traditional radical right forces. Third, even Geert Wilders now appears not so new. He has ‘exchanged his more elitist conservatism for an outright populist welfare-chauvinism’ and now antagonistically targets East European, as well as Muslim, immigrants. ‘In short,’ Mudde writes, ‘Wilders has changed into a populist radical-right politician, combining nativism, authoritarianism and populism – just like the old radical right.’

There is no collaborative ‘new radical right’ overtaking Europe. ‘Ethnic nationalism is still the core ideological feature of all major radical-right players, and ideology and personality still prevent close inter-party cooperation.’ Professor Mudde concludes: ‘The new radical right that emerged in the 1980s might feel old by now. But it is still largely the same as it ever was, and it is here to stay for some time yet.’ And certainly the near implosion of the BNP in recent months, revealing how skin-deep its ‘new’, sanitised image always was, supports Mudde’s thesis.

The message here is not, and it not meant to be, in any sense comforting. The Islamophobic agenda remains very pervasive. It’s just that anti-Muslim racism has not replaced more traditional forms of ethnic prejudice. Islamophobia may have pushed them to one side to some degree, but they remain at the heart of radical right ideology and show signs of returning to a more central ideological position.

One country where the ideas 0f more traditional far-right groups and parties have swung into the mainstream is Hungary, as Professor István Deak dsturbingly explained in a recent article in the New York Review of Books. Not only did Jobbik, a far-right, racist and xenophobic party, get almost as many votes as the Socialists in the last general election, with nearly one million votes out of a total of 6.3 million, the authoritarian, exclusivist nationalism of the ruling Fidesz party, headed by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, is being defended against attack by a newspaper close to the government ‘using the time-honored Hungarian rightist argument that only Jews and their hirelings could be evil enough to criticize Hungary.’

Orbán’s brand of anti-democratic, populist conservatism, that is suspicious of foreign influences and ‘left-liberal intellectuals’, is genuinely worrying. Since the collapse of communism in 1989, Hungarian politics has lurched from right to left and back again, and racist and antisemitic groups have at times appeared to be gaining influence. But matters never seemed to go beyond the point of no return and the Hungarian political system managed to contain bouts of more extreme and exclusivist political fervour. But as Professor Deák says, ‘For all practical purposes, Hungary has become a one-party state.’ And that party’s philosophy emphasizes ‘family, faith and order’, the ‘role of Christianity and of the Holy Crown of Saint Stephen in preserving the nation’ and ‘the unity of national culture’.

The European Union has already exerted its influence in getting the government to moderate an anti-freedom of expression Hungarian media law, so a slide towards the grave weakening of Hungary’s democratic institutions, which Professor Deák quite rightly says would be ‘a tragedy’, is not certain. And the EU should be able to play a significant role in drawing attention to strengthening radical right political groups across Europe as a whole. Both the Commission and the European Parliament are in a position to do this. However, the EU has been greatly weakened in recent years as a result of the continent-wide backlash against further integration, the growing gulf between Sarkozy’s France and Merkel’s Germany and the twin challenges of dealing with financial and economic crises and the upheavals in the Arab world – and not dealing with them very well at all. This means that there is fertile ground in which the radical right can grow and governments and European institutions are distracted by other problems and priorities such that they are not fully able or wiling to tackle the threat.

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Wisdom From a 20-Something Elite Marathoner for a 65-Year Old 4-Hour+ Plodder

Shod in my new Asics Nimbus, I’m suddenly running on air again. 30 to 35 miles a week. Satisfying long runs on Sunday mornings. Uncomplicated – light-hearted even? – medium-distanced midday runs during the week. And what a difference a touch of Mediterranean weather makes. When you can literally just pull on shorts, top and trainers and fly out of the door without worrying about numb fingers. Yesterday, out before 6 am, I had most of the roads, Parliament Hill and Regents Park to myself for the best part of 2 hours, completing half-marathon distance in 1:56, with plenty of fuel left in the tank, feeling all the better for not eating anything at all before setting out.

I confess to have been boosted by some external stimulus in the form of an inspiring chat with the Sweatshop shop assistant who sold me my Asics. Garrett Smith turned out to be an elite marathoner, recently turning in a time if 2:30. An American in his early 20s, Garrett had a refreshingly practical attitude to marathon running. We discussed nutrition and he confirmed my feeling that fuelling up obsessively with carbs before and during very long runs was unnecessary if you can happily run 15 miles without any extra water or sugar snacks and only a muffin with cheese and honey (no, not mixed) to start you off (2 hours before setting out), which is what I seem to be able to manage.

I realise that from 15 miles to 26.2 is still a bloody long way, but during the 6 marathons I’ve run to date, since my first (London) in 2001, I’ve often felt that forcing chewy bars down my throat just as it gets harder and harder to digest the things absorbed more energy than it added to my tiring body. So if and when I next gird up my loins for another assault at the distance, I’m going to take a much more relaxed attitude to what I stuff into me before and during the race.

Garrett said he doesn’t like running feeling full of food and that you’re better off listening to what your body tells you it needs rather than working according to a manual. It all made good sense to me, adjusting somewhat for the fact that, for a marathon, I’m out on my feet for 4 hours plus. He’s aiming to get down to 2:20 in a few years and I believe he will.

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The Aftermath of Goldstone’s ‘Reconsideration’: Debunking Two Myths and Assessing the Damage

Unless and until Justice Richard Goldstone writes a full-exposure memoir, we will probably never fully understand what made him write the 1 April Washington Post op-ed in which he reconsidered the conclusions of his eponymous report for the UN Human Rights Council. But this has stopped neither speculation about his motives nor the demand for action on his supposed ‘retraction’ – in other words, formally withdraw the report. Only yesterday, the New York Review of Books blog carried a piece by David Shulman plumbing the implications of Goldstone’s words and a few days ago the US Senate agreed unanimously to a resolution calling on the United Nations to rescind the Goldstone report.

All this is grist to the mill of conspiracy theorists who must be gorging themselves on the numerous possibilities as to who put pressure on Goldstone so as to provoke his change of heart, who was meant to benefit from it, what signal he was sending to his fellow Jews, whether he had consulted the other three members of the fact finding mission etc.  Or whether he just checked into a hospital and ordered himself a lobotomy.

While this sort of speculation will probably rumble on, two myths can now be categorically debunked.

There are absolutely no grounds for demanding the withdrawal or rescinding of the report or for insisting that Goldstone himself now repudiate the entire enterprise.

This should have been clear even when the Goldstone op-ed was published, but it was certainly spelt out categorically in the definitive statement made by Hina Jilana, Christine Chinkin and Desmond Travers, the other three members of the UN fact-finding mission on the Gaza conflict, issued on 14 April. In it they aimed to ‘dispel any impression that subsequent developments have rendered any part of the mission’s report unsubstantiated, erroneous or inaccurate’. They say: ‘there is no justification for any demand or expectation for reconsideration of the report as nothing of substance has appeared that would in any way change the context, findings or conclusions of that report with respect to any of the parties to the Gaza conflict. Indeed, there is no UN procedure or precedent to that effect.’ Continuing to highlight the responsibilities of both the Israeli authorities and the Hamas government they state: ‘we believe that both parties held responsible in this respect, have yet to establish a convincing basis for any claims that contradict the findings of the mission’s report’. And in the final paragraphs of their unequivocal statement they emphasise once again the integrity of the report: ‘We consider that calls to reconsider or even retract the report, as well as attempts at misrepresenting its nature and purpose, disregard the right of victims, Palestinian and Israeli, to truth and justice.’

The core evidence that Goldstone says persuaded him to reconsider and withdraw the charge that civilians were intentionally targeted as a matter of policy provides no grounds whatsoever for reaching such a conclusion.

It was the final report by the UN committee of independent experts appointed to follow-up on the recommendations of the Goldstone Report, chaired by Judge Mary McGowan Davis (the other member was Judge Lennart Aspergren), which was presented to the Human Rights Council in March 2011, that Justice Goldstone says made him reconsider his original conclusion that civilians were intentionally targeted by Israel. But even the most cursory reading of the text of McGowan Davis’s report shows that no such reconsideration is justified. The judge states that ‘The Committee reiterates the conclusion of its previous report that there is no indication that Israel has opened investigations into the actions of those who designed, planned, ordered and oversaw Operation Cast Lead.’ How then is it possible to conclude that there was no policy intentionally to target civilians?

It’s true that even many severe critics of Israel have thought this unlikely. Referring to Goldstone’s statement in his op-ed that ‘civilians were not intentionally targeted as a matter of policy’, David Shulman says: ‘I am sure that this last statement is correct; anyone who knows the Israeli army knows that, for all its faults and failings, it does not have a policy of deliberately targeting innocent civilians. Suggestions to the contrary are simply wrong.’ But this is an article of faith, not clear proof. All that the Goldstone report called for was that there be high-level, independent investigations conducted by the Israeli authorities (and similar investigations by Hamas) and yet to this day nothing of the kind has been done.

One of the world’s leading authorities on human rights and international law, Sir Geoffrey Bindman, makes a good case for not being as sanguine about Israeli policy as David Shulman. He put it this way in an email I received from him:

Intentional targeting of civilians can only be established by inference in the absence of clear documentary evidence. That inference is almost irresistible when there is overwhelming evidence of reckless disregard for the risk to civilians coupled with the actual killing by Israeli soldiers of hundreds of them in Gaza. Goldstone himself points out that the Israelis declined to co-operate and thus failed to provide evidence to rebut the inference. If there were indeed a prosecution for war crimes they would have an opportunity to do that. The report did not and could not claim to establish guilt, merely to establish the factual basis for a prosecution so far as it could do so.

Although it seems that one of the significant successes of the Goldstone report was indeed to persuade the Israelis that they had to conduct some, albeit not entirely independent, investigations, and it may be that the Israeli military will always now have in mind the Goldstone report when it conducts any future offensives against the Palestinians, the result of Goldstone’s op-ed has been to bring to an end any chance of a serious, high-level rethink about what was done in Israel’s name in Gaza and what it might be possible to do in future. With those such as J Street welcoming  Goldstone’s retraction, Carlo Strenger arguing that the UN should now officially scrap the report and Jonathan Freedland in the Guardian, whether intentionally or not, diluting the force of the Goldstone report by wondering why there are no Goldstone reports on Sri Lanka, Darfur, the Congo or the Ivory Coast, the Netanyahu government must have revelled in its sense of self-justification and strengthened its view that it never has any case to answer in the court of international opinion or law.

There is no question that the Goldstone op-ed emboldened the Israeli Zionist right-wing, provided the settlement movement with even more justification for holding on to and grabbing more land in the West Bank, gave a boost to Israel’s hasbara (propaganda) efforts internationally and was seen as a vindication by those who accused Goldstone of being a ‘self-hating Jew’ and of perpetrating a blood libel against the Jewish people. And the other side of this coin is the way Goldstone has made it even more difficult for Israeli human rights organizations to operate freely, the very groups that provided Goldstone with essential information for his report given that the Israeli government refused to cooperate with the fact-finding mission and supply it with information that Goldstone requested. Miri Weingarten, the Director of JNews and a human rights activist, predicted this shortly after the op-ed appeared. As she wrote in a piece for openDemocracy crossposted on the JNews website on 6 April: ‘Goldstone’s “reconsideration” may drive another nail in the coffin of Israeli accountability, and at the same time exacerbate the growing attacks on Israeli human rights defenders.’

That Justice Goldstone appears to have further damaged Israel’s civil society, already under severe attack from the repressive legislation being introduced by members of the government coalition, is nothing short of tragic. As a passionate proponent of universal human rights, Goldstone must know just how important civil society groups are in holding governments and official organizations to account when there are concerns about the erosion of those rights. It’s inconceivable that he deliberately wanted to make life more difficult for B’Tselem, Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, Breaking the Silence and many other such groups. And yet this is the consequence of his act of contrition.

I can only conclude that Goldstone did not understand the wider consequences that would result from his Washington Post op-ed. The very fact that by writing the piece he excessively personalised the report, which, while obviously carrying his name, is written in the name of all four members of the mission, does suggest that he had deeply personal reasons for doing so. And for someone who sees himself as a proud Jew and a Zionist, and who we know was deeply hurt by the accusations of ‘blood libel’ and ‘self-hating Jew’, among other appalling charges, made against him, that’s understandable. Nevertheless, one can only hope that he is sufficiently self-aware to be spending no small amount of time regretting the part he has now played in further delaying the attainment of justice and peace in Israel-Palestine.

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Is an Israeli Think Tank Behind the New SOAS Israel Studies Posts? Ben White vs. the Reut Institute

When I wrote about the establishment of two new academic posts in Israel studies at SOAS, funded by the Pears Foundation, I was unaware that Ben White had already posted a piece on Mondoweiss giving his take on the announcement. Two days later, on 15 April, Eran Shayson of the Israeli Reut Institute, which describes itself as ‘an innovative policy group designed to provide real-time, long-term strategic decision-support to Israeli leaders and decision-makers’, responded to White’s piece.

In my post I argued that it was very difficult for the sponsors of the posts and for the professor of Israel Studies at SOAS, Colin Shindler, to separate the Pears Foundation’s engagement in supporting advocacy for Israel from its ‘academic’ objectives for these two new positions.  White goes further and links the new posts directly to the report produced by the Reut Institute and originally published in 2009 that concluded that London was the international hub for organizations bent on delegitimizing Israel and recommended combating the delegitimization by rebranding Israel through, among other means, the establishment of Israel studies departments and posts at universities.

Wright is right to draw attention to the work and influence of the Reut think tank, which interviewed dozens of people in London, including myself, before producing its report and recommendations. Israel’s current hasbara (propaganda) policy is clearly using some of Reut’s ideas. However, what’s interesting about Reut in relation to the SOAS posts is that the Pears Foundation were into rebranding through a more ‘objective’ portrayal of Israel well before Reut produced its report. I know this from personal encounters I had with the chairman of the Pears Foundation, Trevor Pears, and the foundation’s director, Charles Keidan, back in 2007 and 2008. In meetings with them, Trevor Pears openly laid out his bifurcated strategy for expressing the foundation’s relationship with Israel. On the one hand, he was drawing attention to civil and human rights problems in Israel, through support for such organizations as the New Israel Fund and individual initiatives designed to raise Jewish awareness of the plight of Israel’s Arab/Palestinian citizens. On the other hand he was putting funds into activities aimed at publicising Israel’s academic and scientific endeavours and achievements. He would have no truck with the idea that these two approaches might cancel each other out rather than reinforce each other.

I’m convinced that Trevor Pears had followed the twists and turns of Jewish pro-Israel groups in the early 2000s as they struggled to move towards an approach to hasbara based on the notion that branding or rebranding was key. And this was largely, though not exclusively, focused on discussions about how BICOM, the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre, into which hundreds of thousands of pounds were being poured, should operate. These discussions took place against a background of deep dissatisfaction with the results of this investment. Israel’s image in the UK and internationally seemed to be deteriorating rapidly, with neither Israel’s diplomats nor a well-funded body like BICOM able to do anything about it. I sat in on some of these discussions where it was unanimously assumed that the only problem was finding the right way to present Israel’s ‘true’ image. Not an inch of space was given to the idea that perhaps Israel’s policies might be wrong and that without a change of political direction by the Israeli government, no amount of rebranding would be of  any value.

In his reply, Reut’s Eran Shayson wrote: ‘The description of Reut as a powerful puppeteer is indeed flattering, but the reality is very different from the conspiracy theory that White seeks to promote.’ Although this rather overstates what White was claiming, as I have tried to show above, in the case of Pears and SOAS, the impetus for the expansion of Israel studies predates the work of Reut, so it’s not accurate to suggest that Pears is carrying out an agenda it picked up from Reut. Nevertheless, White’s quotes from Reut’s reports and blogposts accurately reflect Reut’s rebranding approach. And while Shayson seems to set out from a reasonable starting point by writing: ‘ We at Reut argue that it is critically important to make a clear distinction between the assault on Israel’s right to exist and criticism of Israeli policy, harsh as it may be’, he goes on to fatally undermine this position by showing that making this ‘clear distinction’ is precisely what Reut is unable to do.

Shayson talks about the teaching of Israel studies as ‘conveying nuance and complexity’ but shows no willingness to see any nuance or complexity in the actions and arguments of supporters of BDS or others who severely criticise Israel. In the end, it all seems to come down to the argument that such campaigns see everything they are fighting as ‘an Israeli-Jewish conspiracy’. In other words, it’s ‘antisemitism stupid’. So who is delegitimizing whom here? On the one hand he seems to believe that Israel studies show Israel as an imperfect country, warts and all, but on the other hand he states: ‘But I am sure it will show that Israel is first and foremost a normal country, a democracy that is struggling for its survival in an impossible reality’ – a conviction that prejudges the results of objective academic study and contains three fundamentally contested notions about Israel and the context in which it exists: ‘normal’, ‘democracy’ and ‘impossible reality’.

Shayson further undermines his argument by demonstrating that his own grip on reality is not so secure and by indulging in some demonizing of his own. He seems to think that Gaddafi’s Libya is an ‘Islamic totalitarian regime’. Gaddafi’s regime is certainly vile, but calling it ‘Islamic totalitarian’ is hardly accurate. When Shayson wants to criticise White he seems to think it’s enough to quote the dubious attacks of the odious smear site Cif Watch or claim that White believes that antisemitism is justified.

The problem facing Reut, BICOM and the entire pro-Israel lobby and hasbara outfits is that they are constantly facing the problem of explaining away the unjustifiable. Their fightback against international condemnation and criticism of Israel does not lack the investment of brain power, concentrated effort and funds and it could be argued that they have had some marginal success, but it’s rather like the sand wall children build to stop the waves encroaching on their sand castles at the seaside: it works, briefly, but in the end collapses under the weight of the watery reality.

This seems to lead pro-Israel groups into ever more bizarre ways of stating their case for Israel, some of which seem to conflict with the fundamentals of Judaism, of which the state of Israel is supposed to be an expression. So we learn that the Jewish Community Centre for London (JCC) is publicising an event called ‘We Believe in Israel’, the national Israel Engagement Conference convened by BICOM.

The aim is to bring a thousand people together from across the community to show their support and learn more about Israel. We are delighted that Makom, the leading Israel education and engagement initiative, will be an integral part of the programme exploring the vibrant complexity of Israel, alongside a variety of information-sharing sessions led by leading experts.

What other country needs to ground support for itself in a quasi-religious formulation? If it all comes down to ‘believing’ in Israel as one ‘believes’ in Judaism, something has gone terribly wrong. It only confirms the fact that the confused, misplaced but widespread equation of Israel with Judaism – as if the former is by definition synonymous or interchangeable with the latter – has taken deep and dangerous hold on the psyche of those who make it their business to come to Israel’s defence no matter what it does.  It seems to me that these people do not have have Israel’s true interests at heart. Indeed, they exemplify how they themselves and the Israeli government are responsible for the delegitmization of Israel.

Posted in British Jews, Middle East | 1 Comment

Making a Meal Out of Migrants: Cameron’s 14 April Speech on Immigration

Most of Prime Minister David Cameron’s speech on immigration delivered in Hampshire on 14 April was a detailed exposition of how the coalition was succeeding in coming to grips with the ‘problem’ of ‘too high a level of immigration’ into the UK. But the speech will almost certainly only be remembered for this passage (and other hints, innuendoes and asides like it):

when there have been significant numbers of new people arriving in neighbourhoods … perhaps not able to speak the same language as those living there … on occasions not really wanting or even willing to integrate … that has created a kind of discomfort and disjointedness in some neighbourhoods.

Yes, he did speak about the positive benefits of immigration, but, as so many politicians do, proceeded to dilute and supersede that message with various familiar arguments designed to play on people’s fears that there is an alien presence in our midst. And by making the focus of of his speech the measures the government is taking to control immigration, immigrants and their children are framed as a ‘problem’ to be dealt with. (His speech in Munich back in February, when he attacked multiculturalism, had the same flavour. See my post on the speech.)

Why he chooses to do this is depressingly obvious. Restive backwoodsmen on the right of his party are increasingly angry about what the Tories are sacrificing by being in coalition with the Lib-Dems and ready to explode if the ‘nos’ lose the AV referendum. Cameron fears losing votes to UKIP in the forthcoming local elections and is also worried that if the Tories don’t show that they are out in front keeping foreigners out, the British National Party will benefit. Throwing the immigration bone to the snarling Tory right is a classic tactical manoeuvre.

Wouldn’t it be a pleasant surprise to hear someone who claims to be a modernising Tory leader make an unashamedly positive speech about immigration? Pigs will fly. Fortunately, we didn’t have to wait for David Cameron to take flight or see the light. All we needed to do was to read Mehdi Hasan, Senior Editor at the New Statesman, writing in the Guardian on 16 April, powerfully setting out argument after argument, fact after fact, as to why immigration has been, and continues to be, good for the country. Immigration boosts the economy and wages and has transformed the high street by reinvigorating the country’s entrepreneurial culture. Two of our political parties are headed by sons of immigrants – Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg – and Cameron’s great-great-grandfather, a German-Jewish financier, came to this country as a migrant in the 1850s. Even the royal family has German origins. ‘Without foreign workers, the NHS would grind to a halt’, Hasan writes, and ‘without foreign-born students our universities would go bust’.

Cameron was also deeply disingenuous. He insists that immigrants must learn English – who doesn’t think that this is very important? – and yet the government has cut funds it provided for English teaching. He blames immigration and ethnicity for the lack of social cohesion, but recent research has shown that the main cause is the level of economic deprivation. He makes out that immigration is the big question that no one will talk about and everyone worries about. Yet the latest Ipsos MORI issues index, a poll which has been asked in the same form for more than three decades, shows that concern about ‘race relations/immigration’ has dropped to a 9-year low. It’s now in 6th place when people are asked what to them is the most important issue facing Britain today.

It’s very widely accepted that there have to be restrictions on immigration, but there is no reason why they cannot be devised and explained within an unashamedly welcoming context. The situation we are now in, where there seems to be some consensus around the notion that ‘good immigration’ is people who come to here with skills the country needs and ‘bad immigration’ is large numbers of economic migrants seeking to better themselves who don’t have these ‘skills’, shows just how far the centre of gravity of the debate has shifted to an utterly unrealistic conception of what migration is all about. A huge proportion of immigrants and their descendants who have achieved social, educational and financial success came virtually penniless and without any immediately marketable skills. The idea that we cannot make space for such people today is a sad reflection on the society we seem to have become – or at least the society that our political leaders claim that we have become.

When my paternal Ukrainian-Jewish grandfather came to England with his wife in 1901 in his very early 20s, he was very poor and his self-designation as ‘cabinet-maker’ merely disguised the fact that he had no training in any trade. At the time of his death in 1944, he hardly spoke any English. For many years my father was bilingual and after the Second World War he learnt to be a tailor and cutter. Like my two brothers, I was brought up monolingual. I’ve had a successful career in the third sector, my older brother is a professor of maths education and my younger brother is an accountant. The instinct to better yourself, provide your children with the opportunities to succeed in life and become part of the society in which you have chosen to live remains very strong, no matter where you come from. What we need is an immigration policy based around the understanding that the vast majority of people who want to come to live in the UK share such aspirations.

Posted in British politics, Multiculturalism | 1 Comment