(photo credit: AP)
Perhaps one of the saddest reflections on Jewish history is our collective myopia: We do not seem to see problems even when they are staring us in the face. My heart sank on reading the thoughts of Vivian Wineman , the newly elected president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, on July 28 in The Jerusalem Post. Wineman sought to take issue with a July 21 analysis (on these same pages) of the rising tide of anti-Israel sentiment in the UK by Robin Shepherd, director of international affairs at the Henry Jackson Society, formerly a senior research fellow in charge of the Europe program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House).
With truly extraordinarily bad timing - writing just days after the Community Security Trust reported the highest ever incidence of anti-Semitism - Wineman suggested that Shepherd's careful analysis was "misguided and alarmist." According to Wineman, things are on the right path in the UK because (1) the Israel-bashers are a small minority; (2) the bashing is coming from the usual leftist suspects such as the charity War on Want and The Guardian; (3) the UK is leading the way in calling for sanctions on Iran; (4) there was a parliamentary inquiry into anti-Semitism, thanks in part to Jewish leadership; and (5) UK/Israel relations are good, evidenced by the fact that Israel is the UK's largest export market in the region.
LET'S DEAL quickly with (3), (4) and (5). Unlike the US, the UK still allows Iranian banks to operate. And the National Iranian Oil Company occupies a prime site opposite Westminster Abbey. Yes there was an anti-Semitism inquiry (and the need for one surely proves Shepherd's point). But despite the elapse of three years since it reported, none of its six key recommendations appears to have been adopted. And Israel is not the UK's largest export market in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia buys nearly 60 percent more.
Turning to the vilification of Israel, Wineman - ignoring vast amounts of evidence to the contrary - appeared to argue that it was merely "business as usual."
I found myself wondering whether we live on the same planet - let alone in the same city. The London where I live has become a city where every left-wing bookshop - and some that are not left-wing - has a Middle East section which stocks only books falsifying the history of Israel. It has become a city where a theater saw fit to cancel an event celebrating Israel's Independence Day because the publicity included photos of the IDF entertainment troupe in uniform - and worse still, a city where no mainstream media thought the incident worthy of critical comment.
It has become a city where BBC television wanted to give a debate the title "Is Israel a Racist State?" (after representation it added the phrase "...Or a Nation Under Threat?"). It has become a city where a member of Parliament of the governing Labor Party sees nothing amiss in hosting the launch, in a parliamentary building, of a book with the anti-Semitic title Israeli Apartheid. And it has become a city where the Royal Court Theater, having admitted it would be reluctant to show a play critical of Islam, sees nothing wrong with showing Seven Jewish Children, a play with explicit anti-Semitic content that suggests Israeli parents teach their children to hate Arabs.
None of this - repeat, none - is "business as usual." As I and many other deputies know all too well, Jews in the UK currently face the biggest challenge since our fathers returned from World War II only to find open fascism on the streets. The mystery is why some remain in denial. Israel's standing among opinion-formers in the UK is very low, and this has dire consequences for the Jewish community: Until the problem is recognized, how can there be a solution?
SHEPHERD, a non-Jew who has studied these matters closely and is soon to publish a book on anti-Zionism across Europe, has paid a price professionally as a result of calling for a more sober and less hysterical approach to Israel. Having written an op-ed on the subject in The Times in January 2008, he was subjected to fierce intimidation from the powers-that-be at Chatham House. It eventually led to his departure. Chatham House has long had a reputation for its anti-Israel disposition. It has close ties to the foreign-policy establishment. This reputation has deepened under its current leadership, due to Shepherd's own experiences and also to the Israeli Embassy's recent suspension of its long-standing membership.
That Wineman takes up cudgels against someone of Shepherd's stature - a man who has made a significant career sacrifice in the interest of giving Israel a fair hearing in the UK - is itself a cause for bewilderment: What on earth was he thinking?
But it is the president's cheerleading for the UK government's supposed support for Israel during Operation Cast Lead ("friendship substantiated during the conflict in Gaza") that really makes the hackles rise.
Did he not notice that the then Foreign and Commonwealth Office minister of state said in Parliament in March that Israel's action was "wrong and counterproductive?" Or that the foreign secretary is on record as agreeing that Israel's action was "disproportionate"? Or that the UK has reportedly given Â£35,000 to Breaking the Silence - a group of dissident IDF veterans? Or that the UK has begun a partial arms embargo, on the grounds that the Israeli ships for which the parts were destined were supposedly engaged in acts of "internal repression"?
Did Wineman not notice the falsehoods about Israel disseminated during Cast Lead by Oxfam, War on Want, Christian Aid and Save the Children - and the failure of the Charity Commission (chaired by a Labor Party activist) to make the charities honor their obligation to tell the truth? Even the BBC noticed, hence its refusal to show the Disasters Emergency Committee's Gaza Appeal (three of the above charities are among the 13 members of DEC)).
Mr Wineman might remember the then health minister Ben Bradshaw's libelous comments on Any Questions? (January 23): "I am afraid the BBC has to stand up to the Israeli authorities occasionally... Israel has a long reputation of bullying the BBC..."
So Bradshaw was sacked, right? Wrong - he was promoted to a cabinet job! But then this is a government that talks to Hizbullah, or at least its "political wing" (the distinction of course is bogus). And it is led by a prime minister who personally initiated the March 31 meeting to ask supermarkets to label goods from West Bank settlements. (To pour salt in the wound, the Cabinet Office invited Oxfam but no Israel stakeholder.)
And then there are those latest statistics on anti-Semitism. There were more incidents in the first six months of 2009 than in any previous entire year since 1984 (when the Community Security Trust began to record data). Moreover the CST did not record any of the "Zionism=Nazism" placards carried in the anti-Israel demonstrations during Cast Lead as incidents; nor the abusive chants; nor the tide of hate on the Internet including on "mainstream" sites such as Guardian: "Comment Is Free."
Maybe - just maybe - Shepherd has a point?
He has more than a point. He has understood, analyzed and explained an edifice of hostility to Israel in Britain which, though not unique, certainly places Britain among the more difficult places in the Western world to make a fair case for Israel.
Shepherd's work should be saluted, not denigrated. Those who do the latter undermine the UK's Israel activists and provide valuable ammunition for Israel's opponents. After World War II, a group of London-based Jewish ex-servicemen formed the "43 Group" to combat the fascists. They were shunned and criticized by much of the Jewish leadership.
Is it too much to hope that history will not repeat itself 65 years on?
The author is co-vice chair of the Zionist Federation, a member of the Board of Deputies of British Jews and was recently elected to the board's International Division.
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