Right of Reply: British criticism of Israel is nothing special

Operation Cast Lead has made putting case for Israel more challenging.

ADL anti boycott ad 224 (photo credit: Anti-Defamation League)
ADL anti boycott ad 224
(photo credit: Anti-Defamation League)
Robin Shepherd's assertion in his July 21 article New era as British hostility reaches crescendo that "the darkness is closing in" on Israel's reputation in Great Britain is misguided and alarmist. There is no doubt that Operation Cast Lead has made putting the case for Israel all the more challenging for Diaspora communities - and the UK is certainly no exception. But let's be clear, the "relentless, unremitting stream of anti-Israel invective" that Shepherd refers to is still propagated, as it has been for years, by a relatively small number of people with loud voices. The appropriate response is not to declare that the situation has reached "critical mass" and that an irreversible anti-Zionist malevolence has descended on Britain; that is simply not the case. The correct response is to be realistic about the degree of the problem and move forward with the huge amount of work that has already been undertaken to ensure that Israel is getting the fair hearing it deserves. THE UNSUCCESSFUL boycott campaigns at the University and College Union (UCU) for example, while troubling, do not mean that all British academics hate Israel. In fact, the majority of the UCU's 120,000-strong membership cherish academic freedom far beyond the antipathy to Israel harbored by a hard core of left-wing zealots, and have been thoroughly embarrassed that their trade union has been hijacked by hard-liners who devote so much time and resources to considering boycotts. Certainly, the various union-inspired anti-Israel motions require our response, but the clamor made by their proponents doesn't resonate with most British union members, let alone the population at large. Equally, anti-Zionist polemic published in the Guardian will come as no surprise to those familiar with the British media. Intransigent leftist commentary has been the traditional fare of both its Web site and its print media. Similarly, War on Want, founded by members of a Socialist Worker faction, is simply reverting to type and far from "Israel-haters... going in for the kill." The usual suspects are simply using Operation Cast Lead as a pretext. THE POLITICAL landscape, while affected by these things, has benefited hugely from the relentless work done by our community in several areas. The UK leads the way in Europe in calling for sanctions against Iran, and we are the only country to have had a parliamentary inquiry into anti-Semitism, which specifically considers the effects and implications of anti-Zionism. Each of the leaders of our major political parties has made clear statements against boycott campaigns focusing on Israel, and earlier this month Shahid Malik, the minister for cohesion, launched a unique report which recommended measures to prevent the use of Nazi analogies in anti-Israel discourse. It was only a year ago that our prime minister addressed the Knesset on Israel's Diamond Jubilee and professed his friendship - a friendship substantiated during the conflict in Gaza, as it had been by Tony Blair during the war with Hizbullah in 2006. Britain continues to cultivate strong economic relations with Israel. It is the UK's largest individual export market and trading partner in the region, and has boasted annual bilateral trade exceeding £2 billion for the past five years, which is likely to reach £3 billion by 2012. In July 2008, Gordon Brown announced the launch of the Britain-Israel Research and Academic Exchange Partnership (BIRAX), a new program to enhance research and academic cooperation. The 'BI ARTS' scheme encourages arts training for professionals from the UK and Israel. The British Council continues to broker contacts between Israeli and British professionals and policy-makers in several areas, including conflict resolution, women in governance and human rights. The list could go on. CERTAINLY, there has been increased criticism of Israel in recent months, but no more than anywhere else in the world. The suggestion that British opinion formers are "among the most hostile to Israel in the Western world" is simply misleading. Let's not forget that it was in South Africa where the deputy minister of foreign affairs was forced to apologize for "conflating Zionist pressure with Jewish influence." It was in America where the president of Iran was hosted by Columbia University, and it is in France where some of the most serious and violent anti-Israel protests to date have been seen. There's still a lot of work to be done, but let's make no mistake about it, criticism of Israel in Britain is not novel, unique, or endemic. The writer is president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews and chairman of the Jewish Leadership Council.