Saturday 10 November 2012

Toulouse and beyond

"But to the BBC there is ‘No problem’ with anti-Semitism in France…..", asserted a poster over at the Biased BBC blog following the murder of three young schoolchildren and their teacher at a Jewish school in Toulouse back in March. The killer was an anti-Semitic Islamist gunman. The comments at B-BBC are presently unavailable (or else I would quote some of them for you), but they were full of people at the time alleging that the BBC was deliberately playing down the scale of anti-Semitism among Muslims in France - and playing it down for reasons of either pro-Muslim bias or anti-Semitism, or both. 

As BBC Radio 4's Sunday is my test case, does its reporting of the Toulouse massacre bear out these charges?

The edition following the massacre included a report by the BBC's John Laurenson that struck both Sue and myself as being both surprising and rather good. It bears transcribing in full:
John L: "Men in black wail and rock in prayers at a synagogue in Marais. This is a neighbourhood of painful memories of French war-time fascist militia and deportation to the death camps, but for the past 35 years the Interior Ministry says, anti-Jewish violence has been overwhelmingly Muslim or Arabic in origin and has always been linked, more or less directly, to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Sylvie runs a non-profit café in the Marais. The murder of children is a huge shock, she says, but in a way Toulouse, she could see it coming. Israel may deserve criticism, she thinks, but what she hears is virulent and blanket condemnation.
Sylvie: "We were waiting for something like that. Just the atmosphere, and so on, what you see on internet and so on, and there is such a, how do you say, disinformation in the papers and on the T.V."
JL: "What sort of things are you thinking of?"
Sylvie: "Everybody wants that Israel is guilty, guilty, guilty."
Man's voice: "The problem is internet now. The problem is the propaganda on internet works very fine, very good, and this is the danger, this is the danger." 
JL: "Many people who live in this neighbourhood, the school children in particular, have stories to tell about everyday anti-Semitism in France today and the last ten years have seen a number of mercifully non-lethal fire bomb and other attacks on synagogues and Jewish schools. French Jewish leaders say the perpetrators or acts of anti-Jewish violence, big and small, habitually make reference to Israel, so the image of the Jewish state is crucial. At the headquarters of the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions, its president Richard Prasquier organises transport for a delegation of Jews and Muslims travelling to Toulouse for a ceremony today. He's outraged by the comments by Baroness Ashton, EU High Representative on Foreign Affairs, who seemed to equate the Toulouse killings with the deaths of Palestinian children in the Israeli-occupied territories. He believes this sort of talk created the climate which made the Toulouse Massacre possible."
RP: "When there is bombing, there always is some children among the victims. It's horrifying, but this is the way it goes. It is a difference to have children as victims of bombing, whatever the reason of the bombing, and to shoot in cold blood...cold blood, in the head of a child that one is holding. This difference is HUGE."
The Toulouse victims

JL: "Prasquier also says that that the Toulouse murders should also provoke soul-searching in the media. He goes it's been guilty on several occasions of relaying fake evidence of Israeli atrocities posted on the internet. And then there are the websites that preach out-and-out holy war. Political scientist Jean-Yves Camus says these are a growing problem because they are the means of indoctrination and training for the emerging threat from what he calls 'lone-wolf jihadis' or 'holy warriors'. Mohammed Merah was one such lone-wolf jihadi, he says, because although he made two trips to the Afghan-Pakistan border he was not, he says, part of an organisation."
J-Y C: "It's much more difficult in the fight against the previous al-Qaeda-affiliated movements because the lone wolf is not responding to any order from a centralised movement. He simply does his own thing. So unless you are into an arbitrary state and you put every citizen under scrutiny from the security agencies there will always be a risk that the guy will watch videos from the global jihad on the internet and will get radicalised by himself and will say, 'OK, I will just plan my own..(?)..and you can find many matters of making of bomb on the internet and that is really becoming increasingly easy to find the ways and means to go into terrorist action."
JL: "About the same time that Jean-Yves Camus was saying this President Sarkozy was making this announcement:"
JL: "Henceforth, Sarkozy said, all persons who regularly consult internet sites that call for terrorism, hatred or violence will be punished by law. President Sarkozy, it seems, is very much prepared to sacrifice a measure of civil liberties and even a little more religious freedom in the hope that will stop other Mohammed Merahs emerging in the future. Back in the Marais many will be attending the demonstrations this afternoon in remembrance of Merah's victims - the Jewish children, but also the Muslim soldiers. Merah told the police during the long negotiations that preceded his final gun battle did not realise that those victims were Muslim. Perhaps it was something he didn't want to see, like the fact that huge numbers of his fellow Muslims are happily integrated into French society and have uncomplicated relations with people of other faiths. But this is something many French Muslims know and many Jews too, like this woman whose name is Katya:"
Katya: "My sister is Jewish and she is married to a Muslim guy and they have three beautiful children and any religion if you look at the core of it is about love. Now if you want to manipulate it you can. In a way I'm sorry he's Muslim because again it's that same cancer between Jews and Muslims. You know, I've lived in Paris all my life and I find it's a place where foreigners are really integrated and there is a kind of peace and you see couples, a lot of mixed couples, you know, and know, if the media want to use that to use this strife between those two, you can if you want but in the end I don't know if it's the truth."
On the whole a fine report, I hope you'll agree, which disproves that the generalisation, "to the BBC there is ‘No problem’ with anti-Semitism in France…..".

However, the piece does reveal some aspects of BBC reporting that I think are less than wholly commendable. You will doubtless have noticed, for example, that John Laurenson clearly felt that he had to end his report with a vision of hope and a picture of an underlying 'reality' of Jewish-Muslim harmony and happy Muslim integration in France that, especially given all that had gone before, sounds rather like wishful thinking.

That does seem to be the BBC way at times. Wishful thinking was, after all, one of the hallmarks of its coverage of the Arab Spring. While Helen Boaden, head of BBC News, claimed their coverage had been "generally impartial", she admitted it appeared "over-excited". It often bordered on the happy-clappy, as far as I'm concerned - and I'm not alone in feeling that way. A piece by former Today editor Rod Little from June this year puts the case with characteristic force:

At the BBC, the Arab Spring has only just ended
....Helen Boaden admitted that its coverage of the ‘Arab Spring’ might have been a bit ‘over-excited’ and that this over-excitement could have ‘infected’ news reports. Well, credit to the woman for at least this mild admission of culpability. The BBC usually waits a decade or more before admitting that it may have shown a soupçon of bias here or there. But even then, Boaden rounded off her statement to the BBC Trust by insisting that the coverage had been generally impartial. 
No, it hasn’t. No it hasn’t. It has been resolutely and — until this week — unapologetically gung-ho for the Arab Spring in all of its geographical manifestations, and remarkably unquestioning of the policies, and popular support, of and for the rebels. Its reporters, who, as Boaden admitted, were ‘embedded’ within the rebel ranks, have daily lamented cruel and vicious attacks by the Assad regime on ‘innocent’ people, but have devoted little or no time to the equally ghastly attacks upon civilians from the other side, in Aleppo and Homs and Damascus and indeed Qusair. It has been fantastically biased reporting based on the simplistic and infantile premise that the Assad regime is de facto in the wrong and the rebels, therefore, de facto in the right; a case of black and white. 
The BBC is not alone in this, of course; the liberal media en masse likes nothing more than a fight between what it perceives to be David and Goliath, so it can take sides and wring its hands and look brave and glorious on the side of the underdog; even if David is a homicidal mentalist who poses a greater threat, down the line, to our own country. This is much less a case of straightforward political bias than a sort of journalistic imbecility. 
It is this lack of contrariness, this ­refusal to question the liberal establishment point of view, that lets down the BBC’s ­coverage. 
Wishful thinking and seeing-no-evil,-hearing-no-evil. The 15/1/2012 edition of the programme, as just one example of this, featured a debate from Jerusalem, hosted by Sunday's Trevor Barnes. As someone who reads beyond the BBC I was well aware that the demonstrations in Tahrir Square were not free of anti-Israel slogans, and yet Trevor was able to say during the course of the discussion (doubtless in all sincerity), " of the things that characterised the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings was that there were no slogans against Israel...". The subsequent evidence of profound anti-Israel hatred and naked anti-Semitism making themselves ever more manifest in Egypt should also have been known to Trevor Barnes by the time of that programme, shouldn't it? When did you last see a BBC report on the continuous outpourings of anti-Semitism from the Arab media? They seem not to be looking for it, and not looking for it very successfully. Like Bishop Berkeley's tree, however, it  still exists even when you aren't looking for it.

Back to John Laurenson's report. One of the snags with modern reporting it that is so often fails to follow up on major stories. My feeling that the optimistic end of John's report involved a strong dose of wishful thinking is reinforced by this recent report from FRANCE 24:
Official contact between Muslim and Jewish associations is virtually non-existent in Toulouse – a city that in March witnessed one of the worst anti-Semitic hate crimes in recent decades – according to the city's Jewish leaders.  
Nicole Yardeni told FRANCE 24’s Debate programme on Wednesday that despite all the CRIF’s efforts to invite Islamic associations to official inter-faith meetings and events in the traumatised city, they had gone largely unanswered by the city’s Muslim leaders.
Sunday has chosen not to look for that either.

Some might also note the apparent irony of a BBC report highlighting concerns about one-sided reporting of the Israel-Palestinian conflict and suggestions that such anti-Israel reporting may have stoked anti-Semitism in France to such an extent that an extreme act of violence like Merah's had become just a matter of time. You don't have to go far to find people who think that the BBC is just as guilty of biased reporting and some who also fear that something similar might happen here. There are several sites that lay out the evidence for the BBC's pro-Palestinian bias - such as here, and here, and here, and here. Please check them out and assess the evidence on offer for yourselves.

At no time has Sunday (here representing the BBC) ever wondered aloud about whether British media reporting, particularly the BBC's own reporting, could also be creating a climate of danger for British Jews. Certainly no extrapolations from France to the UK were raised by this edition of the programme, nor by any subsequent ones either. A spot of public introspection is surely needed, given the potential dangers.

Finally, before I move on, although the BBC can be credited in this report with offering a decent piece that completely avoided any ‘blame the Jews’ insinuations, it can't really be credited simply for having reported on the issue of Muslim anti-Semitism in France. After all, they could hardly have ignored the topic, could they, given what had just happened? Moreover, the credit actually then goes down when you take into account the fact that they did - both previously and subsequently - ignore the topic. It was a one-off, a single edition, a subject not touched on before and not touched on since. Why have there been no follow-ups?

John Laurenson's report was followed by a fascinating interview, conducted by the host William Crawley, with Angela Epstein of the Daily Mail. The interview covered not only the killings in France but also Angela's experiences of anti-Semitism here in the United Kingdom. It's the only full feature since the start of 2011 to consider anti-Semitism in this country. Again, it's worth transcribing for posterity:
William C: "The journalist and broadcaster Angela Epstein wrote this week of her fears for her own children, who attend a Jewish school in Manchester, after she learned of the attacks in France. She joins me now. Good morning to you, Angela."
Angela E: "Good morning, good morning." 
WC: "What was your first reaction when you heard about that atrocity?"
AE: "Well, my instinctive reaction as a parent and as a human being was unapologetic shock. I was numb with shock, as it said in your report, that somebody could shoot innocent children in cold blood at close range without any recourse to any kind of grain of humanity. But the extra dimension of shock came from the fact that it was a Jewish school - not because of any kind of sense of paranoia but, as anybody would understand when something infiltrates your particular world and there is some kind of resonance with the immediate way you live, it just compounded the way that I felt."
WC: "What's been your family's experience of anti-Semitism?"
Angela Epstein

AE: "Well, my children go to a Jewish school and there is almost a casual approach to anti-Semitism for some of the pupils who go to some of these Jewish schools. They get called names by passing youths as they go past. Bearing in mind that we're not from some ultra-orthodox sect where we are quite clearly visibly Jewish. We look like any other scruffy school kids coming in and out of school, but because the school is known to be a Jewish school then that makes them very fertile target practice. So they've been called 'jew boy'. They've had the 'Heil Hitler, Sieg Heil' remarks, lots of Nazi slurs. They've friend of mine, her son, who had eggs thrown at him. Another child was actually set upon by some youths but managed to break away. There doesn't seem to be any particular demographic that's doing this. I just seems to be that because the children themselves are Jewish...and the children are also...what's astonishing, and maybe they have great faith in human nature of it's just because they're young, is, you know, I said to my 16 year old, "Are you not shocked when this happens?" He said, "It happens! It happens!" He read the piece that I wrote in the Daily Mail on Friday and he said, "Loads of my friends have had this and, you know, there's an acceptance of it. They may not like it but they accept it."
WC: "Mohammed Merah, who carried out these attacks, attempted to explain his actions in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Do you see any link between the rise of anti-Semitism and, for example, the actions of the Israeli government?"
AE: "I certainly see there's a correlation between the two, but we have to make a very clear distinction. First of all, as it said in the report, quite rightly, and if you look at the right internet sites and the right Israeli news feeds you will see how many fake news reports and images are disseminated out there. And there is an institutionalised propaganda that goes out that makes people close their minds to the possibility that there is another side to the argument. You know, there is just this relentless anti-Zionism, anti-Israel bashing. So there's definitely a correlation between the two, but you have to make a distinction between children, any children of any faith, being murdered in cold blood and the Israeli Defence Force, who are surgically trying to strike at terrorists who deliberately use children as human shields in Gaza, and it's a horrible, terrible thought that the death of children is an occupational hazard of any kind of wartime conflict and it's revolting to think of any child from any faith, but there is a massive difference between the two. The two situations..."
WC (interrupting): "But children are lost on both sides, of course?"
AE: "They are, but the two situations have nothing to do with each other. Can you imagine if children in British schools were surgically targeted by Irish demonstrators during the times of the Troubles because of what was going on in Northern Ireland? We'd be absolutely horrified. We have to sometimes in these situations strip away the Jewish..."
WC (interrupting): "And they were..."
AE: "Yes, yes, but...and killed even..."
WC (interrupting): "Not killed, but children...children did experience anti-Irish racism."
AE: "Yes, absolutely without question and look at the atrocities which went on on the British mainland in terms of the IRA bombing..."
WC (interrupting): "Do you think this could happen here, this kind of atrocity?"
AE: "God forbid, a million times anything should be so but certainly the Jewish community has mobilised itself in terms of the added security, additional security it gets. The police are very, very sympathetic. We have an organisation called the Community Security Trust which provides added protection and we just have to hope, live and hope and pray that nothing like this happens."
WC: "Angela, thank you very much."
Except for William's interventions on the subject of the Troubles, this was a largely hands-off interview. He is the best of the four main Sunday presenters for allowing interviewees to give their side without imposing a particular line of questioning on them (though those interventions on the Troubles were surprising in their quiet strength of feeling).  

Now, these items on this edition of Sunday are certainly counter-examples for those who accuse the BBC of always pursuing a pro-Muslim and/or anti-Semitic agenda (and in this area people can be very sweeping and emphatic). 

However, there are several further problems.

Firstly, discussion of the growing problem of anti-Semitism in parts of Europe and the sheer extent of anti-Semitism in the Muslim World have otherwise been conspicuous by their absence as issues on Sunday over the course of my 21-month survey. It's not as if there haven't been enough stories to choose from, unfortunately. France still has a big problem and is continuing to endure anti-Semitic attacks, though its government is fighting against a flood of anti-Semitic Tweets and has ejected a Tunisian anti-Semitic Muslim hate-preacher. Sunday has worried on several occasions about the rise of 'anti-Muslim parties' in Europe but has not yet worried aloud about the apparently anti-Semitic party that won 12% of the votes in the Ukrainian general election or the shock of a member of Golden Dawn reading from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion in the Greek parliament.There have been many discussions of 'Islamophobia' on the programme over this period, so why not discussions of anti-Semitism too? Why the relative lack of interest?

The live issue of anti-Semitism cropped up in passing during a 30/1/2011 piece on Jewish-Muslim relations on UK campuses (alongside 'Islamophobia'), but otherwise anti-Semitism has only been discussed in the context of matters of historical interest - Wagner and anti-Semitism, claims of Polish wartime anti-Semitism, whether the King James Bible is anti-Semitic or not, those sorts of questions. On the present plight of the few small remaining Jewish populations across the Muslim-dominated parts of the Middle East, especially in the wake of the 'Arab Spring', the programme has shown scant interest. Anti-Semitism in the UK has never been discussed again.

The biggest question of all, in the context of so many recent events, 'Is anti-Semitism intrinsic to Islam?', has also not been discussed. Being being a religious programme, the question of inherent anti-Semitism within Islam should surely be a topic of discussion, shouldn't it? After all, you can read many an online article that lays out the case that Islamic anti-Semitism not only pre-dated the internet (obviously), it also pre-dated the State of Israel. Some of those articles date the birth of Islamic anti-Semitism to the birth of Islam itself and tie it to the Koran. That controversial issue has proved too hot for Sunday to handle and those writers who propound such point of views have been excluded from the airwaves.

So this episode was essentially a one-off. In contrast, 'Islamophobia' has been discussed (at length) many, many times. (I will discuss the treatment of this issue in a later post.)

Stephen Evans, BBC
There is one other exception though. It came during the Vatican II edition of the programme, discussed in my most recent post. It was a piece on the German government's attitude to circumcision, which actually recognised the sensitive relevance to anti-Semitism therein. The programme's website describes the piece in this way:
The German Cabinet supports a law making it clear that circumcision on religious grounds is legal. Ed speaks to Stephen Evans about the background to the case and why it caused such anger amongst Muslims and Jews in Germany. 
The starting point was the controversy over a court decision against circumcision affecting a 4-year old Muslim boy, but Stephen kept the focus on both communities. I'll transcribe the most relevant passages for you:
SE: "...and in the case of Jews a lot of them said 'We wonder whether we can continue living in Germany.'" 
ES: "Because of the past? Because of the history of anti-Semitism in Germany partly?"
SE: "Absolutely. Lots and lots of Jewish leaders said to me 'This technique of attacking Judaism goes back as far as the Romans. If you don't want to attack Judaism directly, what you do is you attack Jewish ritual, particularly circumcision.' One of them said explicitly, 'For a country like Germany to criticise us for harming our children when 70 years ago they were harming our children in the Holocaust is simply outrageous'. And the government, it should be said, has been unequivocal in its support for Jewish groups and Muslim groups in the whole of this thing."
ES: "And to what extent was in an area where Muslims and Jews made common cause?" 
ES: "But they didn't have the argument all their own way, did they, because some children's rights groups, who were arguing that the court ruling [against circumcision] was good?"
SE: "Yeah, and the interesting thing to me is how much of the argument then became a genuine argument over the medical benefits and disbenefits, if you like, of circumcision and the rights of children and how much was kind of a covert anti-Semitism. And I'm sure there was some of that because if you look at vigorous surveys done by academics on attitudes within Germany they report things like 20% of Germans feeling a "latent" anti-Semitism..."
All credit to Stephen Evans there.

Note that though that Ed, as is his way, sought to bring out the latent harmony between Muslims and Jews, just as the end of John Laurenson's report did earlier. It's that BBC wishful thinking again, isn't it?

A pair of swallows that don't make a summer? I would say so. In the editions following the Toulouse edition, Sunday resumed its usual business, with the focus falling back onto the dangers of the white far-Right rather than on the threat from Islamists, plus 'feel good' pieces about Muslims and a French election special with a panel that was heavily tilted against those in France and Europe in general (particularly Sarkozy and the Right) who they felt had been 'Islamophobic'. Ah well.

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