Sunday 1 February 2015

Why, YY?

Rabbi Y Y Rubinstein lives in the US, but he used to be a regular on the BBC. 

Rabbi Y Y Rubinstein

He has written an article about the BBC’s attitude to the Jews and Israel - past and present, and I thought it would be worth reproducing it here. It’s quite lengthy so I’ll be using the fold again, which has become a habit of late. 

Reproducing, like reTweeting, is not necessarily an endorsement. Some of his views I don’t necessarily share.



The question of whether the BBC suffers from institutional anti-semitism is not a new one.

Historically, there is not the slightest doubt that it has been guilty in this regard. In fact the BBC (the British Broadcasting Corporation) admitted it when radio 4, a BBC radio station aired a documentary years ago about the corporations’s role in promoting anti-Semitism in  World War ll. It found itself clearly having suffered from “the world’s oldest hatred.”

It is not so willing today, however, to confront the question with nearly the same honesty. Rather, the BBC has resisted, with every trick it can muster, revealing the contents of its own commissioned report, completed on 2004 that judged whether the broadcaster fairly reports on the Israel-Palestine conflict.

A Daily Mail headline from February 2009 neatly summed up the matter: “The BBC spends £200,000 on legal fight to suppress report on anti-Israel ‘bias.’ “

But if critics of the BBC and its refusal to come clean have been denied the evidence they think they need, they are more than convinced that one of its journalists, Tim Willcox, has now settled the matter once and for all.

At the recent unity rally against terror in Paris - called after jihadists killed 17 innocent people, including four Jews at a kosher supermarket- Willcox, a BBC reporter and presenter interviewed a woman who explained that many Jews in France live in fear. She said that the situation in France was similar to that of Europe in the 1930s, when anti-semitism was rampant. She then said that French people must not be afraid to confront this anti-Jewish feeling in order to combat it. At which point, Willcox interrupted her and said: “Many many many critics though, of Israel’s policy would suggest that the Palestinians suffer hugely at Jewish hands as well.”

The woman was not an Israeli citizen, but a French Jew, the daughter of Holocaust survivors. She was addressing the situation of French Jewry at a time when the community was mourning four of its members - who were executed by an ISIS supporter for simply being Jews. Willcox’s interruption was widely interpreted as a suggestion on his part that what happened to the Jews in that supermarket was their own fault.
The following day he apologized for his ‘poorly phrased” question. 

For critics suspicious that a culture of antisemitism lies hidden just below the surface at the BBC - the largest broadcaster in the world, with 23,000 employees - this was unconvincing. 
For those (like myself) who are still willing to defend ‘Auntie” (as the BBC is known in England) Willcox’s second on-air anti Jewish comment left us struggling.

On November 8, 2014, during a discussion on a proposed ‘mansion tax’ that would levy higher taxes on properties worth $3.5 million or more, Willcox suggested that the labour Party would lose funding from Jewish sources because a lot of “Jewish faces” would be against the proposed tax.

I have worked at the BBC as a freelance contributor for over 20 years. Apart from former Chief rabbi Jonathan sacks, I was the only Orthodox rabbi regularly appearing on numerous shows.

The question of whether I was working for an organization that harbors and even fosters anti-semitism was something that concerned me. I was challenged on it many times by those who knew I worked for the network. Even though Tim Willcox apologized for his most recent remark, I’m not buying it. Sorry, Tim. Not this time.


My colleagues are good, kind, and hugely talented individuals, although everyone agreed that Auntie’s bureaucracy, favoritism, and (sometimes) pettiness drove them mad.

Then there was, and is the sheer excitement of being part of “the Beeb,” doing something significant and important, and working with some very famous and gifted folk.

I worked as a regular for fifteen years on Wake Up yo Wogan” (then the biggest radio show in the UK)”The Heaven and Earth Show” “Thought for the Day,” “World Service,” and many others. From hosts ranging from Wogan to Jenni Murray, Jim Naughtie and John Humphrys- some of them famous names in UK broadcasting - my scripts and banter merged with theirs and I always felt privileged  to be able to tell a Jewish story on the BBC.

But the lingering suspicion that the old sickness of anti-Semitism still pervaded the place was never quite laid to rest.

You see, the BBC is more than an employer, it is a culture. If you are going to survive and succeed in it you have to belong. Belonging manifests itself in many ways. Carrying around a copy of the Guardian is one of these.

Let me state here that, like that woman ambushed by Willcox’s question
I am not an Israeli. Nor am I a Zionist. Simply, then, as a British Jew when I see people carrying round copies of the Guardian I imagine they are wearing surgical face masks, so infected are they with the sickness of Jewish prejudice. That is one publication which fe Jews need a report to show that it has a bias when it comes to covering the Middle east (And by the way, that’s okay: Buy whatever paper reflects your politics, with a rabbi’s blessing) But the BBC is meant to be neutral, and in fact it is legally bound to be so. The question in my mind during my adventures at the Beeb was: If if so many BBCniks read the Guardian, how does it impact on their journalism? 
So commandment number one to be observed (or aspired to) by Auntie’s “chosen people” “Your politics will be firmly left-of-centre.”

There are other commandments to be observed by those belonging to the ‘tribe’. “Thou shalt not be religious” is another.

You can write about religion, be friendly with religious folk, but you can’t really be seriously religious yourself - at least not if you expect promotion.

An official complaint was placed a few years ago by a former producer at religion and Ethics, a department at the BBC, who was applying to lead the section. he alleged that the interviewing committee had ridiculed him because he had admitted to being a practicing Christian.

Now before you dismiss this as sour grapes from the guy who didn’t get the job I will reveal a little -known secret about the BBC. When I was broadcasting weekly, there was a small, very secret group of Christians who met regularly to pray together. They all knew this had to be completely hush-hush. One member of the group told me that they still aspired to a promotion and wanted to give the impression of belonging.

Then there was the Tony Blair’s first ever UK National Holocaust day in 2001.

I was part of the team putting together the BBC’s main documentary to mark the day. I sat with the team in the editing suite - translating the classic Jewish memorial prayer for the dead into English. My translation would run underneath the footage of the synagogue cantor singing it. A problem arose when I translated the word “Israel” as “Israel”. Consternation and debate erupted in the studio. This was simply an unacceptable translation.

I explained that the prayer was a thousand years old. It did not refer to the modern State of Israel, but the ancient People of Israel (like me).

It didn’t help. Arguments broke out, fear of offending Muslims was cited, and six very sincere BBC colleagues - good, kind and hugely talented - looked on the verge of a breakdown. I suggested that perhaps we could change the word to “Yisrael”(which is of course how you actually say it in Hebrew and how the cantor sang it) and everyone gave a collective sigh of relief.

A less funny incident occurred when one of my producers (whom I had worked with very closely for many years and whom I would call a friend) had a “Tim Willcox moment” the morning after 9/11.
her son who was working in a building in New York next to the Twin Towers had been missing for a day. In the canteen, my colleague burst out very loudly “It serves the Americans right. They have been arming ‘the Jews’ for decades.” Not Israelis or Zionists you will note: “The Jews.”
I wasn’t there to hear this. A big star with whom my producer worked closely with was, though. They had a major falling out. he knew his days at the Beeb were numbered. he didn’t belong, you see, so he felt free to tell me what he had witnessed and heard.

More recently, when I was recording scripts for future broadcasts on the BBC I was in the canteen and overheard a very heated argument between two colleagues regarding BBC news referring to “the Israel Defense Forces” as , well, “the Israel Defense Forces”. “Why should we have to call these @$&%&%% ‘the Israel Defense Forces?’ exploded one.
“Because that’s their name,” replied the other, and then added his own question. “Why do you not get as angry about any other conflict as you do about this one?” I suspect that Tim Willcox could supply the answer.


After the Paris march Prime Minister David Cameron pledged to fight anti-Semitism, “With everything we’ve got.” Until the BBC fires Tim Willcox for his anti-Semitism and stops fighting the release of its own report on bias in its Middle East coverage, the conviction that an old sickness still effects Auntie will persist. To put it simply the BBC has to show that you cannot ‘belong’, and suggest (or harbor the belief) that killing Jews may after all be justified. In short, the BBC must now either disown and fire Tim Willcox or own and be identified by his antisemitism.


  1. Hi Sue,
    Many thanks for posting this - do you have a link to the original?

    Also, which bits don't you agree with? It all seems of a piece to me, and seems further verification of the antipathy the BBC has towards non-dead Jews.

    Cheers -
    Hector Plasm

  2. It was published in a magazine called Mishpacha. It hasn’t appeared in the online version so far.

    It might seem churlish to quibble over a gift horse, but I fear using ‘anecdotal’ material as hard evidence is apt to run away with you. I might say more on that another time.

    My reservation is about calls (not only from YY) for Tim Willcox to be sacked. Low level (and medium level) antisemitism is often pure ignorance. Sometimes the perpetrator is mortified if it’s pointed out.
    I’m pretty sure Tim Willcox isn’t malicious, just clumsy and ill-informed.

    I blame the bosses at the BBC for parachuting ill-prepared people into sensitive situations. I believe they do this through a mixture of ignorance, insensitivity and sometimes malice. Making a scapegoat, or a martyr out of Willcox would probably backfire and come back to bite us on the bum.

  3. Thanks for the speedy response - I hadn't really considered those aspects.

    Even so, as has been pointed out, Willcox only apologized for giving offence, not harbouring the wrong thought.

    Still, I look forward to more from Y.Y., and, indeed, yourself.



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