Chatting with an acquaintance the other day about a bunch of rogues known vaguely to both of us, he suddenly described one dubious character as ‘a Jewish lawyer’ .
I’m used to hearing this kind of thing; for example a neighbour once described a prominent musician who’d been harshly critical of his child’s playing as ‘a Russian Jew.’
Not wishing to be either confrontational nor overly sensitive, I let such moments pass without ado. But later, without wishing to emulate Emily Thornberry, and heaven forfend, fling around desperate accusations of misogyny, or in this case antisemitism, I did wonder what made averagely amiable people describe these ‘baddies’ as Jews. They seemed almost to be defining obnoxious characters by their Jewishness. Was this the undercurrent of antisemitism that lurks below the surface of many a middle-class Brit rearing its head, or was it all in my imagination?
I mean, were these unpleasant gentlemen wearing kippot? Did they have side-curls and long black coats? Was there any visible symbol of religiosity that made enough of an impression to explain defining them as a “Jew?”
I’d bet there was nothing of the sort. Just that they knew, by their name, reputation, ‘who’s a Jew detector’ or some other tell-tale sign, that these disagreeable individuals were Jews, and therefore their nastiness, greed and mean-spiritedness would be ‘understood’ in a conspiratorial, just between friends manner as Jew behaviour.
Call me paranoid if you like, but it’s happened so many times over the years that my automatic “make allowances” switch kicks in and the conversation moves on, but it lodges somewhere in the back of my mind, like the build-up of fur in a kettle (limescale if you prefer.) It rankles; sticks in the subconscious craw.
Maybe I was still on high alert when I heard the Sunday Programme. Edward Stourton introduced one of the items as follows:
“Most universities begin the new academic year around this time. The Board of Deputies of British Jews and the union of Jewish students are marking the moment by sending round advice on how to combat the activities of the Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions movement, which in the words of its website urges action to pressure Israel to comply with international law. “
Already Stourton has regurgitated a sanitised, innocent-sounding version of the BDS movement, “action to pressure Israel to comply with international law.” The fact is that most BDS activists wish to see Israel dismantled altogether, or at least not allowed to be a “Jewish state”. “From the river to the sea”. Why don’t they listen?
Then there’s the matter of international law, an undefined faux legal bogeyman to be brandished at Israel’s supporters by the self-righteous.
“We’re Joined by Joel Salmon, the Board of Deputies’ parliamentary officer and Ben Jamal who next month takes up the role of director of the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign.
Joel Salmon, Why now? What makes you think this is necessary?”
Mr Salmon explains that Jewish students feel intimidated. The interview proceeds. Stourton turns to Ben Jamal:
“Is it your intention to intimidate Jewish students?”
What kind of a question is that? Is the man going to say ‘Yes, we set out just to intimidate Jewish students’? Of course not. He’s not a complete fool. He’s certainly not going to admit that his intention is to intimidate Jewish students as Stourton very well knows. Since he’s obviously going to claim the intention wasn’t to intimidate, does Stourton think that aggressive BDS campaigning is fine? “I’m sorry if our unintentional intimidation intimidated anyone?”
Are they blaming Jewish students for feeling intimidated?
Stourton takes the same line of questioning again when he asks if Jamal endorses the disgraceful scenes at King’s College London. Might he really tell the world that he endorses it? Of course not. Obviously.
To illustrate his theory that Jews are making an unnecessary fuss and crying ‘antisemitism’ without good reason, Jamal cites the checkpoints stunt at the Methodist church, set up in a pale imitation of Lucy Winkett’s Bethlehem Unwrapped fiasco in St James’s Church Piccadilly in 2013. “That’s not antisemitic, is it?”
“my concern is this is an attempt to frame any advocacy of boycott or any criticism of Israel as inherently hostile. Let me give you a current example. We have at the moment a Methodist church in London, an exhibition that is being set up, which is a manifestation of a checkpoint - a checkpoint has been set up in the church in order to illustrate the daily experiences of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank going through checkpoints. It’s being set up because a member of the church spent three months as a human rights monitor. Now in recent days since this was announced we’ve had a catalogue of communication with the church defining this as an antisemitic act.”
Oh, innocent face! As if checkpoints are there for no reason at all, other than to ruin the lives of Palestinians.
All Joel Salmon can summon up in defence of Israel is that the conflict is complex. It seems as if the groundswell of anti-Israel hostility is so overwhelming that in the current climate where reason has been abandoned, it’s almost not worth bothering to embark upon a reasoned argument at all. Waste of time.
I understand that completely.
This relatively insignificant exchange in the backwater of radio 4 early on a Sunday morning reminds me that all matters concerning the Israeli - Palestinian conflict are based on the assumption that Israel is wrong. The general assumption is that Israel is malevolently ‘doing’ things to the passive, helpless and innocent Palestinians.
Everything the BBC deals with is rooted in this assumption, therefore any outrage over antisemitic incidents, be they in the Labour Party, on campus or on the BBC, is solely focused on the unfairness of blaming non-Israeli individuals for the ‘abhorrent actions’ of the Israeli government.
The BBC hierarchy seems to be completely unaware that the Arab/Palestinian version of the conflict - from the history right up to the present - is not an impartial one. Surely to God they must realise that other versions are available. Choosing to base your entire output on the Palestinian ‘narrative’ is not best practice, if impartiality is to be aspired to.
Stourton and his BBC colleagues have cultivated, for appearance’s sake, deceptively benign images that are supposed to exemplify impartiality. Pieces like this perceptive article by Jamie Palmer might prompt Edward Stourton and his colleagues to reflect on and perhaps question their own prejudices, even if the BDS fanatics are beyond redemption.
Slightly abbreviated transcription over page:
ES:Most universities begin the new academic year around this time,. The board of deputies of British Jews and the union of Jewish students are marking the moment by sending round advice on how to combat the activities of the Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions movement, which in the words of its website urges action to pressure Israel to comply with international law.We’re Joined by Joel Salmon, the Board of Deputies’ parliamentary officer and Ben Jamal who next month takes up the role of director of the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign.
Joel Salmon, Why now? What makes you think this is necessary?
Well there are two key points here. We really want to ensure that Jewish students, like all other students have a positive university experience and we also think that boycotts are unhelpful in bringing peace to the region.[…]
BDS motions are being passed at student unions across the country and the NUS itself has a BDS policy in place and it means that Jewish students are feel in unwelcome in the student movement and feel targeted. I had this experience at university, where I held an event, a charity ball, and we found out the day before that the venue had pulled out because of threatening calls and messages from the BDS movement - quite intimidating and quite scary for Jewish Students.
Let me put that to Ben Jamal. is it your intention to intimidate Jewish students?
No of course not and let me echo what Joel said. Surely everybody wants students to have a good experience at university and I think what we all want students to do is to engage in and to be involved in discussion and activism around human rights and issues of social and international justice. One of the concerns I’ve got at the leaflet or pamphlet that’s been produced, is that it’s part of an attempt, I think, to reframe a tactic of boycott as something that is inherently divisive and hostile or at worst extremist or even quasi violent and I think boycott as I understand it is a non violent tactic that throughout history has been use by those defending human rights and fighting against oppression.
It is hostile isn’t it. it’s directed against a country to get it to change its policy.
But yes, look. This is the tactic that Gandhi used to oppose Britain’s violation of human rights in India, it’s the tactic that Martin Luther King used to oppose segregation. And it;s the tactic that Nelson Mandela used to defend the rights of black South Africans. I take Gandhi’s framing of the boycott. In a way it’s a form of dialogue, it’s a way of saying to someone I respect your humanity but I will not cooperate or give my political or economic support to what you are doing.
Joel Salmon, that is the crucial point, isn’t it? it’s a political action, it is not directed towards individual Jews.
Well, it actually is. That’s the sad thing about it. What it does is, it artificially lays the blame for the entire conflict on one body, which is the state of Israel..many Jewish students feel intimidated and targeted because for 90% of Jewish students around the UK, Israel forms a part of their Jewish identity and the other issue with boycotts is that it makes it seem as if it lays the blame of the whole conflict at the Israeli government, when it’s a very complex conflict, there are many many issues that we could discuss
Can I pick you up on something that you actually say on this little card that you’re handing out, you say in some instances the campaign has become antisemitic where it singles out Jews or the Jewish state for exceptional and unwarranted hostility - can you unpick that for me, can you give an illustration of where you see a political message tipping over into antisemitism?
Well often the language and the discourse which is used in these debates can become antisemitic..
Can you give an example?
Well I think one example is King’s College London, where there was a protest against a left-wing Israeli speaker, someone who was campaigning for peace, for a two-state solution - was explaining how they could deliver that and there was a huge, very intimidating, very frightening protest outside where windows were smashed, chairs were thrown, and the fire alarm was put on many many times and this was very scary and intimidating.
Alright let’s just ask Ben Jamal, would you endorse that sort of thing?
No, well in any individual act there is a responsibility on anyone to conduct that within acceptable rules of political discourse and to behave in a certain way, but I go back to my former point, my concern is this is an attempt to frame any advocacy of boycott or any criticism of Israel as inherently hostile. Let me give you a current example. We have at the moment a methodist church in London, an exhibition that is being set up, which is a manifestation of a checkpoint - a checkpoint has been set up in the church in order to illustrate the daily experiences of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank going through checkpoints. It’s being set up because a member of the church spent three months as a human rights monitor. Now in recent days since this was announced we’ve had a catalogue of communication with the church defining this as an antisemitic act.
Alright, let me put that back - we haven’t got long- Joel Salmon what do you make of that?
The issue with campaigns like this is that they paint a caricature of a very complex and a very difficult conflict and remember this has been going on for over a hundred years…
But it’s not antisemitic, is it?
Well, no, but often the language that’s used can be, and this is something we spoke about in the submissions to the Chakrabarti inquiry, and often the language that’s used is antisemitic - this “Jewish conspiracy theory” and often we see in the media protest movements with the waving of flags of terrorist organisations, like Hamas and Hezbollah…
Well that’s a whole other area, I’m afraid I’ll have to stop you there because we’ve run out of time.