Answer Time - Jewish Chronicle
Published in: Jewish Chronicle
Journalists are hardly strangers to the rough and tumble of debate. But nevertheless eyebrows were raised by what happened on BBC1's Question Time from Bristol a week ago when I was on the panel.
One of my fellow panellists was the writer Will Self, whose main claim to fame was being sacked by the Observer after he was discovered doing drugs on the campaign trail during the 1997 general election. On the platform with us were the Labour backbencher Diane Abbott, the Tory politician Ken Clarke and the Lib Dem MP Ed Davey.
The first question, from an Israeli, was about the middle east. Why could the Americans go halfway round the world to root out terror, he asked, when the Israelis were condemned for doing the same in their own back yard?
Self misunderstood the question and his reply was incomprehensible. Davey said Yasser Arafat couldn't be expected to deal with the terrorists in his midst. Abbott implied that Israel was inflicting emotionally incontinent brutality and vengeance on the Palestinians. And Ken Clarke deplored the 'terrorism on both sides' (although he later remembered that there was a distinction between terrorism and the reaction to it).
The audience was clearly hostile. One man said the Palestinians were the victims of Israeli injustice. Another said Sharon was a war criminal and this was David and Goliath in reverse. A woman said that if terrorism was the indiscriminate bombing of innocent people, we need look no further than what George W Bush was doing in Afghanistan.
Well, someone had to stand up against all this, and there didn't seem to be anyone else around at the time. I had in front of me some translations of the kind of stuff the Palestinian authority pumps out for domestic consumption, but somehow I never got to use them.
Yes, I said, there was definitely a double standard; I wondered why people were sympathetic when Israelis died but not sympathetic when they tried to prevent themselves from dying; and the Palestinian Authority was a sponsor of terror and incited violence daily against Israelis and Jews across the world.
As I spoke, I was aware of a low hissing from the audience. I looked at their faces and saw disbelief and hostility. I glanced at the woman who had made the George Bush point and whose arm had flown up like a rifle; her face was contorted with what can only be described as hatred.
Fixing me with a stare, Self asked the question that had clearly formed in his mind after he read through a selection of my journalism (as he told me) on the train up from London. Where, he demanded, did my own loyalties lie? If Britain declared war on Israel, whose side would I be on?
I could scarcely believe what I had heard. Self was seeking to make the wider world aware of two things: first, that I was a Jew, and second, that therefore my views on Israel could be disregarded since Jews had double loyalties.
I replied that British Jews were immensely patriotic. It was also inconceivable that Britain should attack Israel since Israel was a salient of democracy in the middle east. But if the inconceivable were ever to happen, this would represent such a turning against Jews that some of us might feel we had no alternative but to live in Israel. That of course was entirely different from being a traitor to one's own country.
When I said, however, that Israel was a democracy the audience did a horrible and astonishing thing. They laughed.
That incredulous laugh was more shocking even than Self's attack. It revealed that however many Israeli teenagers are blown to smithereens by suicide bombers, the British have seen on TV Israel's tanks demolishing Palestinian houses and above all seen those Palestinian children being killed by Israeli soldiers, and they have formed the view that Israel is a tyranny and the Jews are the real terrorists.
The programme discussion lurched from bad to worse. Abbott claimed Britain had attacked Israel 'over the Irgun', which was 'the embryo of the state of Israel' (sic). And from the audience came the considered view that Israel was the source of terror in the middle east, that what it was doing was as bad as what was done to it, and that it was responsible for ethnic cleansing.
I believe that the visceral hostility towards Israel and Jews displayed by both the panel and the audience are representative now of much mainstream British opinion.
Criticism of Israel is providing the cover for the kind of anti-Jewish feeling many of us thought we would never hear in public. Anti-Semitism seems to be the attitude of choice now at all the most fashionable dinner parties.
Why is this happening? People instinctively side with the under-dog; the Palestinians have been presented as victims armed only with stones, while the Jews, with the might of America behind them, pulverise them with their tanks and shells. The Palestinians cannot be terrorists because they are part of the peace process. Terror is practised by extremist 'others'.
There is also a prevalent view that all acts of violence are as bad as each other. So no attempt is made to work out who is the aggressor and who the victim; it's all too complicated and anyway people just don't care.
The second factor is the dominance of New Left thinking among the establishment -- Labour MPs, the liberal broadsheet newspapers and the BBC, in particular. The New Left is characterised by an abiding hatred of Israel, America and western values and a profound dislike of Jews which finds acceptable expression in 'anti-Zionism'. The result of all this is that the British intellectual classes are an all-too willing conduit for anti-Jewish and anti-Israel poison and propaganda.
In the face of all this, British Jews are astonishingly silent. I suspect that the main reason is that many British Jews loathe Ariel Sharon; they are horrified by the Palestinian houses being reduced to rubble; they are aghast at the Palestinian children shot by Israeli solders.
I share this discomfort. I believe that the settlements are wrong and should be dismantled. But one does not have to be a fan of Sharon to see that criticisms of Israeli tactics are almost beside the point. For Israel, this is not a territorial war but an existential war. The Palestine Authority makes it abundantly clear in all it says for internal consumption that it regards the whole of 'Palestine' as occupied and will be satisfied with nothing less than the destruction of the Jewish state.
Israel has never troubled to make its case effectively to the world which it assumes will always be hostile or indifferent. It never foresaw that Palestinian terror, whose purpose was to provoke a counter-reaction that would not only turn the world against Israel but destroy its very soul, would be financed by a western world which would be suckers for the propaganda of the victim culture.
Oh - and here is what I never got the chance to say on Question Time. On June 8, a Palestinian preacher said on Palestinian Authority TV: 'Blessed be he who dons a vest of explosives on himself or on his children and goes into the depth of the Jews