By Salim Alam – London
After passing through heavy security requiring IDs, questions about organizational and political affiliation and how far they had travelled, about 200 people gathered in a synagogue in Bayswater London to attend a key-note UK Pro-Israel meeting on how to counter the ‘de-legitimisation’ of Israel.
The audience was very largely composed of senior citizens and the late middle-aged. There were few young people.
Israel’s Ambassador to the UK -Ron Prosser- opened the meeting. In his view, Israel’s adversaries in the UK were ‘crossing the red line every day’. By this he explained he means criticism of Israel and its policies as well as calls for boycott and the application of the legal system against Israel and its citizens.
Prosser sees the UK as the key battleground for three reasons. Firstly, London is the world hub of the English speaking media and what it reports gets picked up and analysed across the world. Secondly, UK Universities are internationally influential and thousands of students come from all over the world to study in the UK and return to their own countries to become future political and government leaders. Thirdly, the UK is the home of the largest and most influential NGOs such as Oxfam and Christian Aid.
Prosser said that UK-Israel inter-governmental relations are much more positive than UK public opinion towards Israel and official pronouncements might suggest. He went on though to warn that whilst the ‘view from the penthouse was amazingly good’ there was ‘increasing structural damage and deterioration to the building’ as a result of what he called the actions of the ‘de-legitimisation network’.
Nick Cohen, Observer Newspaper columnist, spoke in what seemed to be the slot reserved for a token liberal. He opened by asking in a roundabout way: Perhaps things might improve for Israel’s image if there were to be some acknowledgement by Israel’s supporters about the problems caused by Settlement expansion; and likewise might it not be better to put more stress on the acceptance of an independent Palestinian state.
He promised the meeting a radical agenda for countering de-legitimisation. His big idea? Israel’s supporters need to turn ‘liberal arguments against liberal opinions’. He explained this means attacking the human rights record of despotic Arab regimes and attacking the opinions of Islamists. Cohen did not explore this any further and instead switched to speak at length on the history of anti-Semitism in Europe.
Baroness Deach is former BBC Governor, a lawyer and life peer in the House of Lords. She said ‘de-legitimisation’ was new and required a solution. Her solution is two-fold. Firstly, use the full weight of the law and ‘code of conduct on freedom of speech’ to ban ‘de-legitimisers’ from speaking at UK Universities. Secondly, Deach called for a change in the leadership of UK Jewry to address its failings and weakness. She gave a long list of who the new leaders should be, and this included Melanie Philips (Daily Mail commentator) and Jonathan Hoffman (UK Zionist Federation Vice-Chair). As she reached her full stride, Deach called for attacks on the UK political left and for a campaign to highlight the ‘influence’ of ‘Arab oil money’ in UK University funding.
Daniel Finkelstein – right wing Times Newspaper commentator. He thinks UK public opinion is largely irrelevant because for example most people do not know where Gaza is. His strategy for countering ‘de-legitimisation’ is not to seek to debate with liberal opponents in the middle ground. Instead he proposes that the debate should always be framed as the need for the existence of Israel and the right of Israel to defend itself. He softened this by going on to say the pro-Israel lobby should seek to support tolerant liberal values as the best protection against the ‘de-legitimisation’ challenge. Finkelstein warned that seeking to ban ‘de-legitimisers’ from speaking at Universities was two-edged sword and would probably lead to pro-Israel speakers being banned also.
Rafael Bardaji – Director of The Friends of Israel Initiative and former advisor to the Spanish Government- was the last speaker. He sees Israel as the front-line against the ‘enemies of the West’, believes any criticism of Israel undermines Western democracies, that Israel is a European country physically located in the Middle East and is the ‘cradle of Judeo-Christian values’. His suggestions are to stress that Israel is ‘a land of opportunity’ and to campaign for maps of Europe to include Israel.
Audience questions and contributions were varied. Most contributions attacked the Israeli left, Israeli liberal academics and journalists, Israeli NGOs and even ‘left Zioinsts’. The speaker panel largely endorsed these attacks. A few contributors tried to meekly take up the difficulties caused by Israel’s actions but Ambassador Prosser made clear that any criticism of Israel and especially those from ‘left Zionists’ is intolerable.
The biggest and most enthusiastic applause of the entire night was reserved for the lady in the audience who loudly proclaimed that ‘Israel does not occupy Palestine, there is already a Palestinian state and it is called Jordan’. Not one of the distinguished speaker panel challenged this nor did anyone in the audience. I sensed there was no challenge because deep down the overwhelming majority of the meeting agreed with the lady in question. If this is correct, then the pro-Israel lobby in the UK needs to look no further than inside its own ranks in order to identify those who are driving the ‘de-legitimisation’ of Israel.
– Salim Alam contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.