Anti-Israel Culture War of British Liberal Elites Is Not a Grassroots Movement
or, Explaining the British-Led Culture War on Israel
by Peter C Glover (July 2009)
It's not just Hamas rockets that regularly strike Israeli interests these days. It is just as likely to be the long-range politicized 'ordnance' of British liberal elites, given the British Left's penchant for pursuing cultural boycotts against Israel.
Over the past few years the unions for British journalists, architects, doctors, even the Synod of the Church of England, have all sought boycott or censure motions against Israel. In 2007 British academics added themselves to the list - imposing a boycott of relations between British and Israeli universities at a conference of the British University and Colleges Union (UCU).
In 2009, after Israel’s latest spat with Hamas in Gaza, Britain’s leftist culture warriors again took to the streets. In March, 400 British academics lined up outside London’s Science Museum to protest against workshops celebrating the achievements of Israeli Scientists. A letter to the museum’s organizers, written by Professor Rosenhead from the London School of Economics and signed by 150 academics, said, “This is a dubious venture at the best of times but at this particular moment, after the offensive in Gaza, it’s particularly insensitive.” It went on to claim that the seven academic institutions involved in the workshops were “up to their necks” in Israel’s actions in Gaza. Despite the fuss, The London science Museum ultimately went ahead describing the event as “apolitical” and stating, “Not to proceed with the event would mean taking a political stand, which would be wholly inappropriate”.
In April, London’s Bloomsbury Theatre was forced to cancel a Zionist Federation event that included an act put on by an Israeli Defence force dance troupe. In May, the Anglican Communion, yet again, condemned Israel for allegedly creating “severe hardship” for Palestinians. In the same month Liverpool city council cut funding for a festival that was to include an anti-semitic play. And May ended with the hypocritical victimization of a young British Jewish film director at the hands of international British film director Ken Loach and others. The hypocritical, anti-semitic nastiness of the British elites – every bit a match for the vileness of the leftie Hollywood glitterati – is exemplified by this particularly illogical spat.
Prior to his appearance at the Edinburgh International Film Festival (EIFF), Loach put out a statement, ostensibly under the auspices of the Scottish Palestinian Solidarity Campaign. In it Loach rounded on the Israeli embassy’s funding the attendance at the EIFF of the 31 year-old Israeli film-maker Tali Shalom Ezer. “I’m sure many filmmakers will be as horrified as I am to learn that the Edinburgh International Film Festival is accepting money from Israel,” said Loach. Loach went on to call for “all who might consider visiting the festival to show their support for the Palestinian nation, and stay away.” Such strong views expressed by a leading light at the festival, was sufficient to prompt the EIFF to hand back the small sum involved, however, though the EIFF did subsequently agree to fund the film-makers attendance themselves. For the record, Ezer’s film Surrogate is a romance set in a sex therapy clinic, hardly the stuff of frontline politics. Ezer was simply targeted by Loach because she was from Israel. None of this is anything new.
A short history of boycotts
In April, 2007 the National Union of Journalists, which represents 40,000 British journalists, voted by meagre 66 to 54 to call for a boycott of Israeli goods demanding that the British government impose sanctions on Israel after denouncing Israel for it "military adventures" in Gaza and Lebanon. The conservative Daily Telegraph suitably skewered the move by journalists as “brilliantly singling out the only country in the region with a free press for pariah treatment”. Even former (leftist) Guardian reporter and Yahoo Europe news director, Lloyd Shepherd, was moved to respond cryptically, "I look forward to similar boycotts of Saudi oil (abuse of women and human rights), Turkish desserts (limits to freedom of speech) and, of course, the immediate replacement of all stationery in the NUJ’s offices which has been made or assembled in China." They didn’t come. Perhaps the greatest irony, however, was that on the very day the British NUJ passed their condemnation of Israel, the International Federation of Journalists was calling upon the Palestinian Authority to secure the release of captured British BBC journalist Alan Johnston. Kidnapped five weeks before the NUJ meeting, Johnston’s kidnap did not even warrant a mention on the British NUJ’s agenda.
Similar small groups of activists have equally influenced key votes at British medical and architect union meetings. British trade unions have also encouraged The South African Congress of Trade Unions and key ANC members to work for a boycott of Israeli goods. In May 2006 the Canadian Union of Public Employees' Ontario Convention was also emboldened to join the international boycott, condemning what they referred to as Israel's "apartheid wall".
In 2004 and 2005 the Anglican and Episcopal Churches in the UK, USA and Canada were all involved in a series of discussion over the prospective divestment of investments in companies operating in or with Israel. In February 2006, the Church of England's General Synod voted to sell off shares , amounting to £2.5 million (around $5 million), in the US earth-moving equipment company Caterpillar as a company "profiting from Israel's illegal occupation" of Palestine.
The British boycotters know what they are doing by striking at Israel's higher educational institutions. Steven Rose, secretary of the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine, making his case for why Israel should be targeted, explains, "It is precisely because Israel prides itself on its academic prowess…that the idea of an academic boycott is so painful. Israel has uniquely strong academic links with Europe…and…receives considerable financial research support from the EU."
All of which begs two fundamental questions: why single out Israel? And why is Britain leading the international boycott so obsessively?
Why Israel? Why Britain?
Writing in the Jerusalem Post in May 2007, Gerald Steinberg noted the impact that years of campaigning by politically active non-governmental agencies (NGOs) such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Christian Aid, War On Want and Pax Christi will have had. But still: why Israel? Well as Evelyn Gordon, addressing the issue "Why Britain?" in the Jerusalem Post a couple of years ago, identified what she described as "two obvious reasons". First, Britain's association as America's closest ally and, second, (back then) Tony Blair's personal support of Israel's right to defend itself. But, for me, Gordon gets far nearer the mark when she identifies the role of the activist liberal in British society. "After all," says Gordon, "the NUJ controls what Britons read in their papers, hear on their radios and see on their televisions; the Anglican Church controls what they hear from the pulpit; the UCU controls what college students hear in class; unions play a major role in setting and carrying out policy." All absolutely true; but not the whole picture, I think.
It is clear from these various union boycotts that leftwing, highly vocal activists, having ingratiated themselves into key executive power in the UK, turning the leadership of institutions into bastions of Western liberalism - fed by graduates from equally left-dominated universities. These same universities turn out most of our leading journalists. As already noted, BBC, anti-Israel, anti-American political bias, in particular, is a thoroughly well documented reality. And though the Anglican Church has many evangelicals (and thus conservatives) in its parish pulpits, the General Synod and hierarchy of the Anglican Church, at least in Britain, remains yet another bastion of leftwing liberalism.
Even so, when the Anglican Church entertained more general calls for full boycott of Israel the subsequent grassroots and public reaction was sufficient to divert them to focus on the divestment issue only, the only issue within its specific remit. Similarly, trade union debates on boycotts have often led to calls being rejected outright. In short it would be premature to conclude, as Evelyn Gordon did in her 2007 piece, that as far as the security of the people of Israel is concerned Britain should be written off as "a lost cause". While it is patently true that too many of our leading British academic and cultural institutions are sadly in the thrall of cabals of leftwing activists, factor in public backlash that often does not attract (liberal) media coverage, and the inherently English (note, I do not say British) instinct for fairness – and anti-semitism is far from rife at the British grassroots. That fact alone ought to be anything but culturally 'academic' in Israel.
Peter C Glover is the author of The Politics of Faith: Essays on the Morality of Key Current Affairs and a writer on international affairs, media and energy issues.
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