A good friend wrote the other day, apropos my recent piece on a Texas speech therapist fired for refusing to sign an employment contract debarring her from supporting the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions (BDS) Movement.
My friend welcomed the piece, but said this:
Your view is that Israel is ‘losing the propaganda war’, and I’m not so sure. The influence of the Board of Deputies, which wrongly claims to be the voice of Jewry in this country, has proved very significant in forming opinion about what is anti-semitic, in the UK, and the figures for UK ams sales to Israel speak their own breathtaking truth.
She is right on both specific claims. First, the Israel lobby in the West has been extraordinarily successful. I spoke of permanent fear in the Beltway, while this side of the Atlantic it teamed up – effortlessly, since they go together like Sinatra’s horse and carriage – with right wing Labour to oust one of Jeremy Corbyn’s few high profile allies. And just this week Gilad Atzmon, Israeli saxman and relentless critic of his own state, has been barred by Islington Council from a scheduled appearance not to promote his views but to blow his horn. Which, speaking as a jazz lover who has twice seen him live, I can say he does pretty damn well.
Not, I hasten to add, that Atzmon’s musical skills have anything to do with this beyond the fact that if he was crap he’d never have been asked to play in the first place. More importantly, nor are his specific views – which two Jewish friends of mine, both pro Palestinian, one actively so, find distasteful – at issue here. At issue is the long and powerful reach of the Israel lobby, and the threat to freedom it poses.
Do read this short piece, a master class in McCarthyism, on how Labour MP Chris Williamson initially tweeted in support of Atzmon and against the ban – cravenly issued after one man, not from Islington, had written saying he would not attend any concert with the man playing – then ran for cover at the ensuing and wholly predictable storm of orchestrated outrage. Read and consider the implications, for it shines a narrow but powerful beam on how organised smear works to ensure all but the exceptionally courageous keep their heads down. As they did across a cold war America in thrall to the junior senator from Wisconsin. As they did too in those dark years of the Third Reich – but nowadays truly totalitarian moves are made in the name of liberal ideals and identity politics.
(As I write this, early on December 27, a new OffGuardian posting on the Atzmon affair has been published. Do please read and disseminate.)
My friend’s second specific and, again, entirely accurate claim is of arms sales to Israel. Says the Guardian:
Figures from the Campaign Against Arms Trade reveal that last year the UK issued £221m worth of arms licences to defence companies exporting to Israel. This made Israel the UK’s eighth largest market for UK arms companies, a huge increase on the previous year’s figure of £86m, itself a substantial rise on the £20m worth of arms licensed in 2015. In total, over the past five years, Israel has bought more than £350m worth of UK military hardware.
Given the scale of the arms sector globally, £350m is a modest sum. Bear in mind, however, the intended use of that hardware: identified in that Graun piece1 as “targeting equipment, small arms ammunition, missiles, weapon sights and sniper rifles … anti-armour ammunition, gun mountings, components for air-to-air missiles, targeting equipment, components for assault rifles, components for grenade-launchers and anti-riot shields.”
So how do these two truths square with my claim of Israel losing the battle for hearts and minds? Here’s what I say in my earlier piece:
… the liberal left tended, mindful of recent European history, not only to support [Israel] but give it a blank cheque on whatever it deemed had to be done. That began to change after the Shatila and Sabra camp massacres in Lebanon, 1982. Since then its acts have seen the weight of liberal and centre left opinion steadily tilting away from Israel, to the point where the Jewish State is approaching a position once the preserve of South Africa. Israel is vulnerable, despite the support of Western ruling elites, to grassroots boycott. Recognition that, for all its hasbara, Israel is losing the propaganda war is the context in which anti BDS legislation within its ally and primary underwriter1 should be seen.
Arms sales and other forms of partnership with Israel by our ruling elites are one thing. Growing popular perceptions of a grossly unfair, degrading and dehumanising status quo in the occupied territories are another. The two realities are not in mutual contradiction: witness the situation in what, in more ways than one, is Israel’s clearest comparator, Saudi Arabia.
As for the power in Europe and America of the Israeli lobby – including, crucially, its ability to make perverse definitions of antisemitism stick – I see its increasingly blatant use as a direct response, backhanded tribute even, to that slow steady shift in Western mainstream opinion whose origins or at least catalysis I attribute (doubtless a little too tidily) to events in Lebanon nigh on forty years ago. Though the difference is less obvious than with arms sales, success in witch hunts on Ken Livingston and Gilad Atzmon is not to be confused with success in halting a widening perception of Israel as lawless pariah.
The monster is hurting. The monster is by that fact more dangerous than ever.
- My quoting of the Guardian, it almost goes without saying, is no endorsement. On this question as on so many others, that newspaper has been odious. So far it has not reported on either the Atzmon Islington affair, or the sacking of Bahia Amawi, that Texan speech therapist. This despite both stories receiving widespread international coverage in both mainstream and oppositional media.