Israel’s propaganda war: who’s winning?

27 Dec

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.


  1. 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.

4 Replies to “Israel’s propaganda war: who’s winning?

  1. Over the last two months several people have introduced the subject of Israel into our conversations. It seems that Israel’s zionist tactics have got their backs up. Now they blame Israel for the attacks on Corbyn, the interference in our laws and the cruelty Israel visits on the poor Palestinians. These are all unsolicited remarks from people I know, so I would suggest that the Israeli Zionist extremist campaign is actually a shot in the foot because it is quite obviously highlighting the plight of the indigenous peoples and rather than deflecting criticism it is now attracting a lot more than would otherwise have evidenced itself, had they not tried to bully the British people. I belong to PSC and had two cards with the information on the movement which, because of requests for the information I have had to duplicate – six people have so far requested the cards so they can join the PSC and donate. I’m going to have to ask PSC if they can send me some more cards. So, my view is that the more these zionist extremists interfere and conduct themselves in such a bullying manner, the more the British people are digging their heels in and fighting back. Whodathunkit! Let the pro Israeli extremists and fanatics shoot both their feet off, they’re already halfway.
    Going to reblog your previous article with this one. Many thanks Philip.
    Susan 🙂

    • Thanks Susan. I’m glad I’m not alone in my sensing that the perceived moral high-ground is slipping away from Israel.

  2. Israel owes its existence, largely, to the United Kingdom., which not only issued the Balfour Declaration, after having secured a League mandate, but which throughout the 1930s favoured the zionists in its ‘divide and rule’ regime which culminated in the brutal suppression, with the assistance of Zionist militias, of the Arab uprising of 1938. Zionist settlers were assigned the role that Orangemen had filled since the ’98.

    In a final act of cowardice and irresponsibility, after the UN recommended partition of 1948, the UK dropped its mandate and left Palestine to the mercy of the heavily armed and well financed Zionist forces.

    This last act was taken by a Labour Cabinet in which zionist sympathies were prevalent and racist contempt for Arabs rife. Seventy years later the best, external hope of the Palestinians lies in the discovery by the Labour Party of a sense of decency and solidarity not just with Palestinians but with the anti Zionist Jews who are the lineal descendants of those who poured into the European Socialist movement in the C19th and were among the founders of the Labour Party.

    But first an awful lot of moral cowardice needs to be purged from the Labour Party which seems curiously unable to grasp the reality that the Board of Deputies is a Tory/ Blairite body whose politics are fascistic, not simply in tone but in direct terms: the Likud and its coalition partners are fascists and racists, as both their rhetoric and their legislative fruits attest, they are sworn enemies of socialists and uncompromising in their opposition to those calling for peace in Palestine on any basis other than the eradication of the indigenous population and their disintegration into what is left of the neighbourhood after Israel has expanded its borders.

    Labour, since its foundation has never dealt satsfactorily with the matter of the Empire. Its record is greatly inferior to the old pre-socialist radical understanding that the Empire was against the interests of the working many and its administration a barometer of the intentions of the ruling class towards the people. Within the Party, particularly among the leadership were imperialists of every kind and racists who believed that Labour could exploit the masses in the Empire for the benefit of the metropolis. These were and have been the real enemies of socialism. It is from them that the Blairites and Centrists draw their support.

    Thus it is that for Labour’s Socialists to thrive they must first deal with the problems that they have inherited from the imperialists. In Palestine in particular Labour has to be unequivocal in its condemnation of Israeli fascism and racism and it must be principled in its rejection of conflating opposition to Israeli imperialism with racism. A good place to begin would be by inviting Ken Livingstone to rejoin the Party and for the NEC to reject the smearing of party members by agents of the Israeli Embassy.

    • Thanks bevin, for yet another close historical perspective. And for your claim, which I agree with, that moral cowardice and/or intellectual laziness – which from a certain p of v are the same thing – are driving the Labour Party’s positions on Israel (as on Russia and Syria).

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