British Jews and Israel


By Marcus Dysch
July 14, 2011
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Earlier this week I attended three events, on consecutive evenings, which revealed much about British Jews and their relationships with Israel.

One discussed the rising boycott and delegitimisation campaign, another looked at support for Israel from the left, and the third was something altogether different, and, thankfully, more positive.

On Sunday I watched my JC colleague Jonathan Freedland bravely attempt to argue the case against cultural boycotts despite overpowering anti-Israel fervour which at times bordered on outright antisemitism.

Although Jonathan and his “opponent” on the night – Palestinian boycott activist and author Omar Barghouti – tried to keep the atmosphere on the panel as friendly as possible, the make-up of the audience meant Jonathan’s case was doomed to failure from the start of the debate – in fact even from before the start.

Taking my seat in the Southbank Centre I watched as familiar faces from the anti-Israel circuit showed up. Piling in one after another were the likes of Tony Greenstein and Deborah Fink, flanked by dozens of anti-Zionist supporters.

Meanwhile I saw barely a single recognisable pro-Israel face in the auditorium. My suspicions were proved right when the Q&A got underway after the panellists’ impressive opening statements for and against the motion on cultural boycotts.

The bombardment unleashed against Jonathan – who had already spoken out against the West Bank occupation and various aspects of Israeli government actions – was as ferocious as any I can recall against a Jewish panellist in recent years. The response to almost every word uttered by his fellow panellist, American author Carol Gould, was just as vitriolic, with the audience laughing, mocking, shouting and at times even hissing as she spoke.

What really struck me – and seemingly shocked Jonathan too – was how little interest the pro-boycotters had in any form of rational debate whatsoever. Practically every audience intervention was less question, more a direct attack on him and/or Israel. Not on Bibi’s administration per se, but on Israel herself.

They were vicious, argumentative, rude, and revealed views which were absolutely and utterly entrenched, without the slightest prospect of yielding as much as a millimetre to the anti-boycott panellists.

Jonathan summed the evening up rather aptly when he told the audience: “Tonight has been hugely revealing. I thought my disagreement with the boycott movement was because I want to see the end of occupation and you want to see the end of occupation and it was an argument about tactics. What has come through loud and clear is your motivation is not actually just the end of occupation but it’s with Israel itself – you have a fundamental problem with it.“

As shocking as the evening had been, what struck me later was a slightly different issue – where were the pro-Israel campaigners? Why, at a well-publicised, impressively-panelled, London Literary Festival event, had barely a single anti-boycott, pro-Israel activist turned up to either argue against the BDS brigade, or put forward a good word for the Jewish state? How could it be that as abusive question after abusive question rained down on Freedland and Gould, no one came to their defence? Even if there were friends of Israel in the audience, they kept their heads down.

At Parliament on Tuesday night I attended a fairly glum Labour Friends of Israel event at which another panel debated the difficulties facing the left when defending Israel while in opposition.

Former Middle East Minister Ivan Lewis encouraged supporters to promote Israel’s positives and be less defensive.

The Bury South MP rightly pointed out that the boycott and delegitimisation campaigns had led to a “siege mentality” among Israel supporters, telling them that they should “not allow themselves to always be judged through the prism of being defensive”.

The room was packed with Jewish Labour supporters, and yet – perhaps strangely – it was largely left to non-Jewish panellists such as former NUS president Wes Streeting and JC political editor Martin Bright to offer advice on standing up for Israel.

Whether the audience’s dispirited mood was down to the strain of backing Israel in hard times, or finding themselves in opposition after 13 years of power, is hard to say. But what was abundantly clear was that being a supporter of Israel on the left is an uncomfortable position in which to find oneself.

Wes and the others tried to rally the troops, talking of the need to “nail the hypocrisy of the left”, but as far as I could see their efforts fell on deaf ears. There were few, if any, shafts of light to be found during the 90-minute Portcullis House event.

Sandwiched between these two events was, thankfully, a bright ray of sunshine. On Monday, the admirable British Friends of Reuth charity put on a hugely enjoyable showing of the brilliant Israeli TV show Srugim.

The cinema was packed. Hundreds of supporters turned up, filling the cinema. Families squeezed up together to enjoy the show. People genuinely shouted “more, more!” as the broadcast ended.

I was desperate to see the show having heard so much about it and loved the evening. It was impossible, however, not to notice the difference in atmosphere and attendance to the other events. Here were hundreds of (mainly religious) Jews enjoying, effectively, a pro-Israel night out. Where had they been the night before at the Southbank Centre?

It left me wondering – why are British Jews so reluctant to publicly show their support for Israel?

Coughing up extortionate air fares to sit on the beaches of Tel Aviv and Eilat is one thing, but at home in Britain the battle is being lost. More has to be done.

Moaning to each other around the Friday night dinner table just doesn’t cut it any more. Out there, beyond the leafy suburbs, in the blogosphere, in the media, on the streets, Israel’s UK-based enemies are having a field day.

Make no bones about it – in many places and many ways the likes of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and Jews for Justice for Palestinians are buoyant. They are thriving in their role as underdogs, safe in the knowledge that in the vast majority of cases they will face little if any face-to-face debate from Israel supporters.

Where are our community leaders? Where are our highly-trained professional lawyers and advocates? Dare I say it, where are our celebrities? Why has no one got the stomach to stand up for what they believe in?

Except for a few individual campaigners here and there (and Jewish students), many pro-Israel British Jews seem to either not have the bottle for the fight, or prefer to show their colours only in comfortable, safe surroundings such as East Finchley’s comfy Phoenix Cinema.

Perhaps a combination of battle fatigue and a sense that arguments are being lost have discouraged many. Others are simply happy to sit back and let the few take the strain.

The We Believe in Israel conference in May was heralded as a new start, a way forward. Grassroots groups would spring up all over the show, activists would be armed with the information and tools to take on Israel’s haters.

Based on this week’s events, the opportunity has been either missed, or ignored.

Defending Israel in Britain will get no easier in the months to come. Israeli government policies such as this week’s ridiculous anti-boycott legislation will ensure that.

But if Britain’s Jewish community, the majority of whom wholeheartedly supports Israel, cannot be relied on to stand up and defend her, then who will?

If you’ve made no effort to stop it, then it takes some chutzpah to sit around complaining as the tide of hatred washes over you.

UPDATE - The Southbank Centre has helpfully posted an audio recording of Sunday's event online, so you can now listen to the whole debate, and judge for yourselves.

COMMENTS

Jonathan Hoffman

Thu, 07/14/2011 - 15:07

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Come to Ahava in Monmouth Street at 12 on Saturday and you will see plenty of pro-Israel activists


Marcus Dysch

Thu, 07/14/2011 - 15:09

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As I say - a few (admirable) campaigners. You are in a very small minority who bothers to stand up and do anything. Where's everyone else?


Jonathan Hoffman

Thu, 07/14/2011 - 15:29

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Five suggestions:

1. Apathy
2. Fear (either of physical attack or of workplace repercussions)
3. Lack of confidence because of lack of knowledge
4. Failure of leadership - when was any Board of Deputies President or Vice President or UJIA Chairman or BICOM Executive seen standing up for Israel in a hostile environment?
5. Desire to 'fit in' (it isn't cool among the Hampstead soi-disant to stand up for Israel)


Jonathan Hoffman

Thu, 07/14/2011 - 15:31

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The Christians who come all the way from South Wales to join us at Ahava every two weeks put most Jews to shame


Joe Millis

Thu, 07/14/2011 - 15:33

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Plenty, as in five on Monmouth Street, Jonathan? And they aren't pro-Israel, they are just fuelling the "From the River to the Sea" mob and are tarnishing the rest of British Jews.


Joe Millis

Thu, 07/14/2011 - 15:35

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If you don't like the way the community is being led, Jonathan, why don't you and your supporters go and set up your own pro-Israel body and fight for the leadership in the open market of ideas. Obviously you are convinced you are right and should be the sole representatives. Hang on, is that the sound of clucking chickens I can hear?


Jonathan Hoffman

Thu, 07/14/2011 - 15:39

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Err .. Millis aka T-Sam, I am elected to both the ZF and the Board of Deputies

To what precisely are you elected?


Joe Millis

Thu, 07/14/2011 - 15:42

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You are selected to the BoD. You are in the ZF position only by accident after having failed to be elected chair last year. So I ask again, if you are so convinced you are right, why don't you and your friends break away and fight the good fight for the leadership against the "craven" incumbents? Surely, you don't think you'd lose? Cluck, cluck, cluck.
Who is this T-Sam to whom you refer?


Jonathan Hoffman

Thu, 07/14/2011 - 15:57

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Rude as ever. I am elected to both organisations. I have a democratic mandate. You have none.


Macairt

Thu, 07/14/2011 - 16:05

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Marcus, realistically, was the tidal wave of antisemitism of the 1920s and 1930s really something that could be fought? I think this is the analogue, albeit directed at the Jews of Israel, what most Jews of Europe and Araby, from the 1914 on, became, those that survived, whose parents were those against who the original wave was directed.

Marcus, really? Are Anglo-Jews really 'happy' to sit back?
If one is faced with overwhelming odds, surely most people just bunker down, to weather the storm?


Macairt

Thu, 07/14/2011 - 16:08

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I'd add, Demoralization as well as Resignation.

Most Jews are resigned to the storm. It will pass or it won't. Either way, one can do little but weather it.

If BDS against Israel fails, then BDSers will turn on 'Israel' here, in the UK. Then Jews will either fight, or leave.


Marcus Dysch

Thu, 07/14/2011 - 16:17

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Macairt - I'd argue they are not overwhelming odds. The BDS lot are a well-organised bunch of fairly rag tag people on the whole. Others among their supporters are adept at social networking and making the most of their (relatively meagre) resources in that way.

Why couldn't the Jewish community take them on? That's my point - people are happy to sit and watch an Israeli show, happy to go on holiday, but why won't they go out and counter-protest, why won't they go and (try to) debate? Why aren't they writing to newspapers regularly to point Israel's point across? Why have they given up?


Joe Millis

Thu, 07/14/2011 - 16:24

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Hoffman, you in common with every other board member from a synagogue were selected. You have your honorary ZF post but you failed to be elected Chairman. Thats not rudeness. That's a fact. Now, how about putting your views to the test and seeing if the community will adopt your Israel-right-or-wrong stance as its preferred view. Cluck, cluck.


Jonathan Hoffman

Thu, 07/14/2011 - 16:24

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Of course we can make a difference.

There are millions of examples - look at how Judge Bathusrt Norman was brought to book for example.

It is profoundly defeatist to think otherwise.

Why is the Board of Deputies email list not being used to notify Deputies of anti-Israel events in their areas, for them to pass on to their constituents, for example?


Jonathan Hoffman

Thu, 07/14/2011 - 16:25

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Millis if you have nothing to contribute to this topic why not stop making a fool of yourself?


Joe Millis

Thu, 07/14/2011 - 16:26

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Macairt, British Jews are sitting back because they are not convinced that the BDS mob are anything other than a bunch of mouthy cranks. They don't buy into the scare mongering of the Israeli far right whom they perceive as no better than the BDS mob.


Joe Millis

Thu, 07/14/2011 - 16:29

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Bathurst Norman? He didn't get even a slap on the wrist. He's free to judge again. The only defeatism is those helping the one-stater mob with their paranoia and scare mongering.


Joe Millis

Thu, 07/14/2011 - 16:33

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Hoffman, why are you so scared to put your views to test of public opinion in the free Market of ideas? Why don't you seek to replace the leadership? People would have slot more respect for you if you sought to replace the money bags and the craven. What's holding you back? You could be the Isi Leibler of British Jews.


Watchful Iris (not verified)

Thu, 07/14/2011 - 16:46

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What self respecting Jew wants to stand along side this?:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SBH6XONDpes&feature=player_embedded

Talk about rude.....


Mary in Brighton

Thu, 07/14/2011 - 16:59

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Jonathan, would you like to explain to the people who might not know, what the Judge was " brought to book " for and what this "bringing to book" consisted in?

I would do it but I am sure you would make a much better job of it.

The judge was last seen sun bathing himself on his terrace
at his retirement house in Rottingdean looking very pleased with life indeed.


Jonathan Hoffman

Thu, 07/14/2011 - 17:06

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I also blame UJS who often discourage counter-action. About two years ago we did a demo of support for Danny Ayalon in Lincolns Inn Fields (and a counter demo to Fink and Co) and Ben Grabiner sent members of the LSE Israel Society a text discouraging them from joining us, calling us "right wing".

What Isi Liebler calls the "trembling Israelite establishment" in the UK is shameful - but there are some including me who intend to do all we can to change it.


Jonathan Hoffman

Thu, 07/14/2011 - 17:07

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Mary you can google as well as me

I am not your Research Assistant


Mary in Brighton

Thu, 07/14/2011 - 17:19

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But Jonathan I don't have to google it, I know. I take it you have forgotten and are left with just a hazy impression that he was " brought to book " ?


Jonathan Hoffman

Thu, 07/14/2011 - 17:22

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http://www.thejc.com/blogpost/bathurst-norman-censured-political-bias-ed...

Disgraced and will never preside over another trial involving Israel.....


Mary in Brighton

Thu, 07/14/2011 - 17:31

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Jonathan, I am a dope but even my less accomplished sister can do better research than that.


Watchful Iris (not verified)

Thu, 07/14/2011 - 17:33

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Yes, but can she reference her own blogs?


JoyWol

Fri, 07/15/2011 - 07:53

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You have done a great service in highlighting this deficiency in our community Marcus. After 1500 appeared to have been rouse and motivated at the We Believe in israel conference, this is where some of their enthusiasm and motivation should be being directed and where the Fair Play Campaign should be calling on people to stand up and be counted. I am sad to see this comment thread turning into a meaningless slanging match between Jonathan and Joe. And I regret to say that the lost cause demonstrating outside Ahava where the company itself has thrown in the towel is less important than challenging our enemies in the debating chambers. If we have really given in and consider standing up for Israel a "lost cause", we may as well give up, close all our pro Israel organisations and have a quiet life. On the other hand those organisations should alert people to these meetings and ensure we have a voice to counter the Tony Greensteins and Deborah Finks


Marcus Dysch

Fri, 07/15/2011 - 09:27

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Nicely put JoyWol


Joe Millis

Fri, 07/15/2011 - 09:36

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Joy, with all due respect, if Israel starts to enact fascistic and racist laws, then I'm sorry, it isn't Zionist. If its population is so easily bought off with panem et circenses and if they acquiesce in this kind of behaviour, it's just another post-war state sliding towards authoritarianism.
I, and I suspect many others - and that's why it's the Hoffmans of this world who are out there alone - want no part in "Israel-right-or-wrong". So forgive me for saying this, but Israel is becoming a bit of a lost cause.


MatthewHarris

Fri, 07/15/2011 - 10:36

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Yeah, I would have come to that Jonathan Freedland event if I had known that it was happening and would have put a question from the audience. Perhaps it is my fault that I did not know about it. Ah well. Marcus makes some good points. Onwards!


Advis3r

Fri, 07/15/2011 - 10:48

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"if Israel starts to enact fascistic and racist laws, then I'm sorry, it isn't Zionist" more hysteria fro Millis - calm down. Tell me a racist law that Israel has enacted?


Jonathan Hoffman

Fri, 07/15/2011 - 10:49

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@JW

"I am sad to see this comment thread turning into a meaningless slanging match between Jonathan and Joe."

I think you mean "I am sad to see this comment thread turning into yet another spenetic attack on Jonathan by Millis aka Telegram Sam"

"the lost cause demonstrating outside Ahava where the company itself has thrown in the towel is less important than challenging our enemies in the debating chambers."

Yes the company's spineless capitulation is a disgrace. But no it is not a 'lost cause' demonstrating there because we give out fliers with the truth to counter the ISM/PSC's fliers which are full of lies.

I salute the dedication and persistency of the pro-Ahava demonstarters over the past 18 months.


Advis3r

Fri, 07/15/2011 - 10:54

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Joe Millis the 500 Christians outside the Israeli Embassy put you to shame. Israel is facing attack on all sides this is surely a time when the Jewish people should be working together and putting aside our petty differences because frankly they are petty and you call it a lost cause. Think what our people living in Europe in 1939 would have given just to have had a state as imperfect as it is. Shame on you!


Joe Millis

Fri, 07/15/2011 - 11:03

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Jonathan, I see you are still obssesed by T. Rex. At your advanced years? Move on to something else, such as Kasabian or Kaiser Chiefs. You'll never be down wiv the yoof.
And you'll need the yoof if you want to take over the leadership from the craven others. Oh, sorry, forgot, you are too scared to put your views to the test.
Where's your indefatigability?


Joe Millis

Fri, 07/15/2011 - 11:05

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True, Matthew, but have you seen how hysterical the zealots have become when they defend racist laws such as the reception committee law and the loyalty law? And then they invoke the Holocaust to spread fear and hatred. They are our best asset, because they show up how hopeless they have become.


Advis3r

Fri, 07/15/2011 - 11:12

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Pointless reasoning with you Millis rant on I'll just keep posting!


Advis3r

Fri, 07/15/2011 - 11:34

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Millis why is it according to you illegal now for Jews to live in east Jerusalem which you say is "Occupied Territory" when before 1948 it legal?


Macairt

Fri, 07/15/2011 - 14:12

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Macairt

Fri, 07/15/2011 - 14:21

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Hi Marcus,

I was struck how Freedland said BDS would likely fail.

Given the hatred of many of the BDS crowd, it seems that they would then turn their sights closer to home. They wouldn't just 'give up'.

People tend to fight if the threat is more immediate.

Perhaps Anglo-Jews are used, in a way, to let Israel do the fighting. This time, Israel can't.


Macairt

Fri, 07/15/2011 - 14:25

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If we are all going to be frank and honest here, I think Anglo-Jews tend to be quiescent and 'law-abiding', by which I mean +excessively+ law abiding.

Shouting and making a fuss isn't their style, and there may be a fear, deep down, that doing that will only make more publicity, make things worse.

It is not, for instance, Jonathan Freedland's style.


Macairt

Fri, 07/15/2011 - 14:28

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I'd also like to observe that the dangerous antisemitism of the 30s and 40s began with marginal groups, but well organized ones. It is insidious like that. It flourishes because of an indifferent environment, because it can, not because its constitutes a majority.


Joe Millis

Fri, 07/15/2011 - 14:42

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Please, Macairt, by drawing that analogy you are cheapening the Holocaust and making a mockery of the 6 million who perished. No one in this country is barred from doing anything because they are Jewish.
This ain't Czechoslovakia 1938, much as the zealots would love us to believe it is.


Macairt

Fri, 07/15/2011 - 15:22

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'No one in this country is barred from doing anything because they are Jewish.'

+sigh+

I didn't say they were. I said it was hatred directed against many or most of the descendants of the survivors of those successive persecutions (in which I would include the Soviet and Arab), the Jews of the Jewish state of Israel.

Please read what I write.


Joe Millis

Fri, 07/15/2011 - 15:27

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Macairt, in the 30s and 40s, Jews were barred from certain positions and faced even worse persecution (the Holocaust). It was you who raised the spectre of the 30s and 40s, and that analogy is fallacious.


Jonathan Hoffman

Fri, 07/15/2011 - 16:03

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Freedland supported Livingstone at the 2008 Mayoral election.

Livingstone has told me three times that Israel should not have been created and the third time lied that Lord Jakobovits said the same thing.

Maybe that's why people are reluctant to support Freedland.


Joe Millis

Fri, 07/15/2011 - 16:36

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Perhaps, Jonathan, you'd like to declare an interest and tell us who you work for? And is it you modus operandi to attack other Zionists if they do not toe your line? No wonder more and more diaspora Jews are giving up Israel as a lost cause.


Macairt

Fri, 07/15/2011 - 16:43

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'It was you who raised the spectre of the 30s and 40s, and that analogy is fallacious.'

Not for Israelis. The hatred is similar.


Macairt

Fri, 07/15/2011 - 16:48

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I'd also like to observe that the dangerous antisemitism of the 30s and 40s BEGAN with marginal groups


Joe Millis

Fri, 07/15/2011 - 17:06

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Macairt, Israel is a nuclear power. An economic powerhouse that is a member of the OECD. Do you honestly think that anyone buys the "poor, little, persecuted Israel" argument any more?


Macairt

Mon, 07/18/2011 - 11:49

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'Do you honestly think that anyone buys the "poor, little, persecuted Israel" argument any more?'

I didn't say that, Joe.

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