Feeble reasons not to boycott

Earlier this month, the Board of Deputies declined to adopt a resolution urging "all those who oppose antisemitism to refrain from buying the Guardian or advertising in it". The proposal, tabled by Zionist Federation vice-president Jonathan Hoffman, had already been rejected by the Board's defence division but the division's own alternative motion (a wrecking tactic if you ask me), noting the paper's "continued biased and anti-Israel reporting", and deploring the lack of action by the Press Complaints Commission, was also rejected. So, apart from rejecting both propositions, the Board did precisely nothing.

But my concern today is not with the Guardian (for which I have written in the past), or with the concept of a free press - an argument that was, I gather, deployed by opponents of Hoffman's initiative. My concern is with the Board.

We can argue whether the Guardian really is an antisemitic newspaper and whether - if so - an Anglo-Jewish boycott of it would do any good. In the 1930s, there was a highly effective Jewish-led boycott of the pro-fascist Rothermere press. Lord Rothermere was a supporter of Oswald Mosley. Jewish companies were persuaded to withhold their advertising patronage from his newspapers. Rothermere soon came to heel, signalling that he had done so by ordering the papers to run articles praising the Jewish contribution to British life.

So the "boycott" was highly effective. But this took place three-quarters and more of a century ago, before the internet age. I rarely buy the Guardian, preferring for a variety of reasons (not primarily economic) to read it online. Much of its advertising is placed by international conglomerates which, however "Jewish" some of them might appear, would be unlikely, in today's economic climate, to forego exposure to make a political point.

But these are not my primary concerns. Even if it had led to nothing concrete - even if the editor, Alan Rusbridger, had stamped his feet and shaken his fists and declared that he was damned if he was going to capitulate to the Jews (or Zionists) and that he would rather the paper shut down than capitulate to a Jewish Zionist boycott (which I strongly suspect is what he would have done), there is no denying that the endorsement of Hoffman's motion would have sent a very powerful message. So, my primary concern is with the arguments deployed by those who opposed the motion, and who presumably lobbied to ensure that it was defeated and its message never sent.

There is, for example, the protestation of Jonathan Arkush, the Board's senior vice-president, who reportedly instructed the deputies that, although he himself found the Guardian to be "odious", he nonetheless believed that "a boycott would be counter-productive and would damage the Jewish community's reputation".

Would it really suggest that Jews control the media?

What did he mean by "counter-productive?" That the Guardian's circulation would increase? That more companies rather than fewer would rush to advertise in its pages? And what did he mean by "damage" to Anglo-Jewry's "reputation"? That instead of being thought of as a docile collection of trembling Israelites we would henceforth be viewed with a great deal more respect and even - who knows? - with a tinge, a smidgen, of anxious deference?

I am told that, within the Board's defence division, some arguments equally as foolish were also placed on the table: that the passage of Hoffman's motion might suggest that Jews control the media (we should be so lucky though, if this fear is genuinely held, then the Board really should condemn the closing down of Press TV, which Tehran is blaming on the Jews); that a substantive and perhaps heated debate on this would reveal that British Jews were not of one mind (when have we ever been so?); that the Board did not believe in boycotts (not even of Iranian oil?). But of all these arguments surely none was more brainless than the argument that the adoption of the motion would play into the hands of antisemites.

My friends, if the Board of Deputies of British Jews is going to allow antisemites to set the communal agenda - to tell us what we must and must not think and do - then we really are in serious trouble.

    Last updated: 11:37am, January 26 2012