Loneliness of defending Israel

By Toby Young, August 11, 2013
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A few years ago, I appeared on an ITV news and current affairs programme to discuss, among other things, anti-Israel bias in the British media. I was one of four panellists and, needless to say, the other three pooh-poohed the idea that the coverage of the Arab-Israeli conflict in the mainstream media was less than fair and impartial. If anything, they argued, the bias was the other way.

Luckily, I’d come armed with some evidence. The anti-Israel tone of the Guardian, particularly its comment section, is so pronounced it often spills over into outright antisemitism. The Independent’s coverage of the Middle East is dominated by Robert Fisk, who consistently draws parallels between contemporary Israel and apartheid-era South Africa.

As for the BBC, it has suppressed its own £250,000 report into anti-Israel bias — and not, presumably, because it gives the Corporation a clean bill of health.

I thought I’d made a pretty decent fist of rebutting the claims of the other panellists with hard facts, so I sat down to watch the programme with some enthusiasm when it was broadcast later that night.

You can imagine my disappointment, therefore, when the anti-Israel bias segment appeared in a heavily edited form. All my comments – and I mean all — had been left on the cutting-room floor.

Being the lone defender of Israel on a programme like Question Time or Any Questions can leave you feeling like a pariah, not least because you know the people behind the cameras share the views of those in front of them. I daresay the producer of the ITV programme didn’t think of himself as suffering from an anti-Israel bias — that wasn’t why he’d excised my comments.

Like most members of the liberal intelligentsia, he probably believes that any reporting of Israel that is genuinely fair and impartial will automatically take the side of the Palestinians. If you think of Israel as a rogue state with a “racist” attitude towards its aboriginal population, you believe it’s your duty as a journalist to “expose” the suffering of the Palestinians in the “occupied territories”.

To make an effort to be more even-handed — to report on Israeli casualties of Hamas’s rockets alongside Palestinian casualties of the IDF, for instance — would be playing into the hands of the “Jewish lobby” and their neo-con allies in the Tory Party.

Which isn’t to say that Israel has no friends in the British media. The two publications I write for — the Spectator and the Telegraph — are both broadly pro-Israel and Melanie Phillips does a heroic job of defending Israel across all media platforms, including Twitter. But it’s very, very unusual for anyone who thinks of themselves as “progressive” to have any sympathy for the state of Israel.

When pushed, they might grudgingly acknowledge that it has a right to exist, but quickly follow up by claiming that the Palestinian people also have a right to their own homeland — and then cite countless examples of Israel’s human-rights abuses, while excusing those of the ruling clans in Gaza and the West Bank.

As a member of the Conservative Party, I’m used to being written off as an apologist for the ruling class when I defend the government’s welfare cap or attack Labour’s spending plans. But it troubles me that my motives are also questioned when I stick up for Israel.

Defending Israel’s right to exist and the difficulties it faces should not be an “extremist” or “ideological” position. It should be the starting point of any discussion of the Arab-Israeli conflict, regardless of whether you’re on the left or the right.

Last updated: 12:45pm, August 11 2013