Beware kneejerk reactions to anti-Israel slurs

By Chas Newkey-Burden, March 22, 2014
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It’s a familiar cycle. A politician makes an incendiary allegation against Israel. Pro-Israel advocates rush to issue defensive rebuttals. An almighty scrap develops, few give any ground, but the original allegation is repeated by both sides as the controversy drags on.

At least we stood up to them and challenged the haters, right? We showed we won’t be pushed around! Well, I used to think that way. I have done a bit of rebutting myself. But I’m no longer sure these it’s the wisest response. In fact, I wonder if mindless, knee-jerk rebuttal of every accusation Israel faces could be doing our cause more damage than good.

For boorish activists, careerist climbers and others obsessively involved on either side of this cultic debate, it is easy to forget that most people in Britain are not interested in Israel and the Palestinians. Why would they be? They are too busy making ends meet, fixing up their homes and looking after their kids to worry about a conflict thousands of miles away.

So when Israel-bashers shriek about “war crimes”, “apartheid”, and “organ harvesting”, their audience is usually marginal. They are more or less shrieking into a vacuum, save for a handful of committed cranks.

Then we get involved. When we challenge their lies, the first thing we do is repeat them to a wider audience. We shouldn’t flatter ourselves: the minutiae of our case for the defence is less memorable than the fact that we, too, have placed the name “Israel” in the same sentence as “war crimes”, “apartheid”, and “organ harvesting”. The “not” gets forgotten, but the allegation lingers in the collective memory of those who overhear the bickering.

Before he started ranting about Israel, Liberal Democrat David Ward was an obscure Bradford MP in a crumbling political party. Now, he knows which button to press to get in the headlines. He cannot believe his luck. The same goes for Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters. He was just a wrinkled rocker, remembered only by air-guitar-toting men of a certain age, before he started obsessively playing the anti-Israel card.

It’s not just the anti-Israel card that Waters and his ilk play – it’s us, too. They know their statements will provoke howls of outrage and rebuttal from Israel supporters. Another anti-Israel argument gets aired, and the name of its proponent gets plastered far and wide.

We are their unpaid foot soldiers. They do not win despite our defence – they win because of our defence. We’re so quick to put them and their bigotry centre-stage. That’s why Israel-bashing has become so fashionable. More than any other cause, it’s a no-brainer for the publicity-hungry, and we have helped make it so.

For robotic rebutters, madcap monitors and profiteers of doom, the race to respond is a sacred cow. Rebuttal fills their otherwise empty days with the electric glow of self-righteousness. Do the rest of us want to follow the path of the defensive activist, who responds to everything without thought, or the shrewd politician, who knows that some lies you challenge, some you let wither?.

It is a tricky one to call. But before we rush to challenge – and therefore repeat – a particular anti-Israel slander, we should ask ourselves whether we are helping Israel, or whether we are actually becoming unwitting puppets for her bitterest enemies.

Chas Newkey-Burden is an author and scriptwriter

Last updated: 1:45pm, March 22 2014