Blind Brits and sighted Yanks

By Monica Porter, September 12, 2011

So, for those pro-Palestinian demonstrators who disrupted the Proms and forced the BBC to take its live broadcast off the air, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra was a proxy for the "repressive" Israeli state.

We are all entitled to engage in non-violent protest, but I do get that Groundhog Day feeling whenever our anti-Israeli agitators rear their ugly heads.

For decades now, we have heard the same mantra from this blinkered brigade. The world around them might change - 9/11, the 7/7 bombings, global jihad, evil doings by regimes from Iran and Sudan to Uzbekistan and Syria - but they remain stuck in their "anti-Zionist" loop, forever claiming that they are merely concerned with the protection of human rights.

Perhaps we should recognise the fact that anti-Israeli sentiment is so hardwired into Britain's cultural DNA that it is unlikely ever to be erased. This partly stems from the contrasting, historic enchantment with the Arab world displayed by so many eminent people in this country, notably such celebrated adventurers as T E Lawrence and Freya Stark. Couple this with the antipathy towards Jews fostered during the British Mandate - when militant Zionists gave their British overlords a run for their money - and it is easy to see how it has come about.

The British in Palestine showed scant sympathy even for the desperate Holocaust survivors hoping to start new lives there, but whose boats they prevented from docking.

Anti-Israel sentiment is hardwired into Britain's cultural DNA

My late (Jewish) father-in-law, then a British Army major stationed in Haifa, once left a dining table in disgust at a senior officer's joke about the latest boat full of refugees: "We should pull the plug and drown the lot!"

The anti-Israeli convictions of later British generations may come from different sources, but are no less ingrained. They stem partly from the national predilection for championing the underdog, and Israel long ago stopped being that. Even if the underdog is now represented by Hamas, which delights in the killing of Israeli civilians, the attitude seems to be "so be it".

It has also long been "cool" to be anti-American - which sits comfortably with being anti-Israel. Americans, of course, have never romanticised the Arab world. When Yanks look at the Middle East, they don't come over all misty-eyed (cue theme music from Lawrence of Arabia) at a mystical landscape spoilt by a pushy little Jewish state.

They see a vast region of despotic regimes, surrounding a solitary democracy which - while not beyond criticism - shares their own, enlightened, Western values.

Americans regard not only Israel, but the wider Jewish socio-cultural influence, in a different light to Brits. This was brought home to me during a recent visit to New York. I gave a talk at the Holocaust Memorial Library about my mother Vali Racz, a Righteous Among the Nations, to an audience of high-school history teachers from across the US. They had come to Manhattan for a two-week summer seminar on the Holocaust, so that they could be better equipped to teach the subject to their pupils. Full of questions, they seemed eager to learn.

There were few Jews among the teachers, and many taught in schools with few, if any, Jewish children. One teacher, Sam, came from a school in Massachusetts that he told me had a high proportion of refugee children from turbulent countries such as Honduras, Ecuador and Guatemala. "They've never even met a Jew," he said. "But they are fascinated by the story of the Holocaust, because it's all about betrayal, fear, courage, loyalty - concepts they understand".

I can't imagine a group of teachers from our political-correctness-mired British comprehensives spending a fortnight of their summer holiday enriching their knowledge of the Holocaust. A seminar on diversity studies, on the other hand, sponsored by the Guardian and with a keynote speech from Ken Livingstone - now that could get them fired up.

Monica Porter's book about her mother is Deadly Carousel: A Singer's Story of the Second World War

Last updated: 11:20am, September 12 2011