Easy life obliges us to face hard facts

The JC Essay

By Jeremy Brier, November 30, 2012

It has been pretty easy for my generation. In Britain's leafy Jewish communities, the children of the 1980s grew up with the freedoms that our grandparents were denied and the opportunities to which our parents could not aspire. Sure, it came with a deep awareness of the past and, at times, with the terrible mantle of survivor guilt ("You're having a bad day? You should have tried living through what we lived through") but we knew, deep within our souls, that we were safe in this green and pleasant land.

Few of my contemporaries encountered any antisemitism at school (apparently Jews not being picked for the sports teams was strictly meritocratic) and we did not face activist campuses on the same scale as we hear about today.

There were certainly heated discussions at times. Now, however, Israel Apartheid Week is as much a part of university life as gowns and Pot Noodles, notwithstanding the fact that it is so egregiously inaccurate; offensive both to Israel and to those who actually suffered the horrors of apartheid.

For all the many debates I participated in while I was president of the Cambridge Union - many against staunch Israel critics like George Galloway - I can never remember a general sense of Jews being under attack. Today, as my generation matures into adulthood and we focus more on our children's futures than on our own comfortable childhoods, that situation is changing.

The recent conflict in Gaza is not the main cause of that change but it has shone a spotlight on it. From the moment the IDF killed Ahmed Jabari, the military leader of Hamas, whose values and deeds should be intensely antithetical to any self-respecting liberal, the public was moved to extraordinary levels of emotion and interest: flooding social media with 140-character expertise; dominating television and online news with an intense focus on the awful present ("Live: Gaza Crisis Update") and little on the informative history or context.

This a moment when every Jew, particularly young, privileged and secure Britons, should stand up and be counted

There's nothing wrong with being interested in world affairs but public appetite for scrutinising Israel could not be more different in pitch or volume from the reaction to far bloodier conflicts in, say, Sri Lanka or the Congo.

Last week, on BBC Radio 4's Any Questions? one question raised was whether or not Israel still "deserved a future", a query I don't remember being applied to any other country on the planet. And I cannot recall so many Londoners or Glaswegians rushing to demonstrate when Syria began its massacre of 30,000 innocent civilians.

Why, then, this intense focus, this singling out? Christopher Hitchens famously called those Westerners identifying with Hamas as "the silly led by the sinister". There is also a newer and more frightening phenomenon whereby those with no self-identity or cogent belief-structure eagerly latch on to a fashionable viewpoint from which there appears to be no dissent: rebels without a cause following a cause without rebels.

With Israel under the magnifying glass, its enemies have learnt to manipulate a voracious need for quick, simple news - "tweeting" photographs being its most contagious manifestation.

Images of dying Palestinian children are incendiary in the public imagination, obliterating consideration of Hamas's responsibility for such tragic loss of life through launching rockets from civilian areas and thereby using human shields against their weaponry (a two-for-the-price-of-one war crime).

But that is not the worst of it. Such photographs frequently turn out to be imported from a different conflict altogether, such as on November 19, when the BBC's Jon Donnison posted on Twitter a photograph of a dying boy to his 7,971 followers which he labelled "heartbreaking".

Indeed it was. All the more so for the Syrian family whose child it actually was, for this was a picture of one of Assad's many victims. Donnison re-tweeted the picture as of a Palestinian child, and has now apologised. But the apology has little impact after the fact, and Israel's enemies will remain ruthless in exploiting the power of faux-tography.

There was of course plenty of support and understanding for the Israeli position. The Foreign Secretary and the US President were marked in their apportionment of blame to Hamas. And there are many other, often brave and brilliant voices in Israel's corner.

The majority of Israel's supporters are (rightly) measured and disciplined, grounding events in a historical context and relying upon traditional tools of analysis: moral balance, recognition of the duty to protect, and of the need for self-defence.

The omnipotent new social media, a kind of a reality television version of news where the public writes the headlines and votes for the winners, does not coexist with reason.

And, as Israel's critics have become more voluminous in sound and number, more aggressive in language and intensity, they have equally become more confident about blurring the boundaries between anti-Israeli sentiment and anti-Jewish hatred.

Steve Bell is a case in point. A fortnight ago, the influential Guardian cartoonist drew an image of Israel's Prime Minister against a backdrop of Stars of David and at a lectern with a menorah, holding Tony Blair and Hague in his over-sized hands, with rockets firing off around him under the slogan, "Vote Likud".

There was no subtlety: the Jewish leader was the puppet-master, controlling world events against the public interest and for his own private greed, echoing one of the seminal antisemitic tropes of history. A cartoonist of his stature should have understood this. I reported it to the Press Complaints Commission and a furious debate erupted online and in the Guardian comment pages, culminating in an apology by the newspaper.

But what was little remarked upon was the nature of Bell's defence. He stated: "I… refute the charge that I am somehow deliberately repeating the antisemitic 'trope' of the puppet master. The wilful manipulation is Netanyahu's not mine." Not his?

Thus, Bell said that he was not to blame for drawing Netanyahu as the puppet-master; it was Netanyahu's fault for actually being the puppet-master. Far from taking care not to repeat the antisemitic trope, he powerfully compounded it. And defended this by seeming to claim that he had no choice.

M eanwhile, in Brighton recently, protesters have been demonstrating outside the EcoStream store - which sells refill items in reusable containers - to protest against the fact that its owner, SodaStream, is headquartered in Tel Aviv. This company provides employment to Palestinians and Israeli Arabs and is thus a wealth-creator for the very people the boycotters claim to help. Moreover, this "refilling station" store is at the vanguard of eco-friendly shopping.

It's amazing that when faced with a choice between its two great causes - environmentalism and Israel-hatred - the far left in Brighton chose the latter. Saving the world? Not if it's promoted by Israel!

As the boycott movement tweeted last week: "Why don't you close your #Brighton store now? Its never going to work with this much opposition."

This isn't an arms manufacturer; it's an environmentally friendly, pluralistic company. But it is still being told to get out of town and not come back. Perhaps this "advice" is not antisemitic in motive, but it is clear that the anti-Israel movement has become a febrile, unthinking mass movement.

And, at the time of writing, the "Fuck Israel" Facebook group has over 30,400 signatories. Just legitimate criticism?

The group contains a number of references calling for death to Jews; one man who appears to have been educated at the University of Jordan calls for Hitler to "come back soon" in order to "clean this world from these rubbish animals".

S o why is this a turning point for my generation and what should we do about it? As the hysterical anti-Israel movement advances, the taboo status of antisemitism is evidently being corroded.

When one footballer uses a term of racist abuse against another, there is, rightly, significant public outrage. It is happily unthinkable that any cartoonist could draw a black man in a way that would explicitly allude to archetypal racial stereotypes of black men.

When Jews are involved, however, the accusation is frequently undermined by the infinitely expandable excuse of "legitimate criticism of Israel". Yes, but what if it isn't legitimate? If history has taught us anything it is that the line is crossed when we say it is crossed, not when they do. Recent events should mark a turning point because when we see cartoons like Steve Bell's grace the newspaper beloved of Britain's opinion-formers, it hurts too much. The fears our grandparents warned us about are returning to Jewish life along with the paranoia of what we might overhear every day at work or on the train or from acquaintances whose unguarded comments about Jews we used to laugh off but which now hang heavy.

For many of us, the clarion call of "never again" that has echoed throughout our lives, now sounds with a hint of inflection: a question not an imperative.

Many of my contemporaries are leading from the front: counter-protesting, deploying social media effectively to call antisemitism by its name and to argue the case for Israel. However, too many of us are frankly afraid, preferring to keep our heads down in the debate online, at work, at dinner parties.

The desire to blend in, to get on with all around us, is all too tempting, but finally this will not do because the movement against our people is becoming intolerable. This is a moment when we must all ask ourselves: what are we going to do about it?

My generation, the generation that has never had to fight before but which is typically technologically savvy, professionally secure and established in British society is ripe for taking the lead in the battles ahead: rebutting lies on Twitter; dismantling libels on Facebook; being persuasive advocates on radio phone-ins and in public debates; counter-protesting against the boycotters; using law and letters to our advantage.

Moreover, it is the moment for my generation to come of age because the message that we need to communicate to our contemporaries is a vital, life-affirming, youthful message: that Israel, a young country, is fighting to defend the values that our generation most care about: pluralism, religious and sexual tolerance, women's rights.

Why are young, liberal Britons supporting the most homophobic agitators in the world who fire rockets at a city that boasts one of the world's most celebrated Gay Pride marches? Why are liberal British women supporting misogynists who attack a nation where men and women have equal rights? These are the questions that resonate with the British public and to which there is no adequate answer from the boycotters and the haters.

I have been lucky enough to coach people, young and old, in Israel advocacy for many years and I would encourage anyone who wants to know more to seek out such guidance. We can never hope to change hearts and minds overnight but there is a tremendous value in making the arguments, not just to effect incremental change, although we might well do so, but also in order that the public at large know that there is not a one-view-fits-all answer to this conflict. Above all, to ensure that our enemies know beyond doubt that antisemitism will never go unchallenged.

This is a moment when every Jewish person - particularly those of us who are young and privileged enough to have lived our lives as secure and confident Britons - should seek out new ways to shape the local or national debate.

It is not an easy task to stand up and be counted. But it is too dangerous to do otherwise.

Jeremy Brier is a barrister and stood at the last general election for the Conservative Party. He is a former world champion of debating. Twitter: @jeremybrier

Last updated: 12:09pm, November 30 2012