Extremists have hijacked the debate over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the UK
Throughout its modern history, Britain has prided itself on its liberal society, which cherishes human rights and values civil liberties.
That pride was well founded, both in the international arena, when Britain stood alone in Europe facing the Third Reich, and domestically, when Britain led the way in establishing a national health service, granting women the right to vote and protecting the basic social rights of the working class.
During a previous posting to Britain, I developed a keen admiration of this record, and of the core British values of fairness, decency and common sense.
Since returning to these shores as Israel’s ambassador last November, however, I have been dismayed to find that, as far as Israel is concerned, these values are under threat. Fairness is all too frequently absent in a debate that has been hijacked by extremists. Israel faces an
intensified campaign of delegitimisation, demonisation and double standards. Britain has become a hotbed for radical anti-Israel views and a haven for disingenuous calls for a “one-state solution”, a euphemistic name for a movement advocating Israel’s destruction.
Those who propagate this notion distort Israel’s past while categorically denying Israel’s right to exist as a liberal Jewish-democratic state. No other country in the world is constantly forced to justify its own existence.
At the end of last month, members of the University and College Union (UCU) passed a motion that in effect called for a boycott of Israeli academia. The concept of an academic boycott is a ludicrous oxymoron, undermining the democratic principles of free speech and free debate. Academics, who are supposedly society’s guardians of knowledge, objectivity and informed debate, have seen their union held hostage by radical factions, armed with political agendas and personal interests.
British academia has built its reputation on the pluralistic exchange of ideas. Alarmingly, these values are under threat in an institution that should be safeguarding them. The boycott campaign, which has been gathering force since 2002, is a licence to harass, humiliate and victimise purely on grounds of nationality. In recent years, cases of discrimination have included two Israeli academics being ousted from the editorial board of a journal and an Israeli postgraduate who was refused doctoral supervision because he had served in the Israeli army.
Over-simplifications, half-truths and lies have been disseminated as truth. Israel has been cast as a pantomime villain. A climate of hatred is fomented on campuses. The complexities of the situation are overlooked, as are the responsibilities of other actors in the region.
The pattern is exacerbated when coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is routinely tainted with bias and a lack of context. Double standards are rife. Israel’s reaction to the attacks it faces is given microscopic coverage. Yet the attacks to which Israel is responding are often ignored. Terror attacks, suicide bombings, the barrage of rockets being fired on Israeli citizens are frequently disregarded.
The average British citizen is painfully unaware that, since Hamas seized control of Gaza last year, 1,400 rockets and 1,500 mortar bombs have landed on Israeli soil. No government in the world would tolerate such a sustained attack without taking action.
Israel is a democracy under fire, but when this context is neglected, it clears a path for the unhealthy, unacceptable demonisation of Israel. While Israel faces many challenges, it is still the only functioning democracy in the region, and the only state in the area that offers minorities full civil equality and freedom of speech.
One of my greatest sources of pride is the open discourse conducted within my country. Critical debate thrives and Israelis scrutinise every aspect of our policies. We are not afraid of criticism. I am concerned, however, that in Britain the most extreme elements of the debate have been allowed to hijack the mainstream. Those who share the values on which British democracy is built must say “no” — no to the delegitimisation of Israel, no to the demonisation of Israel and no to the double standards to which Israel is subjected.
I implore the British public to prevent the radical fringe from monopolising British-Israeli discourse. It is vital that British values of fair play and even-handedness are brought to the debate. The time has come for the
silent majority to speak up and say “yes”; yes to context, yes to democracy and yes to an understanding of the challenges Israel faces as a democracy under fire.
Ron Prosor is the Israeli ambassador to Britain. This article was first published on Tuesday in the Daily Telegraph.