In times of peak political madness, kiss the centre ground

February 01, 2019 17:12

There is so much to shout about when it comes to antisemitism and anti-Israel rhetoric and that is itself a problem.

When news stories reach a certain pitch or frequency - whether it’s constant Brexit bulletins or yet another grim report about knife crime - it is human to want to switch off.

On Tuesday, three Labour MPs told the JC they were worried that party’s general secretary was preventing antisemitism cases from being heard by its disciplinary panel. A shocking and important story, but it didn’t even reach the front page of the newspaper. After all, how far can you ‘expose’ the fetid goings-on within party bureaucracy when the Labour leader himself has made antisemitic statements?

But in a political climate fizzing with extremism on left and right, achieving impact with a story is just one challenge. Achieving balance is another. The reasonable middle ground has always been hard to stake out and defend.

As the moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt has said, "We evolved for tribalism", a form of group-think, he explains, that "evolved to help us manipulate each other and defend our reputations [and that of our tribe]. That’s why you can’t win a political argument with reasoning and evidence.” 

These days, our news feeds - think Twitter and Facebook - have become that very process of reputation-defending. It feels as if striking a balance is harder than ever. 

And yet on Wednesday, the BBC – whose Middle East editor once remarked to me over a pint that too many of its in-house staff were biased against Israel – provided a pleasant surprise in its response to a call to boycott the Eurovision Song Contest in Tel Aviv.

Responding to a letter signed by 50 artists urging the broadcaster use its influence to “press for Eurovision to be relocated to a country where crimes against that freedom are not being committed”, the BBC said it would broadcast the contest because it is "not a political event".

The BBC should be congratulated for successfully focusing on evidence and blocking out any pressure - from within or without - to act differently.

One organisation that seems unable to leave its prejudices at the door, however, is human rights NGO Amnesty International, which on Tuesday released a report attacking companies such as Airbnb and TripAdvisor for listing Israeli property in West Bank settlements and East Jerusalem.

Amnesty – seen by much of the world as the paragon of human rights advocacy – has a poor record when it comes to Jews. Last December, in its large-scale study of the abuse of female politicians and journalists on Twitter, it failed to include antisemitic targeting of Jewish women. 

And in March 2015, a resolution at Amnesty’s annual conference “to campaign against antisemitism” was defeated, the only motion not to pass. That is – rightly - the context in which the Jewish community sees Amnesty’s “reports” on Israeli activities.

But the Israeli response to Amnesty's attack on companies offering tourists room in Jewish homes beyond the Green Line made for depressing reading. Tourism Minister Yariv Levin said: "No force in the world will change the simple historical truth - the Land of Israel belongs to the Jewish people. We will fight this despicable antisemitic decision. No one can boycott Israel or parts of it."

That’s right – he called the settlements and East Jerusalem “parts of Israel”. That is not a moderate position – it flies in the face of what most supporters of the two-state solution say is the only viable way out of the conflict - and it is sadly common among a large number of so-called 'centrist' Israeli politicians.

Locating the middle ground. Sometimes that is the real fight.

February 01, 2019 17:12

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