Alex Brummer

Question Time fallout: we're meant to debate, not hate

February 12, 2015 14:33

Respect MP George Galloway is one of the most controversial figures in British public life. Some of his comments, such as declaring his constituency of Bradford an ‘‘Israel free-zone’’ during Operation Protective Edge in August 2014, can only be regarded as incendiary.

He is also remarkably articulate and the combination of rhetoric and polemic means he is a regular on the BBC’s Question Time along with other iconoclastic figures such as Russell Brand and Will Self. Making Galloway a guest on Question Time in the Jewish neighbourhood of Finchley, in the week that the Community Security Trust released its 2014 annual report on antisemitism, was never going to be the smartest idea. The community was unhappy so the addition of Guardian commentator Jonathan Freedland to the panel did provide sound balance.

Good current affairs broadcasting requires a variety of views to be heard otherwise it would be as dull as ditch-water even if some of opinions expressed — such as those uttered by Galloway — are unacceptable to some. What is also unacceptable and beyond the pale for such programmes is an audience, however passionate they may feel about a guest or his views, trying to shout down the panellist.

You do not have to be one of the ‘‘Ashamed Jews’’ featured in novelist Howard Jacobson’s brilliant Booker prize-winning novel The Finkler Question to think public venting of anger, in the form of wild heckling that drowns out debate, is not the best way to marshal support to the cause. Indeed, the nature of the question asked of Galloway and the responses of the audience led the Respect MP to claim afterwards that he had been ‘‘set-up’’ and the programme was ‘‘poorly chaired.’’

Question Time can be spiky and often members of the audience do become agitated. But it is not Hyde Park Corner on a bad Sunday afternoon, where incoherent arguments and speech bordering on hate are uttered. It is a civilised debate programme involving Cabinet Ministers and senior Opposition figures and the overall tone is civilised.

It is rare for the chairman David Dimbleby to have to declare that the crowd behaviour (as it was on February 5) was not in keeping with the traditions of the programme. I cannot be the first person to think that sometimes the audience is chosen to provoke strong reactions. So health sector workers are included when the NHS is on the agenda. Generally speaking, views are expressed passionately but in a civilised way but this was not the case on the night of the Galloway appearance when at times the spectators, some wearing kippot, let their emotions get the better of their intellects. Galloway resisted in his comments any suggestion that he was antisemitic or his views contributed to antisemitism. Indeed, he went as far as saying if he had been around in the 1930s he would have joined the marches against Fascism in. Nevertheless, his charge, for instance, that Israel was guilty of ‘‘mass murder’’ in the Gaza conflict, where 2,168 people died, was a distortion.

Of course, all loss of life is terrible. If Galloway really wanted to focus on ‘‘mass murder’’ in the Middle East he could have referred to the Syrian conflict, which has claimed 191,000 lives according to UN figures, or to the actions of Islamic State in Northern Iraq. Instead, he chose to use a narrative against Israel, which, as the CST data would suggest, does provoke antisemitic responses — even if that was not intended.

There is no doubt that Jews in Britain do feel more vulnerable and panicked than in the past. All antisemitic attacks must be condemned and worries about the security of our families is perfectly justified. No one wants to run the gamut of protesters to shop in stores selling Israeli or kosher goods or fear for their kids at school or travelling to and from school. The discussion about rising antisemitism in Britain, its causes and who is behind it is perfectly justified. Yet we should remember that Britain remains a tolerant society and a place where public expression of racist views is abhorrent.

British Jews are often praised for the lesson they offer subsequent generations of immigrants by fitting in with the traditions and practices of their adopted country, while retaining strong Jewish identities. Part of the British-tradition is calm, cool, collected debate defeating those with opposing views with words rather than catcalls.

Too often since Operation Protective Edge the debate has become less measured and the crowd behaviour unappealing. That was the case at Question Time and also at some events in the community. We must all combat those who single out Israel as a pariah state rather than recognising its achievements. But shouting down the messengers, rather than engaging in serious dialogue, doesn’t make much sense.

February 12, 2015 14:33

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