The BBC fully recorded an incendiary radio debate about whether anti-Zionism should be a “protected characteristic” despite claiming just hours later that it wasn’t planning on broadcasting it, the JC can reveal.
The discussion for Radio 4, in which Rabbi Jonathan Romain opposed Jewish anti-Israel blogger Robert Cohen, took place last Friday and was set to go out on Sunday.
Later that day, responding to widespread criticism, the BBC told the JC: “We are always exploring a range of possible topics but there’s no planned item about anti-Zionism on the Sunday programme.”
However, Rabbi Romain told the JC that after the segment was recorded, producers told him it would be broadcast on Sunday. It was later pulled.
Rabbi Romain said: “I was approached by the BBC on Friday morning to do an interview on the move to make anti-Zionism a protected philosophical belief.”
Describing a “robust debate” of “between seven and eight minutes” with Mr Cohen, the rabbi said: “I forcefully made the point that Zionism originally meant the establishment of a Jewish homeland and ever since 1948 has meant the maintenance of a Jewish homeland, but it does not refer to particular borders.
“It is perfectly permissible to criticise particular Israeli policies, and half of all Israelis do, but if [Mr Cohen] and others are anti-Zionist, they are denying Israel’s very right to exist.
“What is more, given that every other people have that right, and he wishes Palestinians to have it too, then denying it just to Jews is exceptionalism and antisemitic.”
Rabbi Romain revealed: “Later that afternoon, I was phoned by the producer and told, very regretfully, that ‘someone higher up the chain’ had decided that as the application to make anti-Zionism protected was only a proposal and had not been initiated yet, the BBC would postpone the item until it was made.”
The JC can also reveal that on Friday morning before the recording, BBC producers telephoned the Board of Deputies (BoD) to ask president Marie van der Zyl to take part.
The BoD declined the invitation, saying that the debate was a “bad idea”.
At that point, the discussion was proposed to include Jewish Voice for Labour (JVL) activist Diana Neslen, who has called Zionism “blasphemy”.
The Board said that it raised concerns over Ms Neslen taking part.
A BBC producer confirmed that they had intended to feature Ms Neslen before asking Mr Cohen.
Rabbi Romain said that he was unaware of the Board’s criticism at the time, but agreed with Ms van der Zyl that “Jewish Voice for Labour are totally unrepresentative of the overwhelming majority of British Jewry”.
He added: “I personally find them astonishingly biased and blinkered. However, that does not mean the BBC cannot interview them, so long as their minority status is made clear or a more mainstream figure in the Jewish community is able to speak alongside them and refute their views.”
Ms van der Zyl said: “The BBC’s intention to host a debate on whether vocal opposition to that belief should be a ‘protected characteristic’ is a grotesque insult to an overwhelming majority of British Jews.
"Those on the fringes of our community have every right to express their views. Yet for our national broadcaster to invite such people to give their view, and then ask a representative of one of our communal organisations to ‘debate’ this view, places these opinions on an equal footing and gives listeners an utterly inaccurate impression of the general view of British Jews.”
On Sunday the BBC issued a second statement saying: “We are always exploring a range of possible topics but there was no item about anti-Zionism on the Sunday programme this weekend.”
Mr Cohen tweeted: “Needs pointing out that neither the Board of Deputies nor the ‘vast majority of Jews’ should determine what can or cannot be debated on the BBC when it comes to Zionism or anti-Zionism.
“Zionism is an ideology, not a copyrighted brand.”