The eruption of further scandals concerning members of the UK Labour party last week prompted extensive coverage of the story on all the BBC’s various platforms, with some items purporting to explain to the corporation’s audiences the difference between antisemitism and anti-Zionism. One such written backgrounder was previously discussed here and another item with the same theme appeared (from 01:48:00 here) in the April 30th edition of BBC Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme.
Inadvertently demonstrating once again why the fact that the BBC does not work according to an accepted definition of antisemitism is problematic, presenter Justin Webb introduced the item as follows:
“Now, can you be anti-Israeli without being antisemitic? The question swirls around the debate about Labour’s current difficulties. What does the dividing line actually look like? Well we heard on this programme during the week an open disagreement between two Jewish commentators about whether disputing Israel’s right to exist did or did not itself constitute antisemitsm.”
The programme Webb appears to be referring to can be found here at 01:36:05. He of course refrains from informing listeners that according to the definition of antisemitism used by the All Party Parliamentary Group Against Antisemitism and the College of Policing, “[d]enying the Jewish people their right to self-determination” is indeed considered antisemitism.
With no attempt to conform to standards of impartiality, Webb then appears to imply that Israelis are responsible for contemporary European antisemitism:
“Others suggest that the illegal settlement building on Palestinian land is the root cause of the modern problem. So how does it all look from the perspective of Israel – and the Palestinians? Our Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen is in Jerusalem and I asked him first what the generally accepted difference was between antisemitism and anti-Zionism.”
Listeners are not informed of the source of that “generally accepted difference” but Bowen’s explanation is as follows: [emphasis added]
“Anti-Zionism is the opposition to the idea of Zionism which emerged as an idea in the late 19th century and that was a time when nationalism and self-determination were very big ideas in Europe where large empires ruled many different races. And, if you like, Zionism in the 19th century was the Jewish equivalent of that nationalism with the idea that Jews could go back to what they regarded as their ancestral homeland which – depending on definition – means various amounts of the land between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea.”
No effort is made to clarify the legal side of the story in the form of the Mandate for Palestine which clearly defined what Bowen misleadingly terms “various amounts of land”. He continues:
“Now antisemitism is the hatred of Jews because they’re Jews. It includes the blood libel – that Jews murder Christians to use their blood in Jewish rituals. And it also classically includes the promotion of stereotypes – the evil, grasping Jew like Shylock in Shakespeare’s ‘Merchant of Venice’.”
Webb then once again floats the notion that Israel is to blame for antisemitism.
“So when you come to modern times and to the existence of the State of Israel and the way that Israel is…set up, is it fair to say that there are things about Israel that fuel…err…well all of those things – both anti-Zionism and antisemitism?”
Bowen wisely refrains from following Webb’s lead and replies:
“Well really the big issue is where is the dividing line between what people might regard as legitimate criticism of the actions of the government of Israel as a government and antisemitism which is simply criticizing them because they’re Jews. There’s something called the BDS campaign which is about boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel because of its occupation of Palestinian territories and actions it’s taken. Now…eh…that’s been described as an antisemitic campaign because among other things it denies the right of Jews to self-determination, they’d say, it uses classic antisemitic symbols…ehm…and even at times – according to ngomonitor.org which looks at these things from a pro-Israeli point of view – compares contemporary Israeli policy with the Nazis. Now supporters of this campaign called BDS say it’s a legitimate tactic of non-violent resistance and the Israeli government only complains about it because it works as a…it works as far as they’re concerned as a form of pressure.”
That portrayal of the BDS campaign is of course particularly remarkable in light of the fact that whilst Bowen and his colleagues have frequently promoted, amplified and mainstreamed it, to date BBC audiences have never been told that the campaign aims to deny Jews the right to self-determination – despite the Middle East editor obviously being aware of that agenda. Bowen then continues:
“So I mean that is one of the issues on the dividing line. There are others as well. Err…you may remember a couple of years ago the British House of Commons in…in a vote that was non-binding expressed support for the idea of recognition of a Palestinian state. About three-quarters of UN members have recognized a Palestinian state. But the Community Security Trust – which is a British Jewish organization that monitors antisemitism – it said that that vote stoked antisemitism in Britain. So where you put that dividing line is quite a matter of debate once you get away from the clear extremes.”
However, Bowen’s portrayal of the CST’s statement is not accurate and it materially misleads listeners. The CST did not say – as Bowen claims – that the vote in the House of Commons “stoked antisemitism in Britain”. What it did say in its report on Antisemitic Discourse in Britain in 2014 (see page 33 onwards) was that some of the language used in the debate surrounding that vote employed antisemitic themes.
“The vote on 13 October 2014 by MPs to recognise Palestinian statehood caused a number of reactions, explicitly or implicitly echoing the staple antisemitic conspiracy charge that Jews control politicians: expressed either as “Jewish” or “pro-Israel” lobbies. The control charge was variously made against both British and American lobbies.”
Seeing as some of that antisemitic discourse took place on the very same BBC radio station to which Bowen is speaking in this item, one might have expected him to be more au fait with the story – and to be able to portray it accurately.
The item closes with Bowen’s appraisal of the Palestinian view of the story – although listeners are not told why the BBC considers that view to be relevant. We do however learn that the BBC does in fact know that the Arabic word ‘Yahud’ does not mean ‘Israeli’ and – despite the fact that the issue is never raised in BBC content – that the corporation is aware of the existence of antisemitism in Palestinian society.
Webb: “And what do all these arguments look like to Palestinians?”
Bowen: “Well, you know, I think for a lot of Palestinians…ahm…you know Palestinians often routinely refer to Israelis when they’re speaking Arabic – they don’t call them the Israelis; they call them the Jews. Ah…and you do hear quite antisemitic remarks from…ah…Palestinians and sometimes if you challenge them on that they say things like – and you don’t always hear those by the way, I have to say that – but sometimes if you challenge them they say look, it’s about the occupation. They’ve taken our land, they’ve taken what we believe is ours so we don’t like them for that reason. And that – I was talking to someone about it yesterday and he said…ah…for centuries Jews lived next to Arabs and there weren’t problems until the State of Israel started. So, you know, again on the Palestinian point of view though, I think they’re more concerned with their own particular issues than whether or not things are antisemitic.”
The item closes there with Bowen making no effort to inform listeners that antisemitism and persecution of Jewish communities in the Arab world existed long before Israel – and political Zionism – came on the scene.
Did listeners go away with a better understanding of antisemitism and anti-Zionism? That is extremely doubtful but what is obvious yet again is that the BBC will remain incapable of adequately explaining this subject to its audiences so long as it fails to work according to accepted definitions of antisemitism.