BBC’s Stephen Sackur does ‘the Israeli psyche’

The guest appearing in the March 13th edition of the BBC’s interview programme ‘Hardtalk’ was Israeli author Ayelet Gundar-Goshen who has previously appeared in BBC content.

Hosted by Stephen Sackur, the programme was aired on the BBC World News television channel, on BBC World Service radio and is also available as a podcast. A clip from the programme was posted on the BBC News website.

“Stephen Sackur speaks to Ayelet Gundar-Goshen, a prize-winning Israeli novelist who brings a trained psychologist’s eye to compelling stories set in her home country. Hers is a world of moral ambiguity where truth, memory, right and wrong aren’t necessarily what they seem. Does her work tell us something important about the Israeli psyche?”

On several occasions throughout the interview, Stephen Sackur employed fictional characters and quotes from Gundar-Goshen’s novels to try to support his own narratives concerning Israel and Israelis and many of his questions were – predictably – aimed at framing Israel in a specific fashion. [emphasis in italics in the original]

0:40 Sackur: “That is interesting ‘cos it’s searching for the nuance, for a deeper understanding of actions and events. It seems to me that may be difficult in a country, Israel, which I know from personal experience is such a very intense place where people, in a sense, always feel there are existential questions and there are always sides to be taken – our side, their side, good against bad.”

8:29 Sackur: “In some ways your books have magic in them but they also have very difficult, dark stuff in them and when we come back to this theme of your take on truth and lies, you examine and challenge some of the truths that all Israelis think they know and hold very dear, some of them connected with the Holocaust which in your books hangs over so much of your fiction and it’s interpreted in different ways and frankly some people tell lies about what happened […] But also, the story of Israel’s creation. The coming about of the state, the fight in ’47 and ’48 that established the nation. You suggest in one of your books that people who fought in that war don’t always tell the truth about it. That there are serious lies told about how Israel was created.”

11:41 Sackur: “Do you think Israel has a problem with empathy with those who are not – well, we’re talking about Israeli Jews – those who are not Jewish?”

18:46 Sackur: “You live in a country where, if one looks at politics, the majority opinion right now is pretty Right-wing. Binyamin Netanyahu’s been prime minister for a long time. The Likud party looks like it, you know, might well win the next election too. You and a whole bunch of Israeli writers – if I can put it this way – of the progressive Left seem to be out of sync with the majority of the people in your own country.”

In one part of the conversation Sackur brings up the topic of African migrants in Israel in relation to one of Gundar-Goshen’s books. After his guest has clarified that the dilemmas raised in that novel do not apply solely to Israelis, Sackur goes on to contradict her with some obviously pre-prepared material.

13:45 Sackur: “I think that is a really powerful point you make but nonetheless there are some interesting statistics around this which do suggest there’s a difference between Israel and some European countries. For example many people won’t know but there is a significant number of Eritreans and other Africans – but mostly Eritreans – who illegally migrated into Israel in search of a better life. They’re mostly kept in detention centres. Some live illegally in the country. There are believed to be 40 – 50 thousand of them. Israel has recognised the refugee status…actually I think literally of a handful of Eritreans. In…in Europe the EU says that Eritreans who actually make it onto European territory, 90% of them – because of the way Eritrea is – are given refugee status. So there is a difference and it does seem that Israel is absolutely adamant that it doesn’t want to help the outsider in that way.”

Let’s examine Sackur’s claims one by one. Firstly, according to the government office responsible, there were 37,288 migrants in Israel at the beginning of 2018 rather than “40 – 50 thousand” as claimed by Sackur. Those migrants are not “mostly kept in detention centres” – the Holot detention centre was closed a year ago – they “mostly” live in southern Tel Aviv and in additional towns.

While failing to clarify how many of the people he admits “illegally migrated into Israel in search of a better life” have actually made applications for refugee status, Sackur compares an unspecified number – “a handful” – with a percentage. He quotes an EU statistic but without clarifying that in 2017 for example, “90%” in fact related to some 26,900 Eritreans granted protection status (rather than exclusively “refugee status” as claimed by Sackur) in 28 EU countries with a collective population of well over 500 million. So while in 2017 for example Croatia accepted 100% of the applications made by Eritreans, that actually amounted to ten people. Lithuania also accepted 100% of applications – 25 people – as did Latvia – 20 people in all. 

Of course those familiar with Stephen Sackur’s track record when interviewing Israelis would not be in the least surprised by this latest promotion of his long evident chosen narrative concerning their country.



BBC WS yet again promotes inaccurate claim of Israeli book ‘ban’

Between December 31st 2015 and February 22nd 2016, assorted BBC platforms produced five separate reports or programmes which falsely described a certain book as having been ‘banned’ by the Israeli government.

On March 13th inaccurate information concerning that book – Dorit Rabinyan’s novel ‘Borderlife’ – was once again promoted in an item appearing in the BBC World Service radio programme ‘The Cultural Frontline’.Cultural Frontline WS 13 3 full

The item (from 14:33 here and with an abridged version promoted separately on social media) was introduced by presenter Tina Daheley as follows:

“Our next stop this week is Egypt and a new development in the country’s historically difficult relationship with neighbouring Israel. The improving diplomatic situation between the two countries was challenged last week when the Egyptian MP Tawfik Okasha was voted out of parliament by his colleagues for inviting the Israeli ambassador to dinner at his house. Apparently the problem was that his invitation normalised relations with Israel.”

Listeners would have little idea of what that story is about because the BBC did not cover it at the time. The introduction continued:

“And these frosty relations aren’t confined to the political sphere, as the Israeli novelist Ayelet Gundar-Goshen – author of ‘Waking Lions’; a novel which looks at integration within Israeli society – explains.”

Gundar-Goshen’s account concerns a controversy which arose last month when an Arabic language version of a book by an Israeli journalist was discovered at the Cairo International Book Fair. Despite having told listeners that among the books available in Egyptian book stores are ‘Mein Kampf’ and the antisemitic forgery ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion’, Gundar-Goshen nevertheless claimed that the Egyptian cultural scene “refuses any normalisation with the Israeli state due to the Israeli occupation of Palestine”.Cultural Frontline WS 13 3 clip

Having mocked the Egyptian authorities’ reaction to the discovery of the Israeli journalist’s book at the Cairo Book Fair, she then went on to state:

“Only a month ago I heard the same music from Israeli politicians after the Israeli minister of education decided to ban from school curriculum an Israeli novel about an Israeli-Palestinian love affair. Now it’s our neighbours from the south who is banning Israeli books. The Right-wing government in Israel isn’t so different from the Egyptian politicians: both afraid of the power of the written word.”

The book ‘Borderlife’ was not ‘banned’ from the school curriculum: it was not included in a list of books upon which high school students will be examined for their GCSE equivalent certificate in literature.

The BBC’s repeated misrepresentation of Dorit Rabinyan’s book as having been ‘banned’ is by now far too recurrent to be excused as a mere error. That falsehood has been serially promoted over the last two and a half months, with BBC audiences being repeatedly herded towards the inaccurate and politically motivated narrative of a dark Israeli regime which bans books on ideological grounds.

Related Articles:

BBC World Service conflates fact and fiction in promotion of ‘racist’ Israel

BBC World Service ‘Newshour’ reports a ‘book ban’ that does not exist

How many inaccuracies can the BBC cram into a 23 word sentence?

BBC World Service continues to promote the fiction of an Israeli ‘book ban’

How an uncorrected inaccuracy became BBC conventional wisdom

BBC World Service conflates fact and fiction in promotion of ‘racist’ Israel

BBC World Service radio has a programme called ‘Focus on Africa’ which purports to provide listeners with “reports and analysis of the day’s political, economic and sports news from across Africa”. The programme includes a section titled “Art from Focus on Africa” where audiences can “listen to interviews, news and reviews of arts from Africa” and indeed most of the items in that category relate to African artists and performers.

On March 2nd however the programme included an interview (which was also promoted separately on social media) with a writer who is not from Africa. The synopsis to that clip reads:Focus on Africa 2 3

“Tens of thousands of illegal migrants from Africa live in Israel, many of whom come from Eritrea and Sudan.

What kind of story might unfold if an Israeli citizen becomes involved with one of those migrants? What challenges might they face personally and socially?

These are questions explored by Israeli author Ayelet Gundar-Goshen in a new novel called Waking Lions.

She has been telling BBC Africa’s Mary Morgan more about the book’s central character.”

Much of the item relates to Gundar-Goshen’s novel about what she describes as a “Left-wing liberal doctor who votes for the right party” but is “completely unaware of the fact that he’s actually a racist”. However at one point presenter Mary Morgan takes the conversation away from fiction:

“How do you think most Israelis feel about and interact with African migrants?”

Listeners then hear the following assertion from Gundar-Goshen:

“Well I think most Israelis interact with African migrants but they just don’t think about it. It’s the people who clean our houses. It’s the people who clean our table. Israel is a very white society. It’s not like here. So almost all the black people that you meet are illegal refugees and I think things that will sound racist here are not even considered racist in Israel. Like the sentence when he [the novel’s main character] says ‘they all look the same for me’. I think to your eyes like this is like someone would never even dare to say. This is something that you say only inside your heart. And in Israel this is actually something that you could say and be OK.” [emphasis added]

The claim that “Israel is a very white society” can of course only be made if one ignores the fact that as of 2009, 50.2% of Israeli Jews were of Mizrachi or Sephardi background with origins in Africa and Asia. It can only be made if you ignore the 1.5% of the Israeli population of Ethiopian descent along with the Israelis with roots in places such as Yemen and Cochin, the African Hebrew Israelite community, around 10,000 black Bedouin of African descent and additional sections of Israeli society.

The BBC World Service did manage to ignore all that – with the result that listeners were fed information which, whilst it may well serve the purpose of promoting the interviewee’s work of fiction, certainly leaves them with a distorted and inaccurate view of the facts concerning a country which is actually far more diverse than “here” – i.e. the UK. 

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In which the BBC’s Addis Ababa correspondent decides who is Jewish