Politicising the Balfour Declaration on BBC Radio 4 – part two

In part one of this post we saw how an item by Trevor Barnes relating to the Balfour Declaration that was aired in the October 1st edition (from 18:14 here) of the BBC Radio 4 ethics and religion show ‘Sunday‘ promoted assorted historical inaccuracies.  

Trevor Barnes’ fourth interviewee likewise began by promoting an inaccurate claim, suggesting (from 21:10) that “Israel and Palestine” were British colonies.

“I think Britain doesn’t come out of any of the colonial history of Israel and Palestine in that good a light.”

Barnes: “Chris Rose – director of the Amos Trust; a Christian organisation working in the West Bank and Gaza.”

That description of the Amos Trust is grossly inadequate and fails to inform listeners of that NGO’s political agenda and anti-Israel activities as BBC editorial guidelines on impartiality require.

Rose: “Even Balfour himself a couple of years later on said that Zionism be right or wrong is more important than the wishes of the 700,000 Arabs. Our call is to the British Government now, if it is determined to celebrate the Balfour Declaration, to do so in the only real meaningful way by working tirelessly for full equal rights for everybody who calls it home.”

The statement by Lord Balfour shoddily paraphrased by Chris Rose (who has in the past attributed Palestinian terrorism to “high unemployment and poor amenities“) comes from a memorandum written by Balfour in 1919 and its context – the question of the selection of mandatories in various regions of the Middle East – is important. 

“Without further considering whether the political picture drawn by the Covenant [of the League of Nations] corresponds with anything to be found in the realms of fact, let us ask on what principle these mandatories are to be selected by the Allied and Associated Powers

On this point the Covenant speaks as follows:—

‘The wishes of these communities (i.e., the independent nations) must be a principal consideration in the selection of a mandatory.’

The sentiment is unimpeachable; but how is it to be carried into effect? To simplify the argument, let us assume that two of the ‘independent nations’ for which mandatories have to be provided are Syria and Palestine? Take Syria first. Do we mean, in the case of Syria, to consult principally the wishes of the inhabitants? We mean nothing of the kind. According to the universally accepted view there are only three possible mandatories—England, America, and France. Are we going ‘chiefly to consider the wishes of the inhabitants’ in deciding which of these is to be selected? We are going to do nothing of the kind. England has refused. America will refuse. So that, whatever the inhabitants may wish, it is France they will certainly have. They may freely choose; but it is Hobson’s choice after all.

The contradiction between the letter of the Covenant and the policy of the Allies is even more flagrant in the case of the ‘independent nation’ of Palestine than in that of the ‘independent nation’ of Syria. For in Palestine we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country, though the American Commission has been going through the form of asking what they are. The four Great Powers are committed to Zionism. And Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long traditions, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land.”

Referring to Chris Rose, Trevor Barnes continued – with noteworthy use of the word Jewish rather than Israeli:

Barnes: “His claim is that the second half of the declaration has still to be honoured. While the first half favoured a Jewish homeland, the second reassured explicitly – quote – ‘that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities’ which Chris Rose says hasn’t happened in practice, though for the Board of Deputies Richard Verber defends the Jewish record on religious freedom post-Balfour.”

Verber: “Well there are many cases in Israel proper where religions do indeed co-exist in harmony. Jerusalem has its flash-points but you go and you see Jews, Muslims, Christians, Bahai, Druze walking around. Many have their own areas and places of worship. Israel is of course the only place in the Middle East where Christians are free to worship without persecution.”

Rose: “If you live in Bethlehem you may well not be able to go up to Temple Mount to pray, to worship. If you want to go and worship in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre you pretty won’t be able to do that and so while yes there’s religious freedom in that respect, there has to be recognised that there’s also major constrictions on freedom of movement which restricts people from having their religious freedom.”

Unsurprisingly Chris Rose did not bother to tell listeners that residents of Bethlehem and other areas that have been under Palestinian Authority control for over two decades can apply for permits to visit religious sites in Jerusalem (among other reasons) or that “constrictions on freedom of movement” are the unfortunate outcome of Palestinian terrorism. While Trevor Barnes did tick the impartiality box by paraphrasing the Israeli view, he too failed to make any reference to Palestinian terrorism. Listeners were then told that Jewish self-determination is a “hotly contested concept”.

Barnes: “Chris Rose of the Amos Trust. For its part the Israeli government has repeatedly said that such restrictions as there are are driven solely by security concerns and by the imperative legitimately to ensure the country’s survival. And in essence, says Richard Verber, the right of Israel to exist in the first place is at the heart of any religious definition of that hotly contested concept Zionism.”

Verber: “Zionism is a religious imperative. It’s a core belief in Judaism today. The word Zionism is clearly a newer invention – we’re talking here 19th century – but the idea of there being a desire among the Jewish people to have autonomy in their own homeland dates back 3,300 years when the Jewish people first entered what was then the land of Canaan – Cna’an. I think Jewish people have long understood the importance of living alongside their religious brethren; whether that be Christian or Muslim or indeed any other stripe or people of no faith at all.”

Barnes: From its inception Zionism itself did not have the backing of all Jews – especially religious Jews who argued that a return to the land of Israel was to be the work of the Messiah and couldn’t be engineered by any human agency. Events of the Second World War and the Holocaust, however, put paid to many reservations and the promise of the Balfour Declaration was made actual in 1948. Indeed Richard Verber for the Board of Deputies argues that the founders of the State of Israel referenced the Balfour Declaration, repeating and reinforcing a commitment to civil and religious freedom. The Amos Trust, however, isn’t convinced and they’ve launched a campaign ‘Change the Record’ calling for equal rights for all in the holy land.”

Listeners then heard a recording promoting that political campaign currently being run by the inadequately presented political NGO: a campaign which aims to persuade the British government that “the seeds of today’s injustice, inequality and violence were sown by the Balfour Declaration in 1917”. 

Barnes went on to say:

Barnes: “Those celebrating – rather than mourning – the Balfour Declaration dispute that reading of events. But either way Nicolas Pelham says it changed the religious make-up not just of Palestine but of much of the Middle East.”

Pelham: “Until the Balfour declaration, under the Ottoman Empire religious communities had lived essentially as that – as holy communities – and what the Balfour Declaration does is to transform religious communities into religious national movements so that instead of sharing space they have conflict over space. Instead of having holy communities in the region, we have holy lands and the battle between sects for control of the land.”

Listeners to this unbalanced item heard inaccurate and blatantly politicised ‘history’ and were steered towards the false impression that the Middle East was a region blessed with idyllic inter-religious harmony until the day Arthur Balfour put pen to paper. They were also informed that Jewish self-determination is a “contested concept” and exposed to an ongoing political campaign run by a partisan NGO that engages in delegitimisation of Israel.

How this item by Trevor Barnes can be said to meet BBC editorial guidelines on accuracy and impartiality is unclear.  

Related Articles:

Politicising the Balfour Declaration on BBC Radio 4 – part one

Reviewing BBC portrayal of the Balfour Declaration

BBC’s ME Editor misrepresents the Hussein-McMahon correspondence

BBC’s Connolly contorts Israeli – and British – history to fit his political narrative

 

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Politicising the Balfour Declaration on BBC Radio 4 – part one

Despite the fact that it claims to take “a look at the ethical and religious issues of the week”, the October 1st edition of the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘Sunday‘ included an item purporting to examine the “impact of the Balfour Declaration on religious communities in the Middle East”.

Presenter Emily Buchanan introduced the segment (from 18:14 here) as follows: [emphasis in italics in the original, emphasis in bold added]

Buchanan: “This year marks the 100th anniversary of a letter that changed the face of Middle Eastern politics forever. The Balfour Declaration – written by Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour in 1917 at a critical period in the First World War – expressed for the first time Britain’s commitment to a national homeland for the Jews. It paved the way for the creation of the State of Israel 30 years later but what effect did the declaration have on the religious make-up of the region? Trevor Barnes reports.”

Interestingly, neither Buchanan nor any of the five other people from whom listeners subsequently heard talking about this topic bothered to mention the event that was arguably more significant in ‘paving the way’ towards the creation of Israel – the San Remo Conference – and the resulting Mandate for Palestine.

Trevor Barnes introduced his first contributor thus:

Barnes: “Whether you celebrate the Balfour Declaration, merely commemorate it or actively fulminate against it depends on the political and religious position you take. Eugene Rogan: professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of Oxford.”

Rogan: “For anybody whose political aspirations are fulfilled by Zionism then obviously the Balfour Declaration was the essential first step in that direction. But for the Palestinian Arab people whose land was being promised away by the British government at the height of the First World War without their consent, without consultation, it’s been an unmitigated catastrophe from the outset.”

At the time that the Balfour Declaration was written the land concerned was of course under the control of the Ottoman Empire and had been for five hundred years. Subsequently that region came under British control during the First World War and later was declared mandate territory. Just last month the BBC acknowledged that the area was not ‘Palestinian land’ but nevertheless we see Eugene Rogan allowed to promote that myth again, even though Barnes went on to reference the Ottoman Empire in the very next sentence.

Barnes: “Precise figures are disputed but in 1917 in the last days of the Ottoman Empire, the region is reckoned to have comprised some 85% Muslim, around 10% Christian and 5% Jewish populations. Nicolas Pelham: Middle East correspondent at the Economist.”

Pelham: “It was a region that was remarkably heterogeneous. It had a predominance of Muslims but there were also large Christian communities and Jewish communities – largely sharing the same cities and towns and public space. There was no real distinct sort of Christian Quarter and Jewish Quarter and Muslim Quarter before the Balfour Declaration.”

The staggering inaccuracy of that latter claim from Nicolas Pelham is of course evident in maps such as those appearing in Sir Martin Gilbert’s Jerusalem Historical Atlas.

Trevor Barnes continued, enlisting a British Jewish representative to paint an idyllic picture of Jewish-Muslim co-existence.

Barnes: “Relations, he says, if not always cordial were manageable in the main. Richard Verber: senior vice-president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews.”

Verber: “Pockets of friendship and, unfortunately, pockets of violence. On the other hand, Jewish and Muslim friendships is not a new concept. There were times – across Spain, across North Africa, across parts of the Middle East – where Jews and Muslims lived for decades – and in some places centuries – harmoniously.”

Barnes then made the historically inaccurate claim that it was the Balfour Declaration that brought that supposed ‘harmony’ to an end.

Barnes: “The Balfour Declaration altered that balance, promising favoured status to the Jews at a critical stage in the First World War when Britain was looking for allies; especially those who could help secure post-war influence in this strategically vital part of the world. Nicolas Pelham:”

Pelham: “I think one of the reasons that Britain was so interested in Jews was because – unlike the French and the Russians – they really didn’t have an indigenous community for which they could take responsibility. The French had Catholics and Maronites in the Middle East. The Russians had the Orthodox Church and Britain was really scraping around for a community that it could sponsor and wield influence through.”

The Anglican Church had in fact first begun to establish a presence in the Middle East almost a hundred years before the Balfour Declaration was written, with churches consecrated in Jerusalem and Nazareth in the 19th century and St George’s Cathedral in Jerusalem established as the centre of the diocese in 1898.

Barnes: “And Professor Rogan adds that the declaration came about not as a result of religious favouritism but solely in the context of the realities of war.”

Rogan: “I sympathise with the British government of the time in their willingness to promise anything to anyone who might be able to make a material difference in winning the war. The British government was neither pro-Arab nor pro-Zionist. It was pro-British Empire and its only objective in 1917 was to win the war.”

As will be seen in part two of this post, in the second part of this item the focus shifted from promotion of historical inaccuracy to blatant politicisation of its subject matter.  

Related Articles:

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BBC’s Yolande Knell reports on Archbishop of Canterbury’s ME visit

May 8th saw the appearance of an article by Yolande Knell titled “Archbishop of Canterbury to meet Palestinian and Israeli leaders” on the BBC News website’s Middle East and UK pages.

Much of Knell’s report is devoted to coverage of Justin Welby’s itinerary, which included a very short visit to Christian institutions the Gaza Strip. Knell tells readers that:

“The archbishop has been careful to hear voices from both sides in the decades-old Israel-Palestinian conflict.

In a previously unannounced move, he visited Gaza – which has seen repeated conflicts between Palestinian militants and Israel in the past decade.

He also met Israelis living under threat of rocket fire from Palestinian militants in a kibbutz near the border.”

Residents of the Israeli communities located near the border with the Gaza Strip are not just “under threat” from the terrorists that Knell coyly describes as “militants”: attacks do frequently happen. However, seeing as the BBC has refrained from informing its English-speaking audiences of any of the eight incidents of missile attacks that have taken place since the beginning of this year and throughout the whole of 2016 only reported one attack, readers would be unlikely to be able to fill in the blanks for themselves.

The archbishop also visited Christian institutions in Nazareth including a school and four churches. Regardless of how the people he met there choose to self-identify, Yolande Knell collectively describes them as follows: [emphasis added]

“The archbishop has visited Palestinian Christian communities in Nazareth and in Bethlehem, where he prayed and ate falafel with Christian mayor, Vera Baboun.”

Referring to a story she has often promoted in the past, Knell also tells readers that:

“He [Welby] was due to meet Christian families in the Cremisan Valley, whose land is affected by the construction of Israel’s West Bank barrier.”

One item on the archbishop’s itinerary which Knell left out of her coverage was a visit to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem to pay tribute to UK student Hannah Bladon who was murdered last month in a terror attack in the city.

One of the stranger features of this report is Knell’s opening of her article with the promotion of some unfounded linkage.

“The Archbishop of Canterbury is to meet Palestinian and Israeli political leaders as part of a 12-day tour of the Holy Land.

His visit comes two weeks before US President Donald Trump is due to arrive in Jerusalem to try to revive the moribund peace process.

However, the Most Reverend Justin Welby indicated there should not be too much significance read into the timing.”

Welby’s latest trip to the region was announced back in March while Trump’s upcoming visit was announced on May 4th and there is no indication of any link between the two visits. Although Knell tells BBC audiences that the purpose of the US president’s 26 hour visit is “to try to revive the moribund peace process”, the official announcement lays out additional (and no less newsworthy) aims.

“President Trump has also accepted the invitation of President Reuven Rivlin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to visit Israel, where he will further strengthen the United States-Israel partnership.  The leaders will discuss a range of regional issues, including the need to counter the threats posed by Iran and its proxies, and by ISIS and other terrorist groups.  They will also discuss ways to advance a genuine and lasting peace between the Israelis and Palestinians.

President Trump has also accepted the invitation of President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority to meet with him to discuss ways to advance peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, as well as efforts to unlock the potential of the Palestinian economy.”

Moreover, the day before this article was published, the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘Sunday’ aired an item about Welby’s trip (from 01:00 here) that was mostly devoted to an interview with the archbishop by Yolande Knell. The last question she asked (at 05:45) was:

Knell: “You’ve come at a very sensitive time as attempts to get peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians restarted. Was that your intention?”

Welby: “I would not presume that. I come to pray, to share, to listen, to encourage. It would be very presumptuous to go further.”

Despite that very clear answer, Knell nevertheless decided to include a totally superfluous mention of the US president’s upcoming visit and “the moribund peace process” in her BBC News website article. 

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BBC’s Yolande Knell touts the ‘1967 borders’ illusion on Radio 4

The BBC Radio 4 programme ‘Sundayclaims that it gives listeners “a look at the ethical and religious issues of the week”. However, the lead item in its January 15th edition fell outside that mission statement and, as its description in the programme’s synopsis shows, was in fact a transparently political story.r4-sunday-us-embassy-15-1

“Yolande Knell reports on the implications of a proposal by President elect Trump to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.”

Presenter Edward Stourton introduced the item (from 00:61 here) as follows:

“Will Donald Trump follow through with his campaign promise to move the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem? The answer to that question could have huge implications for the Middle East. We’re joined from Jerusalem by our correspondent Yolande Knell. Yolande; it matters because the status of Jerusalem is absolutely crucial to the two-state solution that people, until now, say they want.”

Predictably, Knell’s response had the history of the millennia-old city beginning just fifty years ago, with no mention of the preceding 19-year Jordanian occupation of parts of Jerusalem.

Knell: “That’s right and Jerusalem has proven time and time again to be one of the most explosive issues; one of the most difficult issues to solve in this decades-old conflict, not least because of its holy sites for Jews, Muslims and Christians. And of course Israel captured the east of the city – which includes the Old City – in 1967 in the Middle East war. It went on to annex East Jerusalem, declare all of Jerusalem its united, eternal capital – although that’s never been recognised internationally. And the Palestinians are basically saying that any move for a US embassy – bringing it from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem – would kill the two-state solution; this long-standing goal of international policy on this conflict. It’s enshrined in UN resolutions: the idea of creating a Palestinian state to live peacefully alongside Israel. It will be based in Gaza, the West Bank and have East Jerusalem as its capital.”

Stourton: “I think I’m right in saying the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has been in the Vatican this weekend. He’s been talking about some of this, hasn’t he?”

In her response to that question, Knell introduced the falsehood of “pre-1967 borders” – a concept which not only does not exist, but was specifically and deliberately rejected by the parties to the 1949 Armistice Agreement.

Knell: “That’s right – very deliberate timing. He was actually at the Vatican to inaugurate an embassy for the State of Palestine. This is after the Vatican recognised a State of Palestine on pre-1967 borders and he was there for talks with the Pope. He told reporters while he was there that this…again, this move would destroy the two-state solution and he talked to the Pope about the need for Jerusalem to be an open city for three religions, we’re told. The Vatican’s position is that it seeks an internationally guaranteed status for Jerusalem: a status that would safeguard its sacred character.”

Stourton: “The…Donald Trump is not the first American president to have talked about the possibility of moving the embassy to Jerusalem. Ahm…it hasn’t happened though in the past. How strong is the evidence that he’s really serious about this?”

Knell: “Well, because Donald Trump made this campaign promise and so many previous presidential contenders have – George W Bush and Bill Clinton at least and then they didn’t do it – that means that people really didn’t take it very seriously at first. But then we heard from one of his advisors – from Kellyanne Conway – that this was for him a very big priority. There was also the State Department official who came out saying to the press that it had been asked for logistical advice on a move. And then we know as well that the nominee for ambassador to Israel chosen by Mr Trump, David Friedman – somebody with very hardline views – he wants this very much. He issued a statement when he was nominated saying that he looked forward to moving the US embassy to Israel’s eternal capital Jerusalem: those were his words. So when I’ve been briefed by Palestinian officials – even in just the last few days – one of their fears is this announcement could come in the inauguration speech of Mr Trump.”

According to reports from the time, the words Knell claims to quote were actually these:

“In the statement, Freidman said he was “deeply honored and humbled” that Trump selected him to represent the US in Israel, and that he aimed to “strengthen the bond between our two countries and advance the cause of peace within the region, and look forward to doing this from the US embassy in Israel’s eternal capital, Jerusalem.””

Stourton continued:

Stourton: “What about the international background to all this because there’s this…as we have in the news, there’s this conference in Paris today on this question.”

Knell: “Yes and it’s also coming after a UN Security Council resolution was passed last month restating this commitment to the two-state solution and well-informed sources are basically saying that a draft statement from the Paris talks is going to come out with a similar kind of statement. It will affirm also the international community will not recognise changes to the pre-1967 lines for Israel unless they’re agreed with the Palestinians. It will make clear that a negotiated solution is the only way to ensure enduring peace but it’s also going to warn, I think, against unilateral moves. That could be a reference to the idea of Donald Trump moving…eh…moving the embassy because that would basically recognise Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Israel.”

In fact, the reference to “unilateral steps” in the text of the conference’s closing statement specifically relates to the two parties to the conflict rather than to the US or any other outside country.

Stourton: “And, Yolande, finally: do you detect internally any appetite for renewed negotiations between the two sides?”

Once again, BBC audiences heard a sanitised version of the breakdown of negotiations in 2014 that promotes false equivalence in Knell’s response to that question. However, Knell made sure to close with some very clear signposting with regard to which side listeners should view as being responsible for the lack of current negotiations.

Knell: “Ahm…both sides say that they’re ready to have talks but then the talks have been frozen since April 2014. They fell apart and I think that’s why there is now this…a lot of frustration from the international community. You have 70 countries and international bodies like the EU, the UN, the Arab League, other organisations, coming together for these talks. When you talk to analysts they really see these as a last-ditch attempt to try to save the moribund peace process but they don’t expect much to come out of these talks because – as much as the Palestinians are supporting them – the Israelis say that these are futile, they’re rigged, this pushes peace backwards and they’re not even going to go for a meeting with President Hollande in the coming weeks to be debriefed on what happened.”

Fatah Facebook account

Fatah Facebook account

Since mid-December the BBC has produced several items concerning or mentioning the proposed relocation of the US embassy to Jerusalem. All those reports – including this one – have amplified the Palestinian messaging on that topic but BBC audiences have yet to hear any opposite viewpoint – as BBC editorial guidelines on impartiality demand.

Seeing as we now know that Yolande Knell is “briefed by Palestinian officials – even in just the last few days”, that lack of due impartiality is perhaps more comprehensible.

Related Articles:

BBC’s Yolande Knell ditches any semblance of impartiality

BBC omits key context in account of potential US embassy move

The consequence of BBC failure to make online corrections

Reviewing BBC News website portrayal of the Paris conference

 

 

 

 

BBC Radio 4 fails to clarify the agenda of the BDS campaign and the PSC

The September 18th edition of the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘Sunday‘ included an item (from 11:54 here) described as follows in the synopsis:sunday-18-9-bod-ujs

“Jewish students fight the movement for sanctions against Israel”.

Presenter Edward Stourton introduced the item with a specious portrayal of the purpose of the BDS campaign.

“Most universities begin the new academic year around this time. The Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Union of Jewish Students are marking the moment by sending round advice on how to combat the activities of the Boycott, Disinvestment [sic] Sanctions movement – or BDS – which, in the words of its website, urges action to pressure Israel to comply with international law. We’re joined by Joel Salmon, the Board of Deputies Parliamentary Officer, and Ben Jamal who next month will take up the post of director of the Palestinian [sic] Solidarity Campaign.” [emphasis added]

The majority of listeners would of course lack the knowledge needed to appreciate just how inaccurate and misleading Stourton’s portrayal is because the BBC consistently refrains from informing its audiences that what the BDS campaign really seeks to achieve is the demise of the Jewish state. Moreover, the corporation has even shrugged off the responsibility to clarify the BDS agenda in its frequent amplification of that campaign.

In addition, listeners to this item were not informed of the “particular viewpoint” of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign as BBC editorial guidelines on impartiality demand before they heard the fallacious framing of the BDS campaign from Ben Jamal, who previously headed the PSC’s Richmond and Kingston branch.

“…I think what we’d also all want students to do is to engage in and to be involved in discussion and activism around human rights and issues of social and international justice.”

“And I think boycott – as I understand it – is a non-violent tactic that throughout history has been used by those defending human rights and fighting against oppression.”

“…this is the tactic for example that Gandhi used to oppose Britain’s violation of rights in India. It’s the tactic that Martin Luther King used to oppose segregation and it’s the tactic that Nelson Mandela used to defend the rights of black South Africans. I take Gandhi’s framing of boycott. In a way it’s a form of dialogue. It’s a way of saying to someone ‘I respect your humanity but I will not cooperate or give my political or economic support to what you are doing’.”

The uninformed listener would hence not be capable of putting Jamal’s portrayal of the specific BoD/UJS handout which is the subject of the item into its appropriate context or understanding that the undertone of the Livingstone Formulation that portrayal includes is not apparently by chance.

“One of the concerns I’ve got at the leaflet or pamphlet that’s been produced is it’s part of an attempt I think to reframe a tactic of boycott as something that is inherently divisive, hostile or at worst extremist or even quasi-violent.”

“I think my concern is this is an attempt to frame any advocacy of boycott or any criticism of Israel as inherently hostile.”

Clearly the predictable absence of adequate explanation of the BDS campaign’s true agenda in this item once again undermined the BBC’s public purpose remit of enhancing audience awareness and understanding of the issue in general and certainly did nothing to contribute to the general public’s comprehension of the very serious problem of antisemitism on the campuses of UK universities.

Obscure slot for rare BBC report on Palestinian social issues

As we have often noted on these pages, the framing adopted by the BBC in its reporting on Israel and the Palestinians barely allows for the inclusion of stories which fall outside the subject matter of ‘the conflict’ and the corporation’s journalists overwhelmingly stay away from topics such as Palestinian social issues and internal affairs. Neither does that editorial policy leave any room for nuanced views of relations between Israelis and Palestinians. Hence, when such stories do slip through the net they are all the more remarkable – especially if the BBC’s UK audiences are hearing them for the first time.R4 Sunday 5 6

On June 5th the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘Sunday’ included an item described thus in its synopsis:

“In his first UK media interview, Ed Stourton talks to John Calvin, grandson of the co-founder of Hamas, whose conversion to Christianity meant he had to flee the Middle East.”

Presenter Edward Stourton introduced the interview (from 19:30 here) as follows:

“A couple of months ago a young man going under the assumed name of John Calvin was told he could remain in the United States rather than being sent back to the West Bank where he grew up. His journey to New York, where he now lives, was all the more remarkable because he was born into a family committed to the radical Palestinian group Hamas. Indeed, his grandfather was one of the organisation’s founders. John Calvin converted to Christianity – his name will give you an idea which flavour – and he’s since come out as gay. In his first British broadcast interview he told me about growing up in a Hamas family.”

The interview is not particularly long but it does provide listeners with very rare glimpses into issues such as the status of women, the indoctrination of children and the treatment of apostates and homosexuals in certain sectors of Palestinian society. The audience also heard an account which is starkly different to the usual BBC caricature of Palestinians and Israelis.

Calvin: “…in early 2006 I’ve had a fight with my family and ran from home and went to Israel where I was detained for crossing the Israeli West Bank border without proper documentations. In the minors’ prison I had a cellmate who is a Palestinian young guy about two years older than me at the time. And I ended up being sexually assaulted heavily and repeatedly until I gathered my courage and ended up reporting that to the prison administration. There was an overwhelming amount of support both emotionally and physically and attempts to secure me – to make sure that that doesn’t come out. Being raped is still the victim’s fault in the West Bank. And that just countered everything I was told: stories about how Jewish people’s deepest desire is to hurt us, is to make sure that we don’t overcome anything. That was a breaking point.”

Stourton: “So you…you’d been told all your life that the Israelis were evil people and when you went to them with a problem in jail, you found that actually wasn’t true.”

Calvin: “No – they…as a matter of fact they showed me more compassion than what my own mother did.”

Unfortunately, this interview was broadcast at around half past seven on a Sunday morning on Radio 4: a slot which obviously does not ensure optimal outreach to BBC audiences serially deprived of such information.

 

BBC ‘explains’ its claim that Western Wall is Judaism’s holiest site

Back in February we noted that an edition of the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘Sunday’ had promoted inaccurate information concerning the Western Wall.Sunday 7 2 R4

“Presenter Edward Stourton introduced the item by telling listeners that:

“The Israeli government’s decision to approve a new area by Jerusalem’s Western Wall where men and women can pray together will mean some big physical changes at Judaism’s holiest site.”

The Western Wall is of course not “Judaism’s holiest site” – Temple Mount holds that title – and it is difficult to understand why that inaccuracy is repeatedly found in BBC content, especially in a programme which purports to focus on “religious issues”.

Later on, while discussing the story with journalist Judy Maltz, Stourton materially misled listeners by inaccurately claiming that the Waqf has authority over the Western Wall.

“There is also of course opposition from outside – isn’t there – from the Palestinians and from the Muslim authorities responsible for the area.” [emphasis added]

As the Times of Israel explains:

“While the Jordanian-run Waqf governs the top of the Temple Mount […] Israel maintains control over access to the site as well as areas below the Mount, as part of a status quo agreement in place since 1967. Israel does not allow Jews to pray atop the mount.””

BBC Watch submitted a complaint on those two topics which, as readers may recall, received an inadequate response from the BBC Complaints department.

“We’ve reviewed the programme for you and the Western Wall was referenced within a discussion about prayer. The description of the Western Wall as ‘Judaism’s holiest site’ was within this context- that it is the holiest place where Jews can pray.

Our presenter Edward Stourton also referred to “the Muslim authorities responsible for the area” which, I’m sure you can appreciate, is different from saying that Waqf have jurisdiction over the Western Wall.””

BBC Watch then pursued the complaint further and recently received the following reply:

“Thank you for taking the time to contact us and apologies for the delay in responding.

We contacted the series producer Amanda Hancox, who has forwarded the following:

“I’m sorry you weren’t happy with the response to your complaint about ‘Sunday’. You are right to say that the Temple Mount is regarded as Judaism’s holiest site. However, given the Western Wall is the last remnant of the retaining wall of the Temple Mount today many people do consider it to be the most sacred spot in Judaism because it is the last tangible remains of the Temple complex. I’m aware of the sensitivities about this so in future I will ask the presenter to say “one of….” rather than “the…”.” [emphasis added]

Precisely who those “many people” are and what is their level of expertise on the topic is not disclosed. The reply goes on:

“As regards the query about the presenter’s use of the phrase “Muslim authorities”, listening back to the interview the presenter said: “There is opposition from outside isn’t there, from the Palestinians and from the Muslim authorities responsible for the area.” In the context of the interview “the area” he was referring to was the expanded prayer plaza which Muslims believe is an inseparable part of al-Aksa Mosque, and the yard adjacent to the Western Wall which is Muslim- owned property. It was not his intention to refer to the Western Wall as being under Muslim control, which of course it is not. As such I’m sorry if it came across like that as it was not his intention.”” [emphasis added]

The discussion was actually about the establishment of a new mixed gender prayer area at the Western Wall and did not concern Temple Mount but it is nevertheless remarkable to see once again that the BBC has adopted the PLO’s directive concerning the description of the whole of Temple Mount as ‘Al Aqsa Mosque’.

The claim that “the yard adjacent to the Western Wall” – i.e. the Western Wall plaza – is “Muslim-owned property” is inaccurate: the area is actually state land as shown on the map on page 88 in this document compiled by Professor Ruth Lapidot.

BBC Watch will be pursuing the complaint further.

In which BBC Radio 4 tries to explain Zionism without the history

The April 10th edition of the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘Sunday’ included an item (from 25:21 here) described in the synopsis as follows:R4 Sunday Zionism

“In the on-going anti-Semitism row in the Labour party, one issue being raised is about how the term Zionism is used and whether there is confusion about the term. Jonathan Freedland writes for the Guardian and the Jewish Chronicle – he gives his analysis.”

Freedland begins as follows:

“It’s been used probably in the way that we understand it now since the middle or late 19th century where it referred to the movement of Jewish nationalism – the Jewish yearning for self-determination – that felt itself to be alongside other almost romantic nationalist movements of the same period.”

He then continues with an explanation of the term itself which refrains from informing listeners that – far from being “abstract” – the word Zion is a synonym for Jerusalem which appears over a hundred times in the Hebrew bible.

“The word itself was…it was the obvious one because the biblical liturgical term the Jews will have used in synagogues around the world, even this weekend, was Zion – meaning the abstract Jewish homeland.”

Host Edward Stourton then comes in:

“At the time all sorts of ideas were kicked around – as I recall – of a Jewish homeland in bits of Africa, bits of Latin America. But Zionism came, did it not, to symbolise or to mean quite specifically a Jewish homeland in what we now call Israel.”

Had listeners been accurately informed of the real meaning of the word Zion and of the significance of the topic of the ingathering of the exiles to the place that word describes in Jewish prayer and tradition, they would obviously have been better equipped to understand that point.

Freedland responds:

“That’s right. So I think probably historians would want to call early movements Jewish nationalist movements. If you were a Zionist rather than just any old Jewish nationalist it meant you saw the Jewish homeland as being in Palestine.”

Significantly, neither Freedland nor Stourton make any effort to inform listeners why Jews see their homeland as being in the place Freedland elects to call “Palestine” no fewer than three times during this item but which most Jews would call Eretz Israel – the Land of Israel. Audiences hear absolutely nothing about the Jewish nation’s history in that location, the connection of Jewish traditions and festivals to its land and seasons or the significance of specific sites and landmarks in Jewish religious practices such as the direction of prayer or the mention of Jerusalem at the Pessah Seder and in the Jewish marriage ceremony.

Thus, the portrayal presented by Freedland and Stourton steers listeners towards the inaccurate impression that Zionists just happened to haphazardly prefer that location (which, as noted above, is repeatedly referred to as “Palestine” – crucially without any clarification of what that meant in the 19th century) to the additional options available.

Freedland then goes on to introduce a borrowed device that he has used on several occasions in past articles.

“Now I think probably if you’re using it you’re referring to it to mean one is no more or no less than somebody who supports the existence of a Jewish home in Palestine. Where that home is, what its exact borders are, are arguments within Zionism if you like and the best description I’ve heard is by the Israeli novelist Amos Oz who says that Zionism is a family name. You need a modifier – a first name – in front of it to know what kind of Zionist someone is. Because you could have a moderate, liberal Zionist; you can have a socialist Zionist, religious Zionist. Those people will all have arguments about what shape and size and content this Jewish state in Palestine should be but that there should be a home at all – that makes you a Zionist.”

Stourton later goes on to say:

“But just to confuse things further, you referred earlier to religious Zionists which I take to mean for example settlers who believe that land was given to them by God – and that despite the fact that originally most Zionists were secular.”

That stereotype of course conceals the fact that over a third of the people the BBC terms “settlers” are not religious.

Freedland continues, managing to ignore the immigrants from Yemen during the First Aliyah, religious Zionists such as Rabbi Shmuel Mohilever and Rabbi Jacob Reines and the fact that by the time the Second World War broke out there had been five waves of immigration to Israel spread over 57 years.

“The very first modern political Zionists were if anything anti-religious because the religion had taught until the mid-nineteenth century that the return to Zion was something that was the work of God alone and if anything, it was an act of usurpation for the Jews to take themselves.  The experience of the Second World War – and of course the Holocaust – if you like converts the Jewish world to Zionism because Zionism is seen to have – very glumly – to have won the argument because it’s been saying it’s impossible for Jews to live permanently as a minority around the world; we need a place of our own. And therefore the Jewish world shifts. But Jewish religion doesn’t shift entirely. To this day ultra-orthodox Jewish religious communities often stand against Israel and Zionism but there was this shift and it did even happen among religious Jews who suddenly got their heads around the idea that they could – rather than waiting for God’s will – they could give God’s will a nudge if you like.”

Remarkably, a significant portion of this item is devoted to Freedland’s own preferences concerning the term he has supposedly been brought in to explain to BBC audiences.

Freedland:

“And it’s partly why I tend to almost never use the word now myself because it’s so misunderstood that it’s actually become almost functionally useless as a word. People think it means you support what the Israeli government did yesterday. That’s a complete misunderstanding of the term.”

Stourton:

“And if you want to avoid getting embroiled in the sort of conversation we’ve just had, don’t use the word I suppose.”

Freedland:

“Unless they’re speaking really about this historical, philosophical argument I think it’s not a useful word and it can sometimes have a rather ugly connotation and that’s because Zionism has become in part a kind of bridging code word that enables people to get from attacking or criticizing Israel to hinting at a wider global Jewish force that sometimes is a bit shadowy and sinister and that is the traditional anti-Semitic idea of a global Jewish conspiracy. Ah…and therefore it’s just…it’s a word that carries so much baggage it’s almost collapsing under the strain.”

In his introduction to this item Edward Stourton told listeners that the President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews had:

 “…complained that the word Zionist was being treated as if it were some kind of term of abuse by certain circles on the far-Left.”

Stourton then went on to ask “So what does it mean?” and we might therefore reasonably conclude that the aim of the item was to provide listeners with an answer to that question, thereby to enhance their understanding of the above statement from the President of the Board of Deputies and to enable them to be better informed with regard to the various stories concerning the British Labour party and antisemitism such as the one recounted by Stourton at the beginning of his introduction.

Effective explanation of any term hinges upon the provision of an accurate definition and in this case an appreciation of the rich background to the term Zionism is obviously crucial to understanding. The absence of accurate representation of the historic context of the millennia-old bond between Jews and Israel in this item prevented its aim from being met.  

Mainstreaming the Livingstone Formulation on BBC Radio 4

Listeners to the March 20th edition of the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘Sunday’ heard an item (from 20:32 here) described in the synopsis as follows:R4 Sunday 20 3

“The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, has written to the government expressing his shock and concern about rising reports of anti-Semitism at UK universities. Bob Walker reports.”

Listeners heard from a variety of contributors including York University undergraduate Zachary Confino who noted the recent staging there of the play ‘Seven Jewish Children’ – considered by some to be at best inflammatory and by many to be antisemitic – and that decision was defended by Habib Nasser; a member of the university’s Palestine Solidarity Society which organized the performance.

Additional contributors highlighted the issue of social media before Walker turned to the Oxford University Labour Club story and reactions to that ongoing issue were heard from Labour party members John Mann and Lucy Powell.

However, the most remarkable feature of this item – which supposedly intends to inform listeners about the issue of antisemitism in UK universities – came at 27:45 when Bob Walker introduced his final contributor.

BW: “Pro-Palestinian students say they’re worried that legitimate debate and criticism of Israel is being wrongly interpreted as antisemitism. Sai Englert is a Jewish student who supports the Palestinian solidarity movement.

Englert: “I don’t think it particularly comes from Jewish organisations; it comes from all sorts of pro-Israeli organisations that tried to use this as a defence mechanism. I think that’s very worrying. We need to be able to be very effective and very unified in our struggle against racism, against Islamophobia, against antisemitism and that these attempts to muddle [sic] the waters and conflate all Jews with Israel in order to avoid addressing the political questions by defenders of Israel, I think is very worrying.”

In other words, listeners to BBC Radio 4 were told that “defenders of Israel” deliberately employ false claims of antisemitism in order to shut down debate.

Known as the Livingstone Formulation, the purpose of that claim was described by the person who named it, David Hirsch, as follows:

 “the use of the Livingstone Formulation is intended to make sure that the raising of the issue of anti-Semitism, when related to ‘criticism of Israel,’ remains or becomes a commonsense indicator of ‘Zionist’ bad faith and a faux pas in polite antiracist company.”

Lesley Klaff describes it as:

“…the practice of responding to claims of contemporary antisemitism by alleging that those making the claim are only doing so to prevent Israel from being criticised; in other words, they are ‘playing the antisemitism card.’” 

So who is the person selected by the BBC to inform its audiences that what they hear about antisemitism on UK campuses might actually be a “mechanism” to shut down “criticism of Israel”?

Sai Englert is indeed a PhD candidate at SOAS. He is also an anti-Israel activist who believes that “[t]he colonisation and ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948 are today well documented and generally recognised as facts” and a supporter of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign aimed at bringing an end to Jewish self-determination.

In an article published by the ‘Socialist Worker’ in October 2015, Englert described the scene of the October 3rd terror attack in Jerusalem in which Nechemia Lavi and Aharon Benita were murdered as follows:

“In the street where two armed settlers were killed on Saturday, a large crowd of their accomplices were holding a sit-in: guitars, songs, candles and flags, as well as signs in English and Hebrew calling for revenge, for retaliation, for justice. They laugh and chat, for the most part in perfect North American English accents–or terrible Hebrew–about “their neighborhood,” “their land,” “their houses.” […]

Zionism is unleashing its military power once more on the Palestinian population, and the West continues to foot the bill and support the colonial project. Demonstrations, actions and BDS campaigns should pop up across the globe in response to this situation. It won’t free Palestine or stop the current onslaught, but it can continue to increase the pressure on our leaders and their Israeli friends. It can make clear that the world is not only watching, but fighting back, in solidarity with the struggle of the Palestinian people, against colonialism and racial supremacy.”

Englert has previously described objections to the BDS campaign as ‘smears’ – using language which amply clarifies his position.

Englert tweet

It is hence entirely unsurprising that Englert would make use of the platform provided by BBC Radio 4 to promote the Livingstone Formulation because doing so serves his ideological and political agenda.

The question which must be posed is why the producers of this programme found Englert’s allegations worthy of inclusion, promotion and mainstreaming in an item ostensibly intended to inform audiences about the growing – and serious – problem of antisemitism in UK universities.

BBC Complaints justifies inaccuracies in Radio 4 item about Western Wall

On February 7th the BBC Radio 4 religious affairs programme ‘Sunday’ included an item about the plans for a new mixed-gender prayer space at the Western Wall. As was noted here at the time:Sunday 7 2 R4

“Presenter Edward Stourton introduced the item by telling listeners that:

“The Israeli government’s decision to approve a new area by Jerusalem’s Western Wall where men and women can pray together will mean some big physical changes at Judaism’s holiest site.”

The Western Wall is of course not “Judaism’s holiest site” – Temple Mount holds that title – and it is difficult to understand why that inaccuracy is repeatedly found in BBC content, especially in a programme which purports to focus on “religious issues”.

Later on, while discussing the story with journalist Judy Maltz, Stourton materially misled listeners by inaccurately claiming that the Waqf has authority over the Western Wall.

“There is also of course opposition from outside – isn’t there – from the Palestinians and from the Muslim authorities responsible for the area.” [emphasis added]”

In response to a complaint submitted by BBC Watch, BBC Complaints had this to say:

“Thank you for contacting us regarding Radio 4’s ‘Sunday’, as broadcast on 7 February.

I appreciate that you feel the programme’s reference to the Western Wall was inaccurate.

We’ve reviewed the programme for you and the Western Wall was referenced within a discussion about prayer. The description of the Western Wall as ‘Judaism’s holiest site’ was within this context- that it is the holiest place where Jews can pray.

Our presenter Edward Stourton also referred to “the Muslim authorities responsible for the area” which, I’m sure you can appreciate, is different from saying that Waqf have jurisdiction over the Western Wall.”

Apparently Radio 4 listeners were expected to use their psychic powers in order to determine what Stourton really meant – as opposed to what he actually said.

Obviously the topic of Jerusalem’s holy sites is a highly sensitive issue and one which demands particular attention to accuracy in any related reporting or presentation. Thanks to Radio 4 there are now unknown numbers of people in the UK who have wrongly been led to believe that “Muslim authorities” are “responsible” for the Western Wall area and that will surely affect their ability to understand any future developments in this story.