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The elephant in the context

This is a guest post by Eve Garrard

We all know about the importance of context in understanding and judging the actions of others.  If the person who stole a loaf of bread was starving, and trying to feed her starving child, we judge the theft differently from the way we judge an equivalent theft carried out by some opportunistically looting hooligans.  So what would you think of someone who told you about the horrifying details of a wife’s premeditated murder of her husband, but completely omitted to mention the fact that he’d been abusing her terribly, physically and mentally, for 20 years?  What would you think of someone who told you of the appalling punishment of ‘necklacing’ carried out by some members of the ANC in the 1980s and early 1990s in South Africa, without ever mentioning the brutalising facts of apartheid in that country at that time?  What would you think of someone who described black American criminality without ever so much as mentioning racism or slavery? You might, at the very least, raise an eyebrow and murmur the word ‘context’.  Even though each of these cases involve wrongful, sometimes horribly wrongful, actions, you might think that the context is important in judging those who carried out the actions.  (And of course context is just as important in judging rightful action too). You might also think that the people who so ignored the context in these cases had rather poor and blinkered moral and political judgment.  And if you wanted to explain this lack of judgement, these blinkers, you might in some cases make reference to the persistence of longstanding prejudices against women or Africans or American people of colour.

Now consider this article in openDemocracy, about ‘the Israel Lobby’.  The article walks us through the development of Zionist sympathies among British Jews and others in the UK.  It comments that in 1939 Zionism gained control of central representative bodies of the Jewish community, and claims:

“[a]s a result of this ‘Zionisation’, the Jewish State was woven into the fabric of communal life in Britain.  One of its many political legacies is the fact that today one of the constitutional purposes of the Board of Deputies of British Jews is ‘to advance Israel’s security, welfare and standing’”.

The writers go on to say:

“Though some felt the Zionist Federation was obsolete following the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, it soon found a new niche in public relations, political lobbying, cultural diplomacy and the promotion of aliyah (Jewish immigration to Israel).  The Board of Deputies undertook some similar activities and from the mid-1970s, both were assisted by Britain’s first pro-Israel PR outfit, the British-Israel Public Affairs Committee (BIPAC).”

And that’s all.  That is, we are given an account of the development of British Zionism in which we are moved from the late 1930s to the middle of the 1970s, with no mention whatever of certain key events that might be thought to have had a bearing on support for Jewish self-determination.  The tragedy of the European Jews, and the ethnic cleansing of the longstanding Middle Eastern Jewish communities in the later 1940s and early 1950s, with the concomitant production of large numbers of Jewish refugees, might never have happened, for all this article tells us.  No attacks on Jews in Israel or elsewhere are referred to, or any racist words or actions against them; indeed there is only one specific mention of violence:  “Israel’s violence and racism”, and only one mention of human rights violations: “[the lobby’s] effectiveness in concealing, excusing or justifying Israeli human rights abuses.”  No other prejudice or danger or violence is ever mentioned as a possible contribution to support for Jewish self-determination.

Leave aside the deployment of some very familiar figures in this article – the sinister ‘transnational’ powers; the influence of Jewish multi-millionaires; the (alleged) mendacity of Jewish concerns about anti-Semitism (according to the article, the Community Security Trust exists only ‘ostensibly’ to protect the Jewish community from anti-Semitic violence); the alleged “intimidating and silencing of those who speak out” against Israel (this must be one of the loudest silences in history, as can be seen from the constant discussion of these issues, both in the UK and in the USA, by the Press, by parts of the Universities, and on the Net).  Focus only on the omission of any reference to actual and threatened genocides of Jews, and actual and threatened ethnic cleansing of Jews on a very large scale. What might we think of the judgment of writers who so notably ignore the context of the phenomenon which they are describing?  And even those who share the authors’ overt hostility to Israel might think that in order to understand the rise of Zionism in Britain we should pay at least a little attention to the horrific fate which swallowed up so many Jews during that period, and to the long shadow which that fate inevitably threw over later events.  (Those of us who do support Jewish self-determination will not be tempted to ignore any of this.)

In the light of such glaring omissions, such remarkable silences about matters so obviously relevant to their subject, there’s something rather touching about the lack of self-knowledge which the authors show in the title they’ve chosen for their article: ‘The UK’s pro-Israel lobby in context.’  But there’s also something rather sinister about it, too: the only contextual features which are visible to these authors are ones which can be fitted comfortably into some very longstanding and hostile stereotypes about Jews.