War on Want is a respected UK charity which works to combat poverty and promote human rights around the world. Pluto Press is a respected left-wing publishing house which to its everlasting credit is the publisher of my second book. So when the two come together to host an event on the subject of Israel, naturally one should only expect the best.
And yet the event I attended last night in East London’s Toynbee Hall was — as a friend predicted — a horror story.
War on Want was promoting the launch of a new book on Israeli Apartheid and the event opened with a Q & A between author Ben White and War on Want’s Executive Director John Hilary.
White went to great pains at the outset to explain that he was not saying that Israel was just like South Africa. Not at all. What he was saying was that there is an internationally recognized definition of the crime of apartheid, as he put it, and when you read that, you see that there can be an Israeli version which is different from the South African one.
He actually read from a section of the book and dug out some obscure definition of apartheid from the UN to prove his point.
Of course if you believe that Israel is not really all that much like South Africa, but you choose to label it as apartheid, but then qualify that as White did, it smells of dishonesty.
It’s a bit like calling Israel fascist because in some League of Nations document from the 1930s there’s a definition of fascism which would include both Mussolini’s Italy and the present-day Jewish state (there isn’t).
When you call your book “Israeli Apartheid” you are inviting people to assume that you mean what you say — and audience members last night clarified this by quoting from Desmond Tutu’s idiotic assertion that the treatment of Palestinians is in fact worse that apartheid.
After about an hour, the floor was opened up to the audience and the first speaker as well as about half the others was critical. It was immediately pointed out that War on Want had banned Jonathan Hoffman, the vice president of the Zionist Federation, from attending. John Hilary defended that decision, saying that the organization had no problem with debate and discussion, but that Hoffman had disrupted several other recent meetings.
Earlier, I had noticed several officers of the Metropolitan Police present and overheard a conversation between them and War on Want staffers in which Hoffman’s name came up.
Hoffman himself stood outside the building, quietly and peacefully handing out a flyer refuting the case made by White in his book.
In my experience on the Left, you don’t normally call the police except in the most extreme circumstances, and to be honest, a short middle-aged Jewish man handing out flyers hardly constituted the kind of threat that would have motivated me to dial 999.
I was one of the last speakers called from audience and to be honest, I was nervous. It probably came out in my voice.
I said that I had the greatest respect for War on Want and the work it does around the world — and I do. But then I added that I was troubled by what was said — and not said — this evening.
Both speakers, Hilary and White, spoke passionately about the suffering of the Palestinians. I reminded the audience of the powerful images that stayed in our minds after hearing the accounts of Israeli soldiers shooting out the windows of a school, or of an ageing Palestinian man whose only dream was to spend one last night in his family home.
But there was not one word of sympathy or understanding for the Jewish victims of this tragedy which has gone on for far too long.
When one of the speakers from the floor pointed out that the separation fence had dramatically reduced the number of terrorist incidents inside Israel, White responded — I pointed out — with a kind of “yeah, whatever”.
I turned to face the two speakers and said to them, when you show empathy for one side, but none for the other, when you feel nothing at all for the Jews and their suffering, there is a word for that.
I began to sit down. White asked “What’s the word?”
But he knew the answer.
The one-sided, dishonest account of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict presented by Ben White and War on Want stinks of anti-Semitism.
They will of course deny that they are anti-Semites.
Some of their best friends are Jews.
Two Jews stood up during the discussion — the only two who made an issue of being Jews — and represented themselves as coming from tiny grouplets with names like “Jews Against Zionism” or something like that.
I’m sure that War on Want has no problem with Jews like that.
But when you grieve over the suffering — the genuine suffering, I might add — of the Palestinians, but feel nothing in your heart for the suffering of the Jews; when every mention of the Israelis is entirely negative, portraying them as monsters — you are not longer a critic and instead have become a bigot.
Hilary and White both tried to answer my remarks. White found a section of his book where he acknowledged that the Jews and Palestinians would someday have to find a way to live together. But Hilary made a point that instead of refuting my argument reinforced it.
I had pointed out that if you really wanted to influence Israeli opinion, to open up Israelis to the suffering of the Palestinians, this was not the way to do it.
Hilary then told us how during a recent visit to the region, War on Want’s Israeli partners had told them that there was no way to change Israeli public opinion. They pointed out that 94% of Israelis supported the attack on Gaza earlier this year. Only external pressure would work.
In other words, the Israeli state is doing monstrous things, the Israeli army is committing war crimes left and right, and the Israeli public is behind all this.
So when Israeli soldiers do all the horrible things War on Want describes, they are representing the Israeli people, who cheer them on.
There was no mention of terrorism, of suicide bombers, of the Holocaust, of Jewish refugees, of centuries of anti-Semitism — none of this exists, or is worthy of note.
All that there is — is the Palestinians and their suffering.
Most of those in the audience who came to criticize and to speak out were somewhat too strident for my tastes. (Yes, I was one of the more respectful and courteous critics. Hard to believe, I know.)
I would not have tried to shout down the speakers, nor interrupt, nor heckle. As I told someone afterwards, that’s the sort of thing we do at meetings of the BNP. War on Want is not the BNP.
But as I think back over what was said, and not said, I begin to wonder if the approach of people like Hoffman and those who did their best to disrupt the meeting last night isn’t in fact the correct one.
Maybe it’s time to take off the kid gloves and take on these liars and hypocrites, calling them what they are — anti-Semites.