Mar 2010 Journal

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Letter from Israel

At a recent event entitled ‘Any Questions’, organised by the British Zionist Federation and the Israel, Britain and Commonwealth Association, a panel replied to questions submitted in advance by members of the 400-strong audience who had come to Jerusalem from all over Israel.

Most of the audience and the panel consisted of representatives of Israel’s English-speaking population. The attraction was the presence of the British Ambassador to Israel, Tom Phillips, on the panel. The questions, which were read out by Zionist Federation Chairman Andrew Balcombe, related to a variety of subjects which concern Israelis today. These included the negotiations for the return of kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit, Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the attitude to and repercussions of the Goldstone report, and concern about the growing influence of NGOs both inside and outside Israel.

But the question which stirred up the most interest (and reactions from the audience) was the one which related to the growing groundswell of anti-Israel opinion among both the Jewish and the general public in the UK. Ambassador Tom Phillips tried to play down this trend, citing the consistent support of the British government for Israel irrespective of which party is in power, the strong trade links between the two countries, and Britain’s advocacy of a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian problem. Nevertheless, he could not deny that there was a constant and consistent process of denigrating, demonising and delegitimising Israel in the international press, including that of Britain.

When the ambassador referred explicitly to ‘the occupied territories’, several audience members protested, while others tried to suppress the hecklers. Miri Eisin, former international media advisor to ex-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and a member of the panel, rebuked the protesters for failing to display the courtesy to the speaker that the situation required and order was quickly restored.

Ambassador Phillips expounded his view of what influences the tenor of opinion in the UK, noting that the British generally tend to support the underdog, and this is how they now perceive the Palestinians. This was in stark contrast to the general perception of the situation prior to the Six Day War in 1967, when the British public tended to sympathise with Israel. Now, the David and Goliath situation is regarded as having been reversed, and the climate of opinion in Britain has shifted accordingly.

This reminded me of what a woman in the street said to me in London last summer, when a pro-Palestinian demonstration went past us. ‘What’s it all about?’, I asked. ‘They just want their own country, dear,’ she replied. Ah, if only things were that simple.

But to get back to the panel discussion. Replying to the question about the NGOs, Ambassador Phillips said that Israel should be proud of their activities, as they constituted proof of Israel’s openness and freedom of debate. He stated that he had visited Hebron as the guest of one of these and had been deeply impressed by the work they were doing in bringing information out into the open. He added that even if in some instances the information they provide is distorted by others and used for anti-Israeli propaganda purposes, their existence is nonetheless admirable.

Of course, no such discussion could end on a serious note, so we were treated to a final question about what each member of the panel would change in Israeli society. The overwhelming majority was in favour of improving the driving habits of the average Israeli. But let’s be realistic: that is not very likely to happen. However, as Ben-Gurion once said, anyone in Israel who doesn’t believe in miracles isn’t a realist.

Dorothea Shefer-Vanson

previous article:‘The Legacy of Hope’
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