From schoolbooks to concert halls:
Israelís vanishing narrative in British public life

Published: 29 April 2011
Briefing Number 281



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Summary: This Beyond Images Briefing outlines eight examples of ‘polite’ hostility to Israel in the UK.  Each is an example of rejectionist ideas about Israel being endorsed in mainstream, liberal British forums.  This phenomenon has a ‘drip-drip’ effect, and is far harder to combat than flagrant and explicit hostility to Israel, such as labelling it an Apartheid country, or calling for a ‘one-state’ solution.  But the effect of this endorsement is clear: Israel’s basic narrative is steadily vanishing in public life in the UK.  An earlier version of this Beyond Images Briefing first appeared as an Op-Ed by Beyond Images founder Andrew White in the Jerusalem Post newspaper on 26 December 2010.


Hostility to Israel in Britain public life is not new.  And analysts are quick to  highlight the ever-increasing range of flagrant examples: ‘Israel Apartheid Weeks’ on British campuses, the invective against Israelis and ‘Zionists’ in demonstrations in British city centres, distasteful cartoons depicting ‘Zionist’ control of the media, strident calls for a ‘one-state solution’, picketing of Israeli retail outlets, boycott campaigns, and the intimidation of pro-Israel speakers on campus.  

While it is important to highlight these episodes, they are easy to identify.  In fact, they only tell half the story. Why?

In fact, these flagrant expressions of hostility are just symptoms of a deeper phenomenon, namely the polite endorsement of rejectionist ideas about Israel within British liberal intelligentsia.

This endorsement follows a ‘drip-drip’ pattern. It is subtle, unspectacular and it meets virtually no resistance or protest. And it is this process which creates a conducive atmosphere for so-called ‘delegitimisation’.

Quite simply, Israel’s narrative is vanishing from British liberal public life. And it is as a result of this subtle drip drip phenomenon, every bit as much as the flagrant outbursts against Israel, that the country’s legitimacy is being steadily eroded.  Here are eight illustrations of what we are referring to, from mainstream British public life:

  • Mearsheimer and Walt present The ‘Israel Lobby’ at Chatham House:  In 2007 John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, authors of ‘The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy' came on a speaker tour of Britain to publicise their book which depicts the Israel lobby in the US as secretive and manipulative, and that it promotes Israel's interests over those of the USA.  Many critics have highlighted the book’s lack of rigour and logic, and argue that it panders to the anti-semitic theme of a powerful Jewish ‘conspiracy’.  The authors enjoyed a full house audience when they spoke at the prestigious British thinktank, the Royal Institute for International affairs at Chatham House  
  • Noam Chomsky as free summer holiday reading from The Times: In Summer 2008 the Times newspaper gave away free paperpacks with its daily edition, as part of a two-week summer promotion.  Most books were light summer reading, including classics like John Buchan’s ‘The Thirty Nine Steps’ and ‘Treasure Island’ by Robert Louis Stevenson.  But there was one current affairs book – Noam Chomsky's ‘Hegemony or Survival’, several chapters of which contain no-holds barred denunciation of Israel and the US-Israel link, and demonise the country….
  • Shlomo Sand’s book ‘The Invention of the Jewish people’ is featured by primetime BBC radio and Borders bookshop: In 2009 Shlomo Sand of Tel-Aviv University published his book ‘The Invention of the Jewish people'.  Sand calls into question the existence of a historic Jewish people, and challenges the link between the Jewish people and the land of Israel.  Sand was a guest on a primetime BBC Radio discussion show during a promotional visit to the UK.  He did not receive a single challenge, either from the interviewer or from other members of the studio panel.  Sand later attended a book-signing in the central London branch of leading bookstore Borders.   
  • School textbook – The Jews did not accept the UN partition plan in 1947:   A leading schoolbook on the Israeli-Arab conflict, written for the thousands of 15 and 16 year old students taking public exams, opens its chapter on the 1948 war of independence by stating: "The United Nations decision to partition Palestine meant that two states would be created – one Jewish and one Arab. Neither side could accept the idea of their homeland being divided and hostilities between the two soon broke out…."  (from ‘The Arab-Israeli Conflict’ by Tony Rea and John Wright, Oxford University Press).  Of course this is a fundamental falsehood: the Jews accepted the partition plan, but the Arabs did not.  Furthermore, to state that hostilities passively “broke out” is a second historical rewrite, concealing the invasion of Israel by five sovereign states  
  • Same textbook: Israel and Palestinian terrorists are both “utterly ruthless” in their use of violence: The same textbook later compares Israeli policies with Palestinian aircraft hijackings by Palestinian groups in the 1970s.  The authors conclude: "We can see a large number of similarities in the way violence has been used by each side. For example, each side has been prepared to be utterly ruthless in the use of violence….".  “Utterly ruthless in their use of violence”?  Here we have ‘moral equivalence’ between Israel and Palestinian terrorism, provided to British school students in a supposedly dispassionate schoolbook
  • World history textbook: Jerusalem was built in a country called Palestine:  Another book for schools called ‘Investigating World History' (Parragon Press) opens its section on Israel by stating: "The ancient city of Jerusalem, spiritual homeland of the Jews, was in a country called Palestine". This of course implies that the Jews “moved in” to the pre-existing country Palestine. (The Hamas Charter makes the same claim, only less politely….)    
  • Royal Festival Hall hosts prestigious exhibition of news photos featuring dead Lebanese children:  In 2007 the Royal Festival Hall in London hosted an exhibition in its main foyer from World Press Photo, which is a prestigious annual competition of news photographs from around the world (see www.worldpressphoto.org).  The diplayed photos included images of drug crime in Chicago, breakdancers in Paris, and Mexican football fans weeping over their team’s loss.  The winning photo was of a car containing affluent Lebanese driving through Beirut taking photos on their mobiles of a suburb shelled by Israel during the 2006 war with Hezbollah.  The exhibition also contained four photos of child victims of war, worldwide, during 2006.   Three of the four photos were harrowing images of Lebanese children killed in the Israeli-Hizbullah conflict. The photo captions gave cursory information at best about the causes of the conflict. The impression given was of shocking Israeli inhumanity. Predictably, there were no photos of injured or traumatised Israeli children as a result of the 4000 rockets which Hizbollah fired into Israel during the conflict.  The World Press Photo exhibition would have been viewed by tens of thousands of visitors to concerts at the Royal Festival Hall.                   
  • The law firm which is trying to get Israeli leaders arrested wins a Financial Times award for innovation, and professional acclaim:  The law firm Hickman & Rose which is leading the effort to have Israeli leaders arrested for war crimes in the UK won a prestigious professional award in 2009 for outstanding legal innovation. The award was conferred by the Financial Times in a competition which was fought over by the world's largest law firms.  The FT report praised "the unprecedented strides in bringing perpetrators of war crimes to justice. Hickman & Rose has been among the leaders of that fight, with its work on behalf of the victims of alleged crimes against humanity committed against the people of the West Bank and Gaza…."     

It’s not just the extreme, ugly assault on Israel that we have to combat today.  From  schoolbooks to concert halls, from free gifts with the Times to Financial Times professional awards, it’s the liberal climate of ideas in the UK which poses the real, long-term challenge.

The eight examples we have set out above can be multiplied hundreds and possibly thousands of times in the UK… and this is not an exaggeration.  Multiply them across the BBC, the major charities and NGOs, local authorities, churches and other faith groups, theatre, creative arts and literature, schools, higher education and thinktanks, Facebook and YouTube, and the political blogosphere etc. 

This is the intellectual backdrop for the assault on Israel in British public life today. 

And this is the context in which long-term responses have to be formulated.    

See also:

Beyond Images Briefing 64: Demonisation of Israel