Israel remains one of the few countries in the World that the British royal family has never officially visited. And, in visit to the Middle East which is taking in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan and the UAE, but not Israel, this is still true for Prince Charles. Although brow-furrowed and anxious to hear about the plight of Christians in the Middle East during his visit to Jordan, Prince Charles showed himself unwilling to visit the one country in the Middle East where Christians and other minority groups in the region can find safe haven – Israel, just a short jet hop from Amman. His visit to the monarchs of the Middle East takes place just after a poll which showed that Brits regarded Israel less favourably than any other country besides North Korea.
This poll result wouldn’t have come as a shock to Israelis or supporters of Israel of course. Why? Because British supporters of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement are in every university campus, and blood libels about the Palestinian ‘genocide’ and even Israeli organ-harvesting have been heard from the floor of the House of Lords in the Brit parliament (Baroness Tonge). Although Jews are deeply integrated into British society and have felt secure for decades, incidents of anti-semitic violence have been escalating, and anti-semitism has become interwoven and often indistinguishable from anti-Zionism (being anti-Israeli). Statistics show that anti-semitic incidents have increased and that, for Jews, Britain is changing for the worse.
Why is there such the animosity against Israel, an animosity that ranges across the spectrum from left to right and all social classes? These are questions that have been tackled in this blog before but it will do no harm to retrace the ground (see ‘Brits and Israel’, posted 12 December 2012… solidariyut.wordpress.com/2012/12/12/brits-and-israel/). In 2012, we posed the question: Why is the British relationship with Israel such a sour one?
To find an answer, we looked first at the British government attitude, but the wider British establishment has to be examined. In other words, to find an answer, look not just at elite figures in government over the past 80-odd years, but to those who have guided elite schools and universities and idea-forming industries like the media. Elites in these spheres have never really recovered from the loss of the Empire, and then the loss of the word ‘British’ that used to stand before the word ‘Commonwealth’. These elites have never come to grips with how the Empire was lost, and the loss of what, in their view, ‘ought to’ have been theirs.
If the loss of the Indian Sub-continent in 1947 was not bad enough, and barely 2-years after VJ-day, what really rankled was the loss in 1948 of tiny Palestine which a British garrison of 100,000 was unable to hold. If the loss of Empire was not bad enough, losing Palestine to the Jews was a humiliation.
Between 1945 and 1947 alone, UK forces and police lost 103 dead, and sustained 391 wounded. Indeed, the destruction by Jewish militants of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem – the seat of British military and administrative power in Palestine – resonated strongly for decades. In 1947, after two British sergeants were killed in retaliation for the execution of three Jewish militants, there were anti-Jewish riots in Liverpool over the course of several days, and these spread to other British cities, including London, Manchester, Cardiff, Derby and Glasgow. Some months after the declaration of the independence of the State of Israel which occurred in May 1948 – and during the course of Israel’s war of independence against the forces of the Arab League – British policy towards Israel was shouted loud and clear. Not content with simply encouraging Arab states to invade the fledgling State of Israel, the Defence elites made sure that Royal Air Force conducted reconnaissance flights over Israeli positions, taking off from Egyptian air bases. Indeed, some of these flights were conducted alongside Egyptian planes. There is little doubt that once home again after their humiliation by pre-state Israel, senior UK military personnel, through the Ministry of Defence, had influenced government attitudes to the new state and these would persist until 1956 and the Suez Crisis.
The landed classes and British industrialists have also harboured animosity towards Israel. In the decades before 1948 and Israeli independence there had existed ‘sympathy’ towards the Arab and ‘sourness’ towards the upstart ‘yishuv’ (the Jewish population of pre-state Israel). Among the well-healed travellers of the rich ‘old money’ and the commercial ‘new money’ there was deep regard and respect for the complicated tribal hierarchy of ‘the Arab’ (the same hierarchy that Prince Charles is said to feel at home among and at the same time rather awkward among). The Arab world offered exotic adventure and opportunity, and in the emerging post-war world Arab society offered the sophisticated class layering and deference that was so very familiar. In academia, the old British ‘Arabists’ expressed similar affection for these heirarchies. In contrast, across the earlier ‘yishuv’ and in the nascent Israeli state, a vibrant social democracy was emerging – a new society where these complicated social layers were largely absent.
Another reason for the sour British attitude to Israel is the gradual conversion of the British labour movement to the Palestinian cause. Until the 1960s the British labour movement regarded Israel as a fellow socialist state with anti-imperialist leanings. They admired the short-sleeved, open-necked-shirt-wearing Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion and his down-to-earth non-deferential fellow Ministers who would form later Israeli governments. By 1967, the year in which the USA began to take Israel seriously after its June War victory, and to regard the tiny country as a substantial ally, the USA had become deeply embroiled in its escalation of the Vietnam War. And so it was that in the eyes of the labour movement, Israel, after briefly enjoying the status of victim triumphant, began to be viewed through a new frame of reference. The newer and younger liberal and left both in the UK and wider Europe identified with the emerging Palestinian national movement and with the continuing anti-colonial struggle (e.g. in Vietnam, South Africa and Rhodesia), and there was seen a deepening hostility towards Israel, now always to be viewed as a lynchpin ally of the USA. Today in the 21st century there isn’t a UK university campus that does not have a strident pro-Palestine solidarity committee, its members richly swathed in Palestinian scarves often expressing a hatred towards Israel and its Jewish character that would have made Goebbels proud.
Among British Christians too there is a sour and shaky relationship with Israel. Many have been taken in by the Yasser Arafat line that Jesus Christ (you know… the Judean, born in Bethlehem of Judea, and who died many decades before the Roman name of Palestine was applied to the region) was a ‘Palestinian martyr’. They have thrown in their lot with the Palestinian line, totally blind to the oppression of Christians in the West Bank and in Gaza, and blind to the fact that Israel’s minority population of Christians is the only one showing expansion in the whole of the eastern Mediterranean.
Alongside the Arafat tale about Jesus of Nazareth, the ‘Palestinian martyr’, the Palestinian Christians have re-invented traditional Christian anti-semitism, converting Israelis into Romans and themselves into the new Jews. The Anglican Church and the Church of Scotland – the latter having published a document in 2003 entitled ‘Theology of Land and Covenant’ which questioned Jewish claims to the land of Israel, and in 2014 chose to suggest that Jews think of Zion as merely a metaphor – have been re-invigorated by this (having seen themselves in slow decline) and each has contributed to, if not helped lead, the BDS movement in the UK.
Then there is the rather large elephant in the room in this analysis of why Brits are sour towards Israel – Britain’s Moslems… or… rather… the role of Moslems in this climate that does not favour Israel. Recent history has provided the UK with a population which is 5% Moslem, and in the 21st century Moslems are at the forefront of anti-semitic agitation in the country and maintain a large network of organisations to support BDS and the Palestinian and Islamist causes. An ever increasing Moslem population ensures that political establishments will adopt voter-friendly anti-Israeli rhetoric and policies.
The British attitude to Israel is coloured by what the nascent State of Israel did to it in the 1940s, political correctness and guilt, and a media that likes to focus relentlessly on Israeli wrongdoing, real and imagined, while glossing over those of its neighbours.