JWR Wandering Jews

Jewish World Review Oct. 5, 2001 / 18 Tishrei, 5762


Relative morality

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- MOSLEMS attack Christians and they blame the Jews. So lamented former Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin during the civil war in Lebanon 20 years ago. The observation could equally have applied to events that followed Sept. 11.

Forget the nutcases in Iran and elsewhere in the region who claimed that the catastrophe was the work (or at very least the inspiration) of Israel's intelligence services in their combined quest to drive a wedge between the United States and the Islamic world.

Perfectly respectable voices -- particularly in Europe, especially in Britain -- were quick to point more highly manicured fingers at Israel. They do not, of course, accuse Israel of direct complicity, but they loudly assert that Israel must bear a substantial share of the blame for the outrages that struck America.

Was not Arab rage ignited by Israeli intransigence at the negotiating table? they ask. Were not Islamic passions inflamed by Israeli brutality toward the Palestinians? And has not America itself been blatantly one-sided in the Middle East conflict?

This ludicrous attempt to project blame from perpetrator to victim -- and thus deflect or at least dilute the guilt of the terrorists -- has inspired a macabre media game: Relative Morality.

In London this week, a senior BBC interviewer felt entirely confident asking the newly elected leader of Britain's Conservative Party, Iain Duncan Smith, whether he considered Israel -- "a country with blood on its hands" -- to be a terrorist state.

More shocking than the question was the seeming inability of a major European political leader to give a simple, straight answer to the preposterous question. Instead, he was left equivocating about the need to study "the complex issues of the Middle East."

Placing Israel on the front-burner appears to have been actively encouraged by some elements in the British establishment, whose Prime Minister Tony Blair has sought to position himself as America's best and closest ally.

While Blair is certainly not regarded as an enemy of Israel and is indeed seen as a most loyal friend of the United States, an unnamed "senior Foreign Office source" last week felt free to describe Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as "the cancer at the center of the Middle East crisis."

While denying that such sentiments -- expressed in an interview with the Guardian, a respected London-based daily -- were those of the Foreign Office, a spokesman would not deny that they were prevalent in the Foreign Office.

Jerusalem bristled and an Israeli spokesman sadly declared that this was no way for officials to talk about the democratically elected leader of a friendly state. And there the matter seemed to rest.

But simmering resentment turned to full-blown diplomatic incident the following day when British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw declared that "one of the factors which helps breed terrorism is the anger which many people in this region feel at events over the years in Palestine."

The comment appeared in an article he purportedly wrote for an Iranian newspaper on the eve of his visit to Teheran, no doubt to please his Iranian hosts and assuage any possible anger about his next stopover: Israel.

Once again, the Foreign Office spokesman was wheeled out to insist that his master had intended neither to justify nor legitimize Palestinian terrorism. But by this time, Sharon was incandescent and promptly cancelled his scheduled meeting with Straw, while Foreign Minister Shimon Peres was left to call off a dinner and downgrade his encounter with Straw to a "working meeting."

It was only the personal intervention of Blair, during the course of an 80-minute conciliatory call from London, that persuaded Sharon to reconsider -- and reschedule -- his meeting with Straw.

Meanwhile, Britain's Jewish community, in the form of the Board of Deputies, responded with angry disappointment: "Such a statement by the British foreign secretary gives credence to anti- Israeli and anti-Jewish propaganda currently being circulated by the enemies of Israel," thundered board president Jo Wagerman. "British Jews are increasingly being victimized as a result of disinformation and propaganda spread by the pro-Palestinian lobby."

There was little comfort to be drawn from the fact that Straw's Middle East odyssey appeared to have backfired rather spectacularly: By the time he returned to London, Iran had withdrawn its previously qualified support for the American- led coalition, while Saudi Arabia had announced that it would not, after all, permit its bases to be used by coalition aircraft operating against targets in Afghanistan.

What is driving Britain's hostility toward Israel, itself a prime victim of Islamic terrorism? Ironically, the grotesquely lopsided stance has its roots in Blair's particularly close affinity with the US, which is likely to have given Arabists in the British Foreign Office more elbow room to "balance the books" and express their natural anti-Israel leanings.

Another factor is the government's drive to legitimize the estimated two million British Moslems -- mostly from Pakistan and Bangladesh -- who have suffered verbal and physical abuse and felt themselves to have been under siege since Sept. 11.

Not least, however, Britain is anxious to protect its influence and interests in the Arab world. At a time when it is preparing for war against Islamic targets, it clearly feels the need to shore up its credibility in the eyes of its trading partners in the Arab world and prove that its enthusiastic commitment to the US-led coalition is not animated by anti-Islamic sentiment.

And the cheapest, most efficient means of achieving these goals is to pay in Israeli currency.

That method of payment would certainly suit Straw's deputy, Foreign Office Minister Peter Hain, who once advocated Israel's violent destruction (if it did not agree to voluntarily dismantle itself) while describing Israelis as "greedy oppressors."

What makes all this relevant is that Britain is one of the most powerful voices on Middle East affairs in the 15-member European Union, setting the tone and policy for many of its European partners.

Over the past 20 years, successive prime ministers have ensured that Britain has followed a relatively benign policy toward Israel. Blair, a committed Christian, is also a known friend of Israel, taking holidays there with his wife before being elected leader of the Labor Party. He has since appointed the Orthodox Lord Michael Levy as his personal envoy to the Middle East.

To the profound regret of Israeli officials and British Jews, Blair's influence in foreign affairs -- at least as far as it impacts on Middle East affairs -- appears to have waned in direct proportion to his uncompromising pro-American stance.

It is a phenomenon that leaves British Jews, for the first time in a long time, wondering what the future holds for them.

  —   Helen Davis

Helen Davis is a veteran London journalist. Comment by clicking here.

© 2001, Helen Davis