[In this brilliant speech, Phillips set out the problem, but more important, the solution. T. Belman]
[Address to Honest Reporting conference, Jerusalem, 14 December 2010]
We are living through a global campaign of demonisation and delegitimisation of Israel in which the western media are playing a key role.
The British media are the global leaders of this campaign in their frenzied and obsessional attacks on Israel. In the BBC in particular, such virulence attains unparalleled power and influence since it is stamped with the BBC’s global kitemark of objectivity and trustworthiness.
Israel’s every action is reported malevolently, ascribing to it the worst possible motives and denying its own victimisation. Instead of the truth, which is that every military action by Israel is taken solely to protect itself from attack, it is portrayed falsely as instigating the violent oppression of the Palestinians.
Tyranny around the world — such as the 20-year genocide in southern Sudan, or the persecution of Christians in Africa or Asia — goes almost unreported, as does Palestinian violence upon other Palestinians.
Yet Israel is dwelt upon obsessively, held to standards of behaviour expected of no other country and, with its own victimisation glossed over or ignored altogether, falsely accused of imposing wanton suffering.
Time after time, otherwise cynical, reality-hardened journalists have published or broadcast claims of Israeli ‘atrocities’ which are clearly theatrically staged fabrications or allegations. The false narrative of Arab propaganda is now so deeply embedded in the consciousness of journalists that they cannot see that what they are saying is untrue even when it is utterly egregious and indeed absurd.
The war against Hamas in Gaza in 2008/9 was a case in point. The British media had scarcely reported the constant rocket bombardment from Gaza. Most of the public were simply unaware that thousands of rockets had been fired at Israeli citizens.
But when in Operation Cast Lead Israel finally bombed Gaza to put a stop to the attacks, it was denounced for a ‘disproportionate’ response and for wantonly and recklessly killing ‘civilians’ — even though, according to Israel, the vast majority were targeted terrorists. Nevertheless, the media gave the impression that the Israelis were a bunch of bloodthirsty child-killers.
Israel is further accused of causing a humanitarian catastrophe in maintaining a blockade of Gaza. But there is scant mention of the many supplies Israel does allow through, nor the steady stream of Gazans being routinely treated in Israeli hospitals, nor the fact that it is Egypt which maintains a much tougher blockade on its own Gazan border.
This is because Israel’s crime is to defend itself militarily. To much of the media, Israel’s self-defence is regarded as intrinsically illegitimate. It is routinely described as ‘vengeance’ or ‘punishment’. Thus Sir Max Hastings wrote in the Guardian in 2004: ‘Israel does itself relentless harm by venting its spleen for suicide bombings upon the Palestinian people.’
Israel’s attempt to prevent any more of its citizens from being blown to bits on buses or in pizza parlours was apparently nothing other than a fit of spiteful anger. The Israelis were presented by Hastings not as victims of terror but as Nazi-style butchers, while the aggression of the Palestinians was ignored altogether.
In short, Israel is presented as some kind of cosmic demonic force, standing outside of humanity.
To what should we ascribe such unique malice towards an embattled and besieged people?
The first thing to say is that this phenomenon is characteristic not just of the media but the wider intelligentsia and political class.
In Britain, the established church, the universities, the Foreign Office, the theatrical and publishing worlds, the voluntary sector, members of Parliament across the political spectrum, as well as the media — have signed up to the demonisation and delegitimisation of Israel.
It’s the home of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.
It’s where human rights lawyers threaten to arrest Israelis for war crimes as soon as they step off the plane at Heathrow.
It’s where an English judge virtually directed a jury to acquit anti-Israel activists, who cheerfully admitted committing criminal damage against an arms factory because it sold equipment to the Israelis, on the grounds that the Israelis were making life in Gaza ‘hell on earth’, and were behaving like Nazis and that if they had done this during World War Two they ‘might have got a George Medal’.
It’s where Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron told the Turkish Prime Minister that Gaza was a prison camp, that the Israeli ‘attack’ on the Turkish terror flotilla ship was ‘completely unacceptable’, and where the British Foreign Secretary ‘deplored the loss of life’ in that Israeli attack.
Britain has effectively become a kind of global laundry for the lies about Israel and bigotry towards the Jews churning out of the Arab and Muslim world, sanitising them for further consumption throughout English-speaking, American and European society and turning what was hitherto confined to the extreme fringes of both left and right into the mainstream. Where Britain has led, the rest of the west has followed.
What is striking is the extent to which a patently false and in many cases demonstrably absurd account has been absorbed uncritically and assumed to be true.
History is turned on its head; facts and falsehoods, victims and victimisers have their roles inverted; logic is suspended, and an entirely false narrative of the conflict is now widely accepted as unchallengeable fact, from which fundamental error has been spun a global web of potentially catastrophic false conclusions.
In Britain and much of Europe, the mainstream, dominant view amongst the educated classes is that Israel itself is intrinsically illegitimate. Its behaviour is viewed accordingly through that prism.
Much of the obsession with Israel’s behaviour is due to the widespread belief that its very existence is an aberration which, although understandable at the time it came into being, was a historic mistake.
People believe that Israel was created as a way of redeeming Holocaust guilt. Accordingly, they believe that European Jews with no previous connection to Palestine — which was the historic homeland of Palestinian Muslims who had lived there since time immemorial — were transplanted there as foreign invaders, from where they drove out the indigenous Arabs into the West Bank and Gaza. These are territories which Israel is now occupying illegally (even after its ‘disengagement’ from Gaza in 2005), oppressing the Palestinians and frustrating the creation of a state of Palestine which would end the conflict.
Every one of these assumptions is wrong. Moreover, many of these errors and distortions not only promote falsehoods but actually turn the truth inside out. This is because the west has swallowed the Arab and Muslim narrative on Israel which acts as a kind of global distorting mirror, appropriating Jewish experience and twisting it into a propaganda weapon against the Jews.
Thus while Muslims deny the Holocaust, they claim that Israel is carrying out a holocaust in Gaza. Antisemitism is central to Jewish experience in Europe; Muslims claim that ‘Islamophobia’ is rife throughout Europe. Israel gives all Jews the ‘right of return’ to Israel on account of the unique reality of global Jewish persecution; the Muslims claim a ‘right of return’ – not to their own putative state of Palestine, but to Israel. They even claim that the Palestinians are the world’s ‘new Jews’.
These and many other examples are attempts to negate Jewish experience and appropriate it for themselves to obtain what Muslims want from the world in terms of status, power and conquest. They are giving rise to hallucinatory levels of genocidal hatred towards the Jewish people as well as serial falsehoods, fabrications and distortions about Israel.
One might have thought that the supposedly rational west, so quick to condemn religious obscurantism or prejudice of any kind, would object. On the contrary: they ignore, dismiss or excuse it – and far worse, they have even internalised and reproduce many of these tropes which they appear to believe represent the truth.
The core reason that Muslims insist that ‘Palestine’ is theirs is that they believe the Jews have no rights within any land Muslims have ever conquered. The western intelligentsia have bought so heavily into the Arab and Muslim narrative of ‘Palestine’ in part because they fail to understand the fanatical theological sophistry from which it derives.
But it’s also because the western intelligentsia has itself turned evidence and logic upside down. Moral and cultural relativism – the belief that subjective experience trumps moral authority and any notion of objectivity or truth – has turned right and wrong on their heads.
Because of the dominant belief in victim culture and minority rights, self-designated victim groups — those without power — can never do wrong while majority groups can never do right. And Jews are not considered a minority because – in the hateful discourse of today – Jews are held to be all-powerful as they ‘control’ the media, Wall Street and America.
So the Muslim world cannot be held responsible for blowing people up as they are the third world victims of the west; so any atrocities they commit must be the fault of their victims; and so the US had it coming to it on 9/11. And in similar fashion, Israel can never be the victim of the Arab world; the murder of Israelis by the Arab world must be Israel’s own fault.
This inversion of reality and morality echoes the Islamic narrative. This holds that, because Islam is considered perfect, its adherents can never do wrong. All their aggression is therefore represented as self-defence, while western/Israeli self-defence is said to be aggression. So justice and injustice, oppression and freedom, truth and lies are reversed.
Instead of attacking Arabs and Muslims for such irrationality and falsehoods, it’s the defenders of Israel whom the western intelligentsia accuse of lies and even insanity. Instead of backing Israel against genocidal violence, the British took to the streets, while Hezbollah rockets were raining down on Israel’s northern towns in 2006, with placards declaring ‘We are all Hezbollah now’.
Israel’s perceived ‘oppression’ of the Palestinians, its ‘disproportionate’ attacks on them and its supposed violations of international law are actually the very opposite of the truth. This is behaviour of which it is the victim, not the perpetrator.
The treatment of Israel is a spectacular example of the phenomenon of ‘psychological projection’ – when people ascribe their own bad behaviour to others who are innocent of it and are even its victims — through which the west is mirroring the murderously warped thinking of the Islamic world.
However, the animus against Israel can only be understood if it is set in a far wider context. It is part of a wholesale denigration of and onslaught upon the west and its values by the media, progressive intelligentsia and political class.
The BBC, for example, acts not just as cheerleader for Hamas but for the Islamic world. During the Iraq war the crew of the British aircraft carrier Ark Royal threw their radios overboard because of the demoralising effect that the defeatist and slanted BBC reporting was having on soldiers going to fight for the defence of the west.
The media has systematically presented the war in Iraq in a distorted way. For example, it presented the reprehensible American humiliation of prisoners in Abu Ghraib as infinitely worse than the bestial torture inflicted under Saddam Hussein’s tyranny.
Iraq has been misreported through distortion and omission. It has been repeated ad nauseam that we were ‘taken to war on a lie’ on the grounds that Saddam possessed stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. But a glance at speeches made by President Bush or Tony Blair shows this simply wasn’t so. The reason was Saddam’s continuing threat to the west posed by his terrorist record, regional aspirations and pursuit of WMD programmes.
Or take the mantra that because no WMD were found none had ever existed – a totally brainless non-sequitur. This also ignored the evidence that was discovered there of WMD programmes.
In his 2003 interim report as head of the Iraq Survey Group, Dr. David Kay reported that he had discovered ‘dozens of WMD-related program activities’ that had been successfully concealed from the UN inspectors, and that ‘right up to the end’ the Iraqis were trying to produce the deadly poison ricin.
‘They were mostly researching better methods for weaponisation’, he said. Not only that, Saddam had re-started a rudimentary nuclear programme. Kay also told Fox Television: ‘We know there were terrorist groups in state [Iraq] still seeking WMD capability. Iraq, although I found no weapons, had tremendous capabilities in this area. A marketplace phenomenon was about to occur, if it did not occur; sellers meeting buyers. And I think that would have been dangerous if the war had not intervened.’
In other words, what Kay found bore out the concerns laid out by Bush and Blair as the case for going to war in Iraq. Yet this was presented as demolishing that case.
And even more absurdly the argument was then broadened to claim Saddam had no connections to terrorism at all — despite the fact he had been the godfather of international terrorism — and so posed no threat to anyone outside Iraq.
Such distortions, omissions and selective reporting over Iraq are all part of the much bigger media failure to report the really big story in the region that continues to this day. That story is the increasing dominance of Iran.
Astonishingly, there has been virtually no reporting of the part Iran has played in Iraq – actually killing British and coalition troops and destabilising the country. There has been virtually no reporting of Iran’s takeover of Lebanon, its grip on Gaza, its steady establishment as the regional hegemon posing an ever greater threat not just to Israel but to the west. Instead the media present the wars in Iraq or Israel as discrete and unrelated events.
Strikingly, it is the intelligentsia, the people of reason, who are the main problem. Bigotry is now correlated with education and class.
The lower down the social and educational scale, the more people are sane and realistic and decent about the Middle East and the threat to the free world from radical Islam. But as soon as you get people who’ve been through higher education, you find that so often they’re the ones who are bigoted and irrational about such matters.
They make truly ridiculous claims about Israel, such as its perpetration of apartheid or ethnic cleansing – claims which, to anyone with even a passing knowledge of the situation, are demonstrably ridiculous.
So how can it be that the most educated are now the most irrational?
The short answer is that among the progressive intelligentsia, evidence and truth have been supplanted by ideology – or the dogma of a particular idea. Ideologies such as moral and cultural relativism, multiculturalism, feminism, environmentalism, anti-capitalism, anti-Americanism, anti-Zionism.
Across a wide range of such issues, it’s no longer possible to have a rational discussion with the progressive intelligentsia, as on each issue there’s only one story for them which brooks no dissent.
This is because, rather than arriving at a conclusion from the evidence, ideology inescapably wrenches the evidence to fit a prior idea. So ideology of any kind is fundamentally anti-reason and truth. And if there’s no truth, there can be no lies either; truth and lies are merely ‘alternative narratives’.
So the way has been opened for mass credulity towards propaganda and fabrication. The custodians of reason have thus turned into destroyers of reason – centred in the crucible of reason, the university.
Far from promoting enlightenment, western universities are not only the prime source of falsehoods about the Middle East and hatred and bigotry towards Israel, but also of intimidation against those who try to present a balanced and factual picture and who find themselves professionally and socially ostracised as a result.
All these different ideologies are utopian; in their different ways, they all posit the creation of the perfect society. That is why they are considered ‘progressive’, and people on the progressive wing of politics sign up to them. That helps explain the distressing fact that so many Jews on the left also sign up to Israel-hatred, since they too sign up to utopian ideologies to which Israel is such an impediment.
But when utopias fail, as they always do, their adherents invariably select scapegoats on whom they turn to express their rage over the thwarting of the establishment of that perfect society. And since utopia is all about realising the perfect society, these scapegoats become enemies of humanity.
For Greens, such enemies of humanity are capitalists; for anti imperialists, America; for militant atheists, religious believers. Anti-Zionists turn on Israel for thwarting the end to the ‘Jewish question’: the reproach to the world over Jewish suffering which Europe believes would be redeemed if there were peace in the Middle East. The key utopia that Israel’s never-ending wars are thwarting is the redemption of European guilt for the persecution of the Jews in which they have been complicit through the centuries.
What these various very disparate ideologies of environmentalism, scientism, anti-imperialism, moral relativism, anti-Zionism and Islam also have in common is – remarkably — hostility to Judaism, Israel and the Jewish people.
It was Judaism that laid down the moral law which forms the very foundation of Western morality which is under attack from moral relativism.
It is the Book of Genesis that draws the wrath of the environmentalists, who wrongly interpret the Biblical ‘dominion’ of mankind over the earth as an example of divine imperialism or colonialism—a hierarchy which must be destroyed by removing man from the pinnacle of Creation and substituting the natural world itself in his place.
It is Jews who are the principal targets of the attacks by anti-Americans and anti-imperialists on the ‘neoconservatives,’ the euphemism for those who were alleged to have formed a conspiracy to subvert American foreign policy in the interests of Israel.
And it is that issue, Israel, which is now the greatest symbol of Western irrationality.
The hatred of Israel and the Jews that drives the Islamic jihad against the west is not acknowledged or countered by the west because its most high-minded citizens share at least some of that prejudice.
Both western liberals and Islamists believe in utopias to which the Jews are an obstacle. The State of Israel is an obstacle to both the rule of Islam over the earth and a world where there are no divisions based on religion or creed. The Jews are an obstacle to the unconstrained individualism of western libertines and to the onslaught against individual human dignity and freedom by the Islamists.
Both the liberal utopias of a world without prejudice, divisions or war and the Islamist utopia of a world without unbelievers are universalist ideologies. The people who are always in the way of universalising utopias are the Jews.
What to do about it
So is this all hopeless? After all, irrationality cannot be fought with reason.
But no, it is not hopeless. First, many who spout this irrational discourse are not themselves irrational, merely profoundly ignorant. They are ignorant because no-one is telling them what it is they don’t know and are getting so very wrong about Israel, the Middle East or Jewish history.
But for those who are indeed irrational, we have to change our approach. We have to stop trying to argue with bigots. We must instead set out to defeat them.
To do that, we must first realise many of us are fighting on the wrong battleground. We are on the battleground selected by our enemies as the most conducive to victory.
The Arabs successfully redefined the Middle East conflict from a story about Arab aggression towards the Jews to a story about Palestinian suffering at the hands of the Jews.
They reversed victim and victimiser by recasting an existential conflict as a battle between two peoples with rival claims to the land. Inevitably this casts Israel, which is reluctant to go along with the implications of this false analysis, as the villain of the piece.
The problem that cannot be overstated is that Israel has lent itself to this false narrative.
After all, forcing a country which has endured six decades of existential siege with no end to give any ground to its attackers amounts to forcing a victim to surrender. This is expected by the civilised world of no other country.
Yet for reasons of realpolitik Israel has meekly gone along with this mad pressure. It has never said it is totally unconscionable. It has never put the all-important argument from justice on its own account. So it has allowed its enemies to appropriate this argument mendaciously as its own.
And if Israel doesn’t make this case on its own behalf, how can anyone else?
There is therefore an overwhelming need for Israel to alter its strategy. Indeed, it needs to have a strategy.
It needs to recognise that the battleground on which it is being forced to fight is not just military. It is also a battleground of the mind.
The Arab and Muslim world long ago realised if they set the narrative in their own image, they would recruit millions of fanatics to their cause and also confuse and demoralise their victims. In this they have wildly succeeded.
So both Israel and diaspora Jews have to rethink. It’s time to change the narrative.
Time to stop conniving with the premise of their enemies that the Middle East impasse would be solved by establishing a state of Palestine to which the settlements – and thus by extension, Israel — are the obstacle. Time for them to stop agreeing that the Jews are to blame for their own predicament.
Time to stop the hand-wringing. Time to stop fretting over how much better it is to play along with the narrative of Israel’s enemies in clear English rather than a thick Israeli accent – almost totally irrelevant.
Both Israel and diaspora Jews have to stop playing defence and go onto the offence.
We should be demanding of the world why it expects Israel alone to make compromises with people who have tried for nine decades to wipe out the Jewish presence in the land and are still firing rockets at it.
We should be demanding why America, Britain and the EU single Israel out for pressure which they apply to no other victims of genocidal aggression. For in any other such conflict, their cause of the aggressors would be deemed totally forfeit by their behaviour.
We should be asking so-called ‘progressives’ – including Jewish ‘progressives’ — why they support the racist ethnic cleansing of every Jew from a future state of Palestine.
We should be asking ‘progressives’ why they are not marching against Hamas on account of its tyrannical oppression of Palestinians in Gaza.
Why they are not mounting a boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority on account of his Holocaust denial and the PA’s continued incitement of Arab children to Jew-hatred, murder and genocide.
Why they are ignoring Arab and Muslim persecution of women and homosexuals.
And we should be telling the Jews’ own story of refugees and ethnic cleansing – the 800,000 Jews expelled from Arab lands after 1948, and who now make up more than half of Israel’s population. It’s good to see that at last Israel is beginning to bring this to the world’s attention. In Britain virtually no-one knows about it. At a stroke it takes the ground from under the feet of those demanding the ‘right of return’ for Arabs.
We will never convince bigots that facts are as they are, or that the evidence of history tells a different story from the one they believe. We cannot fight prejudice with reason.
But we have a duty to bear witness to the truth. And we have a duty to fight in our defence.
We can best do this by getting off our back foot and putting western fifth columnists on theirs. We should accuse them, not of Jew-hating motives we cannot prove but of absurdities and contradictions and untruths they cannot deny.
We should ridicule them, humiliate them, destroy their reputations; boycott them, not invite them to our houses, show them our disapproval and contempt. Treat them as pariahs. Turn their own weapons against them.
In short, we must get up off our collective knees and fight. Justice, human rights and truth are on our side, not theirs. We must reclaim them as our own.
***An amplification of this argument can be found in my book The World Turned Upside Down: The Global Battle over God, Truth and Power, published in the US by Encounter.