During Operation Protective Edge in Gaza three years ago, the British Jewish community was gripped by fear. Anti-Semitic incidents soared, there were occupations of a Tesco supermarket in Birmingham and Sainsbury’s in London and rumours that Israeli goods were to be removed from stores.
With the Board of Deputies [of which I was an honorary officer] apparently paralysed, the grassroots Campaign Against Antisemitism filled the space. The truth was the Board was slow off the mark but was, in the end, able to receive assurances from the highest levels at major supermarkets that there would be no boycott of Israeli goods.
It is at times of extreme stress in the community that it most needs stalwart friends. The narrative embraced by the BBC, Channel 4 and much of the media – which struggled to find balance – and the demonisation of Israel’s campaign refracted on British Jews, creating a terrible unease in the community. It was unlike anything experienced in recent times. In such circumstances, Israel needed loyal friends in the media, and all the better if they were non-Jewish.
The list of reliable stalwarts included commentators such as Richard Littlejohn, Julie Burchill, Oliver Kamm, Nick Ferrari and Trevor Kavanagh of The Sun. In the aftermath of Protective Edge, Kavanagh willingly stepped forward at a We Believe In Israel’event [that I chaired] to staunchly make the case for Israel’s actions and to criticise media bias.
It was a gallant stand at a moment when much of the British Jewish community felt isolated, alone, and disappointed with the sclerotic mid-summer response of our most prominent leaders. Some of these leaders were consumed by panic, others obsessed with the idea that the only way of dealing with the anxiety was to go directly to political leaders, leaving the Jew in the pew behind.
Move the clock forward three or so years, and we find that one of the great defenders of Israel and British Jews finds himself on the wrong side of a campaign to have his words condemned and remove him from the board of the newspaper regulator Ipso.
Kavanagh is under fire for closing a lengthy article with the phrase: ‘What will we do about the Muslim problem?’ The context was a cascade of prosecutions of Muslim men up and down the country over organised sexual offences against non-Muslim women.
Kavanagh’s use of the phrase ‘Muslim problem’ was clumsy. Either advertently or inadvertently he lighted upon a phrase with Shoah connotations. Adoption of the language of the Holocaust is generally frowned upon in respectable society. This is especially so when used by the Palestinians and their friends on the left of the Labour Party against Israel – a nation born out of the Shoah.
Even so, the outcry against Kavanagh and the efforts to defrock him at Ipso are ridiculous. One can understand the anger of the Muslim Council of Britain and its effort to get a full and frank apology. One can also sort of understand why 117 MPs, in the depth of the summer recess, might feel there are some votes to be harvested among Muslims by signing a petition demanding Kavanagh’s head. What is more surprising is to find the Board joining this band of brothers.
Sure, abusing the language of the Shoah is abhorrent and needs to be deplored in the strongest terms. But alienating The Sun’s distinguished former political editor Kavanagh and, potentially, his proprietor Rupert Murdoch looks to be reckless. The Board finds itself on the side of Richard Wilson, director of Stop Funding Hate who, in an opinion piece in The Guardian, calls on advertisers to boycott the paper. The Jews of pre-war Europe and Israel in modern times know where that slippery slope can lead.
As a huge admirer of the Board [of which I am still a member], I cannot but feel that on this occasion it is showing a lapse of judgement by potentially alienating some loyal media friends.