When politics doesn’t need poster children (Guardian)

Stephen Hawking, perhaps the greatest mind of our era, has backed a boycott in protest over the policy of the present Israeli government towards the Palestinians. Hawking’s decision not to attend a conference hosted by Shimon Peres has been greeted with delight by supporters of the boycott campaign. What better way to bolster their argument than a lauded intellectual refusing to stand by in the face of injustice?

The efforts of those who want Israel to be shunned – whether in culture, sport, academia or politics – garner plenty of interest, but never so much as when a celebrity gets on board.

When Hebrew-speaking thespians were invited to the Globe theatre, a chorus including Emma Thompson publicly professed indignation. The debate about Israel hosting next month’s European under-21 football championship went far beyond the blogs following the intervention of Frédéric Kanouté.

Conversely, when Rihanna or Justin Bieber perform in Tel Aviv, they suddenly attract the unlikeliest of fans. Indeed, those against the boycott jumped for joy when it briefly – and incorrectly – seemed that Hawking had cancelled for health, rather than political, reasons.

It’s natural, if you support a cause strongly, to crow when a prominent individual who is listened to far more than the average openly backs your cause. For some – Roger Waters comes to mind – preoccupation with the Israeli-Palestinian situation goes further than a signature, but for many, I’d hazard, wading in one way or the other comes not after years of study of the Middle East.

The famous have as much right as anyone to talk politics and if a prominent individual wishes to back a boycott, or rage against it, he is free to do so. The problem is the activists who seize on them as poster children.

It’s disingenuous, investing one signature with the weight of an entire political approach, and implying that because of a person’s notoriety, their pronouncements are gospel instead of what they are – the views of someone no more or less informed.

Many causes need glitter to get a hearing. The Rohingya Muslims, for example: their plight rarely makes the front page. George Clooney brought Darfur to the world’s attention. You can say plenty about Gaza, but you cannot claim it is ignored by the mainstream media.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is extraordinarily complex. It requires activists with a vested interest to focus on the facts, to aim for more than point-scoring, and consider the real questions – how to end the cycle of violence, for one, and how to educate people on both sides as to why two states is the answer – not which celebrity agrees with them.

What the Middle East desperately needs is dialogue, which is why I believe a boycott cannot offer a constructive approach. The discussion could well benefit from meaningful interventions from intellectuals like Hawking, but these must go beyond headline-grabbing.

This article originally appeared on the Guardian website. Read the original here


My week in writing

On Tuesday I was at Brent Town Hall for the resolution of a case that has dragged on for several years. The Van Colles, a couple whose son was killed by a former employee who he was due to testify against, have fought for a long time for Hertfordshire Police to acknowledge wrongdoing.

Their son had warned an officer that his killer was threatening him, yet nothing was done. Despite a High Court and Appeals Court win, the Law Lords found against the family, and this week their case finally went to the European Court of Human Rights. Sadly for the family, the judges did not find in their favour. As they told me shortly after finding out the result, “we had to do it”.

I also reported on the latest – perhaps the final – stage in the dispute over the future of Glasgow’s only Jewish school, after the chair of the Parents Council announced his resignation. What it will mean for the future of the school remains to be seen. And as the Batsheva tour continued, with protests at every stop, I reported on the arrest of a man for making an anti-Jewish slur.

Elsewhere, I rounded up the winners and losers among the Jewish candidates who stood for election and re-election in the US last week, noting that Rabbi Shmuley Boteach failed in his bid. And I filled our regular “My Week” slot with a look at my trip to New York during the election and after the hurricane hit.

On Wednesday, just a few hours before we went to press, news came that a senior Hamas military commander had been killed in an Israeli air strike. From the start of Operation Pillar of Defence, I have been part of the team keeping the JC website up to date, with video and news coverage. On press night, I looked in particular at the war of words that broke out on Twitter between the IDF account and that of the Al Qassam brigades – more than just your average Twitter feud.

My week in writing

This week I reported on the upcoming tour of the UK by the youth ensemble of the Batsheva Dance Company. In the wake of protests by anti-Israel activist, the Brighton Dome has cancelled one of two performances by the dancers, much to the regret of ticket-holders who will now be unable to go.

I also covered some fairly unpleasant comments made on Facebook by a woman who is an active member of George Galloway’s Respect Party. Although a spokesman for Mr Galloway did condemn what the woman said, it is clear that she will remain in the party anyway.

As I wrote in September, this time last year the JC covered the scandal of the Jewish burial organisations that refused to reveal where stillborn and miscarried babies were buried. Although the organisations covered in the original reporting have since changed their procedures, one synagogue authority has not done so. Contacted by a woman from the Adath with a heartbreaking story, I was shocked at the refusal to answer either my questions or hers. There seems to be no reason for blocking her request to find out what happened to her son, and certainly no religious prohibition, which leaves me to wonder why they won’t help.

Elsewhere, I covered the decision by Israeli leaders Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman to run at the next election on a joint ticket – something that could, perhaps, spur the Israeli centre and left into action – and looked at the chances of the man hoping to be the first Orthodox rabbi elected to the US congress. I also reported on the tragedy of a 97-year-old man, who was a hugely influential figure in the history of religious Zionism in the UK, who died last week after being hit by a car in Jerusalem. A very sad story to work on.

In Optima Magazine I discussed how technology is changing the shopping experience, and whether it is for better or worse.

My week in writing

With a show at the Tate this year, the Pre-Raphaelite painters are enjoying something of a renaissance. After being alerted to a lecture that was taking place in London revealing that William Holman Hunt – one of the movement’s founders – had lived in Jerusalem for several years and painted there, I decided to investigate further.

As I discovered, Holman Hunt built a home and a life in the Middle East; a daring feat that none of his fellow Pre-Raphaelites attempted. Not only that, but a look back in times revealed him to be on a par with Theodor Herzl in his passion for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in the region. His letter on the subject, in which he offered to pay some money to3ward such a scheme, made for fascinating reading.

This week, I also followed up on the ongoing dispute over Jewish education at Calderwood Lodge in Glasgow, and received reassurances from several venues set to host Israeli dance company Batsheva next month that the tour would go ahead, despite the efforts of boycott supporters. And in another look back at the past, I learnt about the refugees from Nazi Europe who were able to stay in Britain by working as servants.

In Comment I discussed whether the British Jewish community should drop the tradition of observing two days of the festivals, and published two thought-provoking pieces on Ed Miliband and the disturbing trend of “Price Tag” attacks by extremists in the West Bank.

Away from the JC, I wrote for the Independent’s “Independent Voices” section on the embarrassing Jewish Mum of the Year programme on Channel 4, questioning the purpose of such television. In Optima magazine I discussed the growth in the use of sleeping pills and other remedies for insomnia.

‘Philharmonic Four’ in Proms protest should not have mentioned the LPO (The Telegraph)

There is an episode of The West Wing in which President Josiah Bartlet gets into trouble over green beans. Word gets out that he is not a fan of the legume, and soon the White House is fielding calls from aggrieved bean producers.

His press secretary, CJ, spends hours wrangling with the problem. How can she get around it? He just doesn’t like them, she says. He’s speaking on his own behalf, not America’s.

The suspension of four London Philharmonic musicians for signing a letter of protest about the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra at the Proms brought the beans to mind.

Scarcely a day goes by without somebody, somewhere, calling for a boycott of Israel. Sometimes they want the rest of the world to take a stand on buying Israeli goods or to stop co-operating with Israeli academics and trade unionists. At other times, they simply want to say no to Israel itself.

Their default position – that Israel is such a lost cause that no good can come from working with any of its parts – makes me feel depressed, as does its reverse: when supporters of Israel say there is no hope for a two-state solution. It’s like a builder turning up at a construction site without any tools; how can you change something if you won’t engage with it?

This comment piece was first published in the Telegraph. Read the rest of it here.