Rabbi Danny Burkeman

Rabbi Danny Burkeman

By Rabbi Danny Burkeman 

One of the byproducts of the  Gaza conflict has been the circulation of articles from newspapers, websites and various other sources offering comment or supposed insight into what is happening.

A few days after the fighting began, articles about what is happening in Europe and the seemingly inevitable protests and, in some cases, violent demonstrations from the pro-Palestinian anti-Israel lobby began to be distributed.  

As these articles are circulated, here in the USA I assume a new role as the unofficial spokesperson for British, and often European, Jewry, called upon to offer comment on what is happening.

I have now lived in America for six of the last eight years, and I therefore  find it  difficult to offer authoritative comment on what is happening.

However, as an Englishman in New York, the BBC remains the first website I go to when checking the news, and through my social networks I do find myself reading and following the British press quite extensively.

Usually in these articles, and often in the questions which are then posed to me, there is an assumption that the problems in Britain and Europe have been caused by the ever increasing Muslim population, which is assumed by default, to be violently anti-Israel.

Often there are troubling photographs supporting these assertions, although with no way of knowing where they actually come from. I am then asked about my experiences of the Muslim community in Britain, and whether I experienced any of this anti-Israel feeling first hand.

My regular response to this line of questioning is to reminisce about my time as a Rabbi at West London Synagogue. Based just off the Edgware Road, West London is a community in the heart of a significant Arab and Middle Eastern population.

I always enjoy telling people about the fact that the local Lebanese grocery shop catered many of our events, and how meetings would often be held in Middle Eastern restaurants in the vicinity, where we were always warmly welcomed.

In the two years when I worked at West London Synagogue, I remember only one occasion when a protest march proceeded down the Edgware Road. This was not an anti-Israel demonstration; instead, as I recall, the people were marching in connection to calls for Sharia Law.

I in no way felt threatened, and despite the fact that they were less than a hundred yards from  the synagogue, we were left completely  in peace.

After dealing with this line of questioning I do, however, feel compelled to continue my commentary on the situation in Britain as I personally think there is something that is of  far greater concern for the Jewish community and supporters of Israel.

My concern, which I share in my capacity as unofficial spokesperson, is the way that viciously anti-Israel comments have become acceptable in polite society, how the mainstream media’s default position appears to be condemnation of Israel, and that Hamas are almost never labeled as the terrorists they so clearly are.

I remember when I first came to live in America in 2006; I took a taxi from the airport. On the radio they were discussing the situation in the Middle East, and I was struck by the fact that the commentator and the host did not hesitate to label Hamas as a terrorist organization.

As they continued their discussion I felt comfortable listening; as a supporter of Israel I did not feel that they were attacking the country I love or by extension the Jewish community.

Unfortunately, all too often in Britain, when Israel is the subject, I tend to feel vilified, condemned and attacked by the media and the majority of journalists and contributors.

There is a clear double standard in the way that the British media deal with Israel in contrast with virtually every other country and event in the rest of the world.

Articles have appeared in the last couple of weeks asking the question of why there has been virtual silence in the face of the slaughter of  tens of thousands in Syria, and yet there has been moral outrage over the actions of Israel.

Either the media are making a statement about the value of Palestinian life as opposed to Syrian life or, as seems more likely, there is a difference when the Israel Defence Force is involved as opposed to any other army or fighting force in the world.

Reading various commentaries I was struck by Howard Jacobson’s insightful and compelling article, which appeared in The Independent in February 2009. He wrote an opinion piece entitled: ‘Let’s see the ‘criticism’ of Israel for what it really is.’

In it he thoughtfully and articulately demonstrated why the criticism of Israel, prevalent in British society, is, at its root, yet another display of anti-Semitism.

And when I am asked to give my comment on what is happening in Britain and Europe, this is what causes me the most concern.

Expressions of anti-Israel feelings are the latest incarnation of anti-Semitism, and the most worrying thing is that these sentiments have become acceptable.

It is unacceptable to make anti-Semitic comments in polite society, but anyone can make or write anti-Israel statements.

Often they draw on anti-Semitic stereotypes, they talk about Israelis in racial terms, and frequently they slip up using the words Israelis and Jews interchangeably.

As Howard Jacobson wrote: “you don’t have to be an anti-Semite to criticise Israel. It just so happens that you are”.