(This article is based on an earlier version that was published in the 7 August edition of the UK weekly paper Jewish Tribune)
Supporters of Israel are always bemoaning the terrible PR that Israel seems to produce. Supporters of Israel in the UK in particular are feeling hard pressed with this latest round of fighting again unleashing images of Palestinian Arab suffering into the media that pull on the audiences’ heart strings. None of the statistics that Israel’s diplomats can produce can match such emotive pictures. Huge crowds chanting anti-Israel and (increasingly) anti-Semitic slogans seem to be mobilized onto the streets at a moment’s notice. Celebrities (those people my father called, “famous for being well-known”) pontificate as to why Jews, amongst all peoples, have no effective right of self-defense. You would, indeed, be forgiven for thinking that support for Israel amongst the British public is being outstripped by support for the Palestinian Arabs.
The truth is more complicated.
UK versus USA
Let’s start with the bad news. In comparison to the United States, support for Israel in the UK is weak. Over the last twenty-five years, when Americans have been asked with whom they sympathize more in the Middle East, between 38 and 64 percent have favored Israel over the Palestinian Arabs. In the last decade, the highest numbers for support of Israel in Britain have peaked at a mere 20 percent. If the UK public had reached the lowest point of support for Israel seen in the US it would have been counted as a major triumph by supporters of the Jewish state!
There are a number of factors that create this distinct difference. One of the most striking is the fact that many Americans are believing Christians who are predisposed to see the Jews as protagonists in an ongoing biblical narrative in which the Children of Israel are the “good guys.” In contrast, the UK is largely a post-Christian society where religion (particularly Christianity) is treated with suspicion, especially by the elite. (This contrast can sometimes be vivid. When traveling in the US my beard, kippah and black hat make me a fairly obvious Jew. I can’t count how many times I’ve been accosted in public places [especially away from the large East and West Coast cities] by gentiles who loudly exclaim, “G-d bless you and your people, sir!” I’ve yet to have anything remotely like that experience in Britain.)
Is the UK simply more hostile to Jews than the US?
What’s the problem in Britain?
If you look at the polling figures for the last ten years, the answers show a more complex reality than simple hostility to Israel.
Two major facts stand out. First, the levels of support for Israel and the Palestinian Arabs have remained fairly stable over the last decade. Events in the Middle East do temporarily affect attitudes, but don’t seem to make much of a long-term difference.
Second, there’s not a large gap between support for Israel and the Palestinian Arabs (around 10 percentage points or less). Given that a little more than 4 percent of the UK population is Muslim, if that proportion is subtracted from the whole, the lead of support for Palestinian Arabs over Israel in the general public becomes even narrower. (Not all British Muslims are antipathetic to Israel – Economic Secretary to the Treasury Sajid Javid is a noticeable example of an outspokenly pro-Israel Muslim – but identification with Palestinian Muslims is high amongst their coreligionists in the UK.)
But the most significant point emerging from the polling is that the combined support for both sides is far less than the numbers of those don’t take sides. More than half of the UK public do not engage enough to take a side.
More than half of the UK public do
not engage enough to take a side.
Half full or half empty?
Is the fact that half or more of the UK’s population isn’t particularly interested in Israel a good thing or a bad thing?
One might argue that, given the BBC’s biased coverage, it’s a blessing that things aren’t even worse. On the other hand, perhaps indifference to significant moral issues is itself a “soft” kind of evil.
Better, perhaps, to see the situation as an opportunity and a challenge. When our clear and simple messages are heard, they definitely make an impact. The current round of fighting in Gaza has been marked by a noticeable reluctance by some senior figures in the British government to condemn Israel. The Prime Minister made a forthright statement endorsing Israel’s right to self-defense on July 21. Sounding as if he was taking his words from the IDF’s list of talking points, he stated, “Those criticizing Israel’s response must ask themselves how they would expect their own Government to react if hundreds of rockets were raining down on British cities today.” The new Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, was grilled on the BBC radio’s flagship news show “Today” on July 30. Despite presenter Sarah Montague’s efforts to make him say so, he stubbornly refused to characterize Israel’s actions in Gaza as “disproportionate”. Of course, he wouldn’t state that they were “proportionate” either, but then you can’t expect too much. No matter what statements spokespeople might feel constrained to make in the wake of hysterical news reports in the days ahead, they will be made against a background of acceptance of the most basic point of all: Israel is defending herself as she has every right to do.
The latest pictures on people’s TV screens as well as the day to day pressures of politics will cause spikes and troughs in the British public’s view of Israel and these variations are not insignificant but what is of overriding importance are the overall trends.
For a country with such a terrible image in Britain, Israel has demonstrated that it can make its case effectively. The real measure of success in PR for Israel in the UK will be gauged by what inroads we can make on the mass of the indifferent. That’s the challenge we must meet.