Israel/Palestine,  Media,  Your View

War on Want: Chasing Demons

This is a guest post by Jeremy Newmark, Chief Executive of the Jewish Leadership Council and a member of the Board of Directors of the European Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism.

When War on Want director John Hilary talks about a recent investigation by the Charity Commission, he characterises it as “part of an ongoing strategy by an organised pro-Israel lobby and the Jewish press”. Interviewed in Third Sector magazine, he accuses “ill-meaning journalists” of deliberately misrepresenting the investigation, and cites “abusive calls from Zionists”.

The complaints against War on Want were well-grounded. The charity was one of the founders of the anti-Israel Enough Coalition, hosting the campaign’s website. It also endorsed and distributed a “Guide for Boycott, Divestment & Sanctions” of Israel. They distribute anti-Israel material at trade union and party conferences. It is reasonable to ask whether these anti-Israel campaigns advance War on Want’s charitable aims of relieving poverty and providing mental care for the poor.

Hilary’s response to the complaint and media coverage is all too familiar. Rather than just arguing War on Want’s case, he also insinuates that the charity is up against a powerful and malicious opponent – variously described as the Israel Lobby, the Jewish press and Zionists. He should make his mind up. These terms are not interchangeable. Meanwhile, War on Want is depicted not as facing the natural consequences of any controversial and offensive campaign, but rather as a victim of the ‘Lobby’.

This is something we have seen in other arenas; for example, any UCU member prepared to oppose an academic boycott of Israel is labelled a Zionist, and 70,000 complaints received by NATFHE is an “e-mail storm whipped up by organisations”. When Jenny Tonge was fired from her front-bench position by LibDem leader Charles Kennedy for comments about suicide bombers, she blamed the pro-Israeli lobby for having its “financial grips on her party.

The suggestion is that it is somehow illegitimate or even malevolent for Jewish organisations and individuals to campaign on issues that they care about, especially Israel. A thousand complaints are taken as proof of the power of ‘the Lobby’, rather than as evidence that a thousand people are upset with what you’ve done. The ubiquitous references to Israel-related campaigning as ‘well-funded’ and ‘highly organised’ only add to this questionable characterisation.

This comes uncomfortably close to the classic antisemitic theme of Jewish Power; the idea that everyone involved in Israel campaigning, from MPs to journalists to individual letter-writers, are part of some wealthy, regimented and powerful political machine disingenuously acting only in its own interest. It is only a short step from this to believing that any action by a Jewish (or Zionist) organisation or individual is guided by ulterior motives. For example Sudan’s government accuses Jewish organisations campaigning against the genocide in Darfur as being parts of a Zionist conspiracy against Sudan.

Members of the Jewish community (or any other faith community) are clearly entitled to campaign around issues that concern them. John Hilary’s comments reflect a developing narrative in parts of the NGO sector that suggests mainstream Jewish or Zionist interests are themselves illegitimate.

War on Want was happy to work alongside the Muslim Public Affairs Committee in the ‘Enough Coalition’, despite MPAC’s history of publishing antisemitic articles and the financial support by their founder/leading activist Asghar Bukhari for David Irving. The charity works with organisations on the far-left, where the notion of the all-powerful Zionist Lobby is commonplace. Perhaps this is where John Hilary has picked up the notion of blaming Zionists for War on Want’s problems.

As Director of a major charity, Hilary has a responsibility to be careful in his choice of language. Jenny Tonge was asked to leave Christian Aid’s Trustee board after her comments about Jewish organisations were deemed unacceptable. In recent years we have witnessed resurgence in the acceptability of classic antisemitic tropes within mainstream political discourse. Nobody is suggesting that the War on Want Director’s particular formulation is antisemitic. However, I hope that the kind of language used by John Hilary is not a warning signal that the disproportionate amount of anti-Israel activity already prevalent in many major charities and NGOs is beginning to morph into something more sinister.