Thin line between untruth and bigotry

13 Oct 2009 by CST

The Independent (12.10.09) featured a full page article by columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown about her having attended all three of the recent main political party conferences. It is a lengthy piece, aptly summarised by its title, "My journey into the heart of the white middle class". In the penultimate paragraph, Alibhai-Brown writes

"Other lowlights to report - all three parties were lavishly entertained by the over-influential Friends of Israel"

Those who understand antisemitism will be concerned to see an anti-racist commentator of Alibhai-Brown's standing casually using such langauge in a left-leaning daily newspaper. The phrases "lavishly entertained" and "over-influential" evoke classic antisemitic motifs of Jewish power and financial domination. 

It is not apparent from the article if Alibhai-Brown even realises that each of the political parties has an entirely separate Friends of Israel group. Whatever her knowledge, she clearly believes that she knows enough  to assert that all three political parties have been lavishly entertained: and that this is not unconnected to the "over-influence" of Friends of Israel groups within every party.

Those who risk provocative langauge should at least have a high level of proof for their claims. Having attended the Labour Friends of Israel event at Labour Party Conference, I would dispute Alibhai-Brown's depiction of it as "lavish". Hot and cramped, yes. Busy, buzzing and worthwhile, yes. Lavish: no, not a word that came anywhere near my mind either during or after the event. 

I cannot attest for the Liberal Democrat and Conservative events, but I would suggest that in the current financial climate, and given the scandal over MP's expenses, that it was unlikely that either of them constituted lavish entertainment. Neither can I gauge how this alleged lavishness compared to every other event that occurred over the party conference season.

I have, however, taken opinions from CST colleagues who did attend the other Friends events, as to whether or not they featured lavish entertainment that I had sadly missed out on:  and the answer was a unanimous "no". Perhaps Alibhai-Brown and CST staff differ in our understanding of what constitutes lavish entertainment; or how lavish that entertainment needs to be to deserve being singled out in this manner. Perhaps we also differ in our understanding of what constitutes "over-influential"; or how "over-influential" a lobby group needs to be in order to deserve being singled out like this.

Whatever our differences of opinion over these things, I trust that Alibhai-Brown and I can agree on one thing: that there is a thin line between untruth and bigotry. The phrase is a good one. It was used by Luciana Berger, Director of Labour Friends of Israel, and is the title of her comment that she posted on the Independent website at 2349hrs on 11.10.09, immediately below Alibhai-Brown's article on the site. It read as follows:

Thin line between untruth and bigotry

As for our supposed 'over-influence', you don't attempt to present any evidence. Because there isn't any. Your remark is pure prejudice. It is just bigotry and as such the Independent shouldn't be giving it a platform.

Yasmin, you didn't attend the Labour Friends of Israel reception at Labour party conference. If you had done, you would have been served house wine/orange juice and chips. Crisps and peanuts if you got to a bowl in time. Hardly lavish.

Matthew Harris of Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel wrote directly to the Independent, who published his letter in their 13.10.09 edition. (Unlike Berger, Harris did not choose the title to his comments). The letter is well worth reading in full, and is as follows:

'Influential friends' woo the parties 

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (12 October) claims that "all three parties were lavishly entertained by the over-influential Friends of Israel" at the recent party conferences.

 At the Liberal Democrat Conference, the Friends of Israel's sole gathering was a fringe meeting about President Obama's efforts towards Middle East peace. As at most fringe meetings, drinks and sandwiches were available, but nobody was "lavishly entertained"; had Yasmin attended what was essentially a symposium on the peace process, she might well have enjoyed it.

 There are also groupings of Liberal Democrat Friends of India, Palestine and Pakistan – are they also to be described as "overly-influential"? I drank a glass of wine at the Friends of Palestine's meeting before asking some critical questions, but I don't consider myself to have been "lavishly entertained" or "over-influenced". The Friends of India's reception was at what sounds like an excellent Indian restaurant, but I don't hear Yasmin complaining that guests were "lavishly entertained" at this event.

 Why can Friends of Israel not make a normal contribution to the foreign policy debate without being labelled "over-influential" by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown?

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