CST Blog

BBC HARDtalk: any qualms that you could be feeding antisemitism?

21 May 2012

Jewish conspiracy theory is fundamental to antisemitism. It relies on the notion of Jewish wealth and power, working against the rest of society. It is commonly expressed as Jews controlling politicians and the media.

This does not render discussion of Jewish political and media influence illegitimate. It does, however, require discussion of them to be sensitive and careful. If one is not discussing a Jewish conspiracy, then a responsible journalist should say so, explicitly. For example, Peter Oborne knew the antisemitic risks in his Channel 4 programme, ‘Inside Britain’s Israel Lobby’. He explicitly stated that he had found no conspiracy, nor anything resembling one. (Sadly, the risks were made clear when many of those covering the programme made no such distinctions.)

Unfortunately, BBC’s flagship HARDtalk programme took no such care in its recent interview with the controversial Norman Finkelstein. On the contrary, the interview proceeded as if American foreign policy is beholden to Israel and that this can only be explained by “the Jewish lobby”.  

Complaints to the BBC solicited the answer you would expect: this is HARDtalk, so we have to reflect the views of our guest, Norman Finkelstein, and we then robustly challenge those views.

Indeed, you would expect a programme of BBC HARDtalk’s calibre to present and challenge such hard to hear views...except it did not. The BBC may well believe that it challenged these views; it may take it as axiomatic that HARDtalk would have done...but it did not.

The management and staff of HARDtalk would, of course, never be so stupid, nor so crass and antisemitic, as to say that “the Jewish lobby” runs America, or American foreign policy or American media. Indeed, they would likely be aghast at such statements: or, at least, with such statements from which all context and other rationales had been removed. And yet, HARDtalk stated that American Presidents have long been

too in thrall to the Jewish lobby...and that explains America’s unwavering support for Israel.

Furthermore, Norman Finkelstein did not even express himself as HARDtalk suggested he did. He did not speak of a “Jewish lobby”, but of an Israel lobby that included a “periphery of large numbers of Jews in influential places”. He argued that this “periphery”  has, until now, made an important difference to America supporting Israel, but is free thinking and is now moving to a more critical position.

Where HARDtalk simply states “Jewish lobby” and then risks the audience filling in the blanks with antisemitism, Finkelstein’s approach to his influential Jews is at least vaguely human and demystifying. You may well vehemently disagree with Finkelstein (about American Jewish media influence, about the lobby explaining American foreign policy decisions etc), you may recoil at the company he keeps, the people he emboldens, his attitudes and beliefs, but he still stresses that the formal Israel lobby is the same as any other foreign lobby group.

Even when Finkelstein discusses his influential Jews, he basically depicts them as behaving as any minority group would, with human behaviours. His argument also implies that these influential Jews are not beholden to Israel. They are capable of free thought and are, indeed, exercising it. (Hence his claim that American Jews are moving away from Israel.)

The HARDtalk programme can be seen here on BBC’s website. The programme description on the BBC website reads:

American Presidents have long been criticised for being too in thrall to the Jewish lobby. That American Jews influence US foreign policy and that explains America's unwavering support for Israel.

So what happens if American Jews fall out of love with Israel? That's what the Jewish American academic Norman Finkelstein claims is happening... Could he be right and if he is what does that mean for Middle East policy?

The description was repeated as the introductory remarks of HARDtalk interviewer Sarah Montague.

Following complaints, A BBC spokesman told the Jewish Chronicle

We consider the wording used in the introduction appropriate as the presenter was simply explaining and reflecting the public views of the guest. She makes clear these are the controversial views of Jewish American academic, Norman Finkelstein, and then robustly challenges him in the interview.

Actually, Montague robustly questions Finkelstein on his claim that American Jews are falling out of love with Israel. It is not Finkelstein who says that American Presidents are too “in thrall to the Jewish lobby”, it is Montague. She does not revisit or challenge this wording.  

For example, Montague’s opening question (at 01min 19secs) is, “What is the evidence that American Jews are falling out of love with Israel?”. She makes further interventions at 02.38, 04.30, and 05.41, all of which challenge Finkelstein’s suggestion that the American Jewish love-in for Israel is slipping. Then, interventions at 07.30 and 08.00 challenge Finkelstein’s reputation and reliability.

At 08.50, it sounds as if Montague may be about to challenge the Jewish lobby thesis, she asks Finkelstein, “Why does it matter. You know there is an argument that actually, so what?” Finkelstein replies about the “Israel lobby” and splits it in two. Firstly, the “hard core” which is paid by Israel to lobby, just as other lobbyists are by other countries. Secondly, (at 09.13) the important bit, the bonus ball, the leading Jews:

What makes the lobby so powerful is the periphery of large numbers of Jews in influential places, in magazines, in newspapers, on television, in film, a large periphery of Jews who also have deeply felt, heartfelt feelings for Israel and that periphery is now being lost. American Jews just don’t

Here, Montague intervenes, but she does not argue about large numbers of influential Jews in the media, or anywhere else. Neither does she quibble about how something that is a “periphery” can also be so large and powerful.  Instead, she wants to scrutinise Finkelstein's claim that the “hard core” Israel lobby is paid for by Israel. There is no challenge to the Jewish power aspect of Finkelstein’s argument. Instead, they argue about who gets paid for what, before Finkelstein returns to the importance of the powerful Jewish periphery, saying the “hard core” Israel lobbyists will have

less sway, less power, if the periphery begins to distance itself from Israel.

Next (11.13), Montague appears to actually endorse the Jewish power thesis, she interjects:

But if the periphery don’t care, then the American President isn’t going to care

Three minutes later (14.11), a similar question again appears to endorse the Jewish power thesis, expanding it to the Jewish Diaspora:

If what you’re saying is true, we then have a Diaspora that doesn’t care so much about Israel. How’s that going to change things are you suggesting? 

Finkelstein answers that a pro-peace and anti-settlements Jewish community would be beneficial for all concerned (including Israel). The interview then goes on to argue over Finkelstein’s book ‘The Holocaust Industry’ and his abrasive style, until (19.24) Montague asks him:

...The argument that for example you feed the antisemites, do you ever have any qualms that actually, you are doing, that you could be doing, their work for them?

The charge is nothing new for Finkelstein. He answers it, but it is a question that the BBC and the HARDtalk team should now ask of themselves.

However inadvertently, the BBC have made a flagship programme sound as if it rests upon an antisemitic conspiracy thesis. They have then allowed that premise to go unchallenged in almost 30 minutes of face to face interview; and, if anything, it sounds like they actually endorse it. The BBC need to take a fresh and honest look at this programme and its promotion. If they have any qualms about perhaps feeding antisemitism, then they should apologise accordingly.

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