The Uk, the Middle East, and Israel: A Symposium

By Spyer, Jonathan | Middle East Review of International Affairs (Online), June 2010 | Go to article overview

The Uk, the Middle East, and Israel: A Symposium


Spyer, Jonathan, Middle East Review of International Affairs (Online)


INTRODUCTION

In this symposium, several experts report and analyze attitudes within the United Kingdom's civil society regarding the Middle East and Arab-Israeli conflict.

One of the most widely noted developments has been the rise there of grassroots activism and intellectual ferment on behalf of the Palestinian cause and against Israel. In 2005, an attempt to use professional associations to initiate a boycott of Israeli academia was launched in Britain. While this was eventually defeated through legal action, efforts to reintroduce it have become a regular part of the annual conference of the main British lecturers' union, the University and College Union (the UCU).

In 2009, the British Trades Union Congress (TUC) supported a call for a boycott of goods and services originating in Israeli settlements and a divestment campaign directed against companies "associated" with the occupation.

Yet the academic boycott saga and the TUC decision represent only aspects of a broader picture in which some elements of British civil society have emerged as the most trenchant of Israel's critics in Western Europe.

Why are these phenomena manifesting themselves with particular strength in the UK? Why has the UK become one of the central "hubs of delegitimization" facing Israel at the present time? What are the factors that need to be taken into account in order to better understand recent developments? Moreover, what is Israel doing in order to attempt to rectify this situation in what remains, after all, one of its most important global allies? The articles within this symposium address these subjects, each in its own area of focus.

The first article is written by Douglas Murray, head of the Centre for Social Cohesion. In his essay "How the UK Arrived at the Present Situation Regarding Israel and Middle East Issues," Murray seeks to identify the core reasons explaining the emergence in Britain of the attempt to "delegitimize and demonize" Israel. He discusses a variety of factors that may explain the virulence of the anti-Israel campaign in the UK.

Murray points to the presence of radical Islamism in British society and political life as a central factor. He traces the vital and central role played by Islamist groups in bringing the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the prominence it now has in the British debate. Murray writes: "As a result of a very deliberate campaign from the start of the 'War on Terror,' at places of learning and in society at large, it has become lodged in the public mind that an issue at best tangential to the issues at hand is not just a part of the picture but the biggest part of the picture, and eventually, the whole picture."

Murray relates this growing prominence of radically anti-Israel positions in British society to what he sees as a broader failure of British society in developing ways to absorb successfully some Muslim immigrants in the country. He sees this in regard to broader problems affecting British society, which are discussed in the article. Whether or not one chooses to accept Douglas Murray's interpretation of the reasons for Israel's current standing in Britain, his essay offers a rigorous and thought- provoking treatment of the issue.

The subsequent articles focus on specific areas of British civil society and the attempts by advocates of Israel's cause to halt or reverse the slide toward delegitimizing Israel in their respective fields.

Ronnie Fraser, director of the Academic Friends of Israel, is both a researcher of British trade union history and an erstwhile activist in the UCU who played an important role in opposing the academic boycott of Israel campaign in Britain. His essay "UK Attitudes Toward the Middle East: The British Trade Union Movement" is informed by both his research and his experience.

He first discusses the historical roots of the British trade union movement's engagement with the Middle East as a whole, before going on to focus on the pro-Palestinian campaign in the movement. …

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