The backlash against the UK National Union of Journalists’ boycott motion

The “continued occupation” protested by the UK National Union of Journalists: Israeli soldiers control the movement of Palestinians attempting to cross Huwara checkpoint near the West Bank city of Nablus, 29 April 2007. (Rami Swidan/MaanImages)


There’s nothing quite like a boycott to test the limits of the mainstream ‘liberal’ critique of Israel. This has been demonstrated once again by the reaction to a motion at the recent UK National Union of Journalists (NUJ) conference that gave the union’s support to the campaign to boycott Israeli goods.

An official statement described the successful vote as a “decision of NUJ members as trade unionists and as citizens to try to help put pressure on the Israeli government” to stop the “continued occupation”, as well as referencing the specific issues of Israel’s withholding of PA money, and the refusal to recognise internationally-accredited Palestinian journalists.

A modest but important show of solidarity for a beleaguered people occupied by a state supported by powerful Western governments? Or an irrelevant and infantile gesture, that compromises journalistic neutrality and smells of anti-Semitism? From the conservative The Daily Telegraph, to the liberal Guardian, there was only one interpretation in town.

Pundits and editorials have been employing different arguments, though most of them can be grouped into three main accusations: irrelevancy, bias unbecoming of a journalists’ trade union, and exceptionalism (or anti-Semitism). The first, irrelevancy, was seized upon by many critics as the perfect opportunity to smear the motion on a point of order — what was a journalists’ union doing supporting a politicised boycott? However, the idea that a trade union should ignore international issues and stick with issues directly affecting the workforce it represents surely flies in the face of decades of international union solidarity for those struggling against injustice.

The fact that BBC journalist Alan Johnston was still missing, presumed held by a Palestinian group, at the time of the conference, increased the anti-boycotters’ sense of incredulity. Witness Jonathan Freedland’s Guardian column: “ ‘So, besides holding a special session on Johnston, what is the NUJ’s response? To spring into action and boycott, er, Israel. Does someone need to give those 66 NUJ activists who voted for a boycott (as opposed to the 54 who voted against) a quick refresher course in the Middle East conflict, so they can tell which side is which?’”

It was an odd argument, since it presumes the impossibility of condemning the kidnapping of journalists at the same time as also identifying Israel as a colonial occupier requiring global civil society action. Curiously, Freedland was not alone in alleging an apparent lack of concern for Johnston’s fate. The Foreign Press Association weighed in with its own condemnation of the resolution, noting the omission of Johnston’s disappearance from the text — despite Johnston’s kidnapping being specifically condemned by the NUJ in a separate motion. Even The Independent’s Donald Macintyre, speaking to The Jerusalem Post, seemed to suggest that the NUJ’s boycott motion was instead of, rather than as well as a commitment to working for Johnston’s release.

Enter the Guardian’s editorial, which beside from bearing a striking similarity to Freedland’s anti-boycott column in the same paper, drew together the cry of irrelevancy and the concern of ‘bias’. The motion, which the Guardian claimed strayed “beyond the reasonable and traditional concerns of a journalists’ union”, also apparently ran counter to the journalistic norm of “a spirit of fairness and disinterested inquiry”.

Thus even the Guardian, a newspaper berated by UK Zionists as being a bastion of anti-Israeli propaganda, claims that media ‘fairness’ and objectivity is compromised by first, identifying Israel as an illegal occupier (which is true) and two, commit oneself to challenging this status quo (an entirely acceptable response to the former). But this argument was, of course, disingenuous on an even more fundamental level, as it presupposes a non-existent standard of journalistic accuracy in Middle East reporting.

The hypocrisy of the ‘bias’ critique was unwittingly exposed by The Daily Telegraph’s USA editor, Toby Harnden, who, towards the conclusion of his blog excoriating the NUJ vote, provided an insight into the perspective of mainstream British journalists assigned to Israel/Palestine:

But most British journalists based in Jerusalem — and I was one of them — have a mix of sympathy for the terrible plight of ordinary Palestinians, a belief that there will be a two-state solution and even sneaking admiration for what Israel has achieved in terms of nation-building in its short history.
First of all, note that the vast majority of reporters are based in West Jerusalem — despite the occupation’s centrality to the conflict, no one actually chooses to live under it. But secondly, observe the general viewpoint: humanitarian hand-wringing for the Palestinians, without any causal link between their “plight” and dispossession, as well as “admiration” for just how well Israel has managed to colonise Palestine.

The most common attack on the NUJ motion though, and an accusation wheeled out for every single boycott, is the denunciation of ‘exceptionalism’ or even, of anti-Semitism

By far the most common attack on the NUJ motion though, and an accusation wheeled out for every single boycott, is the denunciation of ‘exceptionalism’ or even, of anti-Semitism. For a sample of the ‘Why Israel?’ mantra, see Freedland in the Guardian — “But why no boycotts of Chinese, Russian, Pakistani and Zimbabwean goods?” — as well as the Guardian’s editorial, which helpfully reminded readers that “there is no shortage of unsavoury regimes around the world which might merit some form of consumer boycott”.

It is worth pausing to consider the problems with this approach. Firstly, it is no defence to point at other human rights abusers as if that somehow exonerates Israel of its own war crimes. It be would like a convicted thief pleading with the judge as he’s hauled off to prison, ‘But your honour, there are other thieves, and even better ones, than me!’ Such an attitude would invalidate numerous single issue campaigns. But secondly, even this relatively obvious rebuttal rests on a flawed premise: that Israel is a democracy ‘like us’, which of course makes errors of judgment and proportionality, but is basically a ‘good guy’ compared to the real regional or global villains.

Conservative politician and columnist for The Times, Michael Gove, was most explicit on this point. The boycott, he wrote, “is not of a repressive state that outlaws free expression (of which, sadly, there are still too many) but of one of the few states in the Middle East with a proper free press”. He continued, “[Freedom of speech] is better defended in Israel than in any other nation of the Middle East and it comes under assault daily from forces driven by fanaticism”. Stephen Glover, writing in The Independent, also chipped in, describing Israel as “a functioning democracy with a free Press and a robust tradition of free speech”.

Of course, whether you are like Freedland, and think an imperfect Israel’s mistakes are unfairly obsessed over, or like Gove, and believe Israel to be virtuous and noble, the result is that one is left searching for a reason behind all this anti-Israeli activity (you know what’s coming). Back to Glover in The Independent:

Why is Israel singled out? I hesitate to raise the charge of anti-Semitism since it is used too often and too carelessly by defenders of Israel in order to try to quash criticism of the country. But though laying aside that explanation, I confess that I am unable to find another one.
Over at The Washington Post, Richard Cohen wrote an ABC in boycott smear tactics. Begin with a confession of Israel’s mistakes, for example, “the wrongful and counterproductive occupation”. In contrast to Israel’s “incompetence”, however, move swiftly on to examples of sheer brutality: “Sudan kills by the score”, Mugabe “beats his opponents to a pulp”. With this disparity between Israel’s ‘mistakes’ and other nations’ crimes established, move on to the real motivation of the pro-boycott movement: “But some of it, surely, is anti-Semitism itself, a rage at the impudent, pushy Jew”.

The rest of the backlash often simply resorted to cheap snickering — ‘Oh, well, you’d better stop using all your computers and mobile phones because their components are made in Israel’. The British government also joined in the chorus of critics, Gordon Brown unofficially, reported as describing the boycott as “unacceptable”, while Foreign Minister Kim Howells declared himself “disappointed” by the motion.

There are ongoing campaigns to overturn or counteract the NUJ resolution, including a petition of BBC journalists that had gathered 270 signatures at the time of writing

There are ongoing campaigns to overturn or counteract the NUJ resolution, including a petition of BBC journalists that had gathered 270 signatures at the time of writing. The text includes ‘dismay’ at the motion, since “as members of a corporation which prides itself on providing impartial news coverage, we cannot associate ourselves with a move which involves taking sides in any conflict”. The group will apparently meet on May 8 with the NUJ General Secretary Jeremy Dear to discuss the dispute.

Once again, moves to actually hold Israel to account for its dispossession of the Palestinians, and continued occupation of lands conquered in 1967, have been feverishly attacked, right across the political spectrum. It goes to show just how far Palestinian solidarity groups still have to go in effecting a paradigm shift in how the conflict is seen. On the other hand, the NUJ motion has become part of a bigger picture of a more confident Palestinian solidarity movement, and the ensuing backlash, further evidence of an increasingly panicky Zionist lobby.

Ben White is a freelance journalist specialising in Palestine/Israel. His website is at www.benwhite.org.uk and he can be contacted directly at ben@benwhite.org.uk.

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