Sunday Times journalist Josh Glancy argues that being honest, showing concern and voicing criticism is the way to be a true friend of Israel.
I was invited by a friend’s father to come along to the Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI) lunch. Although my domestic political affiliations lie elsewhere, I thought the event might be interesting from a Zionist and journalistic point of view. So I duly dug out my solitary tie and showed up with the great and the good of the Conservative party and British Jewry at the Park Plaza on Westminster Bridge.
The turnout was remarkable. Despite the eurozone debate planned for that afternoon in parliament and the momentous news of David Cameron’s EU veto from the night before, the Conservative party was there almost in its entirety. Party chairman Sayeeda Warsi, chancellor George Osborne and even Alan Duncan, often critical of Israel, were in attendance. (Notably absent was Aidan Burley MP, who had been exposed by the Mail on Sunday for being present during a stag party with some unfortunate Nazi content.)
The event was a clear display of power by the CFI, it was impressive, and heartening that there are so many politicians in this country who are happy to publicly identify with Israel.
However, the overall tone of the event was disappointing. It gloried in Israel’s many achievements, survival, democracy, civil rights and a burgeoning technology and science-based economy, but veered away from the Palestinian issue entirely – the word ‘Palestinians’ wasn’t actually mentioned until the closing speech (and only then to blame them for the failure of various peace processes).
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not arguing that every event regarding Israel has to focus on its intractable security situation or the plight of the Palestinians. We see plenty of that in our newspapers, and I often have to explain to people that there is far more to Israel than ‘the situation’. It is a real country, and it is important for our parliamentary legislators to know that.
But that is not to say that the event should have propagated an impeccable view of Israel. I sincerely doubt I was the only one in the room made uncomfortable by this relentless panegyric. Had I been able to spot the diminutive Alan Duncan from across the room I’m pretty sure he would have been squirming in his seat. The view of the situation put forward by CFI director Stuart Polak in his closing speech was so blinkered that only the more hard-line Conservatives could have supported it entirely.
But because everyone in the room was in agreement that Israel is generally a good thing (a view I share), they were happy to nod along and make their way back over Westminster Bridge having done their Zionist duty.
To my mind, the sycophantic tone of the event was unworthy of a true friend of Israel. It needs its friends to be honest, it needs them to be forthright in their criticisms. The Conservative Friends of Israel should not exist simply to promote mindless Hasbara and propagandise for the Israeli government.
If they are truly friends of Israel, they should be expressing concern about the illiberal tendencies of Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party and about ongoing settlement construction alongside their praise of Israel’s hi-tech industries and its tolerance towards homosexuality.
It’s not always easy to criticise your friends in public. It feels disloyal, and it feels as though you are giving ammunition to your friend’s enemies.
But it is not in Israel’s interests to receive a consistent whitewash from its friends. To borrow from Plutarch: “I don’t need a friend who nods when I nod; my shadow does that much better”. Israel’s friends must have the courage to shake their heads every once in a while.