Defending the indefensible

Israeli liberals are increasingly gloomy so British 'progressives' are being mobilised to fight the

Israeli bulldozers demolish a hotel in East Jerusalem in January
Source: Getty Images

Away from the comatose 'peace process' and focus on Iran, a wave of anti-democratic and nationalistic legislation in Israel's Knesset shows no sign of slowing down.

For Israel's liberals, these are worrying times. The publisher and owner of Ha'aretz newspaper this week issued a warning about apartheid and democracy, while his colleagues have launched a special project on Israel's "eroding freedoms" called "Black Flag Over Israel's Democracy".

The rhetoric of anger and fear about these "threats to democracy" reflects a definite shift in Israel. It is crucial to note that Israel has never been 'democratic' for Palestinians, who are excluded from their homeland entirely, live under military rule in the West Bank and Gaza or are second-class citizens in the pre-1967 borders.

What is happening now is that the democratic rights enjoyed by Jewish Israelis are being threatened. Yet as Israeli politics and policies lurch ever further to the right, and the country's liberals feel increasingly gloomy and under attack, in the UK it is self-identified 'progressives' who are increasingly being mobilised to fight Israel's corner.

The Reut Institute is an influential Israeli think tank that has done considerable work focused on countering the growing Palestine solidarity movement (what it calls the 'delegitimization' of Israel). Their proposals have been influential; for example, Reut is front and centre of this weekend's Israel lobby conference in Manchester.

A key emphasis of their recommendations for Israel lobbyists is to focus "on engaging the hearts and minds of liberal progressive elites", a strategy elaborated on in a substantial London-specific report. In the context of the UK, Reut suggest that "liberal and progressive left" voices are the ones "most effective" in shielding Israel from human rights campaigners, and the think tank urges Israel's defenders to "substantively engage liberal and progressive circles".

It is no surprise then that Labour Friends of Israel (LFI) has 'reinvented' itself in order to "develop the 'progressive case' for Israel", while the chief executive of Israel lobby group BICOM - herself a former member of LFI - has committed the organisation to "driving the campaign for the Left to support [Israel] as a Jewish state".

These tactics were transparently on display at a recent 'Question Time'-style debate I participated in at the University of Birmingham, where the two guest speakers on the 'Israel side' - Alan Johnson of BICOM and David Hirsh - both took pains to repeatedly emphasise that they were coming from 'the Left'.

On campuses in general, this push is also reflected in the efforts by the Union of Jewish Students (UJS) to rebrand their Israel lobbying in terms of 'liberation' and 'progressive' values, since - in their own words - "hasbara is not working". UJS's language echoes that of Reut, and the Campaign Director explicitly referenced the think tank when explaining the strategic shift. In summer 2010, Reut hosted a 20-strong delegation from UJS to discuss Israel lobbying on campus.

On the ground in Palestine/Israel, the daily apartheid continues. Just days ago, Israeli soldiers demolished a number of Palestinian homes and structures in the West Bank, a routine, brutal occurrence. Also this week, Minority Rights Group International published a report that describes how, on both sides of the Green Line, Bedouin have been "subject to a series of human rights violations, including forced displacement". Another snapshot: it was reported this week that on a visit to the UK, the head of the World Zionist Organisation - a body with an official relationship with the Israeli state - urged more Jewish immigration to counter 'Arab growth'.

Rather than resist or challenge this, Israel's so-called liberal friends in the UK are increasingly at the forefront of efforts to defend the indefensible, mobilised to help perpetuate a status quo that not only excludes and discriminates against Palestinians, but is now shrinking the space for dissent for Jewish Israelis too.

Ben White is an activist and writer. His latest book is "Palestinians in Israel: Segregation, Discrimination and Democracy"

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UnHerd's rejection of the new isn't as groundbreaking as it seems to think

Tim Montgomerie's new venture has some promise, but it's trying to solve an old problem.

Information overload is oft-cited as one of the main drawbacks of the modern age. There is simply too much to take in, especially when it comes to news. Hourly radio bulletins, rolling news channels and the constant stream of updates available from the internet – there is just more than any one person can consume. 

Luckily Tim Montgomerie, the founder of ConservativeHome and former Times comment editor, is here to help. Montgomerie is launching UnHerd, a new media venture that promises to pull back and focus on "the important things rather than the latest things". 

According to Montgomerie the site has a "package of investment", at least some of which comes from Paul Marshall. He is co-founder of one of Europe's largest hedge funds, Marshall Wace, formerly a longstanding Lib Dem, and also one of the main backers and chair of Ark Schools, an academy chain. The money behind the project is on display in UnHerd's swish (if slightly overwhelming) site, Google ads promoting the homepage, and article commissions worth up to $5,000. The selection of articles at launch includes an entertaining piece by Lionel Shriver on being a "news-aholic", though currently most of the bylines belong to Montgomerie himself. 

Guidelines for contributors, also meant to reflect the site's "values", contain some sensible advice. This includes breaking down ideas into bullet points, thinking about who is likely to read and promote articles, and footnoting facts. 

The guidelines also suggest focusing on what people will "still want to read in six, 12 or 24 months" and that will "be of interest to someone in Cincinnati or Perth as well as Vancouver or St Petersburg and Cape Town and Edinburgh" – though it's not quite clear how one of Montgomerie's early contributions, a defence of George Osborne's editorship of the Evening Standard, quite fits that global criteria. I'm sure it has nothing to do with the full page comment piece Montgomerie got in Osborne's paper to bemoan the deficiencies of modern media on the day UnHerd launched. 

UnHerd's mascot  – a cow – has also created some confusion, compounded by another line in the writing tips describing it as "a cow, who like our target readers, tends to avoid herds and behave in unmissable ways as a result". At least Montgomerie only picked the second-most famous poster animal for herding behaviour. It could have been a sheep. In any case, the line has since disappeared from the post – suggesting the zoological inadequacy of the metaphor may have been recognised. 

There is one way in which UnHerd perfectly embodies its stated aim of avoiding the new – the idea that we need to address the frenetic nature of modern news has been around for years.

"Slow news" – a more considered approach to what's going on in the world that takes in the bigger picture – has been talked about since at least the beginning of this decade.

In fact, it's been around so long that it has become positively mainstream. That pusher of rolling coverage the BBC has been talking about using slow news to counteract fake news, and Montgomerie's old employers, the Times decided last year to move to publishing digital editions at set points during the day, rather than constantly updating as stories break. Even the Guardian – which has most enthusiastically embraced the crack-cocaine of rolling web coverage, the live blog – also publishes regular long reads taking a deep dive into a weighty subject. 

UnHerd may well find an audience particularly attuned to its approach and values. It intends to introduce paid services – an especially good idea given the perverse incentives to chase traffic that come with relying on digital advertising. The ethos it is pitching may well help persuade people to pay, and I don't doubt Montgomerie will be able to find good writers who will deal with big ideas in interesting ways. 

But the idea UnHerd is offering a groundbreaking solution to information overload is faintly ludicrous. There are plenty of ways for people to disengage from the news cycle – and plenty of sources of information and good writing that allow people to do it while staying informed. It's just that given so many opportunities to stay up to date with what has just happened, few people decide they would rather not know.