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
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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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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era