In times of crisis, UK Jews return to public support for Israel

The diversity of views that has developed has been temporarily obscured by Operation Pillar of Defence.

The image that outsiders often have of the UK Jewish community, and the image that some insiders try to project as well, is one in which the vast majority of Jews are fervent supporters of Israel who will defend the Jewish state come what may. This majority is opposed by a small but vociferous minority – beleaguered heroes or traitors according to taste – who oppose what they see as Israel’s crimes and are attacked and suppressed by the Jewish establishment for their pains.

If this simplistic picture was ever accurate, it has become less so over the last few years as greater number of liberal-left Jews in Britain have begun to question where Israel is going. The "tipping point" was Operation Cast Lead in 2009. Not only was the organisation of the traditional "solidarity rally" in Trafalgar Square that usually accompanies times of war in Israel, accompanied by much behind-the-scenes discomfort among those who were concerned at Israel’s harsh actions in Gaza, but a letter published in the Observer on 11 January by a number of liberally-inclined community leaders expressed deep concern at the consequences of the loss of so many Palestinian lives.

Following Cast Lead, community leaders have begun to talk about a "big tent" that would encompass a diversity of views on Israel, while excluding anti-Zionists and pro-BDS activists. On top of this, the formation of the "pro-Israel pro-peace" group Yachad in 2011, modelled in certain respects on the US lobby group J Street, meant that the UK now had a liberal Zionist voice for those Jews who wanted to defend the increasingly threatened two-state solution.

Operation Pillar of Defence was the first big test for this emerging, guardedly heterogeneous, Jewish polity. It is striking then how far the public response seemed to reflected an earlier era of unanimous public support. On 15 November, just one day after the assassination of Ahmed Jabari, the Jewish Leadership Council sent a public letter of support to the Israeli Ambassador, signed by 71 Jewish leaders from most major UK Jewish organisations.

The letter was a "message of support and solidarity from leaders and key institutions of the UK Jewish community" and claimed that "These sentiments prevail across all sections of our community." It described Operation Pillar of Defence as "an entirely understandable response to the intolerable assault upon the citizens of Southern Israel" and "took pride" in Israel’s commitment to "leave no stone unturned in seeking to avoid civilian casualties."

Just as striking was a statement put out by Yachad on 16 November (not available online) that "We unequivocally support Israel's right to self defence" and that "it is also a guiding principle of every Israeli military operation that it will do all it can to minimise civilian casualties." It was only groups such as Jews For Justice for Palestinians on the left that provided a Jewish voice criticising Israel’s actions.

So does Operation Pillar of Defence indicate a retreat into unequivocal mainstream UK Jewish support for Israel? It’s not that simple. The private conversations and interactions on social media that I’ve had in the last couple of weeks have demonstrated that many liberally-inclined UK Jews were and are deeply disturbed about Palestinian civilian casualties, worried by the drift to the right in Israel and ambivalent about the ultimate results of Pillar of Defence.

Yet during periods of violent conflict, many Jews feel a string sense of connection to Israel and are worried sick about Israeli casualties. This sense of kinship temporarily overrides more critical feelings.

At the same time, solidarity with Israel in time of war stores up credit that can be spent on being more questioning in calmer periods. One signatory to the letter told me that his signing "will allow me to be more critical the rest of the time." A temporary suppression of doubt can pay political dividends later on.

During the next period of relative quiet, the big tent will be erected again and Jews will feel safer to explore their concerns about Israel’s current direction. But is this good enough? What Pillar of Defence has exposed is that the more critical conversations about Israel that have emerged in recent years are still taking place in a political void. There is still great reluctance to actively campaign against Israel, in times of peace or war. Liberal Zionists have constructed a yawning gap between what they want Israel to be and their willingness to fight for it.

But UK Jews are not unique in this. Members of the pro-Palestinian movement are equally prone to suppressing their doubts in the service of solidarity. How many of those on the left who take to the streets in defence of Palestine have private worries about Hamas’s fundamentalism?

This is the pathology of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: it raises such intense emotions that it overrides genuine idealism in favour of public vehemence.

Keith Kahn-Harris is a sociologist and is the co-author of “Turbulent Times: the British Jewish Community Today” (Continuum, £19.99)

Demonstrators wave Israeli flags outside the Israeli embassy in London on 15 November 2012. Photograph: Getty Images

Keith Kahn-Harris is a sociologist and is the co-author of “Turbulent Times: the British Jewish Community Today”

Alex Jones/YouTube
Show Hide image

Alex Jones spread lies about the Sandy Hook massacre – grieving parents may see he pays for it

A lawsuit filed by parents of those killed in the 2012 massacre means the Infowars host might finally have to face the consequences of his actions.

It can be easy to think of conspiracy theories and those who spread them as crazy but essentially harmless. Mad ideas, repeated by kooks who are so far removed from reality that their impact on society is minimal.

The experiences of the parents of the 20 six- and seven-year-olds killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre should serve as a reminder that they are anything but.

Following the mass shooting, one of the US’s most deadly, rumours spread online that the whole thing had been staged. As now happens with almost every mass school shooting, social media and forums like 4chan filled with claims that the news footage was faked, that the grieving parents were in fact actors, that their grief was not real.

One of the chief enablers and amplifiers of these theories around Sandy Hook has been Alex Jones, the puffed-up, red-faced ball of rage that runs and hosts the Infowars radio show and web TV channel.

Jones was initially cautious in his approach to Sandy Hook, despite being a regular promoter of other conspiracy theories including 9/11 being an inside job, and more recently the now infamous “Pizzagate” conspiracy, which led to a man discharging an assault rifle in a restaurant that he had become convinced was a cover for a Democrat-linked paedophile ring.

However, in the months and years after the shooting Jones became less and less cautious, raising doubts about the stories told by parents about cradling their dead children, implying and sometimes outright stating that the massacre had never happened and that the parents and authorities were lying.

As an outlet with millions of viewers and listeners, ones already susceptible to conspiracy theorising, his statements can only have encouraged those who harried Sandy Hook parents like Lenny Pozner, who lost his six-year-old son Noah in the shooting.

As Pozner told the Guardian’s Hadley Freeman last year, when he finally began emerging from the “catatonic” state he was left in after the shooting and began posting picture of his son on social media , he was deluged with comments such as “Fake kid”, “Didn’t die” and “Fucking liar”. He has received death threats, and moved many times, not just because it helps him cope with his loss, but because pictures of his home were regularly posted online.

He told Freeman of the inadequacy of government response that “lawmakers don’t know how to deal with this. Police don’t know how to police the internet, they haven’t been trained, they just tell you to turn off the computer. And people who do police the internet, they are looking for credit card scams worth millions of dollars. For 4chan trolls, this is their playground.”

But while the many lone trolls are difficult to pin down, Jones is a public face with a broadcasting infrastructure, so it is perhaps unsurprising that Pozner, along with two other parents of Sandy Hook victims, is suing Jones for defamation, seeking at least $1m in damages.

The bar for defamation in the US is (rightly) high, certainly higher than it is in the UK, because what is defined as “political speech” is protected by the First Amendment to the US constitution.

Pozner and his fellow plaintiffs must prove not only that Jones was not telling the truth, but that he did so either knowing it was false or with a “reckless disregard” for the truth. So while Jones patently spread falsehoods on his shows – and continues to do so – it is far from guaranteed that they will win. Jones, for example, has said he was playing devil’s advocate.

Nevertheless, the case raises a number of intriguing prospects, such as what happens when the claimants ask for disclosure of how Jones verified his wild claims in a bid to prove he took a reckless disregard for the truth. What will Jones do when asked in court to provide evidence of his sources?

There is also the question of how his previous submissions, during a court battle with his ex-wife for custody of their children (a fight Jones lost), that his show was “performance art”. On the one hand, it might provide him with a way of claiming that he was never making any statement designed to be interpreted as fact. On the other, it makes it difficult to argue that he truly believes what he says, which would make it hard to claim he was making his statements in good faith. 

This is not even the first time Jones has been sued over his penchant for spreading untruths. He is facing a number of other defamation suits, including one from a man who Jones claimed had organised protests against white nationalists in Charlottesville.

But the Sandy Hook conspiracy theorising is the most heartbreakingly cruel. The victims are people who lost children in the most horrific way, and who have had their grieving interrupted constantly by strangers on the internet telling them they are making it up.

And there is another aspect to Jones that makes his theorising even more deplorable. As numerous articles and a segment on John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight have explored, Jones makes money selling products that appear to offer solutions to the terrors he conjures up. From water-filters that Jones claims will cut out the kind of pollutants that, he says, turn frogs gay, to the much ridiculed Brain Force dietary supplements, Infowars operates like a crazies-only version of Amazon, slinging products on the back of the fears and anxieties he’s spent the show stoking.

These products are by and large over-priced, and of highly dubious effectiveness. Jones claims that the money is all ploughed back into his own show, which he says costs $45m to $50m a year. But as Oliver pointed out, he’s at least making enough to afford more than a couple of Rolexes.

So whether Jones truly believes the deranged theories he parrots, or is simply using their mass appeal to make a fast buck, he is still making money by preying on the easily persuadable and paranoid, and aggravating the pain suffered by those they target.

If Jones is found guilty, one of the considerations used to decide the scale of damages awarded against him is likely to be the emotional harm caused by his actions. Whatever Jones’s personal relationship with the truth, the pain he has caused to parents is undeniable. By that measure, I hope a judge decides to bankrupt him. I hope Posner and the other parents succeed in suing him into oblivion.

There would be little more fitting, or just, than if it were these bereaved parents who finally put Jones and Infowars out of business.

Jasper Jackson is the New Statesmans digital editor. He was formerly assistant editor of Media Guardian, and editor of TheMediaBriefing.