Boris Johnson has finally fulfilled his political ambitions by becoming the U.K.’s 77th Prime Minister. His biggest short-term priority will be ensuring that the U.K. leaves the European Union by October 31st in as orderly a fashion as possible. But it is a fair question to ask whether the new PM, who is an avowed philosemite and admirer of Jewish culture, will look equally with favour on Israel. When one looks back at Johnson’s record, one finds a rather mixed picture and one which reflects the inconsistencies for which he is sometimes accused.
Firstly, it is necessary to dispel a myth: that Boris Johnson is nothing but a British version of President Trump. Certainly, there are superficial similarities. Both have a somewhat maverick and ebullient style, and both are willing to ride a coach and horses through their respective political establishments. But the similarities mask obvious differences.
For one, Johnson is a classically trained scholar whose knowledge of modern history and culture is compelling. For another, he is an experienced politician, having served as an MP since 2001, Mayor of London for 8 years and, most recently, as Foreign Secretary. Moreover, Johnson’s occasionally offensive remarks mask the fact that, as a classical liberal, he champions individual freedom and liberty and has often been positive towards ethnic minorities and LGBT people. He specifically condemned President Trump’s Muslim migration ban. And as a journalist of 30 years standing, he has little time for the incessant attacks on the press which have become routine in Washington.
This makes a difference to the Jews in one important sense. Johnson is a Brexiteer because he believes that E.U. membership is anti-democratic and undermines Parliamentary sovereignty. He champions liberalism, openness and democratic institutions, the kind of political environment in which Jews traditionally thrive and to which they make the most positive contribution. It helps that he is proud of his Jewish maternal great grandfather, a Lithuanian rabbi.
In the past, Johnson has lauded Israel as a ‘great country’ and described himself as a ‘passionate Zionist’. He visited the country as a university student in 1984 and spent some time volunteering on Kibbutz Kfar Hanassi in northern Israel. He would later speak of the ‘bonds of hard work, self-reliance and audacious and relentless energy’ holding together ‘a remarkable country’ and, in a comparison of Israel with Churchill, praised the ‘daring, audacity, derring-do and indomitability’ of the Jewish state. As Mayor of London, he arrived in Israel for a three-day trade mission in November 2015 with a team of high tech entrepreneurs. He later said that London was the ‘natural tech partner for Israeli firms.’ This extensive economic and technological collaboration is likely to increase now that Johnson is Prime Minister.
Johnson has also condemned the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement in the strongest terms, describing it as a ‘completely crazy’ campaign led by ‘ridiculous, snuggle-toothed, corduroy-wearing lefty academics.’ Those comments, made in 2015, led to a series of meetings in Ramallah being cancelled. He has also understood the endemic anti-Israel bias found within the U.N. In a visit to the U.N. Human Rights Council in its first session of 2018, he urged the body to ditch Item 7 (which singles out Israel for criticism) as it was ‘disproportionate and damaging to the cause of peace.’
But at times, he has said things that have offended supporters of Israel. In 2014, at the height of Israel’s war with Hamas, Johnson deprecated Israel’s actions as ‘disproportionate, ugly and tragic’ and described the war as ‘utterly horrifying and unacceptable.’ He has condemned ‘incitement and rocket fire against Israel’ but also called for an ‘independent inquiry’ over 120 Palestinian deaths on the Gaza border. Johnson was also seen as playing an important role in drafting U.N. Security Council resolution 2334, which said that all settlements established since 1967, including in East Jerusalem, ‘were a flagrant violation under international law.’
The resolution was widely condemned within the U.K. Jewish community, whose representatives considered it a betrayal and disgrace. He is a strong supporter of the two-state solution, which marks him out as having a thoroughly conventional perspective on the conflict. But this led to a somewhat nuanced celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, in which he lamented that the Arab population had been denied self determination, even though the declaration did not speak of the ‘national rights’ of the Arab population.
On Iran, it is hard to read the exact contours of a foreign policy. In the past, he has expressed support for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran Deal, which was signed in 2015. He rallied round the E.U. in rejecting Trump’s decision to leave the agreement. In 2018, he said that Britain had ‘no intention of walking away’ from the nuclear deal and as recently as July 2019, urged Iran not to abandon the JCPOA. In a recent interview with the U.K.-based Jewish News, Johnson continued to defend the agreement but hinted that if there was evidence of Iranian non-compliance, Britain stood ready to re-impose sanctions on the Islamic Republic. Yet this can only mean that, contrary to all previous positions, the U.K. would be abandoning the JCPOA. Now that tensions between Iran and the West have ramped up in recent months, it remains to be seen whether Johnson’s government will pivot more towards Europe or the USA.
When it comes to terror groups, his record is again inconsistent. He rejected calls consistently to ban Al Quds Day marches in London or to prevent the Hezbollah flag from flying, despite the raucous antisemitic rhetoric on display. Yet when the Muslim Home Secretary did proscribe Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation, Boris Johnson tweeted his congratulations.
What are we to make of all this? It is fair to conclude that Johnson is a friend of Israel and a man committed to its peace, security and prosperity. But in his views on settlements, Gaza and Iran, his perspective is largely aligned with that of the Foreign Office.
Jeremy Havardi is a historian and journalist based in London. He has written four books, including ‘The Greatest Briton’, a volume of essays on Churchill’s life and political philosophy, ‘Projecting Britain at war’, a study of British war films and, most recently, ‘Refuting the anti-Israel narrative.’ He is currently working on a project that examines the Jewish contribution to modern civilisation. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.
World attention has recently been focused on the shameful passage of an anti-Israel resolution on settlements at the U.N. Security Council. Resolution 2334 contains a litany of criticism of Israel while absurdly striking a tone on incitement and terrorism that puts the onus on both sides of the conflict.
The resolution condemns all building beyond the 1949 Jordanian-Israeli armistice line—a line created after Jordan and other neighboring Arab states invaded the newly independent State of Israel in an attempt to annihilate it from existence. The armistice line (also known as the “Green Line”) stood in place until 1967, when Jordan and other Arab states again tried to destroy Israel, only to lose significant territory in the Six-Day War, when Israel liberated the eastern part of Jerusalem (including the Old City) and Judea and Samaria (which Jordan had by then re-named the “West Bank”), among other territories.
The section in Resolution 2334 that could prove to be the most problematic in the long term is a vaguely worded passage that calls on states to “distinguish” between their dealings with Israel and territories Israel gained during the Six-Day War. It’s not clear how states should “distinguish” their actions, but it is clear how the Palestinians and the anti-Semitic Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement will read this phrase—they will clearly try to use this as international cover for a boycott.
More on the Latest Anti-Israel U.N. Resolution
On the same day that the Security Council passed Resolution 2334, the General Assembly’s 5th Committee (the U.N.’s administrative and budget committee) decided, by its usually lop-sided anti-Israel majority, to fund a Human Rights Council (HRC) decision from March to create a database of companies doing business in areas beyond the Green Line. There is no ambiguity about what is happening with this decision—the U.N. is being willingly co-opted to become the secretariat of the BDS movement, creating a list of companies that activists can draw upon for divestment campaigns.
Israel submitted an amendment to this 5th Committee resolution to strip the funding from the mandate, but only Australia, Canada, Guatemala, Palau and the United States sided with Israel. The European Union (EU) gave a statement saying that EU member states would vote against the amendment as a bloc (even though the EU did not support the original HRC decision in March, albeit only by abstention), because it was important to stand by a principle of not letting policy discussion distract from the budgetary process, which is often run by consensus. Apparently that principle is more important than the principle that the United Nations should not be co-opted for anti-Semitic purposes.
The EU has been trying on this issue to have its cake and eat it too. Some EU members have laws against boycotts of Israel (and EU leaders pay lip service to opposing a boycott), yet the EU Commission put out guidelines by which member states should label all Israeli products from the disputed territories. While the guidelines do not explicitly call for a boycott of goods from the settlements, it seems only reasonable to deduce that it is meant to enable one.
The U.N.’s database will contain Israel companies based in the disputed territories, of course, but it will also likely target outside corporations that do business in the territories, multinational corporations that help bring security for Israeli citizens regardless of whether they reside within the Green Line or not. And it could very well be broadened to include Israeli businesses not even based in the territories, but those such as banks and stores that operate wherever their Israeli customers reside.
These recent U.N. actions may have created an overreach that provides an opportunity to move the U.N. in the right course. The Security Council resolution has created a furor in Congress and the incoming administration, which has led to threats of action against the U.N. Because of this, we’re now hearing the use of a word that we have not heard in a while at the U.N.—“reform.” If there is to be any reform at the U.N., one of the first priorities must be to reverse the barely concealed anti-Semitic efforts to boycott Israel that so many member states seem willing to either promote or at the very least tolerate.
ICHRPP Deputy Director Eric Fusfield on U.N. and MEP Visits to Israel, The Harmful Effects of Labeling West Bank Goods
B'nai B'rith International Deputy Director of the International Center for Human Rights and Public Policy Eric Fusfield discusses a recent trip to Israel with Members of European Parliament, and the impact of the European Union's decision to label goods made in the West Bank.
On Feb. 3, a few minutes after three Palestinians who lived in Jenin murdered a young Israeli police officer who was19-yearsold, and also seriously injured two more, the President of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas hosted in his office, in Ramallah, a delegation of families of those who in the last four months have killed 34 Israelis—mostly civilians—and have left hundreds of wounded people from babies to seniors, in tens of terrorist attacks.
Abbas had no shame to deliver to world media a short video showing how he hosted the families of the terrorists. Very close to Abbas it was possible to watch Jabel Mukaber, father of Baha Alyan, who murdered three Israeli civilians inside a bus in Armon Hanatziv, Jerusalem, four months ago.
During the meeting, Abbas underlined that the sons of those who were visiting him are “martyrs.”
Not far from there, in Gaza, Husam Badran, speaker of the terrorist organization Hamas, said publicly that the attack on Feb. 3, “Has been a blessing action in the ‘holy intifada’, and that the terrorists have had a lot of ‘courage’.” He also added that “the attack with knives and guns made by our ‘rebels’ show that our people want the intifada to move on.”
But the rest of Latin America, or runs behind the hate speech of the Venezuelan government (followed with strength by Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua and Ecuador) or stay in ambiguity (Caribbean) or stay “neutral” (Chile and Peru).
Brazil, the largest power in the region is confronting Israel in several fields. The controversy of the nomination of the Israeli ambassador in Brazil has frozen political relations but not the economic ones. But the political relations influence fully in Brazilian speeches, which follow the Palestinian stand and are not clear with the Quartet demand of both sides sitting at the peace table and starting a dialogue.
With Latin America divided in its opinions; with Europe close to Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), Abbas and Hamas feel encouraged. Terrorists are “martyrs,” their families receive money as compensation; and murderers are glorified in streets and squares.
There is no possible or viable dialogue when both sides are so far from one another. But if the Security Council would be serious with its obligations, and the Quartet would be real and executive, Abbas could not be praising terrorism.
But if a member of the Quartet believes that terrorism can be justified due to “frustrations,” the only step in the path of peace is the step backwards. Nothing on earth can justify terrorism. There is no “good” or “bad” terrorism. There is terrorism. Period. And the U.N. must be serious in this regard, because with such statements, not only are terrorists encouraged to go on, but countries, like many Latin Ameican ones, fall in deep confusion and finally endorse what they should never endorse: terror.
Is there any member of the Security Council who really believe that in a democracy like Israel, people and government can stay still forever, while terrorists kill its citizens in the streets every day? No country in the world would accept it.
Why Israel? What is the U.N. waiting for? To wake up one morning and accuse Israel of “disproportionate use of force,” as it has happened each time Israel has defended its citizens?
When the government and people of Israel will say enough of terror, Israel will pay again the price of permanent international hostility. But those who are going to suffer much more, will be the Palestinians, which are victims of their own so called leaders and of the most used exchange coin of today´s world: international indifference.
One of the privileges of living in a vibrant Jewish community, such as the one in the city where I reside, Chicago, is that there are always unique programs available. On my own time outside of work, politics and activism haves always been a part of my life, and I do like to attend events that interest me. An important interest of mine is equal rights and the LGBTQ community. I have several friends, some of those who are very close, who happen to be part of that community, and I have been passionate about equality for them for a long time.
I also am a staunch and proud Zionist, as that has run in my family for generations. My great grandfather, Louis Vickar was a rabbi in the Douglas Park neighborhood on the “Vest Side” or the West Side of Chicago and sought to expand rights within the fledgling Chicago Rabbinical Council to balance the modern life of the 1920s and 1930s to fit the laws of Judaism and promoted Zionism as well. My great grandfather also passed that love of Zionism and Israel to my grandmother, and to her son, my father who passed it to me, as well as my younger sister.
When I became a Hillel president at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Ill. in 2006, one of the challenges I encountered was the Boycott Divest and Sanctions (BDS) movement. On one occasion, we hosted Israel’s 60th birthday celebration on the Martin Luther King, Jr. Commons, which was an apolitical event. There was Israeli dancing and free food on the Commons. While the event was going on, several members of the Muslim Student Association walked to the other side of the Commons and started protesting and chanting against Israel. There was a tension that day, especially when their chants turned to: “From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be free” among others. Luckily, a brother in my chapter of Alpha Epsilon Pi (a partner of B’nai B’rith International), went up to them and hilariously engaged the protestors on a common love of falafel and disengaged the BDS protest after 20 minutes. However, this would not be the last time I engaged BDS protesters.
On Jan. 22, I decided to go to an event at the Hilton Chicago Hotel, which was a LGBTQ and allies Shabbat being hosted by “A Wider Bridge” and “Jerusalem Open House” at the Creating Change Conference, hosted by the National LGBTQ Task Force. It is basically the LGBTQ version of the megaconferences we are accustomed to in the Jewish community (B’nai B’rith Policy Forum, AIPAC Policy Conference, etc.). However, the Friday before, the board of the Task Force, which was running the event, sensing a “conflict” disinvited A Wider Bridge and the Jerusalem Open House from participating in the Conference. Several organizations from both the Jewish and the LGBTQ communities monitored the situation, including the Jewish Community Relations Council of Chicago, which B’nai B’rith is a part of, and by the next Tuesday, the groups were reinvited by the Task Force at the behest of the Task Force directors, Sue Hyde and Rea Carey.
I arrived that night to support my colleagues who had suffered enough from BDS. A rabbi from Temple Sholom in the Lakeview neighborhood of Chicago, Shoshanah Conover, was co-leading the event, and more than 100 people were going to attend. Those in attendance included the Consul General of Israel to the Midwest, Roey Gilad, and high ranking leadership and colleagues of the Jewish Federations in Chicago and Milwaukee, an Illinois state representative amongst many others. The service was fine and very well done; however, in the hallways of the Hilton Chicago, we could hear the familiar voices of BDS chants, along with members of Black Lives Matter Chicago who joined in the protest. More than 200 supporters of the BDS movement chanted those now familiar, hateful chants, “From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be free,” and “No Justice, No Peace” as well as “Hey hey, ho, ho Pinkwashing has got to go,” and “2, 4, 6, 8, Israel is an apartheid state” as they marched through the lobby, holding signs like “Zionism Sucks” and “US stop funding Israel” among others.
Half the attendees, including the Consul General never made it into the reception, and a few protesters got into the reception and, following the chant “shut it down,” proceeded to indeed shut down the event, first by taking the stage and the microphone, and then walking around the room , yelling and shrieking at attendees who tried to reason with them, and shouting down anyone on the microphone, about Israel’s “pinkwashing,” Chicago police brutality, lies about Israel forcing sterilization of Ethiopian and Palestinian children, and several charges of oppression and outright anti-Semitism from those who ended the event by “heckler’s veto,” as attendee Tony Verona wrote.
It was bad enough that some people left the room in tears.
Colleagues of mine from the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago were literally restraining people from the protest from getting into the room, and I chose to watch a side door to try to not let agitated protestors from getting into the room and causing something bad to happen. The hotel security could not manage to remove the crowd from the narrow hall and did not get into the room itself for 10-30 minutes. The Hilton Chicago Hotel staff eventually had to request support from the Chicago Police Department which had to declare a fire hazard. Attendees of the reception had to leave out of side doors to escape the crowd.
The Task Force on January 25, officially condemned anti-Semitism at the conference, with Director Rea Carey stating “I want to make this crystal clear: the National LGBTQ Task Force wholeheartedly condemns anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic statements made at any Task Force event including our Creating Change Conference. It is unacceptable.” While we applaud the sentiment, steps will need to be put in place to avoid this happening in future years
As we know, BDS is growing on campuses and in certain political elements of the country. While it is not a mainstream majority view, we as the Jewish community have to stand up to it now. Today’s activists in movements such as BDS could very well end up being tomorrow’s policy makers.
B’nai B’rith and the Jewish community at large will continue to reach out to do “Hasbara” or outreach to show why Israel is a beacon of light in the Middle East for its citizens and why it is the leading democracy in an unstable part of the world. We also need to reach out to the younger generations, who are growing in influence in the political movements as well as engaging those who are not traditional “allies” of the Jewish community. If we can do this, the U.S.-Israel relationship can remain bipartisan, and sacrosanct in these unstable times.
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