Miriam Shaviv
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For Israel's shrillest critics, a boycott too far
Date: Thursday, April 20th, 2007
Publication: The National Post

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Last Friday, Britain's National Union of Journalists (NUJ) voted to boycott all Israeli goods and to urge the British government and the United Nations to impose sanctions on the Jewish state. In a separate motion, the delegates also condemned the "savage, pre-planned attack on Lebanon by Israel" last year, and the "slaughter of civilians by Israeli troops in Gaza." The boycott is reprehensible on several levels.

First, and most obviously: Journalists are meant to be objective. They cannot do their job properly if they are politically active on behalf of one side.

Second, Israel is again being blamed for the 2006 Lebanon War, while in reality it was forced into the conflict by the shelling of its citizens in northern Israel by Hezbollah and by the kidnapping of two of its soldiers.

But the most stunning element is that the NUJ has admitted in a statement that "the call for the boycott [was] in part related to the kidnap of Alan Johnston" -- the BBC journalist snatched in the Gaza Strip on March 12 by a previously unknown Palestinian group, The Brigades of Tawhid and Jihad, which claimed last week it had killed him.

In other words, the Palestinians kidnapped a British journalist -- and the British union's reaction was to punish Israel as a sweetener to the Palestinians who are trying to get him released.

But here's the good news: The NUJ's move has earned it open contempt from senior British journalists across the political spectrum. Perhaps this should not be surprising: The British press is much more nuanced when it comes to Israel than many North American observers abroad may believe.

The NUJ boycott was unrepresentative right from the beginning. It passed at the union's annual delegate meeting by 66 votes to 54. Out of a total NUJ membership of some 40,000, there were just 120 voters in the room.

The missing members spoke up quickly and forcefully. Michael Gove, a respected journalist who was elected to Parliament for the Conservatives in 2005, announced in The Times that he was resigning from the NUJ. Toby Harnden, the United States editor of The Daily Telegraph, London's most popular broadsheet, asked on his blog why his membership dues should "be spent on anti-Israel posturing of which I and many other members want no part" and said the motions condemning Israel were "tendentious and politically loaded propaganda that would be rightly edited out of any news story written in a newspaper that had any pretensions of fairness."

The news director of Yahoo! Europe said he looked forward to "similar boycotts of Saudi oil (abuse of women and human rights), Turkish desserts (limits to freedom of speech) and, of course, the immediate replacement of all stationery in the NUJ's offices which has been made or assembled in China."

The fact is that the British media does not deserve its reputation for being reflexively anti-Israel. Yes, there is the predictably biased BBC, the left-wing daily The Guardian and The Independent's notorious Robert Fisk. Because of the BBC's global radio service and The Guardian's lively Web site, they get most of the attention overseas. But it goes almost unnoticed in North America that the just-right-of-centre Times, with a circulation of around 640,000 copies a day, the rightwing Telegraph, with 900,000, and the best-selling Sun tabloid, with some 3,000,000, are largely either fair to Israel or outright supportive.

Yet even those who are usually regarded as anti-Israel thought the NUJ went too far. Donald Macintyre of the left-wing Independent, who is based in Israel, told The Jerusalem Post that "The job of the NUJ is to protect journalists and not adopt political postures, right or left. It certainly won't affect my job or my professional outlook." And Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian condemned the resolution as "misguided" and said the boycott did not "serve a useful purpose."

The radical language of the motions shows exactly who was behind them--members so far to the left that they make even the moderately anti-Israel crowd feel queasy. They strategically take advantage of poor attendance at union conferences to hijack their agendas.

A similar episode took place in April, 2005, when the UK's Association of University Teachers took a vote to boycott two Israeli universities late on a Friday afternoon before Passover, with almost no discussion. The enormous outcry both in Britain and overseas ensured that the motion was overturned a few weeks later, and that its virulently anti-Israel sponsors were exposed as the extremists they were. Judging by the reaction so far, a similar outcome is likely for the NUJ.

- Miriam Shaviv is the comment editor of the Jewish Chronicle in the UK.

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