By Charles Moore, June 2, 2007.
Watching the horrible video of Alan Johnston of the BBC broadcasting
Palestinian propaganda under orders from his kidnappers, I found myself asking
what it would have been like had he been kidnapped by Israelis, and made to
do the same thing the other way round.
The first point is that it would never happen. There are no Israeli organisations –
governmental or freelance – that would contemplate such a thing. That fact is
But just suppose that some fanatical Jews had grabbed Mr Johnston and forced
him to spout their message, abusing his own country as he did so. What would
the world have said?
There would have been none of the caution which has characterised the
response of the BBC and of the Government since Mr Johnston was abducted
on March 12. The Israeli government would immediately have been condemned
for its readiness to harbour terrorists or its failure to track them down.
Loud would have been the denunciations of the extremist doctrines of Zionism
which had given rise to this vile act. The world isolation of Israel, if it failed to
get Mr Johnston freed, would have been complete.
If Mr Johnston had been forced to broadcast saying, for example, that Israel
was entitled to all the territories held since the Six-Day War, and calling on the
release of all Israeli soldiers held by Arab powers in return for his own release,
his words would have been scorned. The cause of Israel in the world would
have been irreparably damaged by thus torturing him on television. No one
would have been shy of saying so.
But of course in real life it is Arabs holding Mr Johnston, and so everyone
treads on tip-toe. Bridget Kendall of the BBC opined that Mr Johnston had been
“asked” to say what he said in his video. Asked! If it were merely an “ask”,
why did he not say no?
Throughout Mr Johnston’s captivity, the BBC has continually emphasised that
he gave “a voice” to the Palestinian people, the implication being that he
supported their cause, and should therefore be let out. One cannot imagine the
equivalent being said if he had been held by Israelis.
Well, he is certainly giving a voice to the Palestinian people now. And the truth
is that, although it is under horrible duress, what he says is not all that different
from what the BBC says every day through the mouths of reporters who are not
kidnapped and threatened, but are merely collecting their wages.
The language is more lurid in the Johnston video, but the narrative is essentially
the same as we have heard over the years from Orla Guerin and Jeremy Bowen
and virtually the whole pack of them.
It is that everything that is wrong in the Middle East and the wider
Muslim world is the result of aggression or “heavy-handedness” (have you
noticed how all actions by American or Israeli troops are “heavy-handed”, just
as surely as all racism is “unacceptable”?) by America or Israel or Britain.
Alan Johnston, under terrorist orders, spoke of the “absolute despair” of the
Palestinians and attributed it to 40 years of Israeli occupation, “supported by
the West”. That is how it is presented, night after night, by the BBC.
The other side is almost unexamined. There is little to explain the internecine
strife in the Arab world, particularly in Gaza, or the cynical motivations of Arab
leaders for whom Palestinian miseries are politically convenient.
You get precious little investigation of the networks and mentalities of
Islamist extremism – the methods and money of Hamas or Hizbollah and
comparable groups – which produce acts of pure evil like that in which Mr
Johnston is involuntarily complicit.
The spotlight is not shone on how the “militants” (the BBC does not even
permit the word “terrorist” in the Middle East context) and the warlords
maintain their corruption and rule of fear, persecuting, among others, the
Instead it shines pitilessly on Blair and Bush and on Israel.
From the hellish to the ridiculous, the pattern is the same. Back at home, the
Universities and Colleges Union has just voted for its members to “consider the
moral implications of existing and proposed links with Israeli academic
Well, they could consider how work by scientists at the Technion in Haifa has
led to the production of the drug Velcade, which treats multiple myeloma. Or
they could look at the professor at Ben-Gurion University who discovered a
bacteria that fights malaria and river blindness by killing mosquitoes and black
Or they could study the co-operation between researchers at the Hebrew
University of Jerusalem, who have isolated the protein that triggers stress in
order to try to treat post-traumatic stress disorder, and their equivalents at the
Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge.
The main universities of Israel are, in fact, everything that we in the West
would recognise as proper universities. They have intellectual freedom. They do
not require an ethnic or religious qualification for entry. They are not controlled
by the government. They have world-class standards of research, often
producing discoveries which benefit all humanity. In all this, they are virtually
unique in the Middle East.
The silly dons are not alone. The National Union of Journalists, of which I am
proud never to have been a member, has recently passed a comparable motion,
brilliantly singling out the only country in the region with a free press for pariah
treatment. Unison, which is a big, serious union, is being pressed to support a
boycott of Israeli goods, products of the only country in the region with a free
trade union movement.
The doctrine is that Israel practises “apartheid” and that it must
therefore be boycotted.
All this is moral madness. It is not mad, of course, to criticise Israeli policy. In
some respects, indeed, it would be mad not to. It is not mad – though I think it
is mistaken – to see the presence of Israel as the main reason for the lack of
peace in the region.
But it is mad or, perhaps one should rather say, bad to try to raid Western
culture’s reserves of moral indignation and expend them on a country that is
part of that culture in favour of surrounding countries that aren’t. How can we
have got ourselves into a situation in which we half-excuse turbaned torturers
for kidnapping our fellow-citizens while trying to exclude Jewish biochemists
from lecturing to our students?
Nobody yet knows the precise motivations of Mr Johnston’s captors, but it is
surely not a coincidence that they held him in silence until the 40th anniversary
of the Six-Day War approached, and only then made him speak. They wanted
him to give the world their historical explanation – Israeli oppression – for their
Yet that war took place because President Nasser of Egypt led his
country and his allies declaring “our basic aim will be to destroy Israel”.
He failed, abjectly, and Egypt and Jordan later gave up the aspiration.
But many others maintain it to this day, now with a pseudo-religious gloss
We keep giving sympathetic air-time to their death cult. In a way, Mr Johnston
is paying the price: his captors are high on the oxygen of his corporation’s
As for Israel, many sins can be laid to its charge. But it is morally serious in a
way that we are not, because it has to be. Forty years after its greatest victory,
it has to work out each morning how it can survive.