By Jake Wallis Simons
We’re not normally called upon to justify a decision to travel abroad. Few people would challenge me if I were visiting China, despite that country’s appalling human rights record, repression of free speech, and colonisation of Tibet. If I was travelling to America, even though Predator drones kill hundreds of innocent people each year, and even though Guantanamo Bay still holds 154 detainees, nobody would complain.
I would not be criticised for travelling to Egypt, which has become a police state that imprisons journalists, attacks protesters, and sentences political opponents to death. Nobody would suggest that I boycott India; or Pakistan; or Venezuela; or Saudi Arabia; or indeed Britain, which – I seem to recall – ignored the United Nations and attacked Iraq.
I could go on. But later this month, I am planning to travel to Israel to appear in the Jerusalem literary festival. As surely as night follows day, I have received an “open letter” from a group of 71 activists calling themselves the British Writers in Support of Palestine (BWIP), led by a poet and “professional Tarot card reader”. They were, I was informed, “extremely disappointed” by my decision, and “respectfully encouraged” me to boycott the event. But I am honoured to have been invited to Israel, and will be proud to attend. Here’s why.
It is my strong belief that Israel is, relatively speaking, a force for good in the world. I’m not saying that it is free from controversy, and I’m not saying that I have no sympathy with Palestinians. But every country that abides by the democratic process, enshrines in law the rights of women and minorities, and conducts itself with compassion both in war and in peace – or at least aspires to do so – deserves our support and respect.
But what about Israel’s flouting of international law, I hear you ask? Very well: but has Britain always been squeaky clean? I have already mentioned the example of Iraq. Britain intentionally bombed civilian targets during the Second World War, which was the last time we were under existential threat (the Area Bombing Directive ordered the RAF to attack the German workforce and destroy morale). Moreover, the Army’s Combined Services Detailed Interrogation Centre, based in Kensington Palace Gardens, London, between 1940 and 1948, carried out systematic torture on enemy prisoners. If we were at war again, against an enemy that was able to strike at the heart of our civilian population centres, how would we behave?
Would we, perhaps, be tempted to react as we did when the IRA were terrorising the streets of London? Would we reprise the British Army’s Operation Demetrius of 1971, which allegedly included detention without trial, beating, starving, hooding for long periods, harassment with dogs, placing nooses around prisoners’ necks, forcible head shaving, denying prisoners clothes, forcing them to run barefoot behind Army vehicles, burning them with cigarettes, dragging them by the hair and pressing guns to their heads? Would Bloody Sunday, in which 26 protesters and bystanders were shot by British paratroopers, happen again?
These examples are particularly relevant when you consider the geographical, topographical and historical context in which Israel exists. The Jewish state is roughly the size of Wales, with a ridge of high ground running along the middle of the West Bank. If Britain were surrounded by hostile neighbours at such close proximity, some of which contained terror groups bent on the destruction of the country, would we be doing any better? And would a fearful British public be outraged at the Army’s brutality? Or relieved that it was keeping us safe?
It is significant that a man who knows war, Colonel Richard Kemp – the former commander of Britain’s armed forces in Afghanistan – testified to the UN Human Rights Council that the Israeli military does “more to safeguard the rights of civilians in a combat zone than any other army in the history of warfare”. It is right that every instance of military abuse should be treated gravely. But this does not justify a boycott.
From a historical point of view, Israel has been attacked repeatedly by an enemy bent on its destruction (when the Arab world attempted to liquidate the Jewish State in 1967, the settlements had not yet been built). The country has suffered terror attack after terror attack, tragedy after tragedy. Clearly, whatever the boycott activists may say, to draw a parallel with pre-1994 South Africa is ludicrous.
Of course, Israel presents many areas of concern. In particular, the situation on the West Bank is disturbing, as are the societal disadvantages that confront minorities in Israel, particularly Israeli Arabs. The army has been guilty of heavy-handedness many times. And it is sad to witness the tit-for-tat violence the plagues the region, not to mention the heavy civilian losses that are sustained by Palestinians in warfare.
Again, I could go on. But to boycott Israel alone reveals a deeply partisan approach to the conflict, and a ridiculously naïve and even hypocritical one.
By the standards of the pro-boycott activists, should the Palestinians not also be boycotted? Their society is severely intolerant of homosexuals; many go to live in Israel rather than face oppression at home. The Palestinian government has signed a reconciliation deal with a terror organisation, and within weeks they may form a unity government. As I reported in the Telegraph last week, the Palestinian leadership pays huge financial rewards to those convicted of terror offences, and cold-blooded child killers are celebrated as heroes when they are released.
While we’re on the subject, shouldn’t the BWIP have called their group “British Writers In Support of Palestine and Israel”? And if not, why not?
For these reasons I am proud to be travelling to Israel later this month. As a journalist I value objectivity above all, and am not interested in closing my ears to one side of any story, particularly a story as complex as this. And as a novelist, my concern is with the human condition; attending a festival with fellow writers and artists who are not afraid of challenging ideas can only be a good thing.
And given that according to a YouGov poll, three-quarters of Britons “see no reason why British performers should not travel to Israel” – and fewer than one in five Britons believe that Israeli artists should be barred from the UK – I travel in the knowledge that I have public opinion on my side.