Age of information or age of ignorance?

From the archive (legacy material)

Geoffrey Alderman | The Jewish Chronicle | 14 March 2003

At the end of last month, I travelled to the University of Wales, Swansea, to take part in a debate on what has come to be known as the “academic boycott” of Israel. The event was hosted by the Swansea branch of the Association of University Teachers — which is to be congratulated on this initiative.
I put the anti-boycott argument and Professor Hilary Rose put a contrary argument. Both Professor Rose and I are patrons of the Council for Academic Freedom, which meant that there was a basic agreement on this concept and its core value in the academic community. There was a good-natured and (if heated at times) civilised discussion involving members of the 60-or-so-strong audience. There was no vote.
Inevitably, the debate moved away from the morality and likely efficacy of an academic boycott to the themes of Israel, the war and the Islamic world. What saddened me were not the opinions dressed up as facts that were an inevitable feature of the evening. What saddened me was the woeful ignorance of history displayed by some who took part in the event — and I am talking about an audience one would expect to be reasonably well informed.
Let me cite a few examples and, as I do so, let me add that these misconceptions are by no means confined to the University of Wales, Swansea.
Some members of the audience seemed unaware that Arabs under the Mandate had massacred Jews. Some seemed unaware that Islamic states had declared war on Israel in 1948. Some (to whom I spoke afterwards) seem-ed surprised to learn that, shortly after the Six-Day War, Israel had offered to withdraw from the territories lock, stock and barrel, in return for Arab recognition of the Jewish state, and that this offer had been comprehensively rejected.
I could go on but I won’t. Instead, I want to draw your attention to a feature of the communications I receive following remarks I make in this column and elsewhere. What worries me are not the letters from the lunatic fringe. What worries me are the communications I receive from what I take to be decent and fair-minded non-Jews, anxious to learn the facts and shocked that what they have taken to be fact is nothing of the sort.
To quote one example, following the publication of a letter of mine in The Times some months ago referring to the settlement of Jews in Hebron during the Mandate, and their massacre in 1929, a retired businessman wrote to tell me that he had no idea such a massacre had taken place, and to ask if I could provide a list of reliable texts from which he might learn what really happened. And I have lost count of the number of people who have contacted me because they have discovered that, contrary to accepted propaganda, Israel has ignored no UN resolution which it is required to obey.
I have very recently had to take to task no less a personage that Mr Paul Mackney, General Secretary of the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education, who, in a speech at the February 15 Stop the War rally in London had alleged that Israel was “in breach of 68 UN resolutions.” I asked Mr Mackney to provide me with a list of these 68 resolutions. His reply tiptoed round a straight answer.
But I don’t impute to him any sinister motive. He, like so many others, is a victim of a propaganda war which we Jews are losing.
How we came to be losing this war is a great question. Part of the answer lies in the fragmented array of poorly managed information organisations both here and in Israel. There are far too many well-intentioned but mediocre cooks stirring this particular pot. Part of the answer lies in attempts by these superannuated organisations to cling to what they see as the reins of power.
Knowledge is indeed power. Some such organisations, which should have had a decent burial decades ago, have somehow managed to cling to life, and to the status which that life brings within Anglo-Jewry. But their contribution to the propaganda war is minimal.
Some of the most professional and most effective pro-Israel propaganda work is now being undertaken by a handful of individuals working largely by themselves on shoestring budgets. And here I want to congratulate Mrs Vivienne Marks, a history teacher at Beis Yaakov Gram-mar School, in Hendon, who has taken issue with Messrs Heinemann, publishers of the “Headstart in History” series which is widely used as a pre-GCSE text.
Mrs Marks has bombarded Heinemann with a long list of errors of fact and interpretation in their treatment of Middle Eastern history. Space does not permit me to reproduce all these. Let me quote just one. The Heinemann text declares that, in 1948, “The new Israeli state was three times the size of the Palestinian one. As a result [my emphasis] the Arabs rejected the idea of a partitioned state…” Whereas, of course, the Arabs rejected partition on the grounds that the Jews were simply not entitled to a state, no matter what its size.
So thousands of schoolchildren throughout the UK are being taught a version of events that is simply untrue. Is it any wonder, therefore, that they become easy prey to purveyors of falsehood?