In medieval times Jews were required to defend the Talmud against attacks by Christians. If they were deemed to have lost (which they inevitably were), the Talmud was then burnt.  There is something equally medieval about bringing an Emeritus Oxford Professor into a Church to vilify and lie about Israel. But that was what happened on Tuesday….

St James Church, Piccadilly – and in particular the Reverend Lucy Winkett have form…… remember the replica of the security fence (2014)? (Winkett now chairs the Amos Trust).

On Tuesday Avi Shlaim spoke in the church, on the topic ‘Britain and Palestine: From Balfour to Blair and Beyond’.  Around 400 were there. The event was the ‘Annual Lecture’ of a Christian organisation called ‘Embrace the Middle East’.  ‘Embrace the Middle East’ endorsed the Kairos Palestine document, which promotes BDS and denies Jewish historical connections to Israel. Its former CEO Jeremy Moody called Zionism “an incoherent and racist theology.” This and similar Christian organisations have supercessionist roots. (Supercessionism is the belief that because Jews denied the divinity of Jesus, all the promises which G-d made to them, revert to Christians – including the ‘promised Land’, Israel).

Avi Shlaim was born in Baghdad. His family had to move to Israel, due to the persecution of Jews in Iraq. Yet Shlaim did not blame Iraq for the dislocation of his family. He blamed Israel! Here is a comment from someone who knew him at the JFS school in the early ‘60s (he later married out (to a great granddaughter of Lloyd George)):

“From the first day I knew him it was obvious that Abe absolutely HATED Israel. His family, well-to-do in Iraq, but forced out by the Baathist regime (so he said) were now just another family of Mizrahim, Sephardic Jews, in Israel, where, truth be told, they were never the equals of the Ashkenazim. But Abe never blamed Iraqi politics for this demeaning drop in status; he blamed the establishment of the State of Israel!”

So that’s ‘Embrace the Middle East’ and Avi Shlaim …. It doesn’t take much to imagine the resulting toxicity when the two are mixed together …. A farrago of lies and demonisation of Israel, mindlessly applauded by the adoring churchgoers.  (A personal note: For me, it’s the demonisation in Churches that hurt most. I went to a C of E foundation school – respect for the Church is in my DNA.  All my life I have interacted with C of E members. It is the ‘established’ religion in the UK Constitution. The monarch is also the head of the C of E. For me, there is nothing more alienating for me than seeing Israel vilified in a Church.  Seeing Christian antisemitism up close is profoundly traumatic.  Hinde Street was the same).

Here are the lies and distortions we heard from Shlaim (recorded):

“The blockade of Gaza still exists today.”

Not true. The only restrictions are on items which could be used for making missiles.

“The Balfour Declaration is a classic colonial document”

Not true. The opposite – it was an anti-colonialist document. It recognised the Jewish right to self-determination and put in place arrangements for the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire after its defeat in World War One.

“The UK made three promises which were incompatible.”

Not true. Sir Henry McMahon pointed out in a letter to the Times in 1937 that the claim that he had promised Hussein all of the territory was incorrect. As for the Sykes-Picot Agreement, it was officially abrogated by the Allies at the San Remo Conference in April 1920, when the Mandate for Palestine was conferred upon Britain.

“The British had no moral right to make this promise [the Balfour Declaration]”

Not true. Britain had every moral right – as one of the victors of World War One deciding on the future of the Empire of the losers, the Ottomans. (Note that Shlaim signed the petition for the UK government to apologise for the Balfour Declaration!).

“The main driving force behind the Balfour Declaration was not Balfour but the Prime Minister David Lloyd George”

Balfour’s appreciation of the history of the Jews was genuine and it was this – above all – which explains the Declaration which bears his name . See for example this quote:

Here you have a small race, originally inhabiting a small country ….., at no time in its history wielding anything that can be described as material power, crushed between great Oriental monarchies, its inhabitants deported, then scattered, then driven out of the country to every part of the world and yet maintaining continuity of religion and racial tradition of which there is no parallel elsewhere…. We cannot forget how they have been treated during long centuries. Our whole religious organization of Europe has proved itself guilty of great crimes against this race. [Speech to the Lords (1922); Quoted in Lord Turnberg’s book ‘Beyond the Balfour Declaration’ and in his speech on Sunday, where I was present].

“[In 1917] the Zionists were a tiny minority within the Jewish community.”

No evidence.

Referring to his status as a ‘New Israeli Historian’, Shlaim said: “The old historians still cling to the doctrine of Israel’s Immaculate Conception”

An utterly evil comment, written as sycophancy for the Christian audience.

“The JNF caters only for Jews”.

Simply a lie.

Shlaim said that Tony Blair only won the support of the House of Commons for action in Iraq because he promised to deal with the Palestinian problem.

Another lie.  In his speech to the Commons (18 March 2003) Blair simply asked the US to remember the importance of restarting Middle East peace talks.

Shlaim said that the reason that Theresa May backtracked on Resolution 2334 was the desire to “curry favour” with President Trump. That has to be nonsense. 2334 was voted on two months after the US election.  The real reason seems to be that she was not aware that the UK was going to support 2334. It was adopted two days before Christmas when Boris Johnson (UK Foreign Secretary) was away on vacation. Number Ten had a European adviser but no global foreign policy adviser.  When she found out about the vote, the Prime Minister was reportedly furious.

Shlaim also promoted the work of Ilan Pappe, of whom Benny Morris said: “At best, Ilan Pappe must be one of the world’s sloppiest historians; at worst, one of the most dishonest. In truth, he probably merits a place somewhere between the two.”

After Shlaim’s speech there was an Appeal for ‘Embrace the Middle East’ by Bishop Michael Langrish. (Langrish has served as a Patron of Friends of Sabeel UK – alongside Manuel Hassassian (the Palestinian ‘ambassador’ to the UK) who has reportedly defended the firing of rockets into Israeli civilian areas, supported Taleban rule in Afghanistan, and praised Hezbollah as saviours of Arabs). Astonishingly Langrish told the audience that many ‘Palestinian’ girls  in Acre in Israel are living in what “resembles a refugee camp” … “many of them have been abused in various ways” !!

To the Q and A ………….

Three Israel advocates asked questions. But the organisers kept hold of the microphone, effectively ensuring that they could censor them. Shlaim failed to answer any of their questions properly …because he couldn’t.  But we did learn more about Shlaim, who in his retirement seems to be aiming for a career on the anti-Zionist Conference circuit alongside his admired colleague Pappe.  He stated that “Israel is an apartheid state”; that “settlements are the fundamental reason for the prolonging of the conflict”; that the Palestine Solidarity Campaign is a serious pro-Palestinian outfit, rather than (see David Collier’s account) an anti-Israel movement of hate, dripping in hard-core antisemitic ideology; that Corbyn “has the most persistent record of opposing racism”; that the antisemitism in the Labour Party is “alleged” (see Richard Millett’s video for the reaction and counter-reaction to this pernicious untruth).

In answer to my own question (“Why do you give a distorted one-sided view of history?”)  Shlaim said that the Jews had no right to self determination early in the 20th century “because they only formed 10% of the population of Palestine and it’s an international convention that the majority in a country has the right to national self-determination”.  This is a nonsense. There was no such place as ‘Palestine’ in 1917. 1.26% of the population of the Ottoman Empire were Jews and Israel’s share of the land area of the former Empire is 1.1%. There was an unbroken Jewish presence near Jerusalem for 5000 years.

The Aftermath

As we were leaving, there were some vile comments. I was told “put your jackboots back on”.  Another activist received a bizarre Jew/Nazi comparison.  That’s what happens at these events, when you confront the lies.

But confront them we must. Because in the runup to the Balfour Centenary later this year (2 November), the lies, demonisation and hate are flowing free.