The Damascus Affair of 1840 tended to overshadow the other important blood libel of that year, the one in Rhodes, because it quickly came to escalate into a diplomatic stand-off opposing France (its government under Adolphe Thiers showing itself uncompromising in the defense of its diplomatic representative, the blood libel-promoting Ratti-Menton) and Great Britain, together with other leading European powers. In the course of this affair it became apparent that, even among the educated and otherwise enlightened, quite a few people found credible certain accusations of “ritual murder”, or at least believed that it might occur from time to time in lands where more “savage” or less “civilized” Jewish communities were settled. It thus was considered essential to enlighten the compatriots of Jews living in countries where they were not subject to persecution or oppression.
The Damascus Affair was significant because it was at that time, or shortly afterwards, that a number of Jewish newspapers came into being in these countries – like, for example, France and the United States, at least at the federal level – where Jews either enjoyed full legal and political equality – or, as in the United Kingdom, on the road towards full political emancipation. The people in charge of these publications saw them as having the mission not only to cover news concerning Jews in communities all over the world, but also to fight actively against anti-Jewish calumnies – not only to inform in sufficient detail, but to educate. In France the Archives Israélites saw the light of day and in Britain the Jewish Chronicle was founded. (In November 2016 a special magazine was published to commemorate its uninterrupted existence for 175 years.)
The days when a major part of the ethos of many Jewish newspapers was to educate and to fight relentlessly against anti-Jewish libels – and later on against anti-Israel libels – have long since passed. Once upon a time there were major issues for the Jewish Chronicle to campaign about and it did – political emancipation for British Jews, the persecution of Russian Jews under the Czars, the Dreyfus Affair, modern Zionism and the reestablishment of the State of Israel, Nazism, etc. Nowadays, like the major non-Jewish national papers, it rarely embarks upon campaigns, even in cases when the objectives of such campaigns would probably be supported by a broad consensus among all the many communities and individuals who make up Anglo-Jewry. (Because of the Jewish Chronicle’s quasi-monopolistic position, its policy has for several decades now consisted in attempting to appeal to all the sections of the Jewish population – to people of all levels of religious observance and of none – not wishing to appear to take sides on religious questions dividing Orthodox and Reform, for example.)
There is reason to believe that the extreme anti-Israelism which is part of the worldview of many of the left-wing activists which dominate student politics and/or control the student unions on many UK campuses is not supported by many of the students which they claim to represent – even in cases where the various distortions and outright falsehoods propagated about the Arab-Israeli conflict may have had an impact, to varying degrees. Nonetheless, anti-Israel militants continue to be successful in getting pro-BDS motions adopted by more and more student unions on UK campuses, by fair means or foul (including at University College, the first university to admit students regardless of their religion, and with which Jewish academics have been closely associated for more than a century). These militants have been undeterred by the fact that they can take no practical measures to implement them because of anti-discrimination legislation (now subsumed in the Equality act 2010) and because universities are legally bound to ensure that all their students are equally able to exercise their rights to free speech and free association – according to Section 43 of the Education (No 2) Act 1986 (recently subjected to the provisions imposing the obligation to fight “extremism” which corresponds to the “Prevent duty” set out in the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015).
Not content with getting pro-boycott resolutions passed and organizing at an increasing number of universities events like Israel Apartheid Week – often accompanied by intimidation against openly pro-Israel students – many activists orchestrate incidents involving concerted attempts to disrupt or shut down any Israel-related talks or activities organized by pro-Israel Jewish students. Not infrequently, however, university authorities have held back from imposing severe sanctions – which should include suspension or expulsion – even in the worst cases.
Even now, in a period of relative decline the Jewish Chronicle still enjoys a high reputation among influential non-Jews. It would thus be most useful if it campaigned for a proper system of accountability to be established binding those officials charged with the administration of publicly funded universities – especially since there is strong support among the ministers of the current British government for effective measures to be taken against those responsible for intimidation and harassment on campus – as shown, for example, in Jo Johnson’s letter to Sir Eric Pickles dated the 31st October. While university authorities could continue to maintain confidentiality as appropriate in individual cases, not being required to identify those of their students who are the object of sanctions, they would henceforward be obliged to make easily available to the public information relating to the nature of sanctions they impose after such incidents of harassment or intimidation and the number of students punished.
While covering such incidents in sufficient detail (how could it not, given that the Israeli and American Jewish press also devotes a lot of coverage to these?) the Jewish Chronicle often does not follows these up – a case in point being an editorial “Bring him back”, published in the Jewish Chronicle on the 28th January 2016 about the incident at Kings College, which led to nothing in particular. A leading article dated the 3rd November devoted only a few words – under the sub-heading “Betrayal at UCL” – to the extremely serious incident which took place on the 27th October at University College, doing nothing more than attack the reaction of the UCL authorities (whose initial statement about the incident tried to minimize its severity – to the extent of making this ridiculously self-contradictory observation: “We regret protesters took measures to try to prevent the event from happening but stress that the protest was non-violent”). Developments in this affair were buried in the latter part of an article, negatively headlined “Jonathan Arkush admits he got timing of Board’s congratulations to Trump wrong”, dated 20th November and which started off by covering the unfair attack on the president of the Board of Deputies (page 20 of the paper issue).