Brits harden opposition against Israel boycotts as British fair play shines through

Every year Populus conducts an opinion poll* for BICOM to measure the views of the UK public about Israel and the Middle East; this year’s results are particularly interesting.

First, the big news – 51 per cent of people agree with the statement “I do not boycott Israeli goods, and find it difficult to see why others would single out Israel given everything else that is going on in the world.” This has increased by eight per cent compared to last year’s survey. In contrast only 12 per cent of people disagree with the statement so are pro-boycott. 56 per cent of people agree that a boycott hurts both Palestinians and Israelis and this has increased by nine per cent compared to last year’s survey. These are very significant shifts against the idea of a boycott. Is this the British sense of fair play or something else?

The anti-boycott majority is clearly increasing but it is unclear if this is driven by decreasing hostility towards Israel (the “I do not boycott Israeli goods” line) or by terrible things happening in Syria and elsewhere and this leading to an increase in the number of people believing that Israel shouldn’t be singled out (the “given everything else going on in the world” line).

One of our core questions is to ask respondents to rate their ‘warmth’ towards states and groups in the Middle East. Two per cent feel warmth towards ISIS, Hamas and Hezbollah are tied at 5 per cent, Turkey is tanking, down 5 per cent on last year to 20 per cent. Almost 1 in 4 people (24%) feel warm towards Israelis and 1 in 5 (20%) feel warm towards the Palestinians. By contrast, 19 per cent feel warmth towards Israel and 11 per cent feel warm towards the Palestinian Authority. The figures for Israel and the Palestinians have been stable for the last five years with no sign of a significant shift either way. This year we asked about Israelis for the first time. We have always asked about Palestinians so thought it only fair to compare people with people and it is notable that Israelis get a higher rating than the State of Israel.

Next year we will be celebrating 100 years since the British Government issued the Balfour Declaration so we gave our respondents the full text of Lord Balfour’s letter and asked them if they agreed that it was the right position for the Government to have taken in 1917. 43 per cent of people agreed and this has increased by 3 per cent since last year. 18 per cent of people disagreed with the policy.

There has been a great deal of controversy in the UK this year with several public figures, mostly Labour politicians, making or distributing extreme statements about Israel that borrow the themes of classical antisemitism. The perpetrators have defended themselves claiming they are criticising Israel and it’s merely a political position. We wanted to measure the UK public’s view on this vital issue. The results are compelling. 48 per cent of our survey respondents agreed with the statement that ‘hating Israel and questioning its right to exist’ is antisemitic. 20 per cent disagreed with the statement. The British public sees this very clearly and that is very reassuring indeed.

What does this survey tell us? Like all polls it has its limitations. But as a robust, consistent measure of opinion over many years it is very effective. A quarter of the British public like Israelis and a fifth like Israel. But beyond that, the poll reveals a much larger group who support a Jewish homeland, oppose Israel hatred and clearly view it as antisemitism. An even larger group of more than half will not stand for any kind of Israel boycott. Now that is good news.

*On behalf of BICOM, Populus surveyed a nationally representative sample of 2,054 GB adults online between 14 and 16 October 2016. An additional survey was conducted by Populus with a nationally representative sample of 2,042 GB adults online between 7 and 9 October 2016. The results and infographics can be read at www.bicom.org.uk

About the Author
James Sorene is CEO of the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre in London and an analyst of Middle East Issues. He appears regularly on UK TV and Radio and writes for numerous newspapers and websites. He was previously a UK Government civil servant, Head of Communications for Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg from 2011 to May 2015. From 1997 to 2000 he was Head of Public Affairs at the Israeli Embassy in London.
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