To Hasan Afzal, the reaction to his new pro-Israel group may demonstrate just why the organization is necessary.
“I’ve been really overwhelmed just by how shocked people have been that there’s been a group called British Muslims for Israel,” Afzal said.
That surprise isn’t surprising. The debate over Israel and the broader Middle East conflict has become so tense and toxic that a group calling itself British Muslims for Israel inspires a mix of suspicion and fascination. But Afzal’s group is real. Formed by young Muslim professionals in Britain in January under the umbrella group Institute for Middle Eastern Democracy, it really took off after Afzal was interviewed by Israel’s Channel 10. Their Web site (BritishMuslimsForIsrael.com) received thousands of hits and the group began receiving letters of all kinds, from “thank you for what you said” to “how can we help?” One writer offered to help jazz up their Web site, and several spoke admiringly of the group’s bravery.
“Although I never for one second thought I was being brave, I just thought I was being obvious in what I was saying,” Afzal told me. “We were worried that the dialogue, when it comes to the Middle East and especially Israel, had in the past five or six years moved from how do Muslims build an independent Palestinian state and coexist with Israel, to nonsense questions like should Israel even exist, or should the Jews even have a homeland,” Afzal said. “And we found that disturbing for two reasons: first is, it’s a completely delusional question to even ask if Israel should even exist.”
Afzal likes to pose the following hypothetical to anyone willing to discuss Israel’s right to exist: Suppose the argument was about India-Pakistan, and Afzal said to his interlocutor, “you know, I really support India’s right to exist”—how silly would he sound? In addition, Afzal knows where such a question, with respect to Israel, would lead. Once you start asking if Israel has a right to exist, Afzal said, “that is almost like a back door Trojan horse entry to some pretty dark aspects of Islamism.”
The media environment in Britain can be downright hostile to the Jewish state. Part of Afzal’s work is countering the misinformation in British media. “I’m sure you know that the UK has an infamous leftwing newspaper which can’t help itself but print editorials or op-eds linked to members of Hamas. And I’m talking about the Guardian here.”
Afzal points to the coverage of the massacre of the Israeli family in Itamar. It was mostly ignored in British media, he said, and when the BBC finally covered it, they did so in a “dehumanizing and insulting way,” insinuating that since the family lived in the West Bank, they got what they deserved.
Jonathan Weckerle knows what Afzal is dealing with. Weckerle is chair of the Mideast Freedom Forum Berlin and spokesman for STOP THE BOMB, two German organizations that advocate for Israel and against the Iranian nuclear program and Germany’s economic, cultural, and political ties to Iran. Weckerle told me that the debate over Israel in the German media and among German intellectuals is mostly one-sided, and his groups seek to correct that.
“We try to get some new ideas into the German discourse on Israel and the conflict and the region,” Weckerle said. “The public and also the think tanks and the press here are partly against Israel, but nearly all of them really lack an understanding of the situation of Israel, for example its strategic threats by radical Islam.”
Weckerle said their work, as expected, is an uphill battle.
“It’s very hard work for us,” he said. “But this is also because what we are doing is really something new.” He said that German Chancellor Angela Merkel travels to Israel and reaffirms the special relationship between Germany and Israel, but “that doesn’t reflect the mood of the country.”
Weckerle’s group, to change this, organizes debates between pro-Israel commentators (largely from abroad) and German intellectuals. From there, pro-Israel groups get a sense of the most effective arguments in Israel’s favor.
“What you learn from the media is that Israel is building the settlements and that this is the main and even the only obstacle to peace,” Weckerle said. “And what Palestinian leaders are doing and saying and what the goals of organizations like Hamas are, what’s happening in Arab and Palestinian media—if you tell people these things a couple of them start to see things another way.”
Weckerle said they educate the public on Germany’s common interests with Israel, and the threats they both face. He said Germany does have a unique obligation to help Israel, especially considering the Nazi-like rhetoric used by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—but that argument only gets you so far.
“Of course we talk about history, and it’s perfectly right to say that Germany has a special responsibility,” he said. “But if you only use this argument [you] give people a chance to relate to Israel from some kind of political correctness but without real understanding of the situation in Israel and the common interests.”
And Weckerle pointed out that you can’t change a politician’s mind until you get through to his voters.
“If you would look what in the mainstream society is happening, then you will find a press that is rather aggressive toward Israel, you have very few politicians in these times that are really willing to speak out in support of Israel,” Weckerle said. “In the end, politicians want to be popular and they want to be reelected and being pro-Israel in times of crisis isn’t really something that will get you any popularity.”
British Muslims for Israel and Mideast Freedom Forum Berlin aren’t the only groups in Europe fighting the rising tide of anti-Israel media bias. In September, former Spanish Prime Minister José Maria Aznar officially launched the Friends of Israel Initiative. Aznar recently called for the “re-legitimization” of Israel, and his board consists of mostly non-Jewish world leaders. The organization, based in Europe, includes among its founding members former Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo, former Czech President Václav Havel, Irish Nobel Laureate Lord William David Trimble, Italian politicians Marcello Pera and Fiamma Nirenstein, British historian Andrew Roberts, and others.
At the launch, Aznar told Foreign Policy: “This idea is a consequence of my convictions and the convictions of many different people. We believe in the values of the Western world and we believe that it is necessary to enforce at this moment our way of life, and that the weaknesses of the Western societies, especially in Europe, is a problem for all of us.
For us, Israel is a part of the Western world. Israel is not a country of the Middle East, it’s a Western country in the Middle East. Therefore, the interests of Israel are our interests. Israel is a democracy and we have a responsibility to contribute to helping democracies in difficulty. Lastly, there is a very serious situation: the effort to delegitimize Israel and we think it is very dangerous to accept this without a reaction.”
Though Israel does have a tense relationship with European intellectuals and media, these groups aren’t ready to give up—quite the opposite. That’s because the media in Britain, according to Afzal, doesn’t speak for the people. I asked him how representative British media is of the population’s opinions on the whole.
“It’s not representative, which is the bottom line,” he said. But their work remains so important because such biased media coverage can, over time, erode sympathy for Israel even among its supporters. Take your average consumer of news in Britain, he said. “If he gets the same anti-Israeli, delegitimized point of view, day in and day out, then decent people will start to turn their backs on Israel.”
And Weckerle points to issues like Germany’s economic ties with Iran, which enable the Islamic Republic to evade sanctions designed to derail its quest for nuclear weapons. One of the biggest issues on that front is the fate of the European Iranian Bank of Commerce in Hamburg.
“We have been protesting against this bank for months now, and there have been various very clear demands from Israel and from the U.S. to close this bank,” Weckerle said. “Until recently, Germany actively refused to shut it down—which it could and it should. In the last days there were signs that Merkel is taking steps to finally close the bank. But even if this happens, which is not sure at all, a closing of the EIH some months ago would have hurt the Iranian regime much more. Again, it looks like the Merkel government, instead of going ahead and showing determination towards the Iranian regime, will only do what is absolutely necessary, as late as possible.”
On a cultural level, Afzal made a point to avoid the traditional talk of “coexistence” between Jews and Muslims in Europe and beyond. He isn’t opposed, of course, to this activity, but rather wants to take it beyond the commonalities and into the realm of real debate.
“What I would say about coexistence groups is, it’s great having a Muslim and a Jew in a room together and agreeing that we shouldn’t eat pork and agreeing that male children should be circumcised,” he said. “But what you’ll rarely find is that they actually talk about the issues that matter. So that’s why we try not to get too into the coexistence game. We have set beliefs and it’s our job to advocate it to the grassroots Muslim community and beyond.”
Seth Mandel is a writer specializing in Middle Eastern politics and a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Horowitz Freedom Center.