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.