In 1930, poet Humbert Wolfe wrote his immortal ode to the English press:
You cannot hope to bribe or twist
(thank G-d) the British journalist.
But seeing what the man will do Unbribed,
there's no occasion to.
Eight decades have done nothing to alter the essential character of England's Fourth Estate. That was demonstrated last week, at the convention of the National Union of British Journalists when, by 66 to 54, delegates of the 40,000-member group voted to impose a boycott on Israeli goods.
This may not be as dire as it seems. Presumably, British journalists will now avoid Jaffa oranges, Negev tomatoes and other Zionist fruits and vegetables. They may swear off kosher wine, too. I sent an e-mail to the NUBJ in London, asking for details, but it has gone unanswered. This raises the possibility that British journalists will no longer be allowed by their union to talk to Israelis (although, as an Israeli, this seems a lot to hope for).
It's not every day that a community of western journalists takes such a clear stand against the pretense of neutrality. The "journalists" of Arab dictatorships routinely boycott Israel, but they're coerced. The Brits are, in Wolfe's phrase, unbribed.
The NUBJ accompanied its boycott decision with the sort of anti-Zionist rhetoric usually heard only in Tehran and Columbia University: It denounced Israel's "slaughter of civilians in Gaza" and the "savage pre-planned attack" in Lebanon.
These are strong words made stronger by their obvious lack of balance and proportion and other journalistic conventions. After all, Israel did leave Gaza a year ago. The slaughter taking place there is almost entirely carried out by Palestinian statesmen of rival factions.
Hamas, the elected government — which is officially dedicated to the destruction of Israel — routinely fires rockets at Israeli civilians. Israel does strike back, and painfully; evidently the British journalists regard this as unfair.
As for Israel's "savage attack" in Lebanon last summer, it was precipitated by a Hezbollah border raid so blatantly aggressive that even the Saudis criticized it. Hezbollah, which proceeded to fire thousands of missiles at Israeli civilian targets, was supported by Iran, Syria and David Duke. Now the Party of Allah has a new ally in National Union of British Journalists.
Some of the less progressive members of the NUBJ decry such partisanship. But as a longtime observer of Middle Eastern journalism — I was director of the Israeli Government Press Office under Prime Minister Menachem Begin — I welcome it as a moment of exceptional clarity and even courage.
A more image-conscious group than the NUBJ would have postponed its endorsement of the Palestinian jihad until the release of BBC correspondent Alan Johnston from his captivity in Gaza. It would also have refrained from announcing its boycott of the Jewish state on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day. Points to the British journalists for standing up to the Zionist lobby.
Israel now faces a unique problem. No open society in history has ever been boycotted by Western journalists. Some in Jerusalem will be tempted to denounce it as a declaration of war by the British media. But I think this is shortsighted.
Israel, I believe, should not only respect the British boycott, but join it.
There are some journalists who — while prepared to forego Israeli dairy products and such — will find it difficult to break their habit of access to the story. The government of Israel can make this easier by removing temptation. It should ask all British correspondents stationed in Israel to leave, either by way of Ben Gurion Airport or, if they prefer, via Gaza.
And it should withhold visas and accreditation from members of the National Union of British Journalists (and the media companies that employ NUBJ members) until the journalists of Britain decide to resume at least the fiction of impartiality.