Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Harrowing Tales of Hoffman

SPARE a thought for Mr.Stephen Gash, of the campaign "Stop the Islamisation of Europe" (SIOE). After all, 'tis the Season of Goodwill to All Men. Well, maybe not. Together with the English Defence League, SIOE has been campaigning against Muslims and their mosques. His is no narrow nationalism, mind. His website includes support for Israel and for "Serbian Kosovo", as well as proclaiming "Islamophobia is common sense".

On Sunday, December 13, SIOE had called a demonstration in Harrow, where anti-Muslim demonstrators were humiliated in September when they tried to march on the new mosque. This time they urged ex-servicemen to come and dignify their protest, and called on Jewish people to join them if they wanted to defend Israel. Mr.Gash said he expected 1,500 demonstrators.

He got 15 odd supporters(some very odd!),who were confronted by ten times that number of counter-demonstrators, including trade unionists, Greens and members of the Jewish Socialists' Group. Leaving later under police protection Mr.Gash reportedly promised he would never come to Harrow again. I'm sure local people will hold him to that.

Next day I read an interesting exchange in the bloggers' section of the Jewish Chronicle web site:

Continued support for Harrow Central Mosque

By Rabbi Aaron Gol...
December 14, 2009

Getting the message through to our local Community that we will not stand for the hatred being put out by the English Defence League and their ilk.

The following was posted by the Harrow Central Mosque:

"Today’s demonstration by the Stop Islamisation of Europe and the English Defence League was in every measure a miserable defeat for the hate mongers and the Islamaphobes.

The Harrow Central Mosque is extremely grateful that people from so many backgrounds and faiths stood shoulder to shoulder in support of and in solidarity towards this great centre of peace and harmony."

Rabbi Frank Dabba Smith spoke both inside and outside of the mosque in support of the Harrow Central Mosque.

In the Jewish and local press, the surrounding Liberal and Reform Communities played important roles in countering the arguements of the EDL and others who had asked Jews to stand with them (!) with Israeli flags:

To which one Jonathan Hoffman replied:

'Excellent. I'm sure the members of the Harrow Central Mosque will be there to help us at the next antisemitic Amnesty or BRICUP meeting. Maybe you and Rabbi Frank Dabba Smith will be there too as well as "the surrounding Liberal and Reform communities"'.

You might almost think from the sarcastic tone that Mr.Hoffman would have preferred a more favourable response to Stop the Islamisation of Europe. To be fair, he didn't say that, and so far as I know he was not in the vicinity of Harrow mosque on December 13, with either side of the demonstrations.

But we do know Jonathan Hoffman. A City economist by profession, he is co-vice chairman of the Zionist Federation, and has put himself about a bit, writing letters to the media, and staging demonstrations outside events like the Skies Are Weeping concert (in tribute to martyred activist Rachel Corrie) and an alternative carols evening at a Bloomsbury church organised by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign. On both occasions, Jewish people were participating inside, while outside Hoffman's crew of hard-right Zionists made up their numbers with Christian sympathisers. Outside the carol service they even found a man who made anti-Jewish remarks, and was duly videoed and reported (in the Jewish Chronicle), as though he was running the event. Very professional.

Amnesty International has criticised Israel's treatment of detained Palestinians, and recently hosted a meeting about discrimination on water rights, an issue which War on Want has also taken up. BRICUP, the British Committee for Universities in Palestine, supports an academic boycott of Israeli institutions, which they say are complicit in occupation policies. How does either activity count as "antisemitic" or compare with SIOE targeting an entire minority and its place of worship? While the boycott campaign has been a Palestinian initiative, several of its advocates here are Jewish and Israeli academics. Whatever their opinion of it, why should the Harrow rabbis, let alone Muslims, be expected to help Jonathan Hoffman opposing meetings?

Incidentally, when there was a real antisemitic incident, the desecration of Jewish graves in West Ham cemetery a couple of years ago, I saw synagogue members and Muslims at the demonstration of solidarity called by anti-racists. I didn't see Mr.Hoffman or his motley crew, and I don't suppose he heard about it. Well he can't be everywhere.

But we have been hearing about Jonathan Hoffman again this week. According to reports carried by the Jewish Chronicle and initially, the BBC, he asked a question about one of the speakers at a BRICUP meeting in the School of Oriental and African Studies(SOAS) in London, and upon hearing his name, members of the audience began shouting him down, saying he was "JEWISH!" Oddly enough, this account is disputed by other people who were at the meeting, several of whom are themselves Jewish, as were some of the speakers, notably South African minister and ANC veteran Ronnie Kasrils. They say they encountered no anti-Jewish hostility or remarks, that the BBC report should have mentioned who Hoffman was, and that any barracking was due to his politics and what he had to say, which the chair urged people not to respond to because it was a distraction.

I may mention that I was in SOAS myself the week before the BRICUP meeting, to hear David Rosenberg of the Jewish Socialists' Group(JSG) talking about the Warsaw ghetto fighter and lifelong human rights activist Marek Edelman. The audience was appreciative, though not as large as one might wish. The JSG does not have a group within SOAS (yet), but the invitation to Dave to speak came from the SOAS Palestine Society. That may not prove anything but it does suggest SOAS is not quite the "den of iniquity" that some people might have us imagine.

Although I was not at the BRICUP meeting, I know some of the people who were, and trust their account of it. The event has appeared on You Tube anyway. It was Hoffman who characterised it as "antisemitic", though somehow he missed the people shouting that he was Jewish -as does the video. That detail appeared in an account by one Raheem Kassam, an executive member of Conservative Future. It hence made its way into a BBC report - which did not address the purpose of the meeting, what the speakers had to say about Israeli "Apartheid", who they were, or who Jonathan Hoffman is, but was headlined:

Jewish man jeered at Soas university debate

Page last updated at 21:28 GMT, Thursday, 17 December 2009
Footage has emerged of a man being told he is "not welcome" after revealing his Jewish name at a School of Oriental and African Studies debate on Palestine.

To say "footage has emerged" when the video had been available for well over a week is almost as misleading as the pretence that it was only his "Jewish name" that aroused opposition. As a result of protests the BBC has now changed its report, and quotes two of the Jewish people who did not consider the meeting "antisemitic", Mike Cushman and Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi. Naomi had spoken before Hoffman, mentioning more than once that she was Jewish, without anyone heckling her or saying she was unwelcome. The Jewish Chronicle website has still not altered its story. Mike is also concerned because once a false story has appeared on the internet it can carry on circulating and being commented upon, without people knowing it has been scotched.

The first time I saw Jonathan Hoffman was outside the Hackney Empire four years ago, when he turned up with a dozen or so protesters objecting to the concert "The Skies are Weeping", which featured the world premiere of the cantata of that name, opus 75, by Philip Munger, in memoriam of Rachel Corrie. Rachel Corrie was killed by an Israeli bulldozer as she tried to stop it demolishing a Palestinian family's home.
Her mother Cindy flew in for the concert, at which other performers included Israeli Tsivi Sharett's TS Ensemble and al Hurryya Palestinian dabka dance troupe.

The concert was dedicated "in memory of the lives lost during the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank", not specifying their nationality. An item on the concert appeared on BBC television the following night, largely focussed on the "controversy" around it, and protest by "Jewish people" -no mention of the Zionist Federation -outside. Reporters had interviewed soprano Debbie Fink, who sang the cantata and organised the concert. She made a point of telling them she was Jewish, as were many of the sponsors, artistes, and workers behind the scene. (and a large part of the audience). Debbie was cut right out of the BBC report, which gave the last word to Jonathan Hoffman. To add insult to injury, some Jewish people who had come along to support the concert were described on BBC TV as Hoffman's protesters!

Those of us who complained eventually obtained an acknowledgement from the BBC that its coverage had given a misleading impression. Debbie Fink received a personal apology. Posting to the Just Peace UK discussion list Debbie has congratulated friends who got the BBC to change its report this time, but added "Yes, we should push for an apology but it will be hard! When I had that saga over the coverage of the World Premiere of the Skies are Weeping on BBC London News, I worked my way up the complaints ladder and eventually got an apology, but only a private one."

Back in October, Hoffman was criticised by a vice president of the Board of Deputies, Jerry Lewis, who said the Zionist Federation co-chair's efforts for Israel often did more damage than good. “I’m painfully aware his tactics have been the cause of many complaints to the Board, and his behaviour has been less than helpful.”

But in a blurb boosting Hoffman's blog and his courage braving the "bear pit" at SOAS, Jewish Chronicle editor Stephen Pollard writes: "In the battle to put Israel's case and to fight against bigotry, there are few more committed people than Jonathan Hoffman, Vice President of the Zionist Federation.
He can sometimes be a bit too committed for some, but no one can deny his energy, efforts and fearlessness."

Sure, the performer has a lousy schtik . But he has a damn good agent!

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At 1:16 AM, Blogger Deborah Fink said...

I happened to come across this. I'm surprised you remember the Skies are Weeping BBC complaints saga! I did not realise that was Hoffman on the BBC! That was before I knew him. What an idiot!

One thing, you seem to be a bit confused about PSC's carol event at the Bloomsbury theatre. I'm not sure there were any Jews involved and it was not an alternative carol event, or at least, not in as far as they sang alternative carols, but the following week, J-BIG did it's alternative carol event at St. Paul's, the Actor's church, Covent Garden and there was a bigger Zionist picket otuside.


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