Mainstreaming the Livingstone Formulation on BBC Radio 4

Listeners to the March 20th edition of the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘Sunday’ heard an item (from 20:32 here) described in the synopsis as follows:R4 Sunday 20 3

“The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, has written to the government expressing his shock and concern about rising reports of anti-Semitism at UK universities. Bob Walker reports.”

Listeners heard from a variety of contributors including York University undergraduate Zachary Confino who noted the recent staging there of the play ‘Seven Jewish Children’ – considered by some to be at best inflammatory and by many to be antisemitic – and that decision was defended by Habib Nasser; a member of the university’s Palestine Solidarity Society which organized the performance.

Additional contributors highlighted the issue of social media before Walker turned to the Oxford University Labour Club story and reactions to that ongoing issue were heard from Labour party members John Mann and Lucy Powell.

However, the most remarkable feature of this item – which supposedly intends to inform listeners about the issue of antisemitism in UK universities – came at 27:45 when Bob Walker introduced his final contributor.

BW: “Pro-Palestinian students say they’re worried that legitimate debate and criticism of Israel is being wrongly interpreted as antisemitism. Sai Englert is a Jewish student who supports the Palestinian solidarity movement.

Englert: “I don’t think it particularly comes from Jewish organisations; it comes from all sorts of pro-Israeli organisations that tried to use this as a defence mechanism. I think that’s very worrying. We need to be able to be very effective and very unified in our struggle against racism, against Islamophobia, against antisemitism and that these attempts to muddle [sic] the waters and conflate all Jews with Israel in order to avoid addressing the political questions by defenders of Israel, I think is very worrying.”

In other words, listeners to BBC Radio 4 were told that “defenders of Israel” deliberately employ false claims of antisemitism in order to shut down debate.

Known as the Livingstone Formulation, the purpose of that claim was described by the person who named it, David Hirsch, as follows:

 “the use of the Livingstone Formulation is intended to make sure that the raising of the issue of anti-Semitism, when related to ‘criticism of Israel,’ remains or becomes a commonsense indicator of ‘Zionist’ bad faith and a faux pas in polite antiracist company.”

Lesley Klaff describes it as:

“…the practice of responding to claims of contemporary antisemitism by alleging that those making the claim are only doing so to prevent Israel from being criticised; in other words, they are ‘playing the antisemitism card.’” 

So who is the person selected by the BBC to inform its audiences that what they hear about antisemitism on UK campuses might actually be a “mechanism” to shut down “criticism of Israel”?

Sai Englert is indeed a PhD candidate at SOAS. He is also an anti-Israel activist who believes that “[t]he colonisation and ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948 are today well documented and generally recognised as facts” and a supporter of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign aimed at bringing an end to Jewish self-determination.

In an article published by the ‘Socialist Worker’ in October 2015, Englert described the scene of the October 3rd terror attack in Jerusalem in which Nechemia Lavi and Aharon Benita were murdered as follows:

“In the street where two armed settlers were killed on Saturday, a large crowd of their accomplices were holding a sit-in: guitars, songs, candles and flags, as well as signs in English and Hebrew calling for revenge, for retaliation, for justice. They laugh and chat, for the most part in perfect North American English accents–or terrible Hebrew–about “their neighborhood,” “their land,” “their houses.” […]

Zionism is unleashing its military power once more on the Palestinian population, and the West continues to foot the bill and support the colonial project. Demonstrations, actions and BDS campaigns should pop up across the globe in response to this situation. It won’t free Palestine or stop the current onslaught, but it can continue to increase the pressure on our leaders and their Israeli friends. It can make clear that the world is not only watching, but fighting back, in solidarity with the struggle of the Palestinian people, against colonialism and racial supremacy.”

Englert has previously described objections to the BDS campaign as ‘smears’ – using language which amply clarifies his position.

Englert tweet

It is hence entirely unsurprising that Englert would make use of the platform provided by BBC Radio 4 to promote the Livingstone Formulation because doing so serves his ideological and political agenda.

The question which must be posed is why the producers of this programme found Englert’s allegations worthy of inclusion, promotion and mainstreaming in an item ostensibly intended to inform audiences about the growing – and serious – problem of antisemitism in UK universities.

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