In the TV programme Shalom Belfast? (broadcast on BBC1 NI this week) Israeli journalist, Ithamar Handelman, sought out extreme and/ or colourful people in Northern Ireland who fly flags for either the Israelis or the Palestinians (but unfortunately very few people were featured in the programme who want to be friends with both).
Israeli journalist in Belfast – Ithamar Handelman.
It made for at times entertaining and interesting viewing and Ithamar comes across as a sensitive Israeli – whatever you think about his views, or for that matter his singing or dancing abilities.
We heard people with sincere religious devotion expressing their love for the country in prayer and worship.
Sadly, we also heard ugly political comments coming from both directions. One interviewee told Ithamar to his face that he couldn’t belong to the Jewish nation because the Jews as a people don’t exist. In other words, it doesn’t matter what the Jews think (whether they are a people or not), the right to self-determination is to be denied to them. Israel is condemned for merely existing as a sovereign state for the Jewish people and presumably, on that basis, the critic would like to see it wiped off the face of the map. That is absurd and an extremist position, clothed in the language of human rights and international law. We urge all reasonable people to deplore it.
We also heard a comment that the Arabs of the Territories should be told they are on vacation. That is a vague statement but it has ugly connotations. Let us be clear. We condemn utterly any call for the forcible transfer of Arabs – just as the vast majority of Israelis condemn such calls.
It is the nature of TV programmes to go for the sensational. Sadly Ithamar ignored serious work going on in Northern Ireland to encourage peace and reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians – for example, the recent twinning arrangement between the Equality Commission of Northern Ireland and its counterpart in Israel. Also the deep engagement of various community groups in Northern Ireland who have visted the region and met with both Israelis and Palestinians. Also the promotion of shared education between Jews and Arabs following the model of shared education between Protestants and Catholics. Ithamar came to at least two events organised by Northern Ireland Friends of Israel – one in Belfast and one in Coleraine – which were attended by over 400 people. Unfortunately, NIFI’s voice wasn’t heard in the programme.
Such is the “sensationalist” nature of so much we see on TV – whatever the topic. We know our approach of deepening people’s interest and engagement with the issues will not make the headlines or interest TV producers. We aren’t going to wave flags from lamposts or burn other people’s flags to court media attention. But we know with over 4,000 people having attended our events, and having engaged across the political and sectarian divide, we are on the right track and there is real support for what we are doing.