An Israeli journalist has defended her claims that fellow Jewish writers in the UK are afraid to speak out against her country of birth over the Gaza conflict.
Mira Bar-Hillel, who has worked primarily for the Evening Standard over 30 years, has been accused of being an “anti-Semite” by former MP and Sun columnist Louise Mensch and others.
Bar-Hillel was born in Jerusalem in 1946 and became the country’s first female radio news reporter – after having served as a “non-aggressive” member of the army – before moving to the UK in 1972.
She said that during her first 35 years in the UK she stood by a vow to herself not to “not use the fact that I’m out of Israel as a position for leverage – that I would not write about Israel”.
Bar-Hillel broke this rule after she discovered, on a visit to Israel, that a number of Holocaust survivors were living “below the breadline” in the country.
The journalist said that no mainstream British newspapers would touch the story, but she did have her piece published in the Jewish Chronicle – “I don’t think it would [make it in] now”. She said: “In those days you virtually couldn’t get anything into the mainstream media that was anti-Israel.”
Following the outbreak of the current Gaza conflict, Bar-Hillel – who describes herself as “a deliberate outsider” in the British Jewish community and a "secular Jew" – has been outspoken in her condemnation of Israel, and wrote for The Independent that she was on the verge of “burning” her Israeli passport.
Asked how this article, which she said has been read more than 1m times and translated into Spanish and Portuguese, had been received, she said: “It’s difficult to say. On the Indy website there are over 6,000 ‘strongly agree’, and about maybe up to about 600 ‘strongly disagree’.”
But she has also been subject to abuse on Twitter. “Yes. ‘Go to hell you anti-Semitic bitch’, ‘you’re a traitor to your people’, ‘you should die’. “
Bar-Hillel told Press Gazette this is “mostly from people who are quite close to certain Jewish organisations or from people with 20 followers – and they think that being abusive on Twitter is going to get them lots more”.
She added: “I don’t respond to any of the abusive ones. I don’t see the point really. They want me to. They want to engage with me. But I deprive them of that by refusing to engage with them.
“Those who make serious points, I respond to. And those like Louise Mensch, I feel I need to draw her out more – probably for the next article. She’s hilarious.”
Bar-Hillel told how she had challenged Mensch, who accused her of being an anti-Semite, to describe anti-Semitism. She added: “If you define it as anyone who’s critical of Israel, yes I’m anti-Semitic. Hoorah. Happy now?”
Asked if the intervention of a former MP is significant, Bar-Hillel said: “Well, she thinks so. I respond because she’s got lots of followers.
"So I’m thinking, well, whatever, the worst thing that I’ve got to say will be disseminated amongst 60,000 people – can’t go wrong. So I actually use her first to get material for the next article, and in order to have more people reading what I have to say… She’s so patronising.”
Asked about her comments this week on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that certain high-profile Jewish journalists are reluctant to speak out against Israel like her, Bar-Hillel said: “In the Jewish community in the UK… people keep telling me ‘we’ll discuss anything freely’. Well, I don’t see the top names of Jewish journalism.”
She mentioned names to Press Gazette, but did not on Today. Asked why this was, she said: “I didn’t mention their names because since they won’t speak up for fear of retribution, if I mention their names, I will have brought retribution upon them.
“The whole thing is they don’t want to be associated openly with any dissent on the Jewish voice, which is Israel right or wrong. 'And by the way, of course it’s right, and it’s always right.' They don’t want that.
“So why would I do that to them? I’m really just not that nasty, I’m sorry Louise. I’m terribly sorry to disappoint you.”
On her views on the Gaza conflict, Bar-Hillel added: “No one for a second think that because I’m critical of Israel I’m in favour of Hamas.”