BLT Presents Alex Brummer

28-Jan-2015 - 10:00pm

Alex Brummer – the role of UNWRA

A really informative evening was held at Bushey United Synagogue on Wednesday 28th January when the BLT hosted journalist and broadcaster Alex Brummer, City Editor of the Daily Mail, who came to talk to us about the role of UNRWA in the Middle East. Alex was introduced by our very own Laurence Brass who knows him from their work together on the Board of Deputies of British Jews. The talk was given a day after Holocaust Memorial Day and Alex had hot footed it from Auschwitz, Poland to be here.

We were informed by Alex that the subject of the talk, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency began its operations in 1951. Their remit was education, health, social services and provision of relief to recently displaced Palestinian refugees then located in Gaza, West Bank and surrounding Arab countries Lebanon, Jordan and Syria.

To see photos of the event, look at the BLT Photo Gallery.

As Alex told us, the narrative concerning the Middle East has changed markedly in recent years from the bold young nation, Israel, fighting to put down its roots after a terrible Holocaust in Europe against all the odds, to the preservation of the identity of Palestinian refugees and sympathy for their cause. Throughout the past 64 years the activities of UNRWA have considerably and deliberately helped to move this narrative so that the world only wants to know and believe the suffering of Palestinians and not explore the real reasons why they are living in such poor condition.

UNRWA currently employs a staggering 37,000 people which is an enormous number of people to manage and fund. The vast majority of employees are Palestinians themselves, not the typical image of United Nations staff in their blue berets from countries around the world. So UNRWA itself is largely a Palestinian body that is highly influenced especially by Hamas in Gaza. So it is no surprise that independent reports found that its compounds and sanctuaries that include hospitals and schools are highly politicized and the hiding of weapons in these places is common place, a fact not considered controversial in the Palestinian populated lands and amazingly rarely reported. What makes this more amazing is that UNRWA is funded to the tune of $1bn per year with a massive portion coming from the USA & UK as well as the EU.

UNRWA’s continuity and hence the employment of all their staff depend on the Palestinian population continuing to live in refugee camps, so the odd bout of Israeli destruction, in retaliation for Gazan rocket attacks into Israel, quite well suits their purposes in maintaining the status quo. They have been known to use videos to instruct children in schools how to conduct Jihad against Israelis, all this unbelievably funded by Western money.

Rather than give a long lecture Alex then opened up the discussion to questions, the first two of which were about the cutting off of funding and the press reporting of the conflict. There have been recent moves to push the US Senate to reduce the funding to UNRWA but there is resistance since UNRWA are able to use the UN part of their title to present themselves as far more balanced and altruistic than in reality they are on the ground. The press for their part have pushed the Palestinian cause to the front of their agenda and do not want to report news that does not fit into the current thought pattern that Israel is the perpetrator of violence and Palestinians simply suffer it. Alex than talked about the differences between Israel and the Palestinian territories and commented how few journalists had examined UNRWA up close. The UN definition of a refugee camp is a temporary place of refuge not a place to live in a perpetual state of dependency, but this is glossed over by mainstream media organisations. Other questions led Alex to talk about the role of Qatar and its funding of Jihadists, including IS.

Further questions were asked about UNRWA’s remit, efforts to reduce US funding and the power of the press. Alex informed us that UNRWA’s sole purpose was to work with the Palestinians as a self-regulating, self-funding body independent of the UN Security Council. Although the UN can send inspector generals to check their work and could take steps to curb it, there has never been any pressure to do so. Congress is working hard to reduce funding in the hope of curbing its influence. Meanwhile journalists, so manipulated in Gaza, have so much power, according to one questioner who wondered if we had tried to educate them about the real facts. Alex said that there have been some successes in taking senior editors to Israel who have had their eyes opened and changed their views from the constant anti-Israel diatribe, but others are so fixed in their views that all attempts have failed.

There was then a diversion into the broader subject of increasing anti-Semitism as a result of the Operation Protective Edge and one questioner wondered if the leadership of the Jewish community could be doing more. Alex appeared quite defensive on this issue, although acknowledging that incidents had risen, he did not want to over emphasise this as being a growing problem for Jews on the streets of the UK. He also said regarding leadership that Jewish organisations are now thinking strategically about putting out a more positive message, and the Jewish view is being presented at the highest level.

Anti-Semitism on campuses was then discussed, following a question from Rabbi Salasnik. A variety of views were offered from suggestions that hostility had increased significantly and that campuses were a dangerous place for Jews, to other views who claimed that there was negligible incidence at most universities in Britain.

Finally Alex talked about the Royal Family and their lack of visits to Israel, Britain’s trading relationship with Israel and the role of the Board of Deputies in representing Jewish and Israeli interests to government, about which Laurence Brass gave further thoughts.

In summary this informative talk covered a broad range of issues and gave us an insight into the role and nature of this organisation UNRWA, told us who funds it, who works for it and why it still exists so long after its formation. We all see the UNWRA flags and letters printed on jackets worn by their workers on our TV screens but we may have often wondered about whom exactly they report to and whether their role helps or hinders the very people they purport to represent and why their spokesmen so often condemn Israel. On the surface it could look like this organisation is a humanitarian neutral body, but one does not have to dig too deep to find how it deviates from such neutrality.

Alex Brummer was then thanked by Rabbi Yosef Richards for his most interesting talk and tea and cake was taken.

Look forward to seeing you all at the next BLT.

Written by Martyn Ellis