Rabbi Y.Y. Rubinstein cuts his privileged ties with the BBC
Last week, after 30 years as a freelance broadcaster with the BBC, I wrote my letter of resignation.
The reason was an ugly anti-Semitic incident and the BBC’s coverage of it. It occurred this past Chanukah in London’s busiest shopping center, Oxford Street (home to the world-famous Harrods department store), as a group of chareidi teenagers left their tour bus and danced on the sidewalk, when they were surrounded by a group of Muslim men who threatened them. The Muslims screamed and spat anti-Semitic abuse at them, giving Nazi salutes and forcing them to flee back to the bus, which they then began to attack.
By the time the BBC reported the story, they alleged that it was the Jewish kids who had in fact shouted anti-Muslim slurs at their attackers.
The BBC then modified the word “slurs” (plural) to “slur” (singular), but they continued to allege that someone could be heard shouting, “dirty Muslims.”
An independent forensic voice expert was commissioned by the UK’s Jewish community who listened to the recordings from people’s cell phones. He found the BBC claim was a complete untruth. The BBC refused (and still refuses) to back down.
I cannot recall who said, “The definition of English anti-Semitism is hating Jews more than is absolutely necessary.”
This incident showed, though, that the BBC hates Jews more than is absolutely necessary. I canceled the six scripts I was scheduled to write and broadcast in February, and after three decades, I walked away.
Unless you have lived in the UK, you will find it hard to grasp how really huge radio is across the country. Americans in particular will not comprehend how enormous radio’s presence still is in Great Britain and how very different it is from America’s broadcast equivalents.
The majority of British people (80 percent) still get their news from the radio and almost always from the BBC’s national and local radio stations.
The largest news show is BBC Radio’s Today Program, with a listenership of roughly a sixth of the entire country. The country’s intelligentsia and so-called “thinking classes” listen to it, as do politicians, the prime minister, and Her Majesty the Queen.
It’s hardly the kind of place you would expect to hear a chareidi (the BBC prefer the term “ultra-Orthodox”) rabbi speaking regularly. How that happened goes back to 1986, when I returned to live in Manchester after ten years away, learning in the Gateshead yeshivah and the Liverpool kollel. My rosh yeshivah, Rav Leib Gurwicz ztz”l, took the responsibility of public speaking quite seriously, and every two weeks he invited the young married men of the yeshivah to his home on Shabbos in order for them to say a derashah in front of him. He would then offer constructive criticism to help them improve so they could convey Torah to the public in the best possible way.
I enjoyed these sessions enormously and took the message to heart — and they soon paid off. I soon found I was being invited to speak to a wide range of audiences, from yeshivah bochurim to baalei teshuvah.
And then, when I returned to Manchester, I was invited to speak on some local radio station.
I would be lying if I didn’t admit I found broadcasting great fun. From those small beginnings, I found myself invited to speak on BBC local radio — and the more broadcasting I did, the more my skills grew. Eventually, my name came to the attention of national BBC radio and their flagship news show, the Today Program.
This presented me with a dilemma. I had always strived to balance my life between the kiruv world (I was the North of England rabbi for Ohr Somayach and Neve Yerushalayim at that time) and the mainstream mosdos I was teaching in, and broadcasting was not on my agenda at all.
Prior to my new “career,” the only Orthodox voice on the BBC was the UK’s Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. His stellar academic qualifications and Oxbridge pedigree made the BBC’s higher echelons, many of whom are also Oxbridge graduates, smile approvingly.
The other “rabbis” the BBC enthusiastically invited to appear on their programs were Reform — this despite the fact that around 75 percent of UK Jews at that time identified themselves as Orthodox. (One of the BBC’s favorite Reform rabbis also had a cooking show on TV where he prepared and ate pork.) Very many UK Jews were more than a little uncomfortable with his regular appearances, and anything that helped keep him off and authentic Torah on seemed a good idea.
Of course, as a proud talmid of Gateshead, I asked daas Torah before considering taking such a large public role. I sought the advice of my rebbi, Rav Mattisyahu Salomon, and of Rav Bezalel Rakow ztz”l, the rav of Gateshead.
The Gateshead Rav was very encouraging and thought it important to stop or limit the chillul Hashem of equating the title “rabbi” with the “pork chef” and for people to hear an authentic Torah voice instead.
Reb Mattisyahu’s view was far more pragmatic: “Look,” he said, “if you want to do this to make a kiddush Hashem or to be mekarev rechokim, forget it! But if you’re doing it for stam parnassah, that’s perfectly respectable!”
I laughed and told him I understood his mussar message perfectly. It was to look at the media as a job, albeit an unusual one for a ben Torah, and be careful not to allow it to go to my head.
My late wife a”h was a very wise woman and kept tabs on both the frequency and content of my media appearances carefully. She understood that broadcasting on radio did not pose nearly as many dangers as appearing on TV. If she saw too many television invitations arriving, she would encourage me to say no.
And so, with the words of my teachers firmly in my mind and under my wife’s watchful eye, I appeared regularly on BBC World Service with its average 156 million listeners. I became a regular on countless other news programs, both on television and radio, when a voice was needed on behalf of the community. I wrote and presented programs for the BBC and was pleasantly surprised when my Sunrise Sunset radio documentary about Yom Kippur was selected by the Times of London as their “Pick of the Week.”
About 15 years ago, Her Majesty the Queen came to Manchester and spent the morning visiting the city’s Jewish community. The president of the kehillah stood at the top of the line of other communal dignitaries.
When he was introduced, the Queen asked him, “Is Rabbi Y.Y. here?” The fellow shook his head, and she continued, “What a pity. We listen to him all the time on the radio, and we think he’s awfully good.”
I had managed to carry on my teaching in seminaries, yeshivah, and university, while at the same time growing a media career. And to give credit where due, the BBC taught me a huge amount and helped me hone my skills both as a broadcaster and as a writer — over 30 years of working with some of the most talented producers and editors in the world will do that for you. It also gave me the chance to work with some of the most gifted and kind professionals I ever met.
But something I learned early in my radio and television career was that anything that was prerecorded was vulnerable to being edited in a way that made you appear to say the precise opposite of what you actually said. As one producer told me, “With a piece of audio or videotape in my hand, I can make anyone say exactly what I want them to say.”
Therefore, I generally insisted on live appearances. That meant that editors couldn’t put words into your mouth, but it also meant that you had to be skilled enough to make sure that when you spoke, the right words came out of it.
Most of my broadcasting was done under the auspices of what was originally called the Religion department. In one of the BBC’s frequent “restructurings” — which are usually accompanied by the sacking of lots of their staff — the department’s name became Religion and Ethics. This was because an entire department dedicated to “religion,” in a country that (leaving aside Muslims and Jews) is not religious anymore, was considered arcane and archaic.
In fact, all through my career, the BBC struggled with exactly what to do with a department that nobody really wanted to exist. Still, as a public broadcaster funded by the UK government, they were obligated to produce and broadcast a certain number of religious programs every year. The really important BBC departments, primarily News, looked upon their colleagues in Religion and Ethics as more of less of an irrelevance and an embarrassment.
People living in the US are pretty shocked when they hear that if you want to watch TV in the UK, even if it is not the BBC, you need to buy a television license. The current fee is £159 ($214.51) per year, and failure to do so is a criminal offense.
All of that money helps fund ten national BBC TV stations, from the vast news channel to sport, culture, music, and even two children’s channels. There are eight BBC National Radio stations, offering news, pop music, and documentaries. Then there are the regional radio and television stations, catering to the different countries of the UK, including Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. The BBC has digital services too, as well as its World Service, in most languages on the planet.
The BBC is, in short, a massive media giant.
In my capacity, I was rarely invited to talk directly about politics outside the UK, and Israel in particular. Discussing the politics of the Middle East, especially as it affected Israel, was the job of organizations such as the UK’s Board of Deputies of British Jews or the Israeli Embassy and its ambassador. Both would have been very unhappy if I exceeded my remit. Instead, the role I was invited to fill was usually to speak on religious issues as it affected British Jews or the larger UK population.
On one occasion, though, I was asked to advise a team making a documentary about how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict affected ordinary people on both sides. The program was reasonably balanced except for one glaring exception: One Israeli woman had dedicated her life to go weekly to Ramallah as a volunteer to help a Palestinian family, leaving behind her comfortable middle class Israeli home to help tidy theirs. The irony was that the Palestinian home was at least twice the size of her Israeli apartment and much more luxuriously furnished. Yet this woman saw it as her attempt to create peace.
I explained to the producer that this set the entire segment off balance, as the woman and her self-appointed peace envoy role could hardly be seen as typical. My argument fell on deaf ears. The producer wanted to use footage of this woman driving off into the sunset toward Ramallah in order to turn her into the noble hero of the entire show.
On the other hand, in 2001, then–prime minister of the UK Tony Blair created the UK’s National Holocaust Memorial Day. It was made clear to the BBC that they were expected to produce programming that was suitable for the occasion.
One of the producers, who had become a good friend, came to me for help, as he wanted to take a Holocaust survivor with his children and grandchildren back to his hometown in Poland to tell his story. From there they would travel to Auschwitz where he had barely escaped death.
My friend could not have been more sensitive or kind throughout the process, and the result was a documentary masterpiece.
But all that time I was aware of another thread running through the fabric of the BBC. It is its well-known culture of low-grade anti-Semitism, independent of the State of Israel and Zionism, and it’s present throughout the entire organization.
I saw it when I was helping edit that documentary.
I was in a studio assisting the editing process, and one of my tasks was to produce the English translation that would run along the bottom of the screen while the chazzan of Jerusalem’s Great Synagogue sang the “Keil Malei Rachamim.”
The problem occurred when I translated the word “Yisrael” as Israel. That simply could not be allowed, as it might offend Muslims. One of my colleagues who had a Jewish father said, “But that is the translation!” A fierce argument ensued.
In the end I suggested that we keep it as “Yisrael,” which seemed to satisfy everyone, and the BBC folk calmed down. You see, the BBC people producing a documentary to mark the Holocaust could not countenance the slightest possibility of offending British Muslims, but were oblivious to the likelihood they would be offending British Jews.
The BBC has its own distinct culture, and there are rules for membership. The most common of these is to carry a copy of the Guardian newspaper, infamous for the bitterness of its anti-Israel reporting and for the raw Jew-hatred that often spews from its readers in the letters page. Those ubiquitous folded copies of the Guardian under so many BBC arms, rather like the presence of certain markers that appear in blood tests, point toward something more worrying — in this case, the widespread cancer of anti-Semitism.
A certain BBC celebrity whom I had become friendly with once told me about a producer I had worked happily with for ten years.
“You know she hates Jews, don’t you?” My eyebrows flew up. “After 9/11 she declared angrily in the busy BBC canteen, ‘It serves the Americans right. They have been arming the Jews for decades!’”
She did not say arming the Israelis, my friend pointed out, but arming “the Jews.”
There were scores of other such examples over the years, which led some to contact me after my resignation was reported in the Times of London, the Daily Mail, Newsweek, and many Jewish media outlets: Why didn’t you resign before now?
Ironically the answer lay in the answer I gave those who were angry at me for leaving and who asked, “Why didn’t you stay to fight from within?”
Well, that is exactly what I was doing for some 30 years, although frankly, fighting anti-Semitism from within the BBC is akin to asking a child to build a sand castle on the beach to protect the town from a tsunami.
But when the BBC falsely reports an anti-Semitic attack on Jewish kids in the UK in a way that not only minimizes the crime of the attackers and even portrays the victims as the aggressors, they have gone beyond all norms.
I believed it was time to say loudly and unambiguously that I stand with my people against anti-Semitism, and my role of offering an authentic Torah voice has changed.
That voice now has to proclaim that, as I also stand against BBC anti-Semitism, it’s now time to walk away.
What the Camera Saw
When Rabbi Shneor Glitsenstein took a Chabad group on a tour bus through London’s West End on November 29th, it was a chance to enjoy Europe’s busiest shopping area on the first night of Chanukah.
But as they moved slowly along Oxford Street in heavy traffic, things got ugly.
A group of young men, apparently Muslims, attacked the bus, beating and spitting on the windows and reportedly yelling “Free Palestine.” The video that emerged shows one assailant performing what looks like a Nazi salute.
So far, so average for a country where anti-Semitic incidents are now commonplace. The Community Security Trust, an anti-Semitism watchdog, recorded 1,308 incidents in the first half of 2021 alone.
What turned the case into a rolling news story was the subsequent BBC report.
On December 2nd, the news giant’s website published an article about the attack. In the eighth paragraph was a claim that shocked both passengers on the bus, as well as those who later watched a clip of the incident.
It was an allegation that a few minutes into the video, “slurs about Muslims can also be heard from inside the bus.”
The tour group denied any such thing had been said and pointed out that the voices heard on the clip were shouting in Hebrew, not English.
But the BBC doubled down on their report, only updating the article to reflect the fact that a single “slur” was allegedly uttered and not as reported. Media reports have said that BBC editors thought that the words “dirty Muslims” were used.
Writing to Rabbi Rubinstein after his resignation, a BBC representative acknowledged the upset caused to the Jewish community but continued that “it’s important to be clear that the BBC has not attempted to blame any Jewish people for the incident on Oxford Street.
“In the eighth paragraph of the article, there was a brief reference to a slur, captured in a video recording, that appeared to come from the bus. The slur was expressed in English and can be heard in the recording. It has been claimed that what we considered to be an abusive term in English was in fact someone speaking in Hebrew. We have consulted a number of Hebrew speakers in determining that the slur was spoken in English.”
The Board of Deputies, a cross-communal organization that represents British Jews, begged to differ with the broadcaster, calling the episode “deeply irresponsible journalism.”
The Board commissioned two independent analyses of the clip. One by a forensic sound specialist, the other by Professor Ghil’ad Zuckermann, a well-known linguist at the University of Adelaide.
Both concluded that the alleged English slur was in fact “Tikrah le’mishehu, zeh dachuf” — or someone calling for help in Hebrew.
Responding to Rabbi Rubinstein, the BBC denied that the reference to the slur was intended to provide “balance” in their reporting or to “diminish the trauma suffered by those on the bus or justify the actions of those shouting abuse.”
But even as the BBC continues to deny what the Board of Deputies calls the “overwhelming evidence” against their allegations, the Johnson government — which has expressed its concerns about the political orientation of some of the BBC’s content — is taking an interest in the case.
Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries wrote to BBC Director-General Tim Davie of her concerns that the investigation was taking too long.
Will the incident and public scrutiny provoke any soul-searching at the BBC?
As Rabbi Rubinstein’s wrote to BBC boss Tim Davie, “I suspect that this event and your coverage of it is something you do not personally approve of. As I know from decades of working as a freelancer, your discomfort will not be welcomed or supported by very many of your staff.”
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 894)
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