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Laurie Penny on Julie Burchill’s imperialist froth over Israel

The columnist is wrong to describe Louis Theroux’s documentary and The Promise as nothing more than “Jew-baiting”.

In this week's column, shoved in underneath some musings about comedy and refried beans, the Independent rentagob Julie Burchill takes a detour into the sort of stuttering imperialist froth that Russell Brand might refer to as the Bad Zionism.

Burchill denounces the latest popular explorations of Israeli politics – Channel 4's drama The Promise and Louis Theroux's documentary exposé of ultra-Zionist lifestyles in Jerusalem and the West Bank – as foaming anti-Semitism, borne out of Gentile resentment that Jewish people are good at science.

No, really. Burchill really does argue that discussing the most fraught, difficult and painful topic in modern international relations in any terms that do not automatically grant the Jewish people every disputed square mile of moral high ground, because they "built the country we call Israel centuries before Islam even existed", is just bitchy bitterness about so many "Jews winning the Nobel Prize".

Yes, it's bonkers, but there's bile behind it. Burchill stubbornly fails to draw any distinction between the blithely racist, imperialist ultra-Zionists in Theroux's documentary and the more reflective and compassionate politics of the vast majority of Jewish people. In fact, most Jews feel about as much kinship with ultra-Zionists as most Christians feel with the more fundamentalist members of the Westboro Baptist Church.

In Burchill's eyes, though, it's all just "Jew-baiting". Showing Israeli soldiers firing tear gas canisters at Palestinian children in Hebron is "Jew-baiting'. Dramatising the agonising conflict between Jewish war refugees searching for a home and Palestinian families being violently evicted from their land is "Jew-baiting" and nothing more.

I know it's not about me, but as a woman of Jewish descent with many family members living in Israel, I find this sort of reductive bollocks personally offensive. In point of fact, The Promise is not a piece of propaganda. Rather, it is a reflective and excruciatingly well-researched series that throws light on a segment of British wartime history that most Brits prefer to ignore – namely, our own involvement in the creation of the state of Israel and our complicity in the decades of bloody conflict that followed.

It's hard to understand how anyone can accuse a drama that opens with five gruelling minutes set in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, cutting in segments of real footage from the mass graves, of ignoring the tragic nuances of Jewish history. For Burchill, though, since the series stops short of declaring all Palestinians criminal trespassers, it's just more "Jew-baiting".

For some people, history is just a creative space for redrawing the bloody map of the moral high ground to suit your own dogma. For others, history drives right up to your front door on a daily basis in armoured tanks, penning your family behind gun-bristling checkpoints, cramming your friends and neighbours behind an "apartheid wall", bombing your home, machine-gunning your grandchildren.

Dragging all discussion of the suffering of the Palestinian people back to a dry debate over whose tribal deity promised them the land most flamboyantly is a wilfully clod-headed rehearsal of what George Orwell called transferred nationalism – "power-hunger tempered by self-deception".

Ultimately, if we're really going to play the who-got-here-first game, someone really needs to put in a word for the poor old Philistines. And the Caananites. And the Midianites. And the Amalekites. And the followers of Ba'al, all of whom have some prior historical claim on the land by virtue of being slaughtered or enslaved or driven out over the course of three millennia of gory religious tribal wars – it's all there in the Torah. The sort of self-deception that calls all temperate inquiry "Jew-baiting" is just dogged, ahistorical worship of the politics of bullying.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Nigel Farage and Paul Nuttall. Photo: Getty
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Nigel Farage and Douglas Carswell don’t need to stand again as MPs – they’ve already won

I just loathe these people. I want to see them humiliated. 

We’re a week in to the campaign, and it’s clear that the 2017 election is going to be hell on toast. The polls show the Tories beating Labour in Scotland (for the first time in a generation) and Wales (for the first time in a century). The bookies put the chances of a Labour majority at around 20/1, odds that are striking mainly because they contain just one zero.

The only element of suspense in this election is whether Theresa May will win a big enough majority to keep Labour out of power for a decade, or one big enough to keep it out for an entire generation. In sum: if you’re on the left, this election will be awful.

But there was one bright spot, a deep well of Schadenfreude that I thought might get us through: the campaign would provide plentiful opportunities to watch the people who got us into this mess be humiliatingly rejected by the electorate yet again.

After all, Ukip’s polling numbers have halved since last summer and the party has fallen back into fourth place, behind the pro-European Lib Dems. Nigel Farage has failed to become an MP seven times. It thus seemed inevitable both that Farage would stand, and that he would lose. Again.

If the vexingly popular Farage has never made it to parliament, the odds that his replacement as Ukip leader, Paul Nuttall (the Walter Mitty of Bootle), would manage it seemed minimal. Ukip may have won last year’s referendum; that did not mean its leaders wouldn’t still lose elections, preferably in the most embarrassing way possible.

The true highlight of the election, though, promised to be Clacton. The Essex seaside town is the only constituency ever to have returned a Ukip candidate at a general election, opting to let the Tory defector Douglas Carswell stay on in 2015. But Carswell’s libertarian belief that Brexit was definitely not about immigration always seemed an odd fit with Ukip, and he left the party in March. In the upcoming election, he seemed certain to face a challenge from the party’s immigration-obsessed donor Arron Banks.

The Clacton election, in other words, was expected to serve as a pleasing metaphor for Ukip’s descent back into irrelevance. The libertarians and nativists would rip chunks out of each other for a few weeks while the rest of us sniggered, before both inevitably lost the seat to a safe pair of Tory hands. This election will be awful, but Clacton was going to be brilliant.

But no: 2017 deprives us of even that pleasure. Carswell has neatly sidestepped the possibility of highlighting his complete lack of personal support by standing down, with the result that he can tell himself he is quitting undefeated.

Carswell has always stood apart from Ukip but on this matter, at least, the party has rushed to follow his lead. Arron Banks spent a few days claiming that he would be running in Clacton. Then he visited the town and promptly changed his mind. At a press conference on 24 April, Paul Nuttall was asked whether he planned to stand for a seat in Westminster. Rather than answering, he locked himself in a room, presumably in the hope that the journalists outside would go away. Really.

As for Farage, he seems finally to have shaken his addiction to losing elections and decided not to stand at all. “It would be a very easy win,” he wrote in the Daily Tele­graph, “and for me a personal vindication to get into the House of Commons after all these years of standing in elections.” He was like an American teenager assuring his mates that his definitely real Canadian girlfriend goes to another school.

Why does all of this bother me? I don’t want these people anywhere near Westminster, and if they insisted on standing for a seat there would be at least the chance that, in these febrile times, one of them might actually win. So why am I annoyed that they aren’t even bothering?

Partly I’m infuriated by the cowardice on show. They have wrecked my country, completely and irrevocably, and then they’ve just legged it. It’s like a version of Knock Down Ginger, except instead of ringing the doorbell they’ve set fire to the house.

Partly, too, my frustration comes from my suspicion that it doesn’t matter whether Ukip fields a single candidate in this election. Theresa May’s Tories have already assimilated the key tenets of Farageism. That Nigel Farage no longer feels the need to claw his way into parliament merely highlights that he no longer needs to.

Then there’s the fury generated by my lingering sense that these men have managed to accrue a great deal of power without the slightest hint of accountability. In the south London seat of Vauxhall, one of the most pro-Remain constituencies in one of the most pro-Remain cities in the UK, the Labour Leave campaigner Kate Hoey is expected to face a strong challenge from the Liberal Democrats. Even Labour members are talking about voting tactically to get their hated MP out.

It remains to be seen whether that campaign succeeds but there is at least an opportunity for angry, pro-European lefties to register their discontent with Hoey. By contrast, Farage and his henchmen have managed to rewrite British politics to a degree that no one has achieved in decades, yet there is no way for those who don’t approve to make clear that they don’t like it.

Mostly, though, my frustration is simpler than that. I just loathe these people. I want to see them humiliated. I want to see them stumble from gaffe to gaffe for six weeks before coming fourth – but now we will be deprived of that. Faced with losing, the biggest names in Ukip have decided that they no longer want to play. And so they get to win again. They always bloody win. 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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