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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.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle