The New Statesman’s rolling politics blog

RSS

Who are you calling anti-Semitic?

The charge is grave. It must not be misused.

Last night's Dispatches on Britain's Israel lobby was, as Mehdi Hasan posted earlier, a bold choice of programme for Channel 4 to commission. But it was a much-needed one, too, not least because of how the presenter, Peter Oborne, made clear the despicable way in which many have been seeking to equate any criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism.

Oborne interviewed Rabbi David Goldberg, rabbi emeritus of the St John's Wood Synagogue in London, to make a point that has always been obvious to any sane person: namely, that some critics of Israel may be anti-Semitic, but it would be absurd to suggest it therefore follows that the act of criticism is in itself anti-Semitic. Rabbi Goldberg went on to say that he regarded Israel as enacting a form of apartheid in the West Bank, one of many statements he has made that has led him to be labelled a "self-hating Jew" by ultra-Zionists, as he has wryly acknowledged in the past.

The tactic of seeking to conflate the two attitudes -- one a prejudice, the other a valid political judgement -- is all the more odious because a low-level anti-Semitism that is hardly ever acknowledged does still persist in this country. I'm sure it wouldn't be allowed now, but it was common parlance when I was at school to refer to a mean portion of food as being "Jewish". While sitting in one of the rather less grand undergraduate associations to which George Osborne also belonged when we were both students, an old friend remarked that the problem with that particular club was that "too many Jews" were members. Only recently someone else I know prefaced a conversation with the words: "I have the greatest respect for those people, but . . ." Perhaps we are talking about a particular, rather old-fashioned level of English society here, but that doesn't excuse it.

Neither, however, is it in the least excusable to confuse this (still shocking) residual anti-Semitism with legitimate disapproval of some of the acts perpetrated by Israeli governments. I repeat, "some of the acts". For another distinction that is generally not made is that much of the criticism of Israel is not levelled at the state itself, and specifically not against its very existence. It is an expression of disappointment with Israel's political leaders, and frequently stems from a sadness at the loss of an older idea of Israel as a socialist, secular state, the object of genuine admiration for so long.

There are those who, like Daniel Barenboim, one of the outstanding conductors of our time and co-founder of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra with the late Edward Said, still try to fight for it. His passion and integrity should not be questioned. I still find the thought of Barenboim and his fellow musicians Leonard Bernstein, Isaac Stern and Zubin Mehta rushing to Israel to support their country after the outbreak of the Six Day War in 1967 (Mehta flew in on a plane full of ammunition) quite extraordinarily moving. Yet, to some, such as the current Israeli culture minister, Limor Livnat, who can't stand that Barenboim has consistently condemned Israel's treatment of the Palestinians, even this true patriot is "a real Jew-hater, a real anti-Semite".

Such comments almost make one want to despair. But this is a distinction that must be fought for. These are words that matter deeply. The charge of anti-Semitism is so grave that it cannot be allowed to be misused, and rightly so. Oborne and Channel 4 deserve our thanks for having taken a stand on this -- whatever odium they attract for having done so.

 

Sign up to the New Statesman newsletter and receive weekly updates from the team.