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.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
Getty
Show Hide image

How the Lib Dems learned to love all-women shortlists

Yes, the sitting Lib Dem MPs are mostly white, middle-aged middle class men. But the party's not taking any chances. 

I can’t tell you who’ll be the Lib Dem candidate in Southport on 8 June, but I do know one thing about them. As they’re replacing a sitting Lib Dem (John Pugh is retiring) - they’ll be female.

The same is true in many of our top 20 target seats, including places like Lewes (Kelly-Marie Blundell), Yeovil (Daisy Benson), Thornbury and Yate (Clare Young), and Sutton and Cheam (Amna Ahmad). There was air punching in Lib Dem offices all over the country on Tuesday when it was announced Jo Swinson was standing again in East Dunbartonshire.

And while every current Lib Dem constituency MP will get showered with love and attention in the campaign, one will get rather more attention than most - it’s no coincidence that Tim Farron’s first stop of the campaign was in Richmond Park, standing side by side with Sarah Olney.

How so?

Because the party membership took a long look at itself after the 2015 election - and a rather longer look at the eight white, middle-aged middle class men (sorry chaps) who now formed the Parliamentary party and said - "we’ve really got to sort this out".

And so after decades of prevarication, we put a policy in place to deliberately increase the diversity of candidates.

Quietly, over the last two years, the Liberal Democrats have been putting candidates into place in key target constituencies . There were more than 300 in total before this week’s general election call, and many of them have been there for a year or more. And they’ve been selected under new procedures adopted at Lib Dem Spring Conference in 2016, designed to deliberately promote the diversity of candidates in winnable seats

This includes mandating all-women shortlists when selecting candidates who are replacing sitting MPs, similar rules in our strongest electoral regions. In our top 10 per cent of constituencies, there is a requirement that at least two candidates are shortlisted from underrepresented groups on every list. We became the first party to reserve spaces on the shortlists of winnable seats for underrepresented candidates including women, BAME, LGBT+ and disabled candidates

It’s not going to be perfect - the hugely welcome return of Lib Dem grandees like Vince Cable, Ed Davey and Julian Huppert to their old stomping grounds will strengthen the party but not our gender imbalance. But excluding those former MPs coming back to the fray, every top 20 target constituency bar one has to date selected a female candidate.

Equality (together with liberty and community) is one of the three key values framed in the preamble to the Lib Dem constitution. It’s a relief that after this election, the Liberal Democratic party in the Commons will reflect that aspiration rather better than it has done in the past.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

0800 7318496