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.

 

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Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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What do Labour's lost voters make of the Labour leadership candidates?

What does Newsnight's focus group make of the Labour leadership candidates?

Tonight on Newsnight, an IpsosMori focus group of former Labour voters talks about the four Labour leadership candidates. What did they make of the four candidates?

On Andy Burnham:

“He’s the old guard, with Yvette Cooper”

“It’s the same message they were trying to portray right up to the election”​

“I thought that he acknowledged the fact that they didn’t say sorry during the time of the election, and how can you expect people to vote for you when you’re not actually acknowledging that you were part of the problem”​

“Strongish leader, and at least he’s acknowledging and saying let’s move on from here as opposed to wishy washy”

“I was surprised how long he’d been in politics if he was talking about Tony Blair years – he doesn’t look old enough”

On Jeremy Corbyn:

"“He’s the older guy with the grey hair who’s got all the policies straight out of the sixties and is a bit of a hippy as well is what he comes across as” 

“I agree with most of what he said, I must admit, but I don’t think as a country we can afford his principles”

“He was just going to be the opposite of Conservatives, but there might be policies on the Conservative side that, y’know, might be good policies”

“I’ve heard in the paper he’s the favourite to win the Labour leadership. Well, if that was him, then I won’t be voting for Labour, put it that way”

“I think he’s a very good politician but he’s unelectable as a Prime Minister”

On Yvette Cooper

“She sounds quite positive doesn’t she – for families and their everyday issues”

“Bedroom tax, working tax credits, mainly mum things as well”

“We had Margaret Thatcher obviously years ago, and then I’ve always thought about it being a man, I wanted a man, thinking they were stronger…  she was very strong and decisive as well”

“She was very clear – more so than the other guy [Burnham]”

“I think she’s trying to play down her economics background to sort of distance herself from her husband… I think she’s dumbing herself down”

On Liz Kendall

“None of it came from the heart”

“She just sounds like someone’s told her to say something, it’s not coming from the heart, she needs passion”

“Rather than saying what she’s going to do, she’s attacking”

“She reminded me of a headteacher when she was standing there, and she was quite boring. She just didn’t seem to have any sort of personality, and you can’t imagine her being a leader of a party”

“With Liz Kendall and Andy Burnham there’s a lot of rhetoric but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of direction behind what they’re saying. There seems to be a lot of words but no action.”

And, finally, a piece of advice for all four candidates, should they win the leadership election:

“Get down on your hands and knees and start praying”

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.