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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Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.