Criticism of Israel

It used to be “allowed”. Why not now?

I was struck by a passage in Alexander Linklater's review of Christopher Hitchens's new autobiography, Hitch 22: a Memoir, in the new issue of Prospect. Linklater writes of Christopher's reaction to his brother Peter's discovery that their late mother had been Jewish:

He describes his irritation at an editor who had suggested that the discovery would make his life easier, "because Jewish people are allowed to criticise Israel". Had it really come to this, he wonders, that who you are might either justify or undermine your arguments?

Well, perhaps it has.

Certainly the line that any criticism of Israel is evidence of anti-Semitism has been forcefully put in recent years. Take Melanie Phillips, for instance.

In a recent interview with the American National Review, she suggests at one point that the two might be distinct: "The BBC simply embodies the world-view of the left, which demonises Israel and holds America responsible for Israel's behaviour. Of course, you might say that is itself a form of Jew-hatred, but that is an argument that needs to be unpacked."

You might say. Hmmm. Not long after that, though, she says: "While the irrationality of Jew-hatred cannot be defeated by reason, there are many in Britain and the west who are not natural bigots but . . . who have merely been indoctrinated with falsehoods about Israel that are never publicly challenged."

So falsehoods about a state -- Israel -- lead to hatred, not of citizens of that state, but to hatred of Jews in general, regardless, one supposes, of whether they themselves are supporters of Israel or even of Zionism in general. Well, I might say that there's not much of a distinction there.

This matters for all sorts of reasons, one of which Phillips goes on to mention when she says that "the continuity between the Arab/Palestinian agenda and that of the Nazis, whose allies they once were", should be "prominently discussed".

Indeed it should. And I recommend Gilbert Achcar's excellent new book, The Arabs and the Holocaust: the Arab-Israeli War of Narratives, as a very useful guide to that discussion. Unfortunately for Melanie Phillips, Achcar spends quite a lot time arguing convincingly that while there may have been pro-Nazi Palestinians around the time of the Second World War, most infamously the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Haj Amin al-Husseini, there were many who were not: and that to present it in the way Phillips does is oversimplification to the point of distortion and falsehood.

I say Achcar argues. Actually, in much of the book he just allows others to speak for themselves. Here is the Syrian newspaper Alif Ba' commenting on anti-Jewish riots in Algiers in 1935:

The Jewish religion is one of the most honoured in the world, and it is the duty of members of all other religions to treat it with esteem. It is true that we are fighting Zionism, but we are not fighting the Jews as such. Judaism is not necessarily Zionism.

Here is George Antonius, writing in his great nationalist text The Arab Awakening, in 1938:

The treatment meted out to Jews in Germany and other European countries is a disgrace to its authors and to modern civilisation.

Why has the position of the Arabs vis-à-vis the Nazis been viewed in such a one-sided manner? Says Achcar:

The shroud of silence cast over the real positions of a major segment of the Palestinian elite is explained by political motives that have not varied since the 1939 London negotiations when Zionist leaders admitted they preferred dealing with the underlings of the much-maligned Amin al-Husseini.

He then quotes Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion. "It will be much easier for us to counter their claims. We can say that they stand for terrorism and represent only a small part of the Arab population. A broad delegation including 'moderates' will display the Arab public's general resistance to the Jews." Resistant to Zionism, yes, but not in thrall, as Husseini was, to the Axis powers, either.

There are many others Achcar quotes as well, such as the co-founder of Ba'athism, Michel Aflaq, who has also been accused of being influenced by the Nazi view of the Jews. An accusation Achcar denies. "The reality of the matter is that no one has found the least trace of anti-Semitism in Aflaq's writings," he concludes, citing a 1946 article by Aflaq in which he wrote:

While we must insist on our characterisation of Zionism as injustice and aggression and denounce that aggression before the whole world, we must not lose sight of the solid conviction that informs it, inspiring the Jewish people with courage and a spirit of sacrifice, and its leaders with firmness and self-denial, this endowing the movement in its entirety with strength, zeal and discipline.

They sound like words, not of anti-Semitism, but of admiration, to me.

There is plenty more -- I thoroughly recommend the book -- so I will end with one thought. To many people then, including those most likely to be affected by the creation of the state of Israel, there was a clear distinction between being anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic. It was and is an important distinction, but those who wish to close down this discussion have succeeded in going far further than that.

Today, you can happily accept the validity of the Zionist project -- it might not even cross your mind to question the right of the state of Israel to exist -- but if you dare to criticise its government or almost any of its actions, the insinuations of anti-Semitism are instant.

Is this progress? Is this even vaguely rational? Read Achcar and decide for yourselves . . .

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

How the Conservatives lost the argument over austerity

After repeatedly missing their deficit targets, the Tories can no longer present spending cuts as essential.

"The age of irresponsibility is giving way to the age of austerity," declared David Cameron at the Conservatives' 2009 spring conference. Fear of spending cuts helped deny his party a majority a year later but by 2015 the Tories claimed vindication. By framing austerity as unavoidable, they had trapped Labour in a political no man's land. Though voters did not relish cuts, polling consistently showed that they regarded them as necessary.

But only two years later, it is the Conservatives who appear trapped. An austerity-weary electorate has deprived them of their majority and the argument for fiscal restraint is growing weaker by the day. If cuts are the supposed rule, then the £1bn gifted to the Democratic Unionist Party is the most glaring exception. Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, sought to justify this largesse as "investment" into "the infrastructure of Northern Ireland" from "which everybody will benefit" - a classic Keynesian argument. But this did not, he hastened to add, mean the end of austerity: "Austerity is never over until we clear the deficit."

Britain's deficit (which peaked at £153bn in 2009-10) was the original and pre-eminent justification for cuts. Unless borrowing was largely eliminated by 2015, George Osborne warned, Britain's public finances would become unsustainable. But as time has passed, this argument has become progressively weaker. The UK has cumulatively borrowed £200bn more than promised by Osborne, yet apocalypse has been averted. With its low borrowing costs, an independent currency and a lender of last resort (the Bank of England), the UK is able to tolerate consistent deficits (borrowing stood at £46.6bn in 2016-17).

In defiance of all this, Osborne vowed to achieve a budget surplus by 2019-20 (a goal achieved by the UK in just 12 years since 1948). The Tories made the target in the knowledge that promised tax cuts and spending increases would make it almost impossible to attain - but it was a political weapon with which to wound Labour.

Brexit, however, forced the Conservatives to disarm. Mindful of the economic instability to come, Philip Hammond postponed the surplus target to 2025 (15 years after Osborne's original goal). Britain's past and future borrowing levels mean the deficit has lost its political potency.

In these circumstances, it is unsurprising that voters are increasingly inclined to look for full-scale alternatives. Labour has remade itself as an unambiguously anti-austerity party and Britain's public realm is frayed from seven years of cuts: overburdened schools and hospitals, dilapidated infrastructure, potholed roads, uncollected bins.

Through a shift in rhetoric, Theresa May acknowledged voters' weariness with austerity but her policies did not match. Though the pace of cuts was slowed, signature measures such as the public sector pay cap and the freeze in working-age benefits endured. May's cold insistence to an underpaid nurse that there was no "magic money tree" exemplified the Tories' predicament.

In his recent Mansion House speech, Philip Hammond conceded that voters were impatient "after seven years of hard slog” but vowed to "make anew the case" for austerity. But other Tories believe they need to stop fighting a losing battle. The Conservatives' historic strength has been their adaptability. Depending on circumstance, they have been europhile and eurosceptic, statist and laissez-faire, isolationist and interventionist. If the Tories are to retain power, yet another metamorphosis may be needed: from austerity to stimulus.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

0800 7318496