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
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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser