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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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.