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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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear