Fascisme doux

Middle East conflicts - Anna Somers Cocks rebuffs allegations that a report on Israeli cultural dest

In June, the Art Newspaper, which I edit, carried a story, first on our website, then in the paper, about destruction caused by the Israeli army in Palestinian territory. Our sources were Unesco and a non-governmental organisation, Patrimoine sans Frontieres (Heritage Without Frontiers): in the ancient city of Nablus, 80 per cent of the al-Khadra mosque has been destroyed; the al-Satoun and al-Kabir mosques, both converted Byzantine churches, are 20 per cent ruined; also destroyed are 60 historic houses, the 18th-century entrance to the market, seven Roman cisterns and the old paved streets. We reminded readers that the deliberate destruction of cultural heritage contravenes the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, and that Israel is a signatory to this convention.

It is depressing to have to say that I was expecting a strong reaction, and in fact it was instantaneous and very aggressive. "This is not about art, but is motivated solely by politics; it's a shameful diatribe against Israel," wrote one reader. "You have shown primitive hatred and Goebbelsian eloquence," protested another. "What about the damage to synagogues? What about the suicide bombers?" asked others. And the clincher: "You are anti-Semites."

Why was I expecting it? Because the case of Israel is now widely considered to be so special that none of the usual rules of behaviour applies to it. The shadow of the Holocaust hovers over Israel and makes all dispassionate judgement of contemporary events illegitimate, apparently. Because great violence was done to the Jews over the centuries, and more particularly in the 20th century, Israel is now to be treated as being always in the right, beyond reproach. And if you dare question this, you are called an anti-Semite, which automatically invalidates anything you say.

This is closed-system thinking. The Catholic Church and the Communist Party used to go in for it: disagree with us and you instantly put yourself outside the loop and disqualify yourself from having your opinion considered. Ghastly inhumanity has been justified on the basis of such reasoning. It is very dangerous.

I am not an anti-Semite, nor is anyone else in my office. I reject the accusation vehemently. We believe in freedom of thought and expression, the pursuit of truth (however imperfectly we may succeed as journalists), and the defence of beauty and historical memory.

From its early days, the Art Newspaper has reported on war damage and the threat to cultural heritage: when the Yugoslav army started attacking Croatia, shelling churches and palaces, and the pro-Serb bias in the west made other newspapers keep quiet; when the western allies went to war against Iraq, and we established that many of ancient Mesopotamia's most important sites were on or near modern strategic targets.

I am not besotted by culture. Going by the old test of "What would you save from a burning building, a Matisse or a dog?", I would emerge as a dog lover. But culture is what we write about, so we would be failing in our job if we did not report what two respectable sources say they have seen destroyed by Israeli troops.

Maybe it was unavoidable. I have never been under fire, and I dare say that I would not view ancient stones as very important if it were a case of him or me. But the fact is that those ancient stones are now blown to bits, and Palestine and the world are a poorer place - something we shall come to mourn when peace returns and less extreme priorities prevail. That is why, in times of war, soldiers need to be briefed on what to save if at all possible; that is why the Hague Convention makes it a crime deliberately to destroy the enemy's heritage. That is why such occurrences should be reported. And I would argue that to attempt to muzzle such reporting is an even worse, if intangible, offence against our western culture, which has laboriously conquered threats to freedom of thought, speech and publication over the centuries. Worst of all, the censorship is self-imposed, a self-inflicted wound, a corrosion from within, not the imposition of a tyrannical state or faith.

No wonder that the French call such political correctness "fascisme doux", or soft fascism.