A terrible evil unleashed

Observations on Melanie Phillips

At the Royal Geographical Society in London on 25 January, Melanie Phillips fought like a lioness against the motion tabled by Professor Avi Shlaim of Saint Antony's College, Oxford, stating that "Zionism today is the real enemy of the Jews".

Her other opponents included Amira Hass, a journalist on Israel's daily Haaretz newspaper, and Professor Jacqueline Rose of Queen Mary College, London. Phillips, a Daily Mail columnist and frequent commentator on radio and television, and her team lost by 355 to 320 votes. A large proportion of the audience declared themselves undecided before the debate, but were clearly swayed by the arguments for the motion.

Phillips wasn't prepared to leave it there. She decided to have another go at the opposition - "the three Jewish persecutors of Israel" as she called them - in her personal internet blog, using language that was extreme even by her standards.

"I came away from that debate," she wrote, "feeling the kind of emotion one feels - in a totally different context - when forced to listen to or even watch the details of paedophile assaults on children. It is a physical numbness, a feeling of the very darkest despair; a feeling that a very great evil has been unleashed, which reveals the depths of pathological malice to which human beings can descend - to turn on their own at a time when they are already under murderous attack. It seems like a repudiation not just of their Jewishness but their humanity."

That settled the score with Phillips's contemporary opponents. She then moved to a wider canvas.

"The history of the Jewish people," she continued, "has always been punctua- ted by Jews with a troubled relation- ship with their own ethnic identity who have gone along with or even become the prime instigators - see Marx or Freud, for example - of diabolical calumnies against their own people."

Marx and Freud? Let us think about this for a moment. Apart from being two of the greatest thinkers of their times, both starred in Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda. Their books, alongside those of Franz Kafka, Stefan Zweig, Jakob Wassermann, Franz Werfel, Moses Hess and others, were burned. They were used as an example of everything "perverse, subversive, sick and poisoning" about Jews in general.

Phillips does not accuse her enemies, the dead or the living, of being "self-hating Jews". She gets straight down to business and charges them with treason. But who are the real "instigators" of "diabolical calumnies" against their fellow Jews? Those who initiate an open debate about the nature of the leading ideological movement among Jews today, or those who accuse dissident Jewish thinkers of evil and "pathological malice"? As an Israeli and a Jew, I know which side I would prefer not to meet in a dark alley.

Daphna Baram is the author of Disenchantment: the Guardian and Israel (Politico's, 2004)