Israeli soldiers patrol Israel's border with the Gaza Strip. Photo: Getty
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The left’s insistence on Jews apologising for being Jewish is anti-Semitic

Whenever the western left sides instinctively with Palestine my heart says, “Jew-haters” while my mind says, “Shut the f*** up, heart.”

Aside from breaking out in an inexplicable rash, there’s nothing quite as worrying to me as agreeing with Melanie Phillips. In a recent Spectator article, the distinguished gobshite argues that, in deeming Israel’s military response to Gazan rockets attacks “disproportionate”, the Left is essentially complaining that not enough Jews have been killed in the conflict. And, almost against my will, I found myself nodding along to her predictably abrasive words.

As I’m sure is clear by now, every time there’s a flare-up of Israeli-Palestinian violence, the term “anti-Semitism” is thrown about with about as much precision as Hamas’s rockets. This is neatly illustrated by another offering from the Spectator, this time by Douglas Murray. With as much restraint as a starved goat in Paperchase, Murray and Phillips both brand the Palestinians, and all who support them, anti-Semites. Every time this argument is wheeled out, I try to dismiss it as the reductive nonsense it is, and, every time, I struggle.

As the latest round of peace talks approach, and John Kerry starts using phrases like “steps forward”, we can only hope that the past few weeks of sickening violence – of Israel succeeding in turning Gaza into a living jigsaw puzzle, and Hamas failing to do the same to Israel - are drawing to a close. And, without wanting to make a tragedy that I merely watched on the news about me, I’m hoping that my own ethics crisis will return to its dormant state, once the rockets stop.

I’s a problem shared by many left-leaning Jews like me. Whenever the western Left side, instinctively, with Palestine my heart says, “Jew-haters” while my mind says, “Shut the fuck up, heart.” But my difficulty, I’ve come to realise, isn’t with legitimate critiques of the Israeli government, it’s with the flippant use of the word “Jews”. This is something of which both Left and Right are guilty. In Melanie Phillips’s article, the use of this word, instead of “Israelis”, paints all Jews as Zionist fundamentalists. Phillips seems to have decided (on behalf of all Jewish people) that we are, at heart, Israelis. Likewise, Hamas and their apologists frequently use the word “Jew” instead of “Israeli”. In the past few weeks, anti-Semitism has escalated throughout Europe. And, as usual, those to blame for all of the problems in the Middle East, if not the entire world, are “The Jews”.

In reality, many Jews, myself included, are highly critical of Benjamin Netanyahu’s contempt for diplomacy. And to be even more accurate, the Left’s gripe shouldn’t be with “The Jews” or “The Israelis”, but with the current Israeli government. Of course, the racism of some Israeli citizens is obvious. And if there were such a thing as a Worst Person Of The Year Award, I’d nominate (collectively) those who are treating the conflict as a spectator sport. But these people are not representative of all Israelis, many of whom deplore their government’s use of violence.

And yet, throughout the most recent bout of violence between Israel and Palestine and all the others before it that I can remember, the problem of anti-Semitism on the Left has been illuminated. While you’d basically have to be a brick wall to fail to sympathise with the Palestinians, the Left (as usual) has gone very quiet when it comes to condemning Hamas. Either that, or they’ve actively condoned their actions. Although Lib Dem MP David Ward has since apologised for tweeting his support for Hamas’s rocket attacks, the fact remains that Hamas are often painted as the good guys. Hamas are not just anti-Israel, they’re anti-Jewish, which, can I just remind everyone, is racist. Their charter, which explicitly calls for the mass killing of Jews, makes this abundantly clear. I hate to break this to you but, if you refuse to condemn Hamas on this point, at least, you’re an anti-Semite. I don’t give a shit how much you love Curb Your Enthusiasm: you’re still an anti-Semite. Or at least an anti-Semite by-proxy.

Last year, Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters used an inflatable pig with a Star of David painted on it as a prop at a gig. As far as thinly veiled anti-Semitism goes, his veil was about as thick as budget toilet paper. In fact, the star was red, instead of the Israeli blue - brazenly representing Jews in general, rather than Israelis.

This notion that Jews should be ashamed of themselves over Israel isn’t exclusive to publicity-hungry, aging rock stars. When I was at uni, the student union implemented a campus-wide boycott of Israeli produce, to wit, one slightly manky orange. During the campaign, I remember arguing with one pro-boycott activist who proudly announced that her grandmother, right after the creation of Israel in 1948, had renounced her Judaism out of disgust. It struck me as sad that someone would abandon their identity because of the actions of a select few that share it. This incident, which lodged itself firmly enough in my mind for me to remember it five years later, is a perfect example of the Left’s insistence on Jews apologising for being Jewish.

And, for the record, I’m about as willing to apologise for being Jewish as I am to renounce my homosexuality. In case you’re reading my column for the first time, that translates as “not especially willing.” 

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times