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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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war