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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Fake news sells because people want it to be true

The rise of bullshit, from George Orwell to Donald Trump.

When is a lie not a lie? Recently, the Daily Telegraph reported that university students had demanded that “philosophers such as Plato and Kant” be “removed from [the] syllabus because they are white”. Other outlets followed suit, wringing their hands over the censoriousness of today’s uninquiring young minds. The article generated an extraordinary amount of consternation click bait. Angry responses were written and hot takes were quick-fried and served up by outlets anxious  to join the dinner rush of  ad-friendly disapproval.

It’s a story that could have been designed to press every outrage button of the political-correctness-gone-mad brigade. It has students trying to ban things, an apparent lack of respect for independent thought and reverse racism. It seemed too good to be true.

And it was. In reality, what happened was far less interesting: the student union of the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas) at the University of London had proposed that “the majority of philosophers on our courses” be from Asia and Africa, and that the Western greats be approached from a “critical standpoint”. Some might consider this a reasonable request, given that critical analysis is a component of most philosophy courses, and Soas has a long tradition of promoting the study of the global South. Yet a story about students declaring Kant irrelevant allows the Telegraph to despair for the youth of today and permits advertisers to profit from that despair.

People didn’t start pumping out this stuff because they decided to abandon journalistic ethics. They did so because such principles are hugely expensive and a hard sell. Even those of us who create and consume news can forget that the news is a commodity – a commodity with a business model behind it, subsidised by advertising. Rigorous, investigative, nuanced content, the sort that pays attention to objective facts and fosters serious public debate, is expensive to create. Talk, however, is cheap.

Fake news sells because fake news is what people want to be true. Fake news generates clicks because people click on things that they want to believe. Clicks lead to ad revenue, and ad revenue is currently all that is sustaining a media industry in crisis. Journalism is casting about for new funding models as if for handholds on a sheer cliff. This explains a great deal about the position in which we find ourselves as citizens in this toxic public sphere.

What has this got to do with Donald Trump? A great deal. This sticky, addictive spread of fake news has fostered a climate of furious, fact-free reaction.

Press outlets give millions of dollars of free coverage to Trump without him having to send out a single press release. The reality TV star is the small-fingered god of good copy. The stories write themselves. Now, the stories are about the threat to the future of journalism from the man who has just entered the Oval Office.

Trump’s first press conference in six months, held at Trump Tower in New York on 11 January, was – by any measure – extraordinary. He did not merely refuse to answer questions about unverified allegations that he had been “cultivated” by Russia. He lost his temper spectacularly with the assembled press, declaring: “You’re fake news! And you’re fake news!”

Trump did not mean that the journalists were lying. His attitude to the press is straight from the Kremlin’s playbook: rather than refute individual accusations, he attempts to discredit the notion of truth in journalism. The free press is a check on power, and Trump likes his power unchecked.

Writing in the Guardian in 2015, Peter Pomarantsev noted of Putin’s propaganda strategy that “these efforts constitute a kind of linguistic sabotage of the infrastructure of reason: if the very possibility of rational argument is submerged in a fog of uncertainty, there are no grounds for debate – and the public can be expected to decide that there is no point in trying to decide the winner, or even bothering to listen.”

If people lose trust in the media’s capacity to report facts, they begin to rely on what “feels” true, and the influence rests with whomever can capitalise on those feelings. Donald Trump and his team know this. Trump doesn’t tell it like it is. Instead, he tells it like it feels, and that’s far more effective.

Fake news – or “bullshit”, as the American philosopher Harry G Frankfurt termed it in a 2005 essay – has never been weaponised to this extent, but it is nothing new. George Orwell anticipated the trend in the 1930s, looking back on the Spanish Civil War. “The very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world,” he wrote. “Lies will pass into history . . . In Spain, for the first time, I saw newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts, not even the relationship which is implied in an ordinary lie . . . In the past people deliberately lied, or they unconsciously coloured what they wrote, or they struggled after the truth, well knowing that they must make many mistakes; but in each case they believed that ‘facts’ existed and were more or less discoverable.”

This is the real danger of fake news, and it is compounded by a lingering assumption of good faith on the part of those who believe in journalistic principle. After all, it’s impossible to prove that a person intended to deceive, and that they didn’t believe at the time that what they said was true. Trump may believe in whatever “facts” he has decided are convenient that day. When he insists that he never mocked a disabled reporter, whatever video evidence may exist to the contrary, he may believe it. Is it, then, a lie?

Of course it’s a lie. People who have no respect for the concept of truth are still capable of lies. However, they are also capable of bullshit – bullshit being a register that rubbishes the entire notion of objective reality by deeming it irrelevant. The only possible response is to insist, and keep insisting, that the truth still means something.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era