Something is rotten in the modern Left.
An unhealthy segment of what likes to call itself the ‘progressive movement’ increasingly loses its mind when it comes to the subject of Israel. These people long ago allowed their objection to certain Israeli government policies to calcify into an irrational hatred of the entire State of Israel. What we’ve seen in the last few years, though, is something different. Left-wingers who have dedicated their lives to the causes of equality and anti-racism have been seduced by a shrill and extreme form of anti-Zionism that skirts the boundaries of antisemitism when it’s not hurtling right into the heart of the oldest hatred.
Of course, criticising Israel, even in forceful terms, is not antisemitic but when the Left turns every ill-advised Israeli government action or policy into ‘genocide‘, ‘apartheid‘, or, repellently, a form of ‘Nazism’ – and maintains near radio silence on genuine human rights-abusing regimes in Iran, North Korea, Cuba, Russia, China, Syria, and the rest – we are justified in asking why the Jewish State is singled out for disproportionate opprobrium.
Ezra Pound, himself a Jew-hater and Nazi-sympathiser, came to regret his ‘stupid suburban prejudice of anti-Semitism’. Today, however, we are seeing the emergence of a stupid metropolitan prejudice, the polite bigotry of people who call themselves liberals and who are far from the socio-economic and educational profile of the tattooed skinhead hitherto associated with anti-Jewish sentiments. And because their contempt is directed at a nation-state, one that is unapologetically patriotic, pro-Western, and defies the fashionable theories of the post-1960s intelligentsia, these liberals consider their rhetoric not prejudicial but political – and progressive at that.
The latest episode came last week in the form of extraordinary comments from a Labour MP. Paul Flynn, MP for Newport West, challenged the appointment of Matthew Gould, Britain’s first Jewish ambassador to Israel, on the grounds that Gould’s Jewish heritage meant his loyalty to the UK was in question.
The row began during a fractious hearing of the House of Commons Public Administration Committee at which outgoing civil service head Sir Gus O’Donnell was giving evidence on his role and its functions. Flynn used the opportunity to question O’Donnell on reports that Gould, while serving in Iran, had held a meeting with former Defence Secretary Liam Fox and his unofficial, fake-business-card-wielding adviser Adam Werrity.
For Flynn, this was evidence that those dastardly ‘neo-cons’ were up to their old tricks ‘plotting a war in Iran’. He explained: ‘I do not normally fall for conspiracy theories, but the ambassador has proclaimed himself to be a Zionist and he has previously served in Iran’.
The Jewish Chronicle’s brilliant political editor Martin Bright evidently smelled a rat at the talk of neocons and Zionists and sinister plots for power and influence. He asked Flynn to explain his remarks. The Labour MP picked up a shovel. A very large shovel.
He told Bright that, ‘In the past there hasn’t been a Jewish ambassador to Israel and I think that is a good decision – to avoid the accusation that they have gone native.’
Britain’s ambassador to Israel, he added, should instead be ‘someone with roots in the UK [who] can’t be accused of having Jewish loyalty’.
He reiterated his concern that ‘neo-cons and war-mongers’ were conspiring to launch a war against Iran.
Neocons. (The New York Times’ David Brooks once quipped, ‘con is short for ‘conservative’ and neo is short for ‘Jewish’.’)
Now half-way to Australia and still digging, Flynn added that he’d feel the same way about others from a ‘foreign’ background and pointed to Labour MP Denis MacShane, who is of Polish descent. ‘Imagine Denis MacShane as ambassador to Poland? Heaven forbid,’ he explained.
His remarks were swiftly rebuked by Middle East Minister Alistair Burt as well as fellow Labour MPs Douglas Alexander, Louise Ellman, and Denis MacShane.
The EU Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia’s definition of antisemitism includes this line: ‘Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nation.’
Does all this mean Flynn is an antisemite? Tory MP Robert Halfon, who is also Jewish and was identified by Flynn as one of the ‘neocon’ plotters, says no. Rather, Flynn is merely ‘deeply wrong about the British Ambassador to Israel and wrong about so-called ‘neo-conservative’ conspiracies’.
However, Flynn’s outburst speaks to an ever more prevalent phenomenon of left-wingers indulging in questionable rhetoric in their attacks on Israel.
Ahead of the 2010 election, (now former) Labour MP and chair of Labour Friends of Palestine Martin Linton, told Palestinian lobby group Friends of Al-Aqsa that there was an ‘attempt by Israelis and by pro-Israelis to influence the election’. He explained, invoking classic antisemitic imagery, that ‘[t]here are long tentacles of Israel in this country who are funding election campaigns and putting money into the British political system for their own ends.’
Former Labour MP, and darling of the Left, Tam Dalyell claimed in 2003 that Tony Blair was being ‘unduly influenced by a cabal of Jewish advisers’ and named Lord Levy, Peter Mandelson, and Jack Straw as evidence.
Labour stalwart, and the party’s candidate for Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone has a record of outrageous remarks. In 2006, he told Jewish Evening Standard reporter Oliver Finegold that he was ‘just like a concentration camp guard’. He told two Iraqi-Jewish businessmen, Simon and David Reuben, that ‘They should go back to Iran and try their luck with the ayatollahs, if they don’t like the planning regime or my approach.’
Then this gem from 2007:
If a young Jewish boy in this country goes and joins the Israeli army, and ends up killing many Palestinians in operations and can come back, that is wholly legitimate. But for a young Muslim boy in this country, who might think: I want to defend my Palestinian brothers and sisters and gets involved, he is branded as a terrorist. And I think it is this that has infected the attitude about how we deal with these problems.
Not to be pedantic but British Jews don’t serve in the Israel Defence Forces, Israelis do. The idea that British Jews go to Israel, fight in the Israeli army, kill Palestinians, and come back to the UK, as if they’ve just been on a gap year, is a mad fantasy that exists only inside Livingstone’s brain.
The Lib Dems aren’t immune. After musing on becoming a suicide bomber, and claiming that a shadowy ‘pro-Israeli lobby’ has its ‘financial grips’ on the Lib Dems, Baroness Jenny Tonge excelled herself when she demanded an official investigation into whether Israeli army medics helping with the relief effort in Haiti were actually there to steal organs from earthquake victims.
The Left-liberal media has dodgy form too. The New Statesman published a 2002 investigation on the ‘Zionist lobby’ and its influence on the UK with a cover depicting a huge golden Star of David piercing the Union Flag and the headline ‘A kosher conspiracy?’ (see above). The Independent once ran a cartoon depicting Ariel Sharon as a monstrous giant eating a Palestinian baby, an indisputable replication of the ancient blood libel.
The Guardian published a cartoon during the Lebanon-Israel war showing a Palestinian boy being pummelled by a giant fist inside a knuckleduster studded with blood-soaked Stars of David. Oxford don and BBC favourite Tom Paulin, who calls the Israeli army the ‘Zionist SS’, told an Egyptian newspaper what he’d like to see happen to Israelis living in settlements on the West Bank: ‘They should be shot dead. I think they are Nazis, racists, I feel nothing but hatred for them.’ He continues to be invited on the BBC as a cultural commentator.
Ben Cohen has written about the secret history of antisemitism on the British Left. However, I think antisemitism and even ‘new antisemitism’ fail to capture the politics of left-wing anti-Israelism. It’s probably safe to assume that people like Linton, Dalyell, Livingstone, Paulin, and even Flynn do not consider themselves antisemitic – they would balk at the label no doubt. Of course, they’re right. In the classical sense of the term – irrational hatred of Jews as a racial or religious group and desire to exert power over them or deny them equality and fair treatment – they are not antisemitic.
What’s at work here is a new ideology. I call it ‘Israelophobia’, a contemporary manifestation of anti-Zionism that blurs the boundaries between far-Left and far-Right politics, permitting liberals to share a platform with radical Islamists and antisemites. Hatred of Israel, often based on limited knowledge or a selective perspective on the Middle East, becomes all-consuming and takes precedence over other concerns, including the normal ethics of political association.
Israel is elevated from just another state to a wicked malefactor of almost mythical proportions. When you anathematise your enemy thus there are no longer any limits, no red lines, nothing that can’t be thought or said or done. Conspiracy theories about powerful ‘lobbies’, financial influence, media manipulation, once a staple of antisemitic discourses, can be repackaged as fact – just as long as ‘Jewish’ is replaced with the more prophylactic ‘Zionist’.
Israelophobia, in short, is a form of demonisation, dehumanisation, and delegitimisation of the Jewish State that draws, often unwittingly, on the rhetoric and imagery of earlier forms of demonisation, dehumanisation, and delegitimisation of the Jewish people.
And it is overwhelmingly a prejudice of the modern Left: political activists, university campuses, and media outlets that are in every other way impeccably progressive. Smart and decent left-wingers, including Rob Marchant, Nick Cohen, and David Aaronovitch, have recognised the worryingly unprogressive developments in progressive politics. They are crucial to any fightback by the sensible Left but they are in the minority of the liberal commentariat who are mostly ignorant of the situation – or don’t want to know.
Israel is not perfect. No state is. But its detractors are losing their sense of proportion and their claim to the ‘progressive’ label in their disturbing journey into the dark heart of Israelophobia.
Feature image © Takver by Creative Commons 2.0.