A few years ago I was talking to Dave Hirsh, of ‘Engage’, the left-wing campaign and web-site against anti-semitism. Dave was limbering up for a debate against the anti-Israeli academic Illan Pappe (who Dave wiped the floor with, by the way) and I came along to offer moral support and to intervene from the floor. In the course of our convesation I said something like, “of course there are some people who will accuse anyone who criticises Israel of anti-semitism.” Dave immediately asked me, “Who?; when was the last time you heard anyone denounce criticism of Israel as anti-semitism?” I had to admit that I never had – but everyone I knew said they had, so I assumed that I had simply led a sheltered life.
I began pondering Dave’s point and realised that legitimate, political criticism of Israel (as opposed to crazed conspiracy theories and calls for the total destruction of the state of Israel) is not denounced as anti-semitism by any serious people, left right or centre. And yet it has become a trusim – an article of faith almost - on much of the “left” that it is. I myself used to habitually preface speeches at the trades council and in the Labour Party on the subject, with some sort of disclaimer like “I’m not one of those people who thinks any criticism of Israel is anti-semitic.” But, as Dave pointed out: who are “those people”? Do they actually exist? Or are they a sort of anti-Zionist’s urban myth?
Similarly, British and European people who criticise Israel are frequently described as being “brave.” What form does this “bravery” take? What threat are they under? What dangerous and unpopular arguments are they putting forward? This has never been satisfactorily explained to me.
I was reminded of all this when I read the following by Peter Wilby (a commentator I am fast taking a dislike to) in the current New Statesman:
“The Israeli lobby
“The journalist Peter Oborne is a brave man. The inevitable accusations of anti-Semitism are already flying around after his Channel 4 programme on Britain’s pro-Israel lobby. Given 20th-century history, anti-Semitism is just about the most damaging epithet that can be used against anybody, far more so than Islamophobia, and Isreal’s defenders rarely hesitate to use it, even against critics who are Jewish.”
Wilby goes on the rehash the tired and vacuous cliche that some anti-semites have, historically, supported the creation of the state of Israel.
But what I want to know from Wilby (and I sent a comment to the NS website asking this, but when I last checked it hadn’t been published) , is who, precisely, has made these “inevitable” claims against Oborne and his programme (which, like the Guardian piece accompanying it clearly stated, by the way, that “there is no conspiracy, and nothing resembling a conspiracy”)?
I’ve been checking responses to Oborne’s programme, and his Guardian piece, especially checking pro-Israel publications and websites, and vigilant campaigners against anti-semitism (not always the same thing, by the way): I have come across plenty of criticism of Oborne’s programme and article – but not one single allegation of anti-semitism. No doubt some ultra-Zionist nutter has made such an accusation, somewhere. But most of the Zionist and Israel-defensist reaction has been along the lines of David Cesarani in the Graun‘s Comment Is Free:
“So what is Oborne’s beef about pro-Israeli activists? First, he complains that they operate semi-covertly. Although he disavows any imputation of a conspiracy, that is what his charge amounts to. But the same can be said about Michael Ashcroft, Rupert Murdoch, the arms industry, the Saudi Arabians, and the list can go on.”
Cesarani also makes the point that although few – if any - have accused Oborne of anti-semitism, plenty have seized upon his programme and article to make outrageous conspiritorial accusations about sinister “Israeli” (sic) and “Zionist” (sic) influence: just look at the comments on Channel 4′s website and the Graun‘s ‘Comment Is Free.”
So, Mr Wilby: where, exactly, are these “inevitable” accusations of “Anti-semitism” that are “already flying around”? Or could they just be a myth perpetuated by smug, lazy, unthinking “anti-Zionist” commentators like yourself? Unidentified flying allegations, even.