Category Archives: zionism

Like a lion (4)

I was in my early twenties when I became a Zionist, or at least a strong Zionist sympathiser; I had a long conversation with a friend who’d just come back from a year on a moshav, I read Amos Oz’s In the land of Israel and that was it, I was sold. What I understood by Zionism was fairly bare-bones: I asked myself, did I think that Jews had a right to have some sort of permanent presence in what used to be Palestine? I had thought that ultimately the answer was No, but now I thought it was Yes; I had been anti-Zionist, now I was pro-Zionist.

Spoiler: it didn’t last very long. I dwell on these juvenile ruminations because they highlight something significant about Zionism: it has meant different things at different times, and may mean different things to different people. My new-found commitment to the idea of a Jewish national home didn’t in any way affect my opposition to racism: the Zionism I supported was a Zionism with equal rights for all, without discrimination in employment and housing, and certainly without anyone’s houses getting bulldozed. I hadn’t really stopped to think what such a Zionism might look like on the ground; perhaps something like the 1947 UN borders? For now, in any case, I thought that one could oppose arbitrary arrests, disproportionate use of force, the occupation of the West Bank and so forth, while still maintaining a commitment to Zionism – just as long as Zionism was defined in these minimalistic, ultra-liberal terms; call it Zionism(L).

One good thing that came out of my Zionist(L) period was an awareness of the importance of symbols of Jewish identity, and of the symbolic importance of Zionism to a great many Jews; they’re very different things, but for a lot of people they have quite similar associations. This in turn means that anyone critiquing Zionism needs to take the utmost care to avoid any suggestion that they’re attacking Jewish identity more generally. These people failed this test resoundingly; it’s hard not to see this as a genuine example of an overlap between Left anti-Zionism and anti-semitism. Even if we agree that support for “Balfour” is one of the policies for which Theresa May should be denounced – and, while I sympathise with the logic, it’s not a ditch I’d personally choose to die in – the Star of David ‘earring’ added to the picture suggests that the problem is Judaism as well as Zionism, or else that there is no difference between the two. Either way, this isn’t acceptable.

But what’s going on here – how does this train of thought work? What’s going on when somebody feels genuine outrage at some reported crime committed by the IDF and vandalises a synagogue in protest? Or when somebody denounces the Jewish/Zionist lobby, or hints that the Jewish population of a country are a pro-Israeli Fifth Column? Alternatively, what’s going on when somebody praises the state of Israel – then tells Jews to go there and get out of his country?

What’s going on, in each of these cases, is that Jews in the Diaspora are being identified with the state of Israel, which is then constructed as an enemy (making Jews a proxy target) or as alien (making Jews also aliens). The question then is how these anti-Jewish attitudes relate to the emphatically pro-Jewish position we’ve just been discussing – the argument that, since Zionism is the nationalism of the Jewish people, anti-Zionism is effectively a form of anti-semitism, and an attack on the Jews’ national home is an attack on all Jews. Surely this, too, identifies Jews in the Diaspora with the state of Israel, enlisting them in its support no matter what. (In the words of the World Jewish Congress, “Jews around the world are proud of Israel’s achievements over the last 60 years and support those who continue to build and defend Israel.”) This is a very dangerous route to go down. If an acquaintance tells me that he is a fan of the Miramax production company and its cinematic oeuvre, I’ll expect to hear positive things about the company’s successes and the business acumen of the Weinstein brothers – but I’ll also expect to hear some reflection on the recent revelations about Harvey Weinstein, and if I don’t hear it I’ll feel quite entitled to ask him why not. These Montreal Jews, visiting an Israeli development project in Kenya, felt pride in Israel, having had “a taste of the country’s idealism, creativity, and commitment to tikkun olam [‘repairing the world’, making the world a better place]”. Would it also be reasonable to expect Jewish visitors to Gaza or the West Bank to feel shame in Israel? If you’re asserting a proprietary connection with a nation’s achievements, others may well feel that you should also take ownership of its crimes.

Zionism may thus clear a path for a certain kind of antisemitism, blaming Jews in general for the crimes of the state of Israel. Nor is this simply an opportunistic misidentification, a flag of convenience for pre-existing racism. It’s worth recalling that, historically, Zionism has had a very equivocal relationship with antisemitism. Herzl, working as a journalist, reported on the Dreyfus trial in 1894 and concluded:

In Paris … I achieved a freer attitude towards anti-Semitism, which I now began to understand historically and to pardon. Above all, I recognised the emptiness and futility of trying to “combat” anti-Semitism

The sentiment echoes the early Zionist Leon Pinsker, who wrote in 1882

Judeophobia … is not peculiar to particular races but is common to the whole of mankind … Judeophobia is a psychic aberration. As a psychic aberration it is hereditary, and as a disease transmitted for two thousand years it is incurable.

The early Zionists took as their starting-point the idea that antisemitism was both universal and immutable; that the Jewish people could only be safe to live as Jews by establishing their own homeland and defending it against all comers. The corollary is that those Jews who remained in the Diaspora would not be safe to live as Jews; they would only ever be living among enemies, either concealing their identity or else relying on a tolerance that could be withdrawn at any time. If we think ourselves back to the period when Herzl and Pinsker were writing – the period of the First Aliyah, the very beginning of Zionist settlement in Palestine – we can see that there’s a curious reversal being worked here. A newly-established colony, numbering a few tens of thousands and surrounded by sworn enemies, stands for security and permanence; millions of Jews, living among their neighbours for centuries, represent a precarious settlement that could collapse at any moment. The Holocaust gave this image a terrible credibility, clearly – but this story doesn’t begin or end in the 1940s. This way of looking at the world underlay Zionism in the 1890s, and it underlies Zionism now.

At a deep level, Zionism believes in a world where antisemitism is both universal and incurable, a world where Jews can only hope to live as Jews if they are in their own homeland. This belief is impossible to disprove, as pessimism tends to be: They may be treating you as equals now, but who’s to say what they’ll do next year? Do you know what they’re saying about you behind closed doors? (I remember a Jewish friend saying how, after 9/11, they’d increased security at his son’s school in Cheshire; people were “waiting for the other shoe to drop”, he told me, perfectly seriously.) The underlying message is that Jews don’t really belong here, wherever ‘here’ is: to deny the right of Jews to live as citizens in the Diaspora. This also tends to deny the validity of Diaspora Jewish experience, even to challenge the distinct identity of Diaspora Jews as Jews. Uri Avnery, who I quoted in the previous post, was born as Helmut Ostermann in inter-war Germany; his family emigrated to Mandatory Palestine after Hitler came to power, when he was nine years old. He took a Hebrew name as soon as he was legally able to do so. He commented in 2013:

The changing of names symbolized a basic ideological attitude. Zionism was based on a total negation of the Jewish Diaspora, its way of living, its traditions and expressions. … As a pupil in an elementary school in Palestine I was imbued with this contemptuous attitude. Everything “exilic” was beneath contempt: the Jewish shtetl, Jewish religion, Jewish prejudices and superstitions. We learned that “exilic” Jews were engaged in “air businesses” – parasitical stock exchange deals that did not produce anything real, that Jews shunned physical work, that their social setup was a “reverse pyramid”, which we were to overturn by creating a healthy society of peasants and workers.

The nationalism of the new state-to-be was seen as superseding the Jewish identity that had gone before – even the Jewish religion:

In my company in the Irgun underground, and later in the Israeli army, there was not a single kippah-wearing fighter … The prevalent doctrine was that religion had indeed played a useful role throughout the centuries in holding Jews together and enabling the survival of the Jewish people, but that now Hebrew nationalism had taken over that role, making religion redundant. Religion, it was felt, would soon die out. Everything good and healthy was Hebrew – the Hebrew community, Hebrew agriculture, Hebrew kibbutzim, the “First Hebrew City” (Tel Aviv), the Hebrew underground military organizations, the future Hebrew state. Jewish were “exilic” things like religion, tradition and useless stuff like that.

The revelation of the true horror of the Holocaust – and the brutal and near-total destruction of that “exilic” Jewish world – complicated and qualified this world view, but it did not entirely disappear. There are stories of Holocaust survivors being greeted, on arrival in Israel, not with sympathy but with puzzled contempt: how could they have let that happen to them? Among people who had been born or brought up in Mandatory Palestine, quasi-racial epithets like ‘sheep’ and – more brutally – ‘soap’ were widely used. We see here that same reversal of perspective: a new and precarious colonial settlement is the secure home for the Jews and the centre of their new, healthy, Hebrew life; the Diaspora, global in scale and nearly 2,000 years old, is a passing experiment that was always doomed to fail, Himmler merely the inevitable return of Haman to finish the job.

The Zionist reversal of perspectives has led to an odd duality to the relationship between Zionism and the Diaspora, with the latter regarded both with affection – as Israel’s extended family – and with antagonism and contempt. The difference between the two is the difference between seeing the Diaspora as Israel’s support network and seeing it as making its own claim to be the home(s) of the Jewish people, as it was throughout the centuries dividing the Fall of the Temple from the first Yishuv. The possibility that the Jews of the Diaspora are the Jewish people – the mainstream(s) of Jewish society and culture – is the possibility that Zionism cannot countenance. The result, ironically, is to make the position of Diaspora Jews less secure than it might have been, both by ‘officially’ devaluing their own culture and traditions and by associating Jewish people with the actually-existing state of Israel – an association which, as we’ve seen, can’t reasonably be confined to the good news about Israel. In Britain, the number of reported anti-semitic attacks rose during and after the 2014 Gaza conflict. Looking at this association, it’s easy to deplore the disgusting racism of attacks on visibly Jewish targets, just as it’s easy to understand the very widespread anger at the reported actions of the IDF. What’s missing from this bifurcated analysis is the crucial third element which bridges the two – the association between Israel and Jews in general. That association is weakened by assertions of Diaspora culture and identity, but it’s made firmer and stronger by every assertion that Jews (in general) support those who defend Israel, or that any attack on Zionism is an attack on all Jews.

Zionism today effectively means the state of Israel and its interests – particularly what it considers its security interests. This is problematic, to put it mildly. One of the more idiotic points made in response to Priti Patel’s ‘holiday’ was that nobody would have cared if she’d had a series of secret meetings in Belgium. To make the most obvious and banal points, Belgian society and politics are deeply divided and polarised, to the point where it was impossible to form a government for most of 2010 and 2011; if Patel had decided to wade in to Belgian politics on a freelance basis, that could be viewed very dimly indeed. In any case, any government minister who met a series of high-level foreign politicians without informing the Foreign Office or the Prime Minister would be acting in an outrageously improper way, whether the nation in question was Israel, Belgium or San Marino.

More importantly, of course, Israel isn’t Belgium. Belgium wasn’t founded ex nihilo within living memory and doesn’t occupy large swathes of territory illegally; there is no Wikipedia page listing the countries that do and don’t recognise Belgium; equally, there’s no such organisation as “Conservative Friends of Belgium” (let alone an organisation with a paid staff and membership encompassing most of the Parliamentary Tory Party). Israel is different. Zionists don’t deny this, although sometimes acknowledging it bends their arguments into odd shapes. Consider this from the ADL:

Deeper bias against Israel and Jews may also be evident when Israel is held to a different standard than any other country in the world. Such an example is when critics of Israel question or deny Israel’s right to exist. No one questions France or China or Iran’s right to exist, simply because there is disagreement with their policies. Why then should it be acceptable for only the Jewish state’s legitimacy, or Jewish nationalism to be a subject for discussion? … A more complex manifestation is when critics of Israel advocate policies which would effectively lead to the demise of the Jewish character of the state – such as calls for a “one-state solution’ for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or demand the unqualified right of return for all Palestinian refugees. These measures potentially affect all Jews who have a religious, spiritual or nationalist connection to the Jewish homeland and would lead to the end of Israel as a Jewish state. Although some advocates may not appreciate the destructive consequences of these policies, these policies are anti-Jewish in their impact.

If you thought you might have reason to question or deny Israel’s right to exist – given that its existence in its current form, unlike those of France or China or Iran, is predicated on the continuing exclusion and disenfranchisement of millions of people – hard luck; the ADL are way ahead of you. The state of Israel is different – so different that reforming it, so as to make it more like all the others, would involve policies [that] are anti-Jewish in their impact. Demanding justice for the Palestinians is anti-semitic, even if you’re too naive to appreciate the destructive consequences yourself. If it’s good for Israel, it’s good for the Jews; if it’s not good for Israel – what are you, a Nazi?

Coming back to my starting point, Zionism(L) – a Zionism of liberal politics and equal rights, a Zionism that would look to making amends for the Nakba, never mind the 1967 occupations – does not exist as a political force (Avnery’s Gush Shalom is perhaps the closest thing to it). To favour Zionism now is to favour the territorial expansionism and anti-Arab racism of a series of Likudnik-led governments – an unapologetic form of Revisionist Zionism, made all the more brutal by the reality of entrenched and unchallenged power. To say that Stuart Polak and Priti Patel are Zionists is to say that they support Zionism in this, real-world, form – call it Zionism(R).

Perhaps Zionism(L) can be upheld without contradiction to one’s liberal and anti-racist principles – some would deny this, but I’m inclined to be generous to Zionism(L)’s adherents, not least because they include my former self. What is certain is that upholding Zionism(R) requires one of two things. One is to knowingly suspend all other principles in favour of whatever brings any immediate benefit to the state of Israel and the Jewish citizens of Israel; the other is to operate in a state of denial, following unsustainable arguments into self-contradiction and confusion. The ADL text quoted above is a minor example of the latter style; the Jacobson/Schama/Sebag Montefiore letter gives us confusion on a grand scale. In one way we should be grateful, I suppose; at least it’s better than the alternative.





Like a lion (3)

A therapist friend of mine used to say that when a client hit on something uncomfortable they’d often retreat in a cloud of verbiage – of course when I say my mother punished me I’m talking about times when I’d done something wrong, and anyway I don’t know if punish is really the right word… She used to call it ‘squid-ink’. And that’s what most of the Jacobson/Schama/Sebag Montefiore letter is. If anti-Zionists did consistently demonise Zionism and talk in antisemitic conspiracy theories; if the state of Israel wasn’t a settler-colonialist project; if all comparisons with the Nazis were not only offensive but self-evidently invalid; if the Jewish people had always been Zionists; if Israel had genuine claims outstanding against the Palestinian people; if all of those things were true, we could all agree with this letter. But if all of those things were true, we’d be living in a very different world. (If you were right, I’d agree with you, as Steven Zaillian has Oliver Sacks say in Awakenings.) If you hold to the key position these authors are advancing, you can comfort yourself – and perhaps trip up an unwary opponent – by making some of these superficially argument-winning statements. But it’s a short-term hit; eventually you’re going to have to come back down to earth and advance propositions that can actually be defended.

Which is more or less what the authors do with their conclusion:

Zionism is the right of the Jewish people to self-determination. We believe that anti-Zionism, with its antisemitic characteristics, has no place in a civil society.

That sub-clause is yet more befuddling squid-ink – if anti-Zionism has antisemitic characteristics, it’s wrong because antisemitism is wrong; if it’s wrong in itself, it doesn’t matter what its characteristics are – but the rest of it is reasonably clear. This is the ‘key position’ I referred to just now, and it goes something like this:

  1. The Jewish people are a nationality.
  2. All nationalities have the right to self-determination.
  3. Nationalisms are the political vehicle of national self-determination.
  4. Zionism is the nationalism of the Jewish people.
  5. The right to national self-determination is inalienable and is generally supported.
  6. Only someone who hated a particular nationality would deny its right to national self-determination.
  7. Therefore, only someone who hated the Jewish people would oppose Zionism.
  8. Therefore, all anti-Zionism is an expression of antisemitism.

This is a solid and substantial argument: five premises, each of them quite credible, and three conclusions that follow from them logically, driving to the inexorable conclusion that anti-Zionism does indeed have no place in a civil society. (Odd phrase – did they mean “in a civilised society”, or possibly “in civil society”? That letter really could have used another draft, or somebody else to draft it.)

How would I counter this argument? Firstly – point 1 – to say that the Jewish people are a nationality is deeply ahistorical. As we’ve already seen, the Jewish diaspora had lived and perpetuated itself, physically, culturally and intellectually, for 1700 years or more before anyone started to think in terms of what we’d now recognise as a ‘nation’ – and it was another century before anyone applied the new language of ‘nationhood’ to the Jewish people. For most of that period, the belief that the Jews came from Judaea meant about as much, in practical terms, as the belief that Caucasians came from the Caucasus, or Gypsies from Egypt. Uri Avnery:

Jews are basically an ethnic-religious world-wide community which has existed for 2500 years without the need for a homeland. Even at the time of the [autonomous Jewish] Hasmonean kingdom, most Jews lived outside Palestine. Their abstract connection with Eretz Israel is like the connection of Indonesian and Malian Muslims with Mecca – a holy place to be mentioned in prayers and an object of pilgrimage, but not claimed as a sovereign earthly possession. … Israeli nationalism, on the other hand, is rooted in a physical homeland, bound up with national sovereignty and citizenship – concepts foreign to religion.

Here and now, of course, it’s quite possible to think of the Jewish people in terms of nationhood; it’s also possible to see Muslims in those terms, or African Americans. Nationalities aren’t given; the construction of a nationality is a political project, like the construction of any other political subject. The political project of Zionism has been remarkably successful, but this isn’t because it’s in some sense ‘true’ – there is no underlying pre-political reality for it to be a true reflection of.

There’s also a more fundamental problem in asserting that ‘Jewish’ is a nationality, which Avnery’s last sentence touches on: how does this relate to the Israeli nationality? Israeli governments have no problem equating one with the other, offering Israeli citizenship to Jews wherever they are. For Jews who don’t have Israeli citizenship and don’t intend to acquire it, this equation of Jewishness and the state of Israel is more problematic – not least because taking it literally would immediately call into question their commitment to their actual nationality. (This is why, in practice, anti-semites often have no problem giving at least verbal support to Zionism and the state of Israel; if your dream is to build a national home for your own nationality, the affirmation that Jews are their own nationality – and that they have their own, suitably remote, national home – may well seem fitting, not to say convenient.) Zionism can only be the nationalism of Jews in the Diaspora, in the normal sense of the word ‘nationalism’, to the extent that they are genuinely willing to throw their existing nationality overboard and become Israeli citizens. As Avnery points out, Herzl’s own vision for the proposed Judenstaat was that “all the Jews who wished to do so would settle in Israel” – and that all other Jews would “assimilate in their host nations and cease being Jews”. A mass aliyah of this kind might be good for Israel, but it would be a disaster for many of the countries where Jews live at present – and I dread to think what chain of events might bring it about.

The only other way for Zionism to function as Jewish nationalism is for the meaning of ‘nationalism’ to change, becoming something existing partly or mainly in the imagination (and hence unlike Benedict Anderson’s “imagined communities”, which are created and sustained through shared experiences). To the extent that this is the case – to the extent that the state of Israel has become, in its turn, “a holy place to be mentioned in prayers and an object of pilgrimage” – there is a genuine continuity between Diaspora Zionism and the dreams of all the centuries of exile; but it’s a continuity of the reverential imagination, not of politics. (Interestingly, Anderson talks of ‘pilgrimage’ (secular as well as religious) as one of the practices through which a sense of a nation is established. However, he’s talking about shared experiences of travelling from, as well as to, the same place – Argentinian functionaries making hajj to Madrid or Indian Civil Servants to London.)

Secondly, even if we had established that the Jewish people constitued a nationality, we’d need to establish that nationalities are generally regarded as having the right to national self-determination (points 2 and 5). This is harder than it might look. Is there general support for the secession of Catalonia, or Scotland, or Lombardy, or Cornwall? There certainly isn’t general support for the establishment of a Kurdish nation, and that‘s been on the world’s agenda pretty much since the time of the Balfour Declaration (the Treaty of Sèvres sketched out possible borders for an independent Kurdistan in 1920). This is a ‘treason doth never prosper’ situation; the right to national self-determination is generally recognised, if and when it’s achieved. (Who would try to reunite Czechoslovakia now or recreate federal Yugoslavia?) Prior to self-determination being achieved, or at least becoming politically achievable, the rights of would-be secessionists aren’t generally recognised at all – and their ‘nationalities’ are downgraded accordingly in the world’s eyes.

Nor is it an affront to the rights of a minority nationality if observers decline to support their rights as a nation. Given that nationalities are political constructions, I can regret the secession of nation A from federation B without denying anybody the right to anything. It’s not the case – whatever a Scottish nationalist might tell you – that a Scottish citizen of Britain is and always was innately a Scot, whose occasional performances of the role of British citizen are an inauthentic masquerade; nor is it the case that that person is and always was innately a Briton. Simply, someone who identifies as Scottish-and-not-British (Catalan-and-not-Spanish, Kurdish-and-not-Turkish, Cornish-and-not-English, etc) is constructing their identity in terms of one collective political subject, when they could have done so in terms of another. The choice that person makes may be quite deeply rooted in their life experience – it may not be something they can put on and take off like a party rosette – but it’s still something they do, not something they are. As such I can affirm their right to do it while still, in some cases, finding it regrettable and wishing they’d chosen the other option. I can even sympathise with the choice itself, while still regretting the fact that they’re pursuing that particular choice at this particular time, in this particular way, with these particular consequences.


  1. Zionism constructs the Jewish people as a nationality, in ways that are real for people who act on that basis, and real in the consequences of those actions. However, no nationality is ‘real’ in the sense of existing in nature, and the Jewish nationality is no exception. Moreover, to be Jewish is only fully a nationality, in conventional terms, in the life experience of people who become citizens of Israel.
  2. All nationalities have the right to self-determination, in the sense that all nationalities that successfully achieve self-determination are acknowledged as having had the right to do so. (Nothing succeeds like success.) Nationalities that have not achieved self-determination are generally not regarded as having the right to do so, and in consequence are often not regarded as genuine nationalities.
  3. Nationalisms are the political vehicle of national self-determination, and of the constitution of national political subjects.
  4. Zionism is the nationalism of those Jewish people who make aliyah and become citizens of Israel. It is also a part-imaginary version of nationalism for many other Jews, with some continuities with the religious symbolism of Zion and Jerusalem (see point 1).
  5. The right to national self-determination is generally supported, for those nationalities that have achieved it (see point 2). However, national self-determination may not be the best solution to any given political problem, and it is possible to find the choice of a nationalist solution regrettable without denying anyone’s right to choose it. Moreover, it is possible to sympathise with the choice of a nationalist solution while also believing that the pursuit of that solution, in a particular situation, is regrettable and should be opposed.
  6. There are many reasons to oppose a national minority’s exercise of its right to national self-determination, and to oppose the construction of a collective national subject among people who have not yet recognised themselves as a nationality.
  7. Therefore, there are many reasons to oppose Zionism.
  8. Therefore, there is no reason to assume that anti-Zionism is motivated by antisemitism, and hence no reason to rule it to be illegitimate. Robert Cohen: “to oppose Zionism in the past or today is a perfectly valid and ethical intellectual position to hold whether you are Palestinian, Jewish or a member of the Labour Party. Saying it has no place in civil society does [the authors] no credit and displays a lack of intellectual honesty.”

Is that it? Not quite.


Like a lion (2)

Let’s have a proper look at the Jacobson/Schama/Sebag Montefiore letter about anti-Zionism. The first thing to say is that, while there is an argument there, there’s also an awful lot of confusion and rhetorical inflation. This may just be because Howard Jacobson – who seems to be the lead author – is a muddled thinker and a windy writer, but I think it also has something to do with the subject.

The trouble starts with the first introduction of anti-Zionism:

constructive criticism of Israeli governments has morphed into something closer to antisemitism under the cloak of so-called anti-Zionism

Either anti-Zionism is a genuine position being used opportunistically as a façade – a ‘cloak’ – for antisemitism (cf the Doctors’ Plot), or the name ‘anti-Zionism’ is a polite label for antisemitism (“so-called anti-Zionism”). Can’t be both; you can’t ‘cloak’ antisemitism in antisemitism-with-another-name. What anti-Zionism is, in the authors’ eyes, remains unclear.

demonisation of Zionism itself – the right of the Jewish people to a homeland, and the very existence of a Jewish state

But ‘Zionism’ (itself) isn’t equivalent to what follows the hyphen. In fact they’re three distinct, if related, things – a political ideology (Zionism), that ideology’s core belief (a Jewish homeland) and its concrete institutional expression (the state of Israel). This matters, because it’s possible to hold that core belief while also believing that the existing state of Israel is a monstrosity, or even that the historical development of Zionism has gone badly astray. Not to mention the fact that it’s possible to challenge and oppose Zionism – even to deny that the Jewish people have the right to a homeland – without demonising Zionism.

Accusations of international Jewish conspiracy and control of the media … support false equations of Zionism with colonialism and imperialism, and the promotion of vicious, fictitious parallels with genocide and Nazism

Despite its phrasing, this is three separate charges, not one – and they’re not all equally strong. Yes, the racist myths of a ‘Jewish conspiracy’ live on – there are still people wibbling on about the Rothschilds and (God help us) the Protocols, some of whom believe themselves to be on the Left. Those myths, and those people, need to be challenged; this, though, doesn’t give a free pass to the actual lobbying efforts which are carried out by the Israeli state and its allies, some of which –  like most lobbying – go under the radar. (Anyone still maintaining that all talk of a “Zionist lobby” is Protocols-level antisemitism will have to explain who the Conservative Friends of Israel are and what they hope to achieve.)

I’m less sure about false equations of Zionism with colonialism and imperialism. Zionism was conceived as a colonialist project, to be implemented by arrangement with the great powers of the day. Here’s Theodor Herzl, writing in 1896:

Should the Powers declare themselves willing to admit our sovereignty over a neutral piece of land, then the Society [of Jews] will enter into negotiations for the possession of this land. Here two territories come under consideration, Palestine and Argentine[sic]. … The Society of Jews will treat with the present masters of the land, putting itself under the protectorate of the European Powers … If His Majesty the Sultan [Abdul Hamid II] were to give us Palestine, we could in return undertake to regulate the whole finances of Turkey. We should there form a portion of a rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism. We should as a neutral State remain in contact with all Europe, which would have to guarantee our existence.

In the event the Ottoman Empire[sic] didn’t survive World War I. Its spoils were divvied up between the French and British empires[also sic]; the latter, anticipating that it would have control of Palestine when the music stopped, declared in 1917 that His Majesty’s Government

view[ed] with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and [would] use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country

(Shame about that ‘clear understanding’; really should have got it in writing.)

In any case, from 1896 to 1948 Zionism was, precisely, a colonialist project to be carried out on land held by imperialists. Even after 1948 – and especially after 1967 – Zionism continued to be a colonialist project, inasmuch as it was carried forward by the continual establishments of ‘settlements’ on land held by force. The idea that equating Zionism with ‘colonialism and imperialism’ is a slur – let alone that it’s straightforwardly ‘false’ – is quite bizarre; it’s a very surprising proposition for two historians to put their names to. I can only imagine that the underlying logic here is something like the Forward article which attempted to rehabilitate Christopher Columbus from charges that he “brought nothing but misfortune and suffering to the indigenous Americans”, by likening him to Herzl as “a visionary looking for a safe home for the Jewish people”. There’s colonialism and then there’s colonialism in a good cause – quite different.

As for the third point on the list – vicious, fictitious parallels with genocide and Nazism – again, we need to be careful (a great deal more careful than the writers of the letter were, frankly). What are “vicious, fictitious parallels”? The argument seems to be that parallels between Israel and the Nazis can only be sustained by falsifying the evidence, and are only advanced with the intention of causing offence. I think this is mostly – but not entirely – unsustainable. Drawing an analogy between two things isn’t saying that they’re the same: to say that X is like Y in certain ways is also to say that it’s unlike Y in other ways. So, for instance, there’s a parallel between the Nazis setting up internment camps for political enemies in 1933 and the British interning their political enemies in South Africa (1900) and Northern Ireland (1971); there are also lots of differences between those situations. Still, interning people without due process is something the Nazis did, and that parallel may give us a reason to think twice about our own government doing it. Were the Israeli government’s actions in putting Gaza “on a diet” comparable to the Nazis’ starvation of the Polish ghettoes? There does seem to be a point of similarity; you may think that similarity is outweighed by so many dissimilarities as to be irrelevant, but I don’t think it can be ruled out of court.

The big dissimilarity, of course, is the Holocaust, which may be held to override and delegitimate any smaller parallels. In particular, if you hold the view (advanced by historians such as Lucy Dawidowicz) that the Nazis came to power already intent on the extermination of the Jews, then it’s clear that the Nazi regime was out on its own in the genocidal evil stakes, and almost no other government can be compared to it – not Stalin’s, not Mao’s, not the British in India and certainly not Israel. (I say ‘almost’ – there’s some evidence that the Khmer Rouge were planning genocide from the start.) But even this isn’t as solid a distinction as we might want it to be. The ‘functionalist’ school of historians – people like Christopher Browning – dispute the ‘intentionalism’ of Dawidowicz and others: the ‘functionalists’ argue that the Nazis came to power wanting to rule a Europe with no Jews, and that the Holocaust as we now know it developed out of a whole series of short-term expedients to bring this about. The Nazis on this reading were certainly never humanitarians – at best they were indifferent to whether Jews lived or died – but genocide was the means, not the end. What they wanted, at least from 1939 (arguably from 1933), was land, only without some of the people who lived on it. This reading clearly makes parallels with other regimes more available, and more troubling.

Of course, drawing any analogy between Israel and the Nazis is grossly offensive to Jews who support Israel – which is to say, the great majority of Jews – and for that reason I think non-Jews should avoid doing so; I’d even go so far as to say that for a non-Jew to publicly and deliberately use this parallel, despite the offence it is bound to cause, suggests an indifference to Jewish feelings which verges on antisemitism. That said, the offensiveness of the parallel isn’t news to anyone; in fact, it’s precisely why people use it – Jewish people very much included. My experience of arguments about Zionism conducted mostly among Jews is that Godwin’s Law is in full effect, in a fairly fast-acting form; Nazi parallels are freely thrown around on all sides, including sides that non-Jews might not even know about. (Amos Oz, in In the land of Israel, recalls seeing graffiti in an Orthodox area of Jerusalem likening the Labour Mayor to Hitler – Teddy Kollek, that is, not Ken Livingstone.) Invading and occupying land illegally? Just like a Nazi! Threatening the security of Israel and the survival of the Jewish people? Just what the Nazis wanted! Betraying the Jewish faith itself by worshipping the goyim naches of a nation-state? No better than the Nazis! And so on, to the point where it’s quite hard to believe that anyone involved is hearing this stuff for the first time, or taking genuine offence – least of all, incidentally, when the offensive conduct complained of seems to consist of quoting Himmler on the topic of Nazi racial policy. But this is of its nature an argument within the Jewish community. Speaking as a non-Jew, I’m happy to forswear comparisons between Israel and the Nazis myself, and leave them to it.

Back to Jacobson and friends:

Zionism — the longing of a dispersed people to return home — has been a constant, cherished part of Jewish life since AD70.

The Jews have always been Zionist. Who knew?

In its modern form Zionism was a response to the centuries of persecution, expulsions and mass murder in Christian and Muslim worlds

Oh, wait. What we now call Zionism is the modern form of Zionism. So they’ve always been Zionist, only in different ways – and specifically not in the way that we know. So earlier forms of ‘Zionism’ weren’t actually what we now call Zionism. Only they were Zionism, because… um.

[Zionism’s] revival was an assertion of the right to exist in the face of cruelty unique in history.

Or was it that the Jews used to be Zionist, and then they weren’t, but now they are again?

As you can see, the confusion level ramps up at just the point where the argument becomes most tendentious. Certainly the idea of a Return – the idea of Zion – has been part of Jewish life since the destruction of the Temple, if not the Babylonian Captivity; but that’s very different from saying that Zionism has been. Zionism translated the idea of Zion into the language of political nationalism, and aimed to implement it (as we’ve seen) under the auspices of European imperialism; it couldn’t reasonably have arisen before the early nineteenth century, and in any case historically didn’t arise before the 1890s.

It’s also worth noting that, while Zionism certainly did flourish as a response to organised antisemitism, it was far from being the only response. While Dawidowicz’s own sympathies were with Zionism, her superb book The War Against the Jews shows very clearly that Zionists were a minority in occupied Poland (the European country with the largest Jewish population before the Holocaust and the greatest losses as a result of it, approaching three million). To be more precise, Dawidowicz’s account suggests that there were three main organised groups within the Polish Jewish community: Zionists, Orthodox Jews and the socialist Bund, which called for Jews to organise as Jews within their own nations. The Bund – which by this stage only existed in Poland – was all but wiped out by the Holocaust; this led to the tragic irony of its effective erasure from history, enabling contemporary Zionists to present their own political forebears as the authentic voice of the Jewish people.

We hope that a Palestinian state will exist peacefully alongside Israel. We do not attempt to minimalise[sic] their suffering nor the part played by the creation of the state of Israel.

As Robert Cohen points out, this is mealy-mouthed in the extreme. It’s not so much that Palestinian ‘suffering’ was exacerbated by the creation of the state of Israel, more that it was its direct and inevitable consequence. “How could the project of Jewish national return with Jewish majority control of the land ever have been achieved without the displacement of the majority people already living there? … the 1948 Nakba was Zionism in action”. A supporter of present-day Israel expressing sympathy for Palestinian suffering can’t help looking a bit like the Walrus weeping for the oysters.

Yet justice for one nation does not make justice for the other inherently wicked.

Indeed, and quite the contrary – justice for one is justice for all; justice for the people of Palestine must necessarily mean justice for the people of Israel. Similarly, justice for the poor can only come through justice for the rich. To say that you’ve had justice doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve received – or kept – what you wanted, though. But this doesn’t seem to be the idea of justice that the authors have in mind. Rather, the suggestion seems to be that people who have repeatedly seen their land confiscated, their leaders assassinated, their towns demolished and their children imprisoned nevertheless still owe something to the state that’s done all this, and that it’s only fair to keep them waiting for justice until they’ve delivered it. Again, it’s hard to identify with this position. If ‘position’ is the word.

Next: if it isn’t a position, what is it?

Like a lion (1)

You may have noticed that there’s been a bit of a push on anti-semitism recently, particularly anti-semitism on the Left. In fact, almost exclusively anti-semitism on the Left; a startlingly blatant example of right-wing anti-semitism – Nigel Farage’s assertion that American Jews exert an influence disproportionate to their numbers – got very little comment. Perhaps it’s just my social media bubble, but I don’t recall seeing a single demand for Henry Bolton to dissociate himself from Farage or expel him from UKIP, let alone for the Right in general to put its house in order.

But the fact that they’ve got a real problem that’s being ignored doesn’t mean that our problem, which isn’t being ignored, isn’t real. There are, still, some people who fall for ‘the socialism of fools’, some whose opposition to capital warps into a belief in Rothschild conspiracy theories, some who conflate Judaism with Zionism and hold the Jewish people accountable for all the crimes of the state of Israel. For Marc Wadsworth to use the phrase ‘hand in hand‘ with reference to Ruth Smeeth MP may not have been a glaring example of anti-semitism on the Left – or an example at all – but that’s not to say that anti-semitism on the Left doesn’t exist; it does, and it needs dealing with.

But, as that example suggests, we need to be clear what it is we’re dealing with. Accusing a Jewish Labour MP of being in cahoots with the Daily Telegraph may be offensive (it was certainly unwelcome), but it’s not in itself a “Jewish conspiracy” libel – any more than saying that a Jewish man tried to push past you is, in itself, evoking a “pushy Jew” stereotype. And I can agree with “Bob from Brockley” (on Twitter) that calling Priti Patel a “Zionist bitch” is unacceptable, without sharing his apparent belief that this is, in itself, “anti-semitic language”. Stalinist attacks on Zionism, for instance at the time of the Doctors’ Plot, used a critique of Zionism as political cover for antisemitism; this tactic was outrageous then and would be outrageous now. But this – the use of ‘Zionist’ as a codeword for ‘Jewish’ – is precisely what remains to be proved in the case of the “Zionist b____” tweet; and it seems unlikely, particularly given that Patel herself is not Jewish. Similarly, Marc Wadsworth’s accusers seem to have assumed that he wouldn’t have used the term ‘hand in hand’ to criticise a non-Jewish political opponent sharing information with a Telegraph journalist, while the accusation against Matt Waddup of UCU seem to rest on the assumption that he wouldn’t have used the word “push” about a non-Jewish gatecrasher who attempted to barge past him. This, in both cases, seems unlikely, to put it mildly.

So there’ s a second point here: there is a bit of a push on this stuff, and it isn’t necessarily in response to actual problems on the ground. (Which, just to reiterate, is not to say that there aren’t any problems on the ground. It wouldn’t be justifiable to respond to racist attacks by banning the EDL – that’s not to say that there aren’t any racist attacks.)

Which brings us back to Priti Patel, the disgraced former international development minister.

What a holiday that was, eh? Let’s hope she took pictures!

What leaps out at me – beyond the obvious fact that somebody was clearly trying to make an end run around her own government, and that she and others had put a great deal of work into making this happen – is the appearance in two separate meetings of “growing anti-Semitism within UK politics” or words to that effect; indeed, these are pretty much the only references to British politics.

Is British politics a place of “growing anti-Semitism”? Huge if true, as they say. But I wonder if something else is going on here.

A few days ago the Times printed a letter from Howard Jacobson, Simon Sebag Montefiore and Simon Schama. But this wasn’t about anti-Semitism. Rather than interrupt every other line so as to pull it apart in in tedious and counter-productive detail, I’ll give the full text of the letter here. (I’ll go through it in tedious and counter-productive detail in the next post.)

In this centenary year of the Balfour Declaration we are troubled by the tone and direction of debate about Israel and Zionism within the Labour Party.

We are alarmed that, during the past few years, constructive criticism of Israeli governments has morphed into something closer to antisemitism under the cloak of so-called anti-Zionism. We do not object to fair criticism of Israeli governments, but this has grown to be indistinguishable from a demonisation of Zionism itself – the right of the Jewish people to a homeland, and the very existence of a Jewish state. Although anti-Zionists claim innocence of any antisemitic intent, anti-Zionism frequently borrows the libels of classical Jew-hating. Accusations of international Jewish conspiracy and control of the media have resurfaced to support false equations of Zionism with colonialism and imperialism, and the promotion of vicious, fictitious parallels with genocide and Nazism. How, in such instances, is anti-Zionism distinguishable from antisemitism?

Such themes and language have become widespread in Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. So far the Labour leadership’s response has been derisory. It is not enough to denounce all racisms in general when this specific strain rages unchecked.

Zionism — the longing of a dispersed people to return home — has been a constant, cherished part of Jewish life since AD70. In its modern form Zionism was a response to the centuries of persecution, expulsions and mass murder in Christian and Muslim worlds that continued from the Middle Ages to the mid-20th century. Its revival was an assertion of the right to exist in the face of cruelty unique in history.

We do not forget nor deny that the Palestinian people have an equally legitimate, ancient history and culture in Palestine nor that they have suffered wrongs that must be healed. We hope that a Palestinian state will exist peacefully alongside Israel. We do not attempt to minimalise their suffering nor the part played by the creation of the state of Israel. Yet justice for one nation does not make justice for the other inherently wicked. Zionism is the right of the Jewish people to self-determination. We believe that anti-Zionism, with its antisemitic characteristics, has no place in a civil society.

So there you go: when we say “anti-semitism” we may also mean “anti-Zionism” – because Zionism is the right of the Jewish people to self-determination, and why would anyone oppose that other than out of antisemitism? And when we say “growing anti-semitism within UK politics” we may also be talking about the fact that, for the first time since the establishment of the state of Israel, one of the two major British political parties is led by people who have sympathies with Palestine. You say “oh, Jeremy Corbyn”; I say “growing anti-semitism”.

Does this work? Find out in part 2!

Spoiler: no, of course it doesn’t, but it takes more unpacking than you might think.

Say what you’ll say

I read a restaurant review once in which the service was described as ‘pleasantly relaxed and unhurried’. I think we’ve all been to places like that. It’s also a good way of looking at my blogging routine, which is so pleasantly unhurried these days that I rarely get to a burning issue until (checks calendar… blimey) four or five days after everyone else.

The chances are you’ve formed your own opinion on the Livingstone affair, and even if you haven’t you’ve almost certainly read enough Livingstone-related blog posts to be going on with. (I’ll list some of the better pieces I’ve seen at the end of this post, in a spirit of old-school “Web logging”.) But I’m going to make a couple of points about it anyway, focusing mainly on the conversational dynamics of what’s gone on.

On racism and racists

When I was at school it wasn’t exactly OK to be racist – but then, it wasn’t exactly OK to run in the corridor or grow your hair long. It was more that open expressions of racism were frowned on in polite society; when we weren’t on our best behaviour, hearing racist attitudes expressed was entirely unsurprising. Widespread awareness that this kind of ambient racism was in fact not OK, anywhere, came much later. But something odd seems to have happened, over the generation or so that it’s taken to internalise the wrongness of racism. You’d think awareness of the danger of racism would bring a real humility with it, an attitude of “We know that racism is bad, but we also know that it was normal for so long that we’ve all effectively breathed it in, and any one of us may sometimes reproduce it in our thoughts and words”. Humility and self-doubt are tough to live with, though, and the stance that seems more common is “We know that racism is bad, and this knowledge protects us from ever being racist.” Which in turn leads easily to “We all know that racism is bad, so anyone who exhibits racism must have chosen it deliberately” – and so on down to “The problem of racism is the problem of (those) racist people, it’s nothing to do with us”. From humility to smug intolerance in three short steps.

I think this is bad news. Racism doesn’t live in a few bad people’s brains, it lives in images and attitudes and ways of thinking. Today’s 18-year-olds may leave school without a racist thought in their heads – and I think to a large extent they actually do; there is a real, generational foundation for the attitudes I sketched out above – but they’re soon reading papers and watching programmes produced by 30-, 40- and 50-year-olds, just like the rest of us. Racism can stay in the cultural groundwater for a long time. I’m not suggesting that we’re all cultural dupes, hapless victims of the racist tropes swirling around in a culture we never made; I’m not saying there’s no such thing as a racist. I don’t have to wrestle with my conscience for very long before applying the label of ‘racist’ to Nick Griffin, say, or Boris Johnson. But I do think it’s facile at best, and dangerous at worst, to assume that someone who’s made a racist statement is ipso facto a racist.

I also think that people’s motivations for doing so aren’t always pure. Consider two possible responses to a racist statement made by somebody not previously considered to be a racist – let’s call them Len.

ALEX (an accuser): Len, my long-time opponent, has made a racist statement. We need to tell him it’s not OK.
DAVE (a defender): Are you sure? That doesn’t sound like Len, my political ally and personal friend.
ALEX: [explains]
DAVE: Oh dear, that does sound racist. We need to tell Len that making racist statements isn’t OK.
ALEX: Let’s do just that. I’ll draft something and get it over to you.
DAVE: Thankyou for raising this issue. I’m glad that we could discuss it constructively, despite being political opponents.


ALEX (an accuser): Len, my long-time opponent, has made a racist statement. Len’s a racist!
DAVE (a defender): No, you’ve got that wrong. Len’s my political ally and personal friend; he’s no racist. What did he say?
ALEX: [explains]
DAVE: Oh dear, that does sound… But I’m sure Len isn’t a racist.
ALEX: Yeah, right! I’ve just told you what he said.
ALAN (another accuser): What did I tell you, Alex? They’re in denial about their own racism!
DAVE: No, hang on. Perhaps Len did say something he shouldn’t have said, perhaps it was a bit racist…
ALAN: Oh, so it’s OK as long as it’s only a bit racist. Very convenient!
ALEX: So you admit it was racist. You admit you’re defending a racist. What does that say about you?
DEREK (another defender): Look, Dave isn’t a racist. He was just trying to explain…
ALAN: That’s right, he was trying to explain away racism. Thanks for admitting it!
[continues indefinitely]

You get the idea – and I think you’d agree that in the last few days we’ve seen a lot more of scenario 2 than scenario 1. Which is unfortunate, as escalating from attacking a person’s actions to attacking that person as a person is one of the most counter-productive things you can possibly do – at least, it’s counter-productive if what you’re trying to do is to address those actions and put them right. The trouble is – and I’m reminded here of the awful truth about the Toclafane – it’s fun. Writing somebody a letter in the hope that they’ll change their ways in future is no fun at all, compared to the compulsive thrill of logic-twisting, question-begging and name-calling. These days, of course, every Alex and Alan who’s spoiling for a fight can mix it in 140-character instalments, with the added gratification of tag-team validation from all the other Alans and Alexes who identify with them on the issue of the day.

The dinosaur bone problem

When you do get stuck in a type-2 scenario, there’s a tendency to reach for the evidence and slap it down on the metaphorical table – see? see what they actually said? you can’t call them a racist/deny they’re a racist now! I recently baled out of an argument along very much these lines, when I realised that the other person and I were both quoting the same couple of lines at each other, each of us convinced that they proved our own position without the need to say more. The problem is that you can’t reliably infer motivation, let alone character, from a single action; you need a course of action to work with, a pattern of behaviour. (This even applies to single actions which seem to carry a fairly blunt and unequivocal message. Somebody burning a Union flag in public probably isn’t motivated by British patriotism, but are they: anarchists? Irish Republicans? Islamic extremists? disillusioned former patriots? apolitical provocateurs? police spies? Place your bets!)

On the basis of what Ken Livingstone said last Thursday, everyone from John Mann to Mark Regev has claimed that Ken is an anti-semite. Meanwhile, a whole bunch of people (see links at the end of this post) have argued back that there’s no reason to imagine that Ken’s an anti-semite, and plenty of reasons to think otherwise. But the claims and counter-claims have rested on the same evidence – sometimes grotesquely distorted, admittedly, but not always by any means. The problem is that we’re all looking at a fragment of evidence and inferring something much bigger from it, like cartoon paleontologists reconstructing a dinosaur from a single bone. And it depends which dinosaur you’re expecting to find. If you already believe that Livingstone’s an anti-semite, some weird statement about Hitler supporting Zionism fits right in to your mental model – you don’t even have to look at it closely. If you believe, as I do, that he’s no such thing, then it doesn’t look like a statement made by an anti-semite. Actually it looks more as if somebody who’s never shown any sign of holding anti-semitic attitudes – and who has stated that anti-semitism is as unacceptable as any other type of racism – had decided to say something grossly offensive to Zionists for cheap shock value, while discounting the offence it would predictably cause to Jews more widely. Because the sad fact is, that’s how racism works. It says, those people are different from you, so you don’t need to care about them; if you want to lash out, lash out at them. And it stays in the groundwater for a long time.

So one person can look at last Thursday’s interview and come away thinking that Ken’s a left-wing anti-semite who’s said something anti-semitic (confirmation!), while I come away thinking he’s a solid if unreliable socialist who’s said something anti-semitic (aberration!). The question is, what would I and this person have thought about Ken last Wednesday, if we’d been asked? Presumably I would have said he was a solid if unreliable socialist, and the other person would have said he was a left-wing anti-semite. The evidence made no difference, in other words. (Well, it made me think Ken was even less reliable than I’d thought, so there is that.) There is a ‘tipping-point’ narrative that gets trotted out on occasions like this – surely now we must realise that these aren’t just random aberrations: the aberrations are the pattern! The idea of changing your opinion of somebody on this basis, suddenly realising that you’re looking at a black cat with white patches and not vice versa, does have a kind of narrative plausibility : one unfortunate lapse by an otherwise blameless individual; two unfortunate lapses by an otherwise blameless individual; three unfortunate – hang on a minute! But I’m not sure how often it actually happens. Certainly you’ll rarely see a first-hand account from the ‘surely now‘ merchants. They say that what they’re describing ought to be a tipping point for their readers, but they’re way ahead of us; they sussed out whoever-it-is ages ago. (Has Nick Cohen ever said anything positive about Ken Livingstone?)

It goes back to what I think of as rule 1 of online debate – in fact, rule 1 of debate in general (apart from a few very specialised settings): Nobody’s above it all. Don’t expect consistent application of unchanging principles from anyone; everyone attacks their enemies, everyone defends their friends. I think we all basically know this; it’s the reason why something like the partial implosion of the SWP a few years back was big enough news to make the national press. Normally you go to Mark Steel to see the Right get a savage satirical tweaking, but Left attacks Right isn’t news; Left attacks Left is. It follows, incidentally, that calling on one’s opponents to disown this outrageous shyster or denounce that bit of cynical manoeuvring on their own side is utterly futile (at least on the surface – I’ll come back to this). If they were going to denounce their friends and allies, they wouldn’t have those friends and allies in the first place – and they wouldn’t be your opponent.

Why we fight

I got bullied on Twitter a bit back. I’m not going to make a big deal of it – it only really bothered me for a couple of hours, and I had kicked it off by saying something really unusually stupid; lots of people regularly endure worse, with less provocation. But it was interesting, if nothing else. It wasn’t pleasant to see two people happily chatting about how ludicrously, contemptibly wrong I was – still less so when the retweets started – but what really sticks in my mind is the mental state it put me in, which was one of obsessive second-guessing. I’d spend fifteen minutes at a time thinking of the objection or the defence I was going to put forward and working out how I was going to phrase it, then thinking of how they might reply to it, then scrapping my original objection and mentally rewording it – then thinking of ways they might counter that, thinking of possible replies to their replies, and so on. I felt like a mouse on a wheel; whenever I thought I was getting somewhere, moments later I’d have second thoughts and realise that if I said that they could still put me in the wrong, and I’d have to start again. Fortunately I was ‘away from keyboard’ for most of the evening in question, so most of these objections and defences never made it to the screen; eventually I managed to ignore it, and eventually it went away. But it wasn’t fun.

I think this gets at something about bullying, or at least one kind of bullying. It can be summed up in two statements: you’ve got to say something and what you say will be wrong. Just as abuse works by offering false reassurance (you’re contemptible/you know I love you), bullying offers false hope: nothing you’ve said up to now has been any good, but come on, let’s see what you’ve got… bzzt, wrong again! Bullying doesn’t depend on the existence of a relationship involving power, though. Some forms of bullying – e.g. in the workplace – do exploit an existing imbalance of power, but I think it’s far more characteristic for bullying to create its own power relation. The school bully doesn’t generally start out in a position of power or privilege over his or her victims, after all. Like school bullying, social media bullying is something anyone can do, given an appropriate victim; like school bullying, it looks ephemeral and trivial when viewed from outside; and like school bullying, it can have very real consequences.

Now: what’s the difference between this model of bullying and what’s going on in scenario 2 up yonder?

I’m not pitching for sympathy for Ken Livingstone – I don’t even feel sympathy for Ken Livingstone. But I think it’s useful to think of some of the reaction to those interviews in terms of bullying. To set the scene, never forget just how unprecedented Jeremy Corbyn’s election last year was. When I was active on the Left, a while ago, there was a big, broad ‘democratic socialist’ area for us to work in, well over to the Left of the then party leadership (er, Kinnock and Hattersley – I did say it was a while ago). I was in the Socialist Society; we were in in a similar sort of area to Chartist and Tribune and ILP and the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform and the New Statesman, give or take a bit of Labour Party chauvinism on the part of the first two. The Fabians, the Christian Socialists and the Graun were off to our right a bit; over to our Left were the Campaign Group and related hard-liners. We had good relations with some of the hard Left types (Benn), less good with others (Vlad Derer) and some we didn’t really want to talk to anyway (Scargill). Beyond them were the Trots, with the same three-way division; the ISG talked to us, the Mils didn’t, and nobody really wanted to talk to the SWP.

That was in the late 80s and early 90s. We know what happened to the Labour Party soon after that – how Roy Hattersley, for example, found that he’d moved from the Right of the Labour Party to the Left without changing any of his beliefs. The comfortable and well-populated democratic socialist area which the Socialist Society used to occupy is an extreme-left desert now, way out beyond Hattersley – the centre has shifted, and all those left-of-centre groups and publications have shifted with it, or else shut up shop. Bear in mind that, as a result, the Labour leadership has no dependable friends in the media (the Daily Mirror is probably the closest thing). The Graun and the New Statesman are still, by contemporary standards, left of centre; which is to say, they think the elected leader of the Labour Party is a dangerous extremist and feel a lot more comfortable with his sworn enemies.

Because not everyone has chased the ‘centre’ of the party to the Right. Out beyond where we were, there they still are: through everything that’s happened to the Left, Corbyn and Dennis Skinner and a few others kept saying what they’d believed all along, and kept being re-elected. Till finally the ‘centre’ could not hold – at least, it didn’t mean anything any more – and rough old Jeremy’s hour came round at last. The Labour Party of the late 80s looks like a commune of utopian socialists compared to its current incarnation, but even then there was no shortage of people who hated the Campaign Group almost as much as they hated the Tories. How the Right and ‘centre’ of the party must feel now, at having an unreconstructed Campaign Group member as leader – it must be dreadful for them. Really, I can almost sympathise.

Back to bullying. The point is that, however much the Right and ‘centre’ hated last year’s election result, there was nothing that Labour MPs could actually do about Corbyn, other than banging their desk lids at him (or pointedly refusing to bang their desk lids, or whatever that bit of nonsense was). And there was nothing that their friends in the media could do about it, other than wringing their hands, promoting backbench rebels and talking down the party’s prospects. Now, after all their laborious and ineffectual attempts to undermine him, Corbyn’s party enemies and their media friends have finally struck gold: someone’s actually done something wrong. And they are not going to let it go – the fact that it only benefits the Tories, even the fact that it was actually started by the Tories, means nothing beside the chance to get some hits in on the Left. In a dark moment I wondered if the attack on Naz Shah was actually planned as a set-up: take a young and inexperienced politician, pressurise her until she admits to what you want her to admit to, then sit back and wait for someone to walk into the trap of trying to defend her against unfair criticism (what do you mean, unfair? are you denying what she did? perhaps you’re the real problem…) If so, it succeeded beyond all expectations.

Pace Vaclav Havel, living in truth isn’t the power of the powerless. The power of the powerless is bullying somebody else powerless: for as long as you’re asking the questions, you’re the one in charge. But by the same token, a bully is someone who can’t get what he or she really wants. Don’t get angry with John Mann, feel sorry for him. (He’d hate that.)

This land is my land

I’ll end this overlong and overdue post with a couple of rays of hope, interspersed with something that doesn’t look like one at all: gloom sandwich. The first is the point I’ve just touched on: bullying considered as the power of the powerless. Bullying is horrible to endure – it has that obsessional, mouse-wheel quality of soaking up all your time and attention – but it’s not cost-free for the bully him- or herself; it takes up at least some of the bully’s time and attention, without actually getting them anywhere, or doing anything apart from disempowering the victim. Every bully has something they would much rather achieve – they would rather you would just shut up, or just not be there; it’s only because they can’t achieve that that they settle for bullying you. You don’t follow someone around, getting in his face and making a scene in public, if you can stop him saying what he’s saying; you don’t demand somebody clarify their position on X, their views of the implications of their position on X, their views on someone else’s interpretations of the implications of cont’d p. 94 if you can hold them to account for something they’ve actually done.

Not all the anti-Corbyn machinations can be described as bullying – some of them are much more serious (Jarvis, Reeves), as well as being much less noisy. But when you see a lot of people being relentlessly aggressive and unpleasant with no obvious goal or game plan, it’s worth considering that they’re being relentlessly aggressive and unpleasant because they’ve got no obvious goal or game plan. If they’re shouting at Corbyn, it’s because they can’t touch him: force an election and he’ll win again; try to change the rules and Corbyn’s supporters will block it. The only way Corbyn’s leadership of the party is going to end is if he resigns of his own accord – and bullying isn’t going to make that happen. (This is someone who’s been a politician since 1974; I think we can assume he’s developed a fairly thick skin over the years.) People like Mann – and their friends in the media – are making a noise for the sake of making a noise, because there’s nothing more effective that they can do.

But if Corbyn isn’t going to go away, neither is the issue that sparked all this off. Speaking as an ex-Zionist (long story, another time), I don’t think it will really do to say that 72% of British Jews identify as Zionists, therefore attacks on Zionism are tantamount to attacks on (most) British Jews. Zionism is a body of ideas, irrespective of how widely it’s held, and the expression of views opposed to it has to be legitimate. I’d hazard a guess that at least 72% of the population of Cheadle are staunch believers in capitalism, but we wouldn’t say that selling Socialist Worker in Cheadle should be banned because of the offence it might cause. (At least, I hope we wouldn’t.) At the same time, I don’t think it will really do to say that Zionism is just a body of ideas, or that Israel is just a nation state like any other. There’s an element of naivety – or even bad faith – in saying, in effect, “so 72% of British Jews identify as Zionists, so what?”. However much we might sympathise with the diasporist minority, however much we might wish there were more Bundists around, we need to recognise that support for the state of Israel – and investment in the dream of Zionism, as realised (however imperfectly) in the state of Israel – runs both broad and deep in the Jewish community. At the same time – coming back to my starting point – opposition to Zionism is a valid political position, and it’s one which is becoming increasingly vocal and visible. The two aren’t going to be reconciled by holding an inquiry or reaching an agreement on which terms can and can’t be used. On one side, support for a national home for a persecuted minority; on the other, opposition to an aggressive and unlawful occupying power. Nobody wants to oppose a national home for a persecuted minority, whatever Jonathan Freedland thinks, and I should hope that nobody wants to support an aggressive and unlawful occupying power, but avoiding both is harder than it sounds. (Note at the foot of Freedland’s piece: The illustration that originally accompanied this piece has been removed because it included a representation of the shape of Israel that failed to distinguish between Israel itself and the territories it has occupied since 1967.) There’s a real and intractable conflict here – which is only to be expected, considering that there’s a real and intractable conflict on the ground.

The good news (finally) is that, pace Freedland, this isn’t a conflict over the existence of the state of Israel – how could it be? – but over the direction of travel. (As political debate usually is.) Is Israel going to continue the direction of the last 49 years – more annexations, more settlements, more segregation, more collective punishment of the Palestinian people – or will there, finally, be a change of course? I’m optimistic; the strength of the international movement for boycott, disinvestment and sanctions is growing, and I don’t think it’ll be too long before Western governments see Israel very much as they saw South Africa in the 1980s – i.e. as a vital international ally which they continue to support in public, while recognising the need to put on the pressure behind closed doors. I think change is coming, and I suspect that when it does come it will come quite quickly. (1985: Thatcher describes sanctions against South Africa as a “tiny, tiny, tiny” concession to Commonwealth pressure. 1990: Mandela walks free.) So perhaps the bullying, illogic and assorted scenario-2 behaviour which so often accompanies accusations of anti-semitism is itself a sign of weakness (see also Fraser v UCU).

That’s all very well, but how am I going to fill the next two hours?

Here are some of the better pieces on the Livingstone brouhaha. I’m going to list them in date order, for simplicity and also to track how the story developed. I’m not going to defend every statement in every one of them (why would I?), but I do pretty much agree with everything in this list & think it’s worth reading – which isn’t the case for some of the stuff linked in the body of the post.

25th April
Open Democracy, “New accusations of antisemitism thrown at the left are flimsy”
Jamie Stern-Weiner on the Oxford University Labour Club and NUS anti-semitism stories. (Guido Fawkes exposed Naz Shah’s two-year-old Facebook post the following day.)

27th April
Open Democracy, “Jeremy Corbyn hasn’t got an ‘antisemitism problem’. His opponents do.”
Jamie Stern-Weiner provides a comprehensive overview of incidents of Labour Party anti-semitism, real and fabricated. Essential background reading.

28th April
Electronic Intifada, “How Israel lobby manufactured UK Labour Party’s anti-Semitism crisis”
Asa Winstanley goes into detail on the roots of the Oxford University Labour Club story.
Leninology, “The ‘anti-semitism’ panic”
Leninology, “Pitch forks at the ready”
Richard Seymour has been all over this from early on. The second of these pieces responds to Ken Livingstone’s intervention.
Guardian, “The elephant in the room in Labour’s antisemitism row”
By Keith Kahn-Harris; one of the few really worthwhile MSM pieces on all of this.

29th April
Open Democracy, “The multiple truths of the Labour antisemitism story”
Really excellent piece by Adam Ramsay – essential reading.
Jamie Stern-Weiner, “Ken Livingstone: gobshite yes, anti-semite no”
Does what it says on the tin.

30th April
Leninology, “Where the twain meet”
Richard Seymour does some serious thinking about anti-Zionism and anti-semitism.
lives; running, “The friends I want to have, and the friends I don’t”
Thoughtful, personal piece by Dave Renton.
Jamie Stern-Weiner, “Jonathan Freedland’s plea”
An acerbic, evidence-based response to Freedland.

1st May
Crooked Timber, “Antisemitism in the Labour Party – what’s going on?”
Long, thoughtful, considered piece from Dan Davies – essential reading. Even the comment thread went well to begin with.

3rd May
Whitey on the Moon, “Our Plea to Jonathan Freedland: Treat Israel As You Would Any Other Colonial State”
Excellent counter-argument to Freedland’s ‘plea’.
Jamie Stern-Weiner, “Labour’s phoney ‘anti-semitism’ scandal: the liars behind the lies”
Jamie has a go at Dan Hodges and Hugo Rifkind. Particularly interesting for the comments, in which Rifkind has a go right back.
Leninology, “Yes, it is a witch-hunt”
“no one is ‘innocent’, all of us have been politically impure. So the existence of real problems, where they exist, may provide the occasion or raw material for a witch-hunt, but it is not its point, and it is not a justification”
Open Democracy, “The American Jewish scholar behind Labour’s ‘antisemitism’ scandal breaks his silence”
Jamie Stern-Weiner interviews Norman Finkelstein. Essential reading.

TCM 8 – Too many friends

There’s something accidental about the Corbyn campaign; nobody, from Jeremy on down, expected it to be like this. On his own admission, Corbyn wasn’t chosen as a sure-fire election-winner (even an internal party election-winner) but because somebody needed to represent the Left and, broadly speaking, it was his turn. So Corbyn wasn’t grooming himself for this campaign for years beforehand (or months, for that matter). With that in mind, I’ve been braced for things to get nasty in the media, to at least “Ralph Miliband Hated Britain” levels of nastiness. You can’t be an active and committed left-winger for forty years without leaving a few hostages to fortune, and making a lot of enemies who will be only too happy to exploit them. To my great surprise – if not downright bemusement – it hasn’t really happened. Obviously the Telegraph and the Mail haven’t been particularly friendly, and the New Statesman‘s been downright vicious, but all that is pretty much par for the course. (Shame about the Staggers.) I remember how the media monstered Livingstone, Benn and Tatchell, and this is nothing like that; in fact I think even Neil Kinnock would have reason to feel Corbyn was getting off lightly.

Over the last couple of weeks we’ve seen the beginnings of a fresh wave of attacks on Corbyn, nastier and potentially more effective than anything he’s been hit with before. I say ‘potentially’; I don’t know whether this stuff is reaching an audience to speak of, and suspect it may just be rallying a group of people who already think that way. It is nasty, though, and it doesn’t seem to be dying down. But the attackers, weirdly enough, aren’t the Mail or the Murdoch press, or Peter Mandelson or Tristram Hunt, or even John Sodding McTernan (although, classy as ever, he has tagged along). These attacks are coming from… Euston.

You read that right: it’s the Euston Manifesto crowd – the street-fighters of Standpoint, the intellectual wing of Engage. In terms of the people involved it’s Aaro and Nick, and it’s Harry’s Place and Left Foot Forward, and Norm sadly can’t be with us but we have some self-styled Gerasites (some of them surely too young to have had much overlap with the great man). In terms of the themes, it’s all about opposition to reactionary Islamists and anti-semites, considered as the first duty of any leftist with a brain and a conscience – all the more so when those people present themselves to the untrained eye as Muslim radicals and anti-Zionists. And in terms of method it’s all about denunciation, dissociation, denouncing anyone who fails to dissociate and dissociating from anyone who fails to denounce; it’s all about will you condemn and why didn’t he condemn and why haven’t you condemned him; it’s all about guilt by association, guilt by implication, guilt by omission and in some cases guilt by analogy (would you say the same about…). It’s also not about condemning or denouncing or pronouncing guilt at all – dear me no, heaven forfend! No, it’s just a matter of raising questions. Then demanding answers, then raising them again, then asking why they haven’t been answered – and then starting again and raising the question of what we can conclude from the failure to answer the original questions.

Basically it’s too, too 2006 to put a finger on. It’s an odd little social formation. I mean, I’m sure it’s possible to be vigilant against anti-semitism on the Left without being a smug, tedious bully, and I honestly don’t know why the two should tend to go together; all I know is that over the last decade they have done. The experience of arguing with these people is not rewarding, to say the least; weirdly, it reminds me of nothing so much as trying to argue with devotees of Chomsky.

What of our man Corbyn? Well, it seems he’s been hanging out with some nutters. It seems that he’s attended a Palestinian solidarity event organised by Deir Yassin Remembered – a group which the Palestine Solidarity Campaign had themselves broken with, due to the group’s associations with Holocaust denial. It also seems that he’s praised an Interpal organiser warmly and without qualification, despite this person having denounced homosexuality as a sin on a par with paedophilia.

Now, if you start from the position that the Left is rife with anti-semitism and pro-Islamism, and your stock in trade is denouncing the implications of this, calling for dissociation from that and raising questions about the other, obviously you’ll eat all this up with a big spoon; from that point of view none of this is very surprising. The phrase ‘tediously predictable’ comes to mind. But on another level it still puzzles me. Why does all this matter, even to those for whom it evidently does matter? Bob from Brockley emphasises that the DYR story “does not mean Corbyn is an anti-semite (and no one serious is saying so)”; James Bloodworth is even more emphatic, assuring us that “I genuinely believe that Corbyn does not have an antisemitic bone in his body”. Which is fair enough; if there were evidence that Corbyn was anti-semitic – that he had contributed to identifiably anti-semitic campaigns or voted for identifiably anti-semitic policies, at some point in his 40-year political career – presumably these writers and those they quote would be all over it. As for gay rights, to my knowledge nobody’s even gone to the effort of affirming that they sincerely don’t believe Corbyn is homophobic – that dog isn’t going to hunt.

So why does it matter? If there’s a mismatch between the moral worth of someone’s words and that of their public, consequential deeds, surely we only need to worry if it’s the words that are the good part. If a Labour leftist works with a homophobe or sits next to a racist – sod it, if a Labour MP counts a homophobe as a personal friend and attends an event organised by a racist – and then goes right on voting against racism and homophobia, why should we care?

A variety of answers have been given to this question, none of which I really find persuasive. Bloodworth’s article is peculiar, and I tend to feel he protests too much: if he genuinely didn’t believe Corbyn was an antisemite, surely he wouldn’t think it necessary to pass judgment on whether his ‘excuses’ for apparently associating with anti-semites ‘stand up’, or whether his ‘denials’ were sufficiently ‘forceful or convincing’. We’re back to the same question: what does Corbyn have to excuse or deny, other than the anti-semitism of which nobody’s accusing him? Bloodworth doesn’t tell us: by the end of his article Corbyn’s just some guy, an eccentric with erratic judgment, no harm done. The real problems are the public indifference to foreign policy which makes his career possible (“a politician can at present take almost any position on foreign affairs and get away with it”) and the other candidates’ failure to challenge him; this “shows that the Labour party – and the left more generally – no longer takes antisemitism seriously”. But, but… if Corbyn isn’t an anti-semite – and we all agree that he isn’t – then… It’s all a bit “Brutus is an honourable man” – of course Corbyn’s not anti-semitic, nobody’s saying he’s anti-semitic, but still, you know… when you look at the evidence… kind of makes you think… not saying just saying… Faugh.

As for ‘Bob’, he finds Corbyn’s association with DYR “really worrying”, but – stop me if you’ve heard this one before – why?

Corbyn should have abided by the PSC decision [to break with DYR] and kept well away from them. That he didn’t says something very depressing about him – either that he doesn’t believe serious anti-racists when they talk about Holocaust denial, or he doesn’t care.

I don’t believe these are the only two possible interpretations, but for now let’s pick the second one: let’s assume that Corbyn, while not himself a racist, genuinely ‘doesn’t care’ whether his friends and associates adhere to lunatic racist fantasies. It seems pretty unlikely, but for the sake of argument let’s go there. Now: why would this matter? If this weirdly, stupidly, distressingly tolerant attitude doesn’t actually affect the causes Corbyn campaigns for or the policies he votes for – which apparently it doesn’t – then how can it matter? Turning it round, if this attitude doesn’t find any expression what Corbyn actually does – the effect he has on the world as a politician – perhaps it’d make more sense to conclude that he doesn’t actually hold it. Perhaps there’s a third option as well as ‘doesn’t believe’ and ‘doesn’t care’ – something along the lines of ‘cares as much about Holocaust denial as the next sane person, but took the judgment call on this occasion that the PSC decision didn’t justify his breaking with a group with which he’d previously formed political and personal links’.

A third critique of Corbyn in this area is encapsulated in an argument I had on Twitter the other night, and which I’ve Storified here. It’s the argument from moral consistency: if Corbyn were a true opponent of bigotry he’d oppose it at all times and in all places, and not only when (say) voting in the House of Commons. I suggested in response that Corbyn might be guilty of nothing worse than compartmentalising – in this case, thinking of a homophobic Islamist as a good guy and a solid ally within the context of Palestinian solidarity work, as in that context the guy presumably was. This was met with a flurry of would you say the same about (what if Corbyn was saying nice things about somebody from Golden Dawn? what then, eh?) and the oracular pronouncement “‘Compartmentalising’ is a pretentious way of saying ‘hypocrisy’.” Well, that’s me told. (And the three-for-one accusation that one is not only (1) saying something unacceptable but (2) trying to hide it and (3) putting on airs is very Euston. Tom’s learnt from the masters.)

I find this quite bizarre. As I say in the Storify story, compartmentalising surely means nothing more than living life without applying a single set of ethico-political criteria to every encounter. Not only is this something which pretty much everybody does pretty much all the time, it’s something that politicians need to do more than most: just to get the job done, they need to be capable of a certain amount of inconsistency, insincerity and bluff, to put forward imperfect and inconstant policy positions as if they believed in them deeply and personally, to make multiple different audiences feel they’ve heard what they wanted to hear. Taken seriously and consistently – applied everywhere all the time – the demand for moral consistency is deeply unworldly: it’s not something you’d ask from your friends, colleagues or employers, let alone from anyone aspiring to be a political operator. If the same standard is weaponised and applied selectively – if, say, we demand moral consistency of our opponents while proclaiming that our allies are already exhibiting it – it’s just rhetoric and can be ignored.

In short(!) the Eustonite charges against Corbyn aren’t, ultimately, all that; in terms of denunciation and delegitimation we’re still facing the B team. They seem to boil down to smears and insinuations, the selective application of unachievable or inappropriate moral standards, and a vague sense of worry and depression. I take the third of these – as expressed by ‘Bob’ – the most seriously; in another post I’ll come back to an issue which I think it points to, and which may also underlie the other two types of attack. For now, here’s what I made of the Euston Manifesto back in April 2006. Share and enjoy.

About a boycott

A few basic principles about boycotts.

1. Politically-motivated choice is legitimate

1.1. Jane is purchasing a good, which we’ll call G. What G is doesn’t matter – some oranges, a magazine subscription, a cultural event which her organisation will host. G1 and G2 – the offerings from suppliers S1 and S2 – are more or less equivalent in Jane’s estimation. She has to choose one or the other; she chooses G1 over G2 not because of anything to do with the good itself, but because political principle P predisposes her against supplier S2.

1.2. This choice, as described, is plainly legitimate. It’s a familiar kind of calculation: under apartheid, South African apples and wine were (probably) as good as similarly-priced alternatives; like many other people, I chose not to buy apartheid produce. Ultimately it is no different from a politically-motivated positive choice: the choice to shop at the Co-op rather than Tesco, say, or to take out a subscription to Red Pepper rather than the New Statesman.

1.3. Of course, we may not agree with the specific principle P which motivates Jane’s choice, and if so we may not approve of the choice. But we should not expect to approve of all Jane’s choices, unless we already know that we are in complete agreement with Jane. If Jane’s purchases are guided by her enthusiasm for veganism or her support for the Liberal Democrats, she is not going to make the same choices that I would make. Her choices are her concern.

1.4. One person’s choices may have effects on other people. If I disagree with Jane’s principles, then – to the extent that her choices affect me – I may well not be happy about them; if Jane is doing my shopping for me, I may even end up asking somebody else, with more sympathetic principles, to do it. But Jane’s choice – like my choice in this second scenario – remains legitimate: she is a free and rational individual who has the right to hold her own set of principles P and choose how to follow them, as are we all.

2. Boycotts are legitimate

2.1. A boycott is a special type of politically-motivated choice. Jane boycotts supplier S when she chooses to go without good G altogether rather than offend against principle P. It is intrinsic to a boycott that G is valuable. (If G were not of particular value – if it were a matter of choosing between broadly equivalent rival Gs – we would be looking at a choice rather than a boycott; and if G were of no value to Jane she would not have chosen to purchase it in the first place and the question would not arise.) A boycott is a sacrifice: Jane is giving up G, which she values, for the sake of P.

2.2. Somebody carrying out a boycott imposes a disproportionate cost on herself – disproportionate in the sense that P is taken as an absolute constraint, not to be weighed as one factor among others. This, too, is legitimate. When I was younger I had a particular fondness for Granny Smith apples – no other fruit hit the spot – but I would and did deprive myself of them rather than buy South African. Again, we can liken the disproportionate cost of a boycott to the disproportionate cost of a positive choice: the decision to take out a subscription to Red Pepper in the certain knowledge that one wouldn’t read it, for example. (Perhaps because one already had a subscription. It’s really quite good these days; the cultural coverage has improved a lot.)

2.2.1. The value of G is not an argument against boycotting S. A boycott is a sacrifice; the more valuable G is, the greater is the sacrifice undertaken in boycotting its supplier S. A boycott cannot be challenged by emphasising the value of G (but you really like Granny Smiths!). If anything, the value of G counts in favour of the boycott: if G is extraordinarily valuable, the boycott is an extraordinarily powerful demonstration of Jane’s commitment to P.

2.3. We saw, in the broader case of political choices, that one person’s choice can affect other people, and that someone who disagrees with P may not approve of choices motivated by P. Both of these points necessarily apply in the case of a boycott. Suppose that Jane is an extreme right-winger who supported the Pinochet regime and holds a grudge against all subsequent Chilean governments. Most people reading this will not approve of Jane choosing not to buy Chilean produce, all other factors being equal, on those grounds; a fortiori, we would certainly not approve of Jane applying an absolute boycott to Chilean goods on those grounds.

2.4. Nor would we be happy about Jane doing our shopping for us, if we were housebound or incapacitated. But Jane’s choices are still legitimate, despite the repugnance of their grounds – and hence of their consequences, or rather of the implications which can be drawn from their consequences.

2.4.1. The value of G to a third party is not an argument against boycotting S. The argument at 2.2.1. holds: the message of the boycott is now that Jane’s commitment to P is such that she is willing to bear the cost of disappointing other people by depriving them of G. An ethical greengrocer could choose to refuse to stock South African produce, even in the knowledge that its customers had a particular fondness for Granny Smiths and did not share her beliefs. The choice might not be good business, but it would be legitimate and should be respected as such.

3. Politics come first

3.1. It makes no sense to challenge a boycott as harmful or costly: a boycott is a sacrifice. It makes no sense to challenge a boycott as disproportionate: it is in the nature of boycotts to be disproportionate.

3.2. A boycott is a costly and disproportionate act carried out in commitment to a political principle. To the extent that we do not share that commitment, we will not approve of the boycott.

3.2.1. However, to the extent that we do not share that principle, we would not approve of any action motivated by it, just as we would not agree with any statement made to advance it.

3.2.2. The political discussion is separate from the question of the legitimacy of the tactics used.

3.3. The key question to be asked of a boycott is: assuming rational actors motivated by a genuine commitment to a political principle which can legitimately be held, can this disproportionate sacrifice be justified? (The question is not whether we believe that it is justified.)

3.3.1. This is a question expecting the answer Yes. A boycott is, in principle, a legitimate political tactic, irrespective of our position on the political cause involved. (It may on occasion not be the best tactic to use, but this is a question for the people using it.)

3.3.2. To say that a boycott is not a legitimate tactic is, generally, to say that the principle for which it is undertaken is not a legitimate political cause.

4. Inconsistency is irrelevant

4.1. If I have never stolen, I can steal for the first time. If I have never handled other people’s money without stealing, I can choose not to steal for the first time. Perhaps the acts I have never carried out are political: I have never taken out a magazine subscription on the basis of a positive political commitment, or crossed ‘apples’ off my shopping list on the basis of a negative commitment. This has no bearing on whether I choose to do either of these things in future.

4.2. The value of an action is not determined by whether the actor has ever done it before; the legitimacy of a choice is not determined by whether the actor has ever made that choice before.

4.3. To criticise somebody for imposing a boycott for the first time, in pursuit of a principle one supports, would amount either to holding them to account for something they are no longer doing or criticising them for an improvement in their conduct.

4.3.1. We may believe that the boycott is an aberration and that in future their conduct will return to its original course; however, this in itself does not give any grounds for criticising their present behaviour, which by definition we approve of.

4.4. We may criticise somebody for imposing a boycott for the first time, in pursuit of a principle we do not support; in this case, however, we would not be criticising their inconsistency but (simply) the fact that they were taking action in support of a principle we did not support.

4.5. The fact that a boycott is being imposed for the first time cannot make it illegitimate.

5. Selectivity is inevitable

5.1. In one light, selectivity at a given time and inconsistency over time are the same concern, and are equally irrelevant. Why did I steal from that particular newsagent when I’d never stolen before? Because that was where I happened to be. Why did I hand over this purse untouched when I’d always stolen from them before? Because that was the one I was handling when the pangs of conscience struck. There is no reason to ask these questions.

5.2. Someone boycotting a particular supplier S, on the basis of a particular (legitimate) principle P, can be accused of ‘singling out’ S. There may be many potential suppliers – S1, S2, S3… – whose deserve to be boycotted on the basis of P. Moreover, there are many legitimate political principles – P1, P2, P3… – on the basis of which boycotts could be implemented. Why this principle? Why this supplier?

5.2.1. To guide one’s conduct by every imaginable political principle (P1, P2, P3…) is an obvious absurdity.

5.2.2. To guide one’s conduct, to any significant extent, by every political principle to which one assents would in practice be impossibly burdensome, unless one’s political commitments were extremely limited.

5.3. The narrower goal of applying a single principle with complete consistency – boycotting every supplier who infringes it (or else boycotting none of them) – may seem realisable in theory, but reflection shows that complete consistency would require complete knowledge and the willingness to take any imaginable cost.

5.3.1. Complete consistency in the application of a single principle is an ideal rather than a standard: in Fuller’s terms, part of a morality of aspiration (a set of excellences one aims to realise) rather than a morality of duty (a set of minimum requirements one undertakes to meet).

5.3.2. To criticise somebody for inconsistency in the application of a principle one supports is to criticise them for failing to realise an ideal, not failing to meet a standard.

5.4. To criticise somebody for inconsistency in the application of a principle one does not support is, in general, to criticise them for acting on that principle at all (see 3.2.1.).

6. Equality is difficult

6.1. Although the effects of a boycott on third parties do not, in general, affect the legitimacy of the boycott (see 2.4.1.), a boycott whose effects tend systematically to disadvantage a particular population group – by depriving them of goods or services, or even by causing them offence and distress – may be illegitimate for that reason.

6.1.1. This is true of any action which has such effects; there is nothing about boycotts making them particularly liable to delegitimation on these grounds.

6.2. The principle of non-discrimination is unproblematic in the case of innate characteristics such as gender and ethnicity, and relatively unproblematic in the case of religion (which very often amounts to an innate characteristic, at least in the perceptions of the believer herself).

6.3. Extending it to political beliefs – even long-held and hard-to-change beliefs – is problematic, however.

6.3.1. To hold a political belief is to believe that certain changes should be made to the distribution of wealth, power and relatively advantage, and that certain arguments should be made and listened to more widely.

6.3.2. To pursue a political belief is to make arguments which may offend one’s opponents, and to attempt to realise changes which will disadvantage them.

6.4. There is an asymmetry built into prejudices against innate characteristics: the political actor who aims to disadvantage Jews, Muslims, women or children has many opponents who are not political actors.

6.4.1. By contrast, political prejudice is symmetrical: to be prejudiced against Liberal Democrats, for example, is to be prejudiced against political actors like oneself.

6.4.2. Within the political context, animosity towards other political actors is normal; within this context, the idea of political prejudice has very little meaning.

6.5. To delegitimate political discrimination is to cantonise politics as a specialised pursuit, only engaged in at set times and in certain places.

6.5.1. This is undesirable.

6.6. To delegitimate political discrimination in a given area is to delegitimate political action in that area.

6.6.1. In some areas (e.g. the employer/employee relationship) political action should in fact be illegitimate, making the delegitimation of political discrimination unproblematic.

6.6.2. In others, outlawing political discrimination (and hence political action) may be the only way to be sure of outlawing racial or religious discrimination.

6.7. In all cases, delegitimating political discrimination has a cost and should only be undertaken with that cost borne in mind.

Logic, emotion and Twitter (in Gaza)

This article in the (leftish) Jewish Daily Forward is quite something. You can get the gist from the headline and standfirst:

Israel Has a New Worst Enemy — Twitter

The Medium’s Immediacy and Emotion Overwhelm All Logic

And the first paragraph:

Shortly after Israel began its ground invasion of Gaza, Anne Barnard, a New York Times reporter who has covered wars for over a decade, stood in the emergency room of the Al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City and watched a 9-year-old girl die.

The girl was alone, without family, nameless. And when the doctor finally pronounced her dead, Barnard and another reporter wept.

And then she tweeted

…and that’s what the story’s about: Twitter. Hold back for a moment your own reflection on the appalling human tragedy represented by that little girl’s lonely death; let’s think about the interesting and novel development represented by lots of other people reflecting on it. Because (the author suggests) a lot of those people might not take the same view of it that you and I would; in fact, the further that message travels, the less likely it is that anyone will take the same view that we do.

Israel’s wars are always fought on two fronts — the actual on-the-ground one and the battlefield of world opinion. The tricky part is that a victory on one front very often means a loss on the other: Say a house is bombed, killing a man in charge of a rocket launcher, but it also killed his family, including five children, whose lifeless bodies appear on television that night. It’s not clear what front should have priority — your perspective on this will depend largely on whether you yourself are cowering in a bomb shelter in a city targeted by that rocket launcher or have the benefit of viewing all this from a safe distance.

If anyone not directly involved would see the situation in a certain way, that does seem to suggest something about the two perspectives. (To say nothing of the possibility that ‘you yourself’ might ‘have the benefit of viewing all this’ from Gaza.)

But what’s absolutely certain now is that Twitter has been a game changer for the public perception front, demolishing much of the distance that allowed for attempts at objectivity and balance, the careful construction of stories that bow to the narratives of both sides.

So here’s a good story: “In this troubled region, the intransigence of one side all too often seems to bring out the worst in the other side. While Gaza is pounded by IDF artillery, there is still no sign of Hamas repudiating the anti-semitism of its founding Charter.”

And here’s a bad story: “I have just watched a nine-year-old girl die from injuries inflicted by IDF artillery.”

But why is the second example a bad story? Apparently it has to do with immediacy and the personal touch:

As Barnard herself put it in an interview recently on NPR, she writes things in tweets that would never go in an article or get past an editor. … Unlike in a news story, with a tweet like that, Barnard said, “people feel like they are getting a postcard from another human being who is experiencing something far away.”

To combat the impact of those postcards on people’s perception of the conflict, Israel has deployed logic — logic that often makes a great deal of sense. It is true that Hamas would kill many more Israeli civilians if it could, that a tallying of deaths doesn’t take into account “intended deaths.” It is true that Hamas bears responsibility for endangering its own population by shooting rockets from populated areas. And it is true that Israel has accepted unconditional cease-fires while Hamas hasn’t. Fair or not, this argumentation, so rational and reasonable, is powerless when put up against an image or description of a dead child.

This is the core argument of the article, and it’s an argument which, I think, needs to be rejected quite firmly. We pit logic against emotion all the time, and generally speaking logic wins. You pit logic against emotion when you have a pet put down or agree to turn off a loved one’s life support. In a broader sense, states pit logic against emotion every time they go to war, and armies do so with every act of war. Killing people is both morally wrong and viscerally repulsive: battlefield stress is a natural emotional response to being put in a situation nobody would choose to be in and doing things nobody would choose to do. (Of course, there are people who would choose to do those things – but we hope and trust they won’t be in the position to do so. I’m told that British army officer training reliably weeds out two types of people – those who, when push comes to shove, realise that they couldn’t kill another person, and those who realise that they would enjoy it.) We rely on logic to demonstrate rationally that the emotionally horrible things soldiers are being asked to do should still be done: to demonstrate, in other words, that military aggression was deployed for legitimate reasons – primarily self-defence – in the first place (jus ad bellum) and that lethal force is being used to achieve legitimate military objectives without disproportionate damage to civilian life and property (jus in bello).

Now, it’s true that “Hamas bears responsibility for endangering its own population by shooting rockets from populated areas”. To quote the Geneva conventions:

The presence or movements of the civilian population or individual civilians shall not be used to render certain points or areas immune from military operations, in particular in attempts to shield military objectives from attacks or to shield, favour or impede military operations. The parties to the conflict shall not direct the movement of the civilian population or individual civilians in order to attempt to shield military objectives from attacks or to shield military operations.

Using civilians and civilian properties to shield military objectives is a war crime. But read on:

Any violation of these prohibitions shall not release the parties to the conflict from their legal obligations with respect to the civilian population and civilians

Attacking civilians, even civilians being deliberately (and unlawfully) used as human shields, is still a war crime – unless the civilian casualties are unavoidable in attaining a valid military objective and proportionate to the value of that objective. And (needless to say) responsibility for it still lies with the attacker.

It’s also true that “a tallying of deaths doesn’t take into account ‘intended deaths.'” – and, frankly, quite right too. If you have an enemy who wants to kill anything up to 75% of your population, you have only two hopes, self-defence and diplomacy. You make sure that, in the short term, you’ll be strong enough and they’ll be weak enough to minimise the actual danger they pose; and you try to make sure that, in the longer term, they’ll change their minds. Killing (say) 2% of their population has very little to do with self-defence and nothing to do with diplomacy. Comparing actual Palestinian deaths to theoretically possible Israeli deaths – in a nightmare scenario in which the balance of power and weaponry between Israel and Gaza was somehow reversed – is bizarrely perverse: the point for Israel is surely to stop such a confrontation from happening, not to indulge in the consoling thought that in that case Israel would at least have the moral high ground. (As, right now, it doesn’t.)

As for unconditional ceasefires, the record here is disputed – but even if it is true that “Israel has accepted unconditional cease-fires while Hamas hasn’t”, I wonder how much this is to Israel’s credit. An unconditional ceasefire – with Gaza’s borders closed, with the port blockaded and with illegal building (and evictions) continuing on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem: how long could that be expected to last until Hamas (or a militia not under Hamas control) decided to lash out again? Ceasefires come and go, but only a comprehensive settlement in accordance with international law is going to create the conditions for peace in Gaza. And while both Israel and its key international partner prefer to ignore international law (“For many outside the United States, Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory in the West Bank is considered illegal.” – New York Times), that settlement could be a long time coming.

One last thought from Forward:

in a battle involving asymmetric defense systems, in which the vast majority of the casualties are on the Palestinians’ side, Twitter punches you in the gut on behalf of those civilians in a way that overwhelms much else.

In a battle against an enemy which has killed very few of our people, in which we’re killing a lot of their people, mostly civilians, the thought of all those dead civilians makes you wonder if perhaps we might not be wholly in the right. Blame Twitter.

Forgive and forget it

From today’s news:

In his speech to the state department on Thursday, Mr Obama stated overtly for the first time that the peace talks should be based on a future Palestinian state within the borders in place before the 1967 Middle East War. “The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognised borders are established for both states,” he said.

But speaking in the Oval Office after their meeting, Mr Netanyahu flatly rejected this proposal, saying Israel wanted “a peace that will be genuine”.

Israel was “prepared to make generous compromises for peace”, he said, but could not go back to the 1967 borders “because these lines are indefensible”. He said the old borders did not take into account the “demographic changes that have taken place over the last 44 years”.

Quoth Wikipedia:

Leo Rosten in The Joys of Yiddish defines chutzpah as “gall, brazen nerve, effrontery, incredible ‘guts,’ presumption plus arrogance such as no other word and no other language can do justice to.” In this sense, chutzpah expresses both strong disapproval and a grudging admiration. In the same work, Rosten also defined the term as “that quality enshrined in a man who, having killed his mother and father, throws himself on the mercy of the court because he is an orphan.”

Or the man who, having kicked his neighbours out of their house and moved his brother in, admits to stealing the house but explains that he can’t possibly give it back, because then his brother would have nowhere to live.

This, also from the BBC story, struck me as a particularly resonant one-liner:

The settlements are illegal under international law, although Israel disputes this.

PS I will get back to Norm and bin Laden, if anyone’s wondering. I’ll admit that I was under a slight misapprehension, inasmuch as I assumed that the reference to the September 11th attacks as “an act of war” wasn’t intended literally; I still don’t believe that the literal interpretation can be sustained without a great deal of effort, or that trying to sustain it is a good idea. However, that clearly is how Norm has been thinking, so I’ll have to give it some consideration.

The world looks so tiny


Back in the eighties when China was inviting “foreign friends” over, mainly to teach, as a means of preparing the locals for the forthcoming golden horde of businesspeople they weren’t too scrupulous about checking credentials. There was an absolute infestation of evangelicals, often in posts at fairly prestigious universities for which they had no qualifications whatsoever. “Plate tectonics later – but first, Jesus!”

This kind of thing is partly a by-product of evangelism being banned in China. Partly also it’s because the thought of 1.3 billion hellbound souls just gets evangelical sap rising. It’s a particular obsession in the US. None other than Henry Luce said that the great mission of the United States was to Christianize China.

Back in the early 70s, when I last went to church at all regularly, there was a hymn called “Thy Kingdom Come, O God” which used to come round from time to time. The last verse goes after the following fashion:

O’er heathen lands afar
Thick darkness broodeth yet:
Arise, O Morning Star,
Arise, and never set!

Apparently more recent editions bowdlerise the first line to “O’er lands both near and far”, which dodges the point rather neatly.

I don’t know if hearing that hymn at a formative age had anything to do with it, but a friend’s younger brother later got religion in a big way and trained as a missionary. I was slightly startled by this, but much more so by his first posting, which was to a village in India. (No, look… they’ve got a religion, they’ve had it for ages and they seem quite happy with it… and I mean, different religions, they’re all different, kind of, different pathways to the same… obviously you think Christianity’s the best pathway and I respect that, but…) Still, it’s not often these days that you get the chance to meet someone with a different mental universe, so I suppose we should be glad that the evangelical Christians are around.

The idea of the historic American mission to Christianise China also reminds me of the Early Modern trope of the conversion of the Jews, as mentioned in Marvell’s “To his coy mistress”:

Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love’s day;
Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side
Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the Flood;
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.

The thinking here is, obviously, that the Jews won’t convert until the second coming of Christ and the end of the world.

But then came Zionism – Christian Zionism, in particular. (Regina Sharif’s Non-Jewish Zionism is terrific on this, if you can get hold of it.) For evangelical Christians, the rise of Christian Zionism meant that the Jews weren’t available for conversion any more, even in imagination. (Another church-going memory is of a visiting preacher praying for “thy people Israel”, who were having a bit of trouble in Lebanon at the time. I was taken aback – didn’t our status as Christians rather depend on the Jews losing the franchise? – but apparently this kind of eschatological double-vision is quite common in some quarters.) The enthusiasm of parts of the American Right for Nationalist China – their willingness to give the Kuomintang practical as well as financial support, and to withhold recognition from the People’s Republic until long after the game was up – has always intrigued me; it’d be interesting to see if the KMT fan base had much overlap with the Christian Zionist lobby. Perhaps, in the American evangelical imagination, Luce’s vision of the conversion of the Chinese took the place of the conversion of the Jews – although, the American evangelical imagination being what it is, it was seen not as an ineffably distant prospect but as a project to be brought about as soon as possible. Lucky Chinese.

It’s no problem, you can’t have it

Robert Skidelsky, author in 1975 of a rather nasty biography of Oswald Mosley (on which I’ve commented before & will do again), is going strong as a cross-bench peer and occasional newspaper commentator. Witness this piece in last Friday’s Indie:

The elements of a “whole Middle East” peace settlement are easy to see, though they will be hard to achieve. These elements include: a federal Iraq, with an agreed formula for sharing out the country’s oil resources between the three main provinces; a fully-independent Palestinian state roughly within the 1967 borders, with an internationally-patrolled demilitarised zone along Israel’s borders; a phased withdrawal of US forces from the Middle East in return for a guarantee of an uninterrupted oil supply; a nuclear free zone, without which Iran will never give up its nuclear ambitions (but Israel will have to give up its bomb as well); finally, a reactivation of the suspended customs union between Israel and Palestine, with a phased extension to Jordan and the Lebanon, and with a “Marshall Aid”-style programme to get it started, as happened in Europe in 1948.

Such ideas may seem crazily unrealistic. But sometimes crazy ideas are the only realistic ones: it is the cautious people who are the real crazies.

There’s a false opposition in that last sentence, or rather a dishonest and wishful conflation of two separate oppositions. I’m reminded of something Terry Eagleton wrote in the current LRB:

the fixed is not necessarily to be regretted, or the fluid to be celebrated. Capitalism is endlessly fluid, whereas the demand that the Israelis stop mistreating the Palestinians should be unwavering. The belief that the malleable is always preferable to the immovable is a postmodern cliché. There is a good deal about human history which ought not to alter (educating our children, for example), and quite a lot of change which is deeply undesirable. Change and permanence are not related to each other as radicalism is to conservatism.

The opposition between change and continuity is not the same thing as the opposition between the cause of righting injustices and the cause of preserving them – and it doesn’t do anyone any favours to pretend that it is the same thing, unless there’s anyone whose interests are served by confusion. Similarly, the opposition between radicalism and caution is not the same thing as the opposition between what can realistically be achieved and what can’t. Boldness of vision may be a political virtue (the Skidelsky who worshipped at the shrine of Mosley certainly thought it was) but boldness alone doesn’t overrule reality. On the contrary, the truly bold vision is the one which identifies a real opportunity for change and formulates it in way that makes it realisable. The true critique of political caution, in some historical conditions, is precisely that it isn’t adequate to reality.

But those conditions can’t be conjured by an act of philosophical will – or by the exercise of imperial force. Under current conditions, Skidelsky’s ‘crazily unrealistic’ ideas suggest nothing so much as a longing for somebody – or a lot of uniformed somebodies – to get stuck in and cut the knot of rebarbative reality. But the point is not to erase our starting conditions but to work within them. Debord had it right, again: “A critique seeking to go beyond the spectacle must know how to wait.”

The sound of the keys as they clink

Back here, I wrote:

my children are far closer to being ‘colour-blind’ than I’ll ever be. The other day my son got picked on in the swimming pool; we asked him to describe the kids who did it, and when we asked him whether they had brown skin he said “yes, but why do you ask?” That told us.

What I didn’t mention, probably because it hadn’t happened yet, was the sequel: a note from the police, passed on through the school, to the effect that they’d be interested to take a statement from my son, particularly given that there was a possible racist motive. (My son said he just wanted to forget about the whole thing, so we let it drop.)

So there’s one obvious reason to be sceptical about Manchester councillor Eddy Newman’s letter to Saturday’s Graun:

The study to which you refer suggests that Asbos are used disproportionately against ethnic-minority groups. In Manchester, by contrast, about one in 10 of Asbos include conditions banning racist abuse, threats or harassment. In this way Asbos can be used to combat racism and promote community cohesion.

The two sets of ASBOs – “used disproportionately against ethnic-minority groups” and “include conditions banning racist abuse” – aren’t mutually exclusive. But even if they were, there’s an even more obvious reason for scepticism: put simply, the fact that 10% of ASBOs have anti-racist strings attached says nothing about the other 90%. But the numbers are less important than the mood music. Let’s not worry about how ASBOs have been used – think about all the good things they can be used for! Never mind the evidence, just think of all the bad people out there – and trust us to deal with them.

Over the weekend I was also gobsmacked (like Jamie) by Nick Cohen’s latest:

For the first time in British history, there are asylum seekers who could attack the country which gave them sanctuary. I don’t think people realise how unparallelled this change is.

For the first time in British history, by gum. Never before have murderous foreigners lurked among us, plotting anarchy and destruction under cover of our fabled British hospitality. The Fenians in Victorian England don’t count, obviously – nor do the revolutionary exiles who converged on England from across Europe and beyond in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Conrad thought they were pretty threatening – The Secret Agent even has a suicide bomber as one of its central characters – but he was obviously exaggerating. There was a great deal of alarm about German exiles in Britain when the Great War broke out, but all that was just hysteria, obviously. Same with the Russian revolutionary exiles, around the same time. Sidney Street? A storm in a teacup. Things got a bit more lively in the late 1930s, mind you:

In September 1939 there were a total of 71,600 registered enemy aliens in Britain. On the outbreak of the Second World War the police arrested a large number of Germans living in Britain. The government feared that these people might be Nazi spies pretending to be refugees. They were interned and held in various camps all over Britain. Like other refugees they were eventually appeared before tribunals which classified them into three different groups. ‘A’ class aliens were interned, whereas ‘B’ class aliens were allowed to leave the camps but had certain restrictions placed upon their movements. The vast majority of refugees were identified as ‘C’ class aliens and were allowed to go free. When Benito Mussolini declared war on the Allies on 10th May 1940, Italians living in Britain were also interned. This included 4,000 people with less than twenty years’ residence in Britain.

But still, there’s no comparison: For the first time in British history, there are asylum seekers who could attack the country which gave them sanctuary. Or if it’s not quite the first time in history, well, never mind. Just think about all the bad people out there, and trust us to deal with them.

I used to read Nick Cohen regularly; I used to think of Eddy Newman as a reliable voice of the municipal Left (he’s a solid Old Labour councillor from way back, one of a very few Manchester councillors to have built a personal reputation in the Stringer period and hung on to it). These are strange times for the Left – it’s easy to forget just how strange.

Update 7/11

As Andrew points out in comments, Nick is a troubled man:

When, at the age of 13, he found out that his kind and thoughtful English teacher voted Conservative, he nearly fell off his chair: ‘To be good, you had to be on the Left.’ Today he’s no less confused.

I’ll say he is.

Why is it that apologies for a militant Islam that stands for everything the liberal-Left is against come from a section of the Left? After the American and British wars in Bosnia and Kosovo against Slobodan Milosevic’s ethnic cleansers, why were men and women of the Left denying the existence of Serb concentration camps? Why is Palestine a cause for the liberal-Left, but not, for instance, China, the Sudan, Zimbabwe or North Korea? Why can’t those who say they support the Palestinian cause tell you what type of Palestine they would like to see? After the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington why were you as likely to read that a sinister conspiracy of Jews controlled American or British foreign policy in a liberal literary journal as in a neo-Nazi rag?

I can actually sympathise with parts of this; back in the early 1990s those of us who thought the Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina was worth defending against armed Serb irredentism seemed to be in a very small minority on the Left. Seeing sizeable swathes of the Left apparently signing up for the Genocidal Bastard Fan Club (and no, the RCP wasn’t its only chapter by any means) isn’t an experience you forget.

But if I’m not with Neil Clark, I’m not with Nick either. This synopsis is sloppily written even by the standards of its kind (I don’t recall any “American and British war” in Bosnia, apart from anything else), but as far as I can tell Nick’s main concern isn’t that the Left has chosen some dodgy causes lately. He’s not even harping on the Left’s wilful blindness to the historically unprecedented menace of the lurking foreign mad bomber. For whatever reason, the point Nick really seems to want to make is that supporting the Palestinian cause is wrong. Or rather, it may be right, but only if you a) support several other causes as well b) oppose the politicians Palestinians actually elect and c) oppose criticism of Israel. (Like Andrew, I really hope that last line isn’t a reference to Mearsheimer and Walt. I’m tempted to dismiss the idea out of hand – you’d have to be wearing a very strong prescription indeed to see a ‘sinister conspiracy of Jews’ in M&W’s LRB piece, let alone to imagine that it could appear in a ‘neo-Nazi rag’ – but the reference to ‘a liberal literary journal’ is disquieting.)

A Left critique of the Gleichschaltung of the ‘anti-imperialists’ might have been useful and telling; unfortunately it looks as if Nick has found another cause to be gleichgeschaltet by. These are, as I was saying, strange times for the Left. As Victor Serge never wrote:

– What’s to be done if it’s midnight in the century?
– What, already?

The cold in our eyes

Is it anti-semitic to criticise Israel? Is it anti-semitic to criticise Zionism? Is it anti-semitic, even, to oppose Zionism – to believe that the state of Israel (as established in 1948) was a thoroughly bad idea which should be replaced by something better?

To put it another way, does anti-semitism lead coherently to opposing Zionism – would we expect somebody who hated Jews also to hate the state of Israel? Because, if this logical entailment is invalid, it follows that the reverse inference – from anti-Zionism to anti-semitism – also falls. To put it crudely, if you can find me one Jew-hater who doesn’t also hate the idea of Jews having their own state, then we can no longer assume that anti-Zionism follows from anti-semitism.

Sir Oswald, would you care to comment?

[anti-semitism is] a very old growth in British soil especially with people who come from the countryside when they come into contact with Jews. It is probably latent in the racial or traditional consciousness of a great many of these men. I am not arguing the merits of it. You may think me a great scoundrel for indulging in this and for developing it as much as we have, but there is something in it … [My solution] is constructing a national home for them which would put an end to all this friction it engenders which is as harmful to the Jews as it is to us. It changes his character into a gangster and arouses in us a certain brutality and it is bad for the Jew and bad for us.

From the records of Mosley’s appeal against detention as a fifth columnist, 1940 (quoted in the Skidelsky biography).

Now, Oswald Mosley is not the most reliable witness, even (or especially) on his own account. Skidelsky portrays him (apparently without realising it) as a monster of arrogance and sadism, utterly without loyalty or scruples, consistent only in his drive for personal dominance. If Zionist sympathies would make it easier for him to get out of jail, Zionist sympathies he would have. Nevertheless, it’s a coherent argument he makes here. If British Fascists attacked British Jews, their objection was not to Jews per se but to the ‘friction’ which inevitably results when Jews live among Gentiles (T.S. Eliot had developed a similar argument). Since Fascists are primarily concerned with building their own homogeneous nation, there’s no obvious reason to object to the formation of a Jewish nation by some of the Jews who were excluded from the Fascist fatherland; indeed, Fascists might offer Jewish nationalism a distant brotherly welcome.

I don’t know what Mosley would have said about the invasion of Lebanon; it’s entirely possible that his anti-semitism would have triumphed, and that he’d have been prominent among the critics of Israel. That said, it’s clear that there’s a line leading directly from hatred of British Jews to approval of a Jewish national home – and that it was possible, without any kind of contradiction, to oppose the presence of Jews in Britain and approve of their presence, under suitably nationalist auspices, in Palestine.

So, you can say that criticism of the Lebanon operation is anti-Israeli; you can even say it’s anti-Zionist (some of it certainly is). But don’t even think of saying it’s anti-semitic.

Save our kids from this culture

My frustration with the bearpit that is Comment is Free was brought to a head by this bizarre post by David Hirsh. Once again, I’m going to reproduce my CiF comment here, because frankly I think more people will pay attention to it here than there.

First, a word about Hirsh’s argument. He opens thus:

Since before it even existed, Israel has been engaged in two wars with its neighbours. One is a just war, waged by Palestinian Arabs for freedom – which became a demand for Palestinian national independence; the other is a genocidal war that aims to end Jewish life in the Middle East.The job of the left is to insist on the reality of this distinction and to stand against those who recognise the reality of only one or other of these two separate wars.

The job of the left – ugh. Something very Euston about that formulation – the call to duty, with the implication that this might not be a duty we all like…. But let’s press on.

The problem with social reality is that if enough people believe something to be true, and act as though it is indeed true, then it may become the truth. So if Israelis believe they are only ever fighting a war of survival, then they will use tactics and strategies that are proportionate to the war they believe themselves to be fighting. If Palestinians, meanwhile, come to believe that they can win their freedom only by destroying Israel, then they will think of the Jew-haters of Hamas, Hizbullah, al-Qaeda and the Syrian and Iranian regimes as their allies in the task.The only way out is for cosmopolitan voices and political movements to insist on the reality of both wars – to separate them conceptually and to stand clearly for a Palestinian victory in the fight for freedom and equally clearly for an Israeli victory in the fight against annihilation.

There’s a certain narrowness to Hirsh’s focus here. I’m quite prepared to nail my colours to the mast and say that I’m not in favour of annihilation, by and large. On the contrary, I’m very much in favour of people who are alive being enabled and permitted to remain alive. But I don’t think this commits me to supporting ‘an Israeli victory’ of any sort, in any set of geopolitical circumstances which I can begin to imagine developing out of the current situation.

But maybe my imagination just isn’t up to the job. A few more words from David, this time in the comment thread:

its not far-fetched to imagine a very serious threat. Imagine if the regime in Syria and Iran were joined, perhaps by a Jihadi-revolutionary regime in Saudi and perhaps a Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt. Add these to a Hamas led Palestine and a Hezbullah led Lebanon. This is hypothetical, yes, but entirely possible.Imagine also, perhaps that the neo-cons in Washington are replaced by the neo-realists – Mearsheimer and Walt advising the White House that it is in the national interest of the US to ditch Israel.

Imagine also a global liberal intelligensia and labour movement that believes the Israelis are so evil that they deserve what’s coming to them.

But its OK, because Israel is heavily armed.

The logic of your position, then, is that it is a good thing that Israel has the 4th largest army in the world (or whatever it is) because it guarantees their survival.

So how do you feel about the proposal of an arms embargo against Israel? How do you feel about the proposal to stop US aid and to stop the US selling arms to Israel?

What then is there to guarantee Israel’s survival?

I’ll stop beating about the bush: I think this argument is silly, offensive and dangerously dishonest. If Israel’s apologists genuinely believe the country is engaged in a fight for survival at this moment, they’re self-deceived to the point of insanity. If they don’t believe that but think that what’s going on now should be understood by reference to a completely hypothetical worst-case scenario, they’re grossly dishonest. Perhaps even more important, the ‘fight for survival’ argument is being used to divert attention from what the Israeli government and army are actually doing; in other words, it’s being made to do work that it couldn’t do even if it was valid.

Here’s a comment I prepared earlier:

David,I think your argument is interesting & instructive, but not quite in the way that you think it is.

There are (at least) three questions which can legitimately be asked of the state of Israel without arousing suspicions of anti-semitism. Firstly, can the state itself be described as constitutionally unjust, either from its founding or since 1967 (and two-thirds of its history is post-67)? I assume you’d answer No, but many people would answer Yes – including many diaspora Jews and a good few Israelis. But a constitutionally unjust state is one which needs to be replaced, not reformed: replaced through the actions and with the consent of its citizens, certainly, but still replaced. In normal circumstances (I’ll return to this point), asking whether – as a matter of principle – a constitutionally unjust state has the right to perpetuate itself is asking whether injustice has the right to continue.

Secondly, is the state’s posture of perpetual war, and its repeated use of force rather than diplomacy, an appropriate response to the situation Israel finds itself in? Answer No (as many of us do) and any incursion into Gaza, any house demolition, any IDF sniper bullet carries a burden of justification: is this specific action justifiable, or is it just another example of an established, unjust pattern? This is where the allegations of prejudice start flying – those who answer Yes to the second question don’t believe there is any such pattern, and consequently judge each specific action as ‘innocent until proven guilty’.

Lastly, when the state does resort to military force, is its use of force appropriate and proportionate? It’s important to note that this is a completely separate question from the previous one (and does have to be judged on a case by case basis). If I’m fighting for my life and I kill a defenceless passer-by who wasn’t threatening me, I’m still a murderer. (Cf. suicide bombers.)

I found your ‘Imagine’ comment particularly enlightening. Because circumstances alter cases – a position that would be appropriate in normal circumstances isn’t necessarily appropriate in the middle of a war. If Israel were an isolated underdog, entirely surrounded by states which seriously wanted to invade and destroy it, and unable to count on any outside assistance – if this were the case, my answer to question 1 would change (from ‘Yes’ to ‘Maybe, but that’s not important right now’). And if Israel were not only surrounded, outnumbered and outgunned, but on the brink of an exterminationist final conflict – in that case my answer to question 2 would probably change (from ‘No’ to ‘Maybe not, but it’s not for us to say’).

So what’s instructive about your article is the insight it gives into a certain Israeli mindset – a mindset which I can’t regard as being grounded in reality, and one which I’m happy to say isn’t universal among Israelis. I also think it illuminates a further, basically irrational slippage over the third question: are the IDF’s tactics in Gaza and Lebanon (and elsewhere) disproportionate and inhumane? The answer which comes from Israel’s apologists seems to be, essentially, “They had to do something, these people were going to kill them all!” Even in the nightmare scenario where this was actually true, it wouldn’t be an adequate answer: if someone’s trying to kill you, it’s not self-defence to burn out the family who live next door.

Not that anyone appears to be listening to arguments like these. (They certainly aren’t listening on Comment is Free…) In a way that’s the worst thing about the current situation – the sense that the killers of the IDF are doing exactly what the killers of Hezbollah want them to (and vice versa), so that things are likely to get a lot worse before they get better.

It will have blood, they say – blood will have blood.

Don’t have nightmares.

Tell me, how much can you take?

The blogs I read regularly have changed a little since I started blogging, but not the blogs I avoid. I can think of a few right-wingers whose frame of reference is so different from mine that, if I did read them, I’d spend all my time responding to them – I mean the kind of people who not only use ‘socialist’ as an insult but apply it to Blair. Fortunately there aren’t many of them (I’m speaking only of British bloggers here) – and besides, depriving myself of Tory blogs isn’t much of an effort. Unfortunately there are also some left-wingers whose frame of reference is so different from mine that, etc, and they’re harder to avoid.

All of which is prompted by one of my very rare visits to the Normblog; I was genuinely interested to know what Geras would say about Gaza. What he said about Gaza was this:

No government could ignore them.That’s the Qassam missiles that have been fired from Gaza into Israel; and who is saying it is today’s Guardian leader. From that you might infer that the Guardian thinks Israel is justified in taking retaliatory action of some kind to put an end to these missile attacks, as well as to kidnapping incursions into its territory. Forget about it.

No, ‘the distinction between preemption and retaliation [is] now bloodily blurred’, there’s a ‘harsh cycle of attack, retaliation and vengeance’, and everything’s too much of a mish-mash to be able to discern anything clearly about actions and responses – I mean too much of a mish-mash in that Guardian leader.

The fact remains: no government could ignore them, and no other would be expected to.

No government could ignore them; ergo it’s hypocritical to argue that Israel should ignore them, and the only debate to be had is about ‘how’ rather than ‘what’ (let alone ‘why’). Some form of armed response can be justified; or, if we can’t justify it, perhaps we can condone it; or, if we can’t justify or condone, we should recognise that it was inevitable and stop carping. In effect we bracket the morality of the Israeli armed response, taking it as read that armed response is the kind of thing nation states do. What we can legitimately discuss is the scale of the Israeli armed response and the choice of one set of targets rather than another.

But something’s wrong here. I can concede the premise that No government could ignore them – any government of any nation state would respond in some way to missile attacks and an abducted serviceman – but not that we have a duty to put ourselves in the offended government’s position, trading off our moral instincts against interests of state and the logic of military expediency. Even the Guardian leader which offended Norm goes down this route:

Bombing bridges may have some military logic, but the destruction of a power station seems intended solely to intimidate and inflict collective punishment.

Unsurprisingly, a commenter promptly weighed in in support of bombing power stations as a military tactic.

I keep remembering a grotesque image from children’s literature – E. Nesbit, perhaps, or C.S. Lewis in a darker moment – of a friendless giant: he wants someone to play with, but every time he finds somebody and picks them up they break and then they’re no good for playing with any more… Israel’s intentions with regard to the Palestinians aren’t playful, as far as we can see, but the government’s actions and its self-image remind me of that giant’s endless, unstoppable destructiveness and his undentable innocence.

But they were killing our people – of course we dropped bombs on bridges and a power station and a university and the Prime Minister’s office! We had to do something!

Or, for that matter,
But they were living on our land and they said it was theirs – of course we blocked their roads and ploughed up their orchards and closed their shops and bulldozed their houses and shot at their children! We had to do something!

There comes a point, I would argue, when quantity becomes quality: when the disproportion between the two parties to a conflict becomes so huge, so glaring and so consistent as to make it impossible to treat them as interchangeable (But he hurt me, says the giant sitting amid the smoking ruins, I had to do something). There comes a point when the question is not “After this provocation, could any government do nothing?” but “Whatever the provocation, should any government do this?” I can’t think of many governments which have gone in for forcible demographic re-engineering as heavily as has Israel, under Right or Left. Ceausescu springs to mind; Pol Pot, of course, and Mao for that matter; Saddam Hussein, maybe. It’s not what you’d call a Hall of Fame.

This relates to a minor but telling weakness in the Euston worldview. The Euston Manifesto’s seventh paragraph didn’t get much sustained attention at the time, perhaps because everyone was still boggling from the sixth (“Opposing Anti-Americanism”), perhaps because it didn’t seem to do very much apart from committing signatories to a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine. Personally I’ve been a single-secular-democratic-state person for some time – I remember a friend asking me, all of twenty years ago, why it was that the same people who denounced the bantustan system in South Africa seemed to want to create bantustans for the Palestinians. Euston paragraph 7 nicely crystallises my doubts about the two-state solution:

We recognize the right of both the Israeli and the Palestinian peoples to self-determination within the framework of a two-state solution. There can be no reasonable resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that subordinates or eliminates the legitimate rights and interests of one of the sides to the dispute.

Or, as I parodied it at the time:

Palestine. Ah yes, but Israel. Palestine: Israel. Israel: Palestine. We can’t have a settlement that the Palestinians don’t like, but that also means that we can’t have a settlement that the Israelis don’t like, because that wouldn’t be fair. Palestine: Israel. Israel: Palestine. You see my point? It’s a tough one, isn’t it?

The problem is that, for as long as Israelis define themselves as ‘the Israeli people’, whose self-determination is a distinct issue from the self-determination of a ‘Palestinian people’, the identities of ‘Israel’ and ‘Palestine’ will be perpetuated; and those identities are the identities of the perpetrator and the victim of a great wrong. A great and continuing wrong, but one specifically excluded from the professed universalism of the Euston project. Ellis:

Three of the greatest propaganda achievements of the Israeli state are the concealment of the origins of that state, the construction of an image of Israel as a state much like other states, and the representation of Israel as the victim rather than as the aggressor. The violence, terrorism and injustice of what happened in 1948 are written out of history. And Israel is not in any sense like, say, Italy, or Britain, or the USA. The condition of Israel as an institutionally sectarian state which comprehensively discriminates against its Arab citizens and which for 58 years has been engaged in seizing more and more Palestinian land and water is rarely acknowledged.

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