Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Charges of Anti-Semitism

Why are so many being accused of anti-Semitism in Europe?

David Clark, former Labor government adviser, comments on the wave of accusations occuring accross the pond.

If the past few weeks have demonstrated anything, it is the frequency with which allegations of anti-Semitism surface in modern political debate. Ken Livingstone, the Church of England and the Guardian (over articles comparing Israel and apartheid) are the most recent to find themselves in the firing line. This is the backdrop against which an unofficial parliamentary inquiry on anti-Semitism under former Foreign Office minister Denis McShane concluded its hearings in Westminster yesterday.


But these personal expressions of prejudice stand out precisely because they conflict so sharply with the left’s universalism and its opposition to ethnic discrimination. A more sweeping charge is that this universalism is itself a source of anti-Semitism since, in its maximalist interpretation, it denies Israel’s right to be a Jewish state. But the few still calling for a single “secular, democratic state” in the whole of historic Palestine are making a statement about the inadmissibility of defining statehood according to religious or ethnic criteria that they apply as a universal norm. Impractical and idealistic this may be, but it is not anti-Semitic, and it is plainly dishonest to suggest it is.

[This is a very good point. More interestingly, the left does continue object to universalism for the West. The question is, should Israel be treated like a Western nation or something else?]

So what changed [regarding the left's support for Israel]? The answer is 1967 and Israel’s subsequent emergence as a power determined to annex territory beyond its legally recognized borders. The unbearable truth is that the left that identifies with the Palestinians today is largely the same left that identified with Israel in the 1950s and the 1960s. Moreover, it does so for largely the same reason: instinctive sympathy for the underdog. For some, the idea that anyone could see the conflict in these terms is literally unthinkable, so they are forced to impute to Israel’s critics the motive of Jew-hatred.

At best, this betrays a lack of empathy — at worst, something less forgivable. From Golda Meir’s denial that the Palestinians existed to Ehud Barak’s dismissal of them as congenital liars, there is a long tradition of prejudice that regards the Palestinians as lesser beings deserving of lesser rights.

A more subtle argument accepts that Israel is open to criticism, but complains that it is singled out to an extent that reveals an underlying anti-Jewish prejudice. Or to put it another way: “Others get away with it, so why can’t Israel.” Despite its cynicism, this argument deserves an answer, and it is provided, as it happens, by Israel’s staunchest supporters. Israel, we are rightly reminded, is a democracy. Is it not legitimate, therefore, to expect it to uphold the democratic values we share in common? Far from being held to a higher standard, as its supporters often protest, Israel seems to operate with a greater impunity, and to do so with Western acquiescence. This is the real reason why the issue is felt so deeply on the left and why unofficial boycotts are emerging to fill the moral void left by our feeble leaders.

A final objection takes issue with the left’s supposed “demonization” of Israel. Although often overdone, one suspects that comparisons with apartheid provoke anger because they contain an uncomfortable element of truth. More clear-cut are analogies with Nazi Germany. These should be deplored on grounds of both historical truth and taste.

This is a very good summary of the state of the debate.



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