Criticism of Israeli policy towards Palestinians is all too easily sliding into antisemitism – an evil plague with a deadly history, warns Allan Massie
‘Mark my words,” said Mr Deasy to Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses, “England is in the hands of the Jews. In all the highest places: her finances, her press. And they are the signs of a nation’s decay.” Later he tells Stephen that Ireland has “the honour” of being the only country never to have persecuted the Jews, and asks if he knows why. Answering his own question he says “solemnly”: “Because she never let them in.”
Mr Deasy wasn’t of course right. There were Jews in Ireland – Joyce’s Leopold Bloom for one – and there had even been what was called with some exaggeration “a pogrom” in Cork. Moreover the honour he spoke of might more appropriately have been given to Scotland. As a Presbyterian nation, in which till the 20th century more emphasis was on the Old Testament than the New, Scots had a special affinity with the Jews: Scotland was the New Israel that had made a Covenant with the Lord.
Yet the antisemitism evident in Mr Deasy’s first remarks was common throughout western Europe in the early 20th century. Jews were different. They were active in international finance; they represented the money power (even though most Jews were poor). They were cosmopolitan and footloose, their attachment to the country where they lived only provisional. There were pogroms in Tsarist Russia. The Dreyfus case in France was rooted in vile antisemitisim, Dreyfus’s patriotism being suspect simply because he was a Jew. Writers such as Hilaire Belloc and GK Chesterton argued that Jews could never wholly belong because their loyalties transcended national frontiers, and, of course Jews were stock villains in popular fiction. Strangely, in the light of what was to happen, Jews were more thoroughly integrated in imperial Germany than in any other country in Europe.
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Hitler killed six million Jews, and in doing so also all but killed European antisemitism stone dead. Almost everybody recognised that you could no longer speak or write about the Jews as utterly respectable people had been wont to do before Hitler’s “Final Solution”. Such antisemitic prejudice as survived was only muttered. Jews here are active in public life, and generally respected, not resented. Several Jews served in Margaret Thatcher’s cabinets. The Leader of the Opposition is a Jew, and, though Ed Miliband has been the object of sharp criticism, none of it has been couched in antisemitic terms.
Yet antisemitism has been on the rise in Europe again. Synagogues and Jewish schools have been attacked, Jews murdered because they are Jews, and Jewish cemeteries defaced. This week the Home Secretary, Theresa May, expressed her shock at the realisation that for the first time in her life Jews no longer felt safe in the United Kingdom.
There are two strands to this new wave of antisemitism. We may happily acquit ourselves of responsibility for the first strand, because it is Islamist. The Islamists are against Jews just as they are against Christians and secular western democrats. We are all in the same boat: enemies, and prospective victims, of Islamist terror. (One consequence has been the welcome now given to French Jews by Marine Le Pen’s Front National.)
The second strand is more complicated and more worrying. Antisemitism can be made to appear respectable by presenting itself as pro-Palestinian, anti-Israeli. In this guise boycotts of Israeli (or pro-Israel) speakers and Israeli theatre companies have been permitted by academic institutions, civic authorities, and festival organisers. Yet the line between being critical of Israel and antisemitism is very easily crossed. It should be possible to make a distinction between disapproval of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, and antisemitism, but many choose not to do so. They even refuse to recognise that there are many in Israel and many Jews in Europe and the US who are very critical of Israel’s hard-line government and sincere advocates of the “Two State solution”.
One may believe that the Balfour Declaration promising a “national home” for the Jews, and the creation of the State of Israel 30 years later, were mistakes, even one of the last examples of European imperialism. But this is irrelevant. Israel is there. It exists. It is not going to disappear and should not do so. Some Arab states, notably Jordan and Egypt, have recognised this. The Palestinian Authority, which has an understanding of realities, accepts Israel’s existence, but Hamas, which governs Gaza, refuses to do so. Until it does so there can be no peace and no relaxation of Israel’s grip on the Palestinian people. This is a tragedy for both sides.
Meanwhile Palestinian grievances, which are real and legitimate, are employed by Islamists as a justification for acts of terrorism directed against European Jews, and at the same time these grievances, which inspire natural sympathy among British and European Muslims, make some less ready, or indeed able, to express a total rejection of Islamism and Islamist violence .
Our own position should be clear. Criticism of Israeli policies is one thing, often justified. Antisemitism is another thing, never justifiable. Antisemitism is simply racism. Bombing or setting fire to a synagogue is like bombing or setting fire to a mosque or Christian Church.
Antisemitism has been a recurrent plague over the centuries, and the outbreak over the occupation of Palestinian land is only the latest version of the disease. No matter how understandable, it’s deplorable, wrong and wicked. We should never forget what antisemitism can lead to. As George Steiner observed, when Europeans no long believed in Hell after death they created Hell on Earth in the Nazi death-camps; and they did so in the country where Jews were most thoroughly assimilated, or, as we should now say, integrated.
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