Does Ed Miliband really know the best way to tackle anti-Semitism?

The Labour Leader has called for a "calm" and "responsible" approach to Israel, but he should really take a hard look at his own stance first

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The Independent Online

There must, roars beleaguered Ed Miliband, mouse-like, on his Facebook page, “be a zero-tolerance approach to anti-Semitism.” Could be said better but depressing it needs to be said at all. Jew-hating is on the rise again. In Europe, murders; here, synagogues defaced, Jewish MPs abused, ancient libels invoked, Nazi crimes remembered fondly on our streets. The more we change, the more we don’t. Heil Hitler!

In 2010, I had two characters in my novel The Finkler Question discuss such incidents. Unpleasant, says one, but “not exactly Kristallnacht”. In my new novel J, set nowhere in particular in some future time, the hatred has returned in earnest and events are portrayed which do bear comparison with Kristallnacht.

These novels represent the poles of my anxiety about the future for Jews. We can exaggerate the danger: we can underestimate the danger. Madness to live in constant fear, but only fools believe that what happened can never happen again.

Anti-Semitism never sleeps and needs no pretext. But why the resurgence of it now? Simple answer: Israel. Less simple are the dynamics of causation. Does Israel create anti-Semitism in people otherwise of kind heart? Does it provide an opportunity for pre-existing anti-Semites to voice their creed in the guise of humanitarian outrage? Is Israel itself seen through the prism of that pre-existing anti-Semitism? This last is contentious and invariably provokes the protestation “It is not anti-Semitic to criticise Israel”. So let’s get that out of the way. No, it is not anti-Semitic – necessarily anti-Semitic – to criticise Israel. Depending on the criticism, it might even be the opposite.

Depending on the criticism – here’s the nub of it. And here is where Miliband is unsatisfactory. Consider his statement, “All of us need to use calm and responsible language in the way we discuss Israel”, which on the face of it appears unexceptionable but which, on a second look, turns out to be a dodge. It isn’t, for starters, true that “All of us need” to be wary of the words we use in relation to Israel, since many already are. Who, then, is he addressing? The Party? Himself? Are there second thoughts in evidence here, following his castigation of Operation Protective Edge and his railroading of Labour into recognising Palestinian independence? If so, why not admit them?

 

Fair enough, if not. What he thinks, he thinks. That does not free him, though, from the responsibility of thinking intelligently. When he said earlier this year that he supported “Israel’s right to defend itself against rocket attacks” but could not “explain, justify or defend the horrifying deaths of hundreds of Palestinians”, he was speaking unintelligently in the way that many supinely observing the terrible destruction of Gaza on television spoke unintelligently.

But mass unintelligence does not excuse individual cases of it. The more common the ill-judgement, the more it behoves an exceptional man to speak uncommonly. The unintelligence in this instance comprised describing an insolubly bloody problem and then expecting an unbloody solution to it. If Israel had a right to defend itself, how was it going to do so, in the circumstances it was faced with, except in ways that would cause suffering? It is not easy to defend the deaths of innocent people in war, but there are times when we can explain why those deaths occur. If we make horror our sticking point, no war is justifiable.

It’s in the nature of tragedy that oppositions pull us. Only in satire are we told which side we’re on. Admitting irreconcilabilities in our feelings is part of what makes us human. Choose to feel only one thing and we deliver ourselves up to bigotry. If this is what Miliband means by our needing “to use calm and responsible language in the way we discuss Israel”, I applaud him. But the clause that follows – “especially when we disagree with the actions of its government” – takes the rug from under his argument. For if it’s not in the matter of agreeing or disagreeing with the actions of Israel’s government that we need to be calm and responsible, what are we being asked to be calm and responsible about?

This is not special pleading. Nothing extenuate. Nor set down aught in malice. Justice in reporting is all one asks. Until he acknowledges the knot intrinsicate of Israel’s relations with neighbours ambitious to destroy it – neighbours not without justifiable grievance – Miliband is merely window dressing. If our language is a problem it’s because our assessment of the situation is a problem. The one cannot be changed without the other.

A calm, responsible view of Israel, which includes understanding the rationale of its existence, might not make you like it or agree with it, but it will make you halt before the malicious caricature of it as a country unlike any other in its blood-thirst and intransigence, a caricature so reminiscent of the medieval figuration of Jews as Christ killers and child murderers that either the medieval imagination had it right and the Jew is indeed uniquely evil, or else the Jew, personified by Israel, is uniquely maligned.

Not every Jew connects with Israel. And of those who do, many have strong reservations. But willy-nilly there is an identification of Jews and Israel, if not in the minds of Jews themselves, then in the minds of those who equate the Star of David with the swastika.

It is disingenuous of commentators who find Israel guilty of racial supremacy and apartheid, likening it to the Nazis and even Isis, to throw up their hands in horror at the spread of anti-Semitism. Miliband fools himself if he thinks irrational Jew-hating can be addressed so long as irrational Israel-hating is not. You pays your money. If the only Jewish country on earth is indeed uniquely evil, then it’s no wonder you’re saying Heil to Hitler. If you don’t approve the libel then stop libelling.

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