It's a mesmerising, awesome sight when a private conversation goes rogue, and starts crashing about in open society, leaving terror and destruction in its wake. A comment which recently escaped from a party thrown by the newspaper proprietor Lord Black of Crossharbour (to thank God, as we all do, for the continued existence of Boris Johnson) has proved particularly explosive. The French ambassador, Daniel Bernard, remarked to Lord Black that it was amazing that the world was in danger of World War Three because of "that shitty little country, Israel". Lord Black told his wife, the journalist Barbara Amiel, about the conversation.
She quoted it without specific attribution in an article suggesting that anti-Semitism was once more becoming "respectable". Mr Bernard, who was quickly identified, does not deny the words, but says he was merely pointing out that it was amazing for such big troubles to be generated by such a tiny place. In the same article, again without naming names, Ms Amiel also alleged that the society hostess Carla Powell had made overtly and aggressively anti-Semitic statements at a lunch party. This time the remarks are denied most emphatically, so it is hardly fair to repeat them.
Now the 60-year-old diplomat fears for his job, and the Italian socialite fears for her placements. Which surely offers a little reassurance, because if anti-Semitism really was once more as commonplace in the "upper ranks" as it was for much of the last century, no one would be turning a hair.
Any naysaying idiot who doubts this would be well advised to do nothing more arduous than read a few early editions of Agatha Christie. Anti-Semitism is casually rife in the Queen of Crime's English drawing-rooms. I mention this because it was in the course of teenage Christie-reading that I first came across English anti-Semitism at first hand. A quarter of a century on, my shock and disgust has not abated.
So I am rather mortified to learn that, according to Ms Amiel, I too have been peddling anti-Semitism. Ever since I went to Israel on holiday, I've considered it to be a shitty little country too. And I was under the impression that even Israelis thought this. I mean, if they thought Israel was small but perfectly formed, surely they wouldn't be so hell-bent on making it bigger and better, come what may.
Whoops! Now, I stand accused of both anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, which we are constantly, patiently, told are exactly the same thing. No they're not. They're two different things. Anti-Semitism is disliking all Jews, anywhere, and anti-Zionism is just disliking the existence of Israel and opposing those who support it.
The former should have been unspeakable throughout history, but to the world's unending shame and misery, is not even yet. The latter might faintly, possibly, with the wisdom of hindsight, have been an almost tenable point of view prior to the creation of Israel. But it is utterly redundant now. Israel cannot be dismantled.
This may be an academic rather than a practical distinction, and one which has no connection with holding the honest view that in my experience Israel is shitty and little. What's more, the daily trauma it undergoes in defending its right to exist is the main thing that makes the place so shitty. QED. I'm not going back there for a holiday in the foreseeable future, because I don't find it a congenial place to spend time. But I defend Israel's right to exist, within the terms of the Oslo Accords, all the same.
And I do have some trouble with the context of M Bernard's remark. Whether you think it little and shitty or not, this is not the time to be suggesting Israel might be the catalyst for World War Three. You do not have to be anti-Semitic to view the television pictures being beamed from the Palestinian Authority, or the rhetoric being broadcast by the Israeli government, with mounting dread and a heartfelt wish that this was not happening.
But you do have to bear in mind that the debate around Israel has suddenly moved beyond hysteria. There is a feeling now that anything could happen. In the Arab world, and beyond, extremists and not-so-extremists really do blame Israel and the Jews for all the ills of the world. They really do believe that the Jewish people intend to achieve total domination of the planet, if they haven't already.
They still consider the Holocaust to have been faked to gain sympathy for Jews and their wish to have their own country. They now believe the 11 September atrocities to have been engineered as part of a grand Zionist plan to excuse the bombing of the Palestinian Authority into the Middle Ages.
There is some truly repulsive and scary anti-Semitism out there, and it is growing. It is frightening to right-thinking Jew and right-thinking gentile alike. But paranoia must be avoided. Ms Amiel sees anti-Semitism at every party she attends in London because suddenly so many people seem hostile to Israel that every tiny slight is a great big deal. But she is falling into a trap.
As a passionate Zionist she is hyper-sensitive to criticism of Israeli policy and action, without being able to see that you can make criticisms, or even express vehement disagreement, without being an implacable enemy. Like an abused adolescent who has subsequently been therapy-validated up to the gills, she demands nothing less than unconditional acceptance, under all circumstances. Anything less is betrayal. And the country she supports so emphatically could now, in the wake of American action in response to 11 September, be judged to be behaving in the same way.
Ignorant hate-filled Palestinians stunned the world by dancing in the streets on the day that the twin towers collapsed. But was the behaviour of the Israeli government in the hours after the disaster – immediate incursions, a huffy fall-out with Jack Straw because he said "Palestine" – so very much more attractive?
This, some say, is a question that only an anti-Semite would ask. But actually, I'm getting fed up with being called an anti-Semite. And the more fed up I get, the more anti-Semitic I sound. If the likes of Ms Amiel continue to insist that everyone with a word to say against Israel is an anti-Semite, she is going to find one day that the world is once more divided neatly between anti-Semites and Jews.
That sounds like an anti-Semitic threat. It's not. It's the last thing I want. However, potential, but conditional, sympathisers are alienated so much by Zionist rhetoric that they start singing from what sounds like the same songsheet as the anti-Semite conspiracy theorists. Which I think is what has happened to the French ambassador. The only people who will be lathered into apoplexy by Mr Bernard's remarks are the very people who need to be keeping the coolest of heads right now. But Israelis, and the most committed of friends of Israel, are very far from doing that.
All the same, it is very wrong to suggest that Israel might be responsible for the start of World War Three, even it it isn't anti-Semitic. It was obvious that Ariel Sharon would borrow the justifications of George Bush to mount his own war on terrorism. Indeed it was one of the reasons why the declaration of the initial war against terrorism was wrong, even though Osama bin Laden was wrong, even though Russia was wrong, and so on. Wars always set a bad example, but we never seem to learn that. When the last war comes, we'll all be responsible. But at least our self-destruction will free us of anti-Semitism.Reuse content