Dominic Lawson: You don't have to be an anti-Semite to deny Israel's right to exist - but it helps

I begin to understand why my family made cyanide pills to take in case the Nazis invaded
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The Independent Online

Any journalist who chooses to express an opinion on the State of Israel is like a man trying to change a light-bulb. He is attempting to shed some light, but knows he may well get a painful shock. So I was not surprised by the vehemence of reader responses to my last column, which sought to explain why Israel has responded so dramatically to the cross-border seizure of its soldiers and the regular rocket attacks on its northern cities by Hizbollah.

Approximately one third of your letters approved of the article, and two thirds very definitely didn't. Of the latter, most seemed to misunderstand what I said. I did not say that Israel's response to Hizbollah was "proportionate". I argued that the very idea of proportionality in warfare is meaningless. I can't really believe that what the advocates of "proportionality" are advocating is that Israel should instead have decided to fire rockets at random intervals into southern Lebanon, with particular intensity reserved for the areas favoured by tourists, rather than terrorists. Nor have I heard any of the advocates of "proportionality" criticise Hizbollah for demanding the return of over 1,000 prisoners in return for the release of two Israeli soldiers.

Some writers seem to imagine that Hizbollah's aim is to force the Israelis to treat its Palestinian citizens in a more equitable manner. It is not. Hizbollah's militia was originally set up with one aim, to drive the Israeli Defence Forces from Lebanon. Six years ago, that was accomplished. In return, the UN required Hizbollah to disarm. Instead, supplied by Iran and Syria, it has - as the IDF is now learning to its cost--dramatically increased its military capacity. And to what purpose? Its leader, Hassan Nasrullah is explicit on this point: he backs the Iranian president's call for "the elimination of the Zionist strain".

Interestingly, the readers most critical of Tuesday's column seem to share President Ahmadinejad's views. Mr Richard Burton writes that "Israel is not a democracy. It forcibly ejects the racially different and invites Jews on the make, worldwide, to take over their property. I note Sir Oswald Mosley's opinion that Jewish ambitions were behind both previous world wars ... the Jews' control over the mass media conceals the fact that they are the prime cause for stoking up violence in the world today ... If there is a backlash against the Jews in this country it will be handsomely deserved."

Muhammad Idrees Ahmad of the University of Strathclyde says that "Israel was founded on the ethnic cleansing and genocide of the native Palestinian population" and describes me as a "mad dog". Kamran Ahmed writes that "of course you take the view that Muslims are lesser beings and deserve it." Elizabeth Will says that "Israel is a shitty country: I would hate to be an Israelite. What future do you have? Why not question Israel's right to exist?"

And in response to my remark that British people, put in the same situation as the Israelis now are "would feel the same way", Robert Laver responds: "How can you compare the national survival of Israel, a state founded in 1948 on the land of Palestinians, with the survival of Britain with over 2,000 years of continuous occupation by Britons?"

Perhaps those readers will forgive me if I address their arguments here, rather than reply to them individually. Of course Mr Laver is right that the state of Israel came into being, and was recognised as such by the UN, in 1948. But what little I can remember of the history of the region tells me that there was a highly sophisticated independent Jewish kingdom of Judea while Mr Laver's ancient Britons were running around in paint. (Actually, the Britons still are, to judge from the appearance of English football supporters during the World Cup.) It was the Roman Empire which kicked the recalcitrant Jews out of their kingdom. Thus began the two millennia-long wanderings of the Jewish diaspora, for whom the creation of the State of Israel was designed to offer a secure home.

Given that it was the genocide of the European Jews which finally persuaded the Western powers of the need for a Jewish state, I can see why Muhammad Idrees Ahmed likes to assert that the Israelis have conducted genocide against the Palestinians. But there are now 1.5 million Arabs living in Israel, compared with 50,000 in 1948. If the Israelis have been conducting genocide, they certainly lack the Teutonic efficiency of the Nazis.

To Kamran Ahmed's accusation that my attempt to explain the actions of the Israelis in Lebanon means that I believe "Muslims are lesser beings", I can only cite the column which I wrote here last month, which advocated the mass conversion of the nation's male youth to Islam - admittedly as a practical solution to the problems of alcohol abuse, mindless gambling and general decadence.

Elizabeth Will's question - "Why not question Israel's right to exist?"- is at the heart of the matter. Unlike many of Israel's critics in this country she has the honesty to put the point which others prefer to insinuate. You don't have to be anti-Semitic to make it - although it helps. There is the argument, often put by Jews of extreme religious Orthodoxy, that the purity of their faith has been corrupted by the moral compromises that unavoidably come with the obligations of a state. There is also the argument that it was a hopeless dream to sustain an uncorrupt parliamentary democracy on European lines in the Middle East, and that Israel could survive only if it became , well, more Middle Eastern.

Suppose this country were to adopt the policy which currently is that only of Iran out of all the world's nations - that Israel shouldn't exist. What then would we propose to do about it? Would we support Hizbollah with arms and technical advice? Or would we tell millions of stateless Israelis that they are welcome to settle in Britain?

The latter policy, though morally consequent upon advocacy of the destruction of the state of Israel, would probably not appeal to Mr Richard Burton, he of the Oswald Mosley appreciation society.

When I read letters like his, I begin to understand why my maternal family made themselves cyanide pills, to take if the Nazis successfully invaded Britain. They were not confident that the British would behave as the Danes did, and help their Jewish population flee to neutral territory. Indeed, what happened to the Jews of the Channel Islands under Nazi occupation suggested that their assessment was all too accurate.

It's one of the wonders of this dispute: that many of those who denounce Israel for behaving like Nazis are also those who secretly - or not so secretly - think that actually Hitler was rather sound about the Jews.