Howard Jacobson: Tolerance shouldn't stop us challenging hatred

Baroness Tonge’s sympathy for the Palestinian cause is considered to cancel out the sin of antipathy to others

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The Independent Online

Apologise or leave the party, Nick Clegg demanded, so the lady left the party. Tough place, politics. The lady in question, if you haven't been following, is Baroness Tonge, and the offence for which she would not apologise was telling Israel it would "reap what it had sown" and cease to exist. So somewhere between a promise and a threat, another example of the Baroness's style of fulminatory rabble-rousing, an apparent exhalation of longing for Israel's extinction. Can a wish be genocidal? In Baroness Tonge's case, yes. If wishes were horses, bigots would ride.

That the Baroness will now appear in the martyrology of those who suffer for their opposition to Israel goes without saying. Already, Mehdi Hasan, the New Statesman's senior political editor, has inscribed her name in the book of the righteous with as shabby a piece of disingenuousness as you will find. Where is the difference, he asks, between Baroness Tonge's proposal for a one-state solution – for that apparently was all it was – and, say, Elmud Olmert's warning that if the two-state solution founders, the State of Israel is finished. By this reasoning, there is nothing to choose between a dire prediction of disaster and the gleeful incitement of it. And the Baroness has only Israel's interests at heart.

For her part, she insists her words were taken out of context and repeats that weary mantra that you can labour for the obliteration of Israel and not be an anti-Semite. To which the weary answer is, yes, but you can equally labour for the obliteration of Israel and be an anti-Semite. Hating Israel is not a get-out-of-jail-free card; it doesn't grant automatic immunity from the charge of loathing Jews.

It is difficult in Baroness Tonge's case to separate that from stupidity. Even for someone holding an unreasonable position, she reasons badly. Take her point that Israel is "America's aircraft carrier in the Middle East". If she means thereby to accuse America of using Israel to spearhead its aggressive foreign policy, then she can't also cite with enthusiasm, as she likes to, the Mearsheimer and Walt conspiracy-fantasy that the Israel lobby has America in its pocket. It's make-your-mind-up time, Baroness: just who is pulling whose strings? If you think America is jerking Israel's at the same time as Israel is jerking America's, then you're describing nothing more sinister than identity of purpose.

As for her words being taken out of context, the problem for the Baroness is that she is all context, a walking chronicle of odious imputation and malignity. Context? Then how about the context of the company she keeps – Hamas, for starters, and, nearer to home, the likes of the ranter by whose side she sat in silence, on the night of her wishing Israel away, as he called Jews Nazis.

Or the context of the medieval mischief she's been stirring for years, such as, to pluck an instance at random, entertaining the suggestion that Israeli soldiers might have been harvesting organs when they were helping in the Haitian relief effort. Or the context of her equally medieval libel that supporters of Israel have "a financial grip" on the Western world.

Tell me, reader, what else you have to do, short of murdering Jews with your bare hands, before you can be called an anti-Semite. Speaking of which, and to return to the "context" we have unfairly overlooked, the context of her imagining, were she Palestinian, how she too would strap explosives to her belt and go out and murder without discrimination.

We are all for the imagination in this column, but if you can imagine turning yourself into a human bomb and blowing up innocent civilians, then you must also imagine why those innocent civilians believe they have something to dread. And vice versa: to imagine an Israeli's fear of terrorism requires an answering imagination of a Palestinian's burning sense of grievance. Where the imagination is one-sided, it does not deserve to be called imagination.

But there is a further context in which the Tonge phenomenon is to be understood. And that is the continuing imputation that Jews bring trouble on themselves. Of which other people is it required that they ponder their responsibility for any hatred of which they are the object? "If I was Jewish," the writer Piers Paul Read said on Front Row the other week, "I would want to know why people were anti-Semitic."

Piers Paul Read is the author of The Dreyfus Affair, the true story of a nation consumed to the point of madness by Jew-hating, so he should have known better than to say what he said. Imagine asking Patrice Evra to wonder why he has been racially abused. Diane Abbott can't even turn an edgy joke against white people – hardly a persecuted minority – without there being hell to pay. But ask Jews if they author their own misfortunes and no one turns a hair.

Baroness Tonge has been allowed to roam and rant at will because her sympathy for the Palestinian cause – and I don't take issue with that – is considered to cancel out the sin of antipathy towards anybody else, and because the smoky zone of anti-Zionism she inhabits allows old prejudices to resurface in another name. We rightly pride ourselves on our tolerance; we are not 19th-century France. But in universities and unions, in the meetings of some pro-Palestinian campaigners, in countless tweets and threads and blogs, our own little orgy of hate goes on.