What's in a name? Quite a lot if you call yourself an 'Arabist'

It chills my heart, this entertaining of romantic feelings towards non-Jewish inhabitants of the Middle East

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I don't know what's in a name but there can be plenty in a number. Fifty-two diplomats signed that letter to Tony Blair on the subject of Iraq and the Middle East. One for every week of the year. Did they aim for that number, I wonder, or were they just unable to find a 53rd? There's potency in it, either way. You have to listen to as many distinguished diplomats as there are weeks in a year, whether or not they are past their sell-by date, not all the pick of the crop even when they were in season, and many of them Arabists, or "camels" as I now discover that Arabists are called.

I don't know what's in a name but there can be plenty in a number. Fifty-two diplomats signed that letter to Tony Blair on the subject of Iraq and the Middle East. One for every week of the year. Did they aim for that number, I wonder, or were they just unable to find a 53rd? There's potency in it, either way. You have to listen to as many distinguished diplomats as there are weeks in a year, whether or not they are past their sell-by date, not all the pick of the crop even when they were in season, and many of them Arabists, or "camels" as I now discover that Arabists are called.

So what are Israelist diplomats called? Volvos?

Or is that anti-Semitic as well as unfunny? No unfunnier, surely, than "camels".

Forgive me, my loyalties are under strain. This column has always maintained that what while criticism of Israel is not necessarily anti-Semitic, that doesn't mean it never is. And when words like Nazism start being bandied about to describe what bears no resemblance to the exterminationist aims of the Nazis, we know in whose company we are. You have to hate the Jew in the Israeli to want to Nazify him.

The unholy psychic pay-off that comes with imputing Nazi motives to Israel is this: not only do you remind Jews of their greatest loss, you also insinuate, by means of a sort of hellish hindsight - seeing the punishment before the crime - that they always had it coming. To those who do, shall it have been done.

But the saying of that - and it cannot be said too often - comes with an answering obligation. If we would have others understand wherein we suffer outrage, we must accept wherein we may cause it. Thus are we human, and thus are you. So there can be no justification for crying "Arabist!" and assuming that concludes the matter every time an English diplomat voices dismay about, say, Israeli settlements. Not least when that dismay is couched, as it was last week by the famous 52, in language that has nothing incendiary in it. Is it a crime simply to be "Arabist"? Is there not ever to be an "Arabist" position which a fair-minded Israeli can accept?

I understand the fear of it. The word chills my blood and I am not Israeli. Not the word "Arab" that chills, you must understand, but the word "Arabist" - the entertaining of romantic feelings towards the non-Jewish inhabitants of the Middle East by persons not from that part of the world at all, except in the capacity of sentimental tourists and antiquarians of the heart.

I have been looked at by Arabists. I have felt the want of flowing robes. Whatever the man-to-man camaraderie enjoyed by Arabs and Englishmen of a certain type (not all of them necessarily hankering to be T E Lawrence), I know that it will never be something in which I can share. The Jew performs many functions in the imaginations of non-Jews, but being a noble savage (part sensual warrior, part lover of the brimming cup, part poetical astronomer, part street urchin) is not one of them. Good or bad, there is too much intellection in us.

Paranoia? You bet. Once you have been looked over by an Arabist you have no choice but to be paranoid. But that doesn't make their judgement suspect in every instance. Nor does Israeli paranoia, which is Jewish paranoia writ large, justify every action this or that Israeli administration takes. The hard part is to concede any of the argument without thereby seeming to concede it all. And this is not made any easier when you have otherwise rational people waxing lyrical about the exquisite martyrdom of the suicide bomber.

Rather than parley with them, of course, you lock the doors and pull up the blanket. I would, were I an Israeli. "Call me the Nazi, would you, when it is my children who are being blown apart? Call me intolerant when it is your immemorial intolerance that created the circumstances of this wretched divide in the first place, and what is more provides the very vocabulary and literature in which we are execrated to this day? Call me Nazi and we have nothing further to say to each other."

The trouble is, the argument that counts is not in the end with the anti-Semite who thinks he isn't, or the Arabist who knows he is, but with the Palestinian people who have some justification for being both. And if I can understand why an Israeli would close the door on the outside world and immure himself in a steely ring of obduracy and fire, I must also understand the bloody chain of consequences that would lead a Palestinian deprived of realistic hope to do the same.

"Vex not nor oppress the stranger, for you were strangers in Egypt once," the Jewish Bible exhorts. Oppress not the stranger, the exile, the persecuted, else estrangement, exile and persecution were visited on you in vain.

Never mind that Arafat had his chance, or at least had half a chance, and blew it. Arafat too, out of whatever mix of corruption and ideology, is a persecutor of his people. And humanity demands that we do not doubly punish them with him. Pull the settlements down, or at the very least, whatever iron-clad guarantees from Bush you've pocketed, show that you are prepared to pull them down. Give something back, give plenty back - of course it will never be enough, but give more than you would like to give - and then, if you must, withdraw behind the wall you had no choice but to erect.

If the Arabists are still not satisfied, and prate about a multi-ethnic Israel, modelled on such glowing examples of multi-ethnicity as Iraq and Syria from which, if I am not mistaken, Jews were not all that long ago expelled and dispossessed, then by their true colours will we know them.

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