The truth about anti-Semitism

'People with Jewish names who write or broadcast are aware of a light and constant drizzle of anti-Semitism'
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The Independent Online

It was Holocaust Day on Sunday. On Friday my daughters refused to let me watch the BBC TV drama about the 1942 Wannsee conference (the meeting which decided upon the industrialisation of the murder of Europe's Jews) because they wanted to see Friends. But my eight-year-old did ask me to explain what had happened to the Jews and why. I said I'd do it in the morning, but she didn't ask again.

In one way I don't want to talk about it. She's bonny and, in any case, she's only a quarter Jewish and, if my reading of Wannsee is right, as a person of mixed blood in the second degree, probably wouldn't have been exterminated. That's because she doesn't possess "a racially especially undesirable appearance that marks [her] outwardly as a Jew".

And everybody else talks about it, and the word threatens to drown intelligent discussion. Is my genocide worse than your genocide? Is my victimhood greater than yours? Until the main point – that anyone can be a perpetrator of crimes – is entirely lost.

I am also uncomfortable with the notion that there is something particular about Jewishness that makes it a natural target for hatred; or something innate about Gentiles that makes them want to kill Jews. Over the years I have noticed a neurosis that periodically envelops the wider Jewish community, in which minor manifestations of anti-Semitism are declared to be part of a new pattern. In Britain it is overwhelmingly black people and Asians who, day to day, suffer from racism. Nor do I want to be on the side of those who use the cry of anti-Semitism to justify Israeli policy, or to whitewash Israeli history.

Over the weekend, a liberal rabbi, David Goldberg, devoted a newspaper column to gentle mockery of some writers and commentators who had claimed to detect (in the wake of 11 September) a renewed anti-Semitism. He had not been, he said, to "one of those north London dinner parties where writers such as Linda Grant, Melanie Phillips and Barbara Amiel claim to have been shocked by the anti-Semitic hostility of the chattering classes... I seem to have been shielded from the swirling eddies of anti-Semitism masquerading as anti-Zionism which other observers have detected in recent months."

Nor was he worried by what some Islamic sources were saying about Jews, or think it was reminiscent (as claimed by the Chief Rabbi) of the church's medieval scapegoating of Jews. "To equate a modern Islamic political response to the state of Israel with the church's theological animadversions against the Jewish people, as the Chief Rabbi did," said Goldberg, "is, at the very least, dangerously ahistorical".

Goldberg's thesis essentially was that there was nothing at all to worry about. And somehow, I thought, this is also wrong. Rabbi Goldberg is trying too hard.

Not because of the 14 January edition of the New Statesman. This was the edition which featured, on its cover, a gold star of David piercing a Union Jack, and underneath it the almost brilliantly offensive headline: "A kosher conspiracy?" The cover was a plug for two pieces, one the ritual weekly conspiracist attack by John Pilger on Tony Blair, this time for his covert "support for the Zionist project". Part of the evidence for which was the "shameless" appointment by Blair of the "wealthy Jewish businessman" Lord Levy as his Middle East envoy. How could this man, asked Pilger, with a business and a house in Israel and a son working for an Israeli minister possibly be the man to "negotiate impartially with Palestinians and Israelis"? Easily enough, I thought, provided he was in favour of peace and compromise. Why not?

Anti-Semitism though? If the editor of the New Statesman, Peter Wilby is an anti-Semite, then I am a gefiltefisch. No, he's merely a victim of that weird virus in which editors try to provoke readers into very publicly cancelling their subscriptions.

Even so, you could feel that the confusion of which Goldberg had accused the commentators – that between Zionism and being Jewish – was also present among some anti-Zionists. Take the case of the poet Tom Paulin. He had a spat with Linda Grant and also with a writer called Ian Buruma. Buruma criticised one of Paulin's hero figures, the Palestinian intellectual Edward Said. Wrote Paulin to The Guardian: "Why did you publish Ian Buruma's blethery attack on Edward Said?" and went on to refer to Buruma's "Zionist bluster".

But I can find nothing in Buruma's writing to suggest that he is actually a Zionist – although he is Jewish. So what did Paulin mean? I discovered an interview with Paulin, published a couple of weeks ago, which concluded that Paulin "has become that rare thing in contemporary British culture – the writer as conscience".

How does the "writer as conscience" deal with his critics? "Refreshingly", according to his interlocuteur. "Linda Grant is an emotional fool. She epitomises the culture of avoidance, emotion and guilt and anxiety you come up against... Same with Buruma. He tried to smear me with being an anti-Semite, but he hadn't the guts to do it. He's taking a Zionist position in attacking Said."

His questioner (not always moonstruck) asks Paulin in what way is Buruma's position Zionist? "It's implicit in what he writes," replied the poet. "Look, you're either a Zionist or an anti-Zionist, there's no middle way. Everyone who supports the state of Israel is a Zionist." This is not writer as conscience, it seems to me, but writer as idiot. In one glib, militant flourish Paulin has turned Noam Chomsky, many of the Palestinian negotiators at Oslo, and the vast majority of Israeli peace campaigners, into Zionists.

But Paulin is no anti-Semite either. So Goldberg is still right? Not yet, because silly magazine covers and daft poets weren't the main complaint. What people like Linda Grant were most worried about was the way in which Jews were being depicted in many parts of they world, and in particular among Muslims. Her worries were based on events at the Durban anti-racism conference. On the Der Sturmer-type cartoons of hideous Jews often found in the Arab press. On the proliferation of Jewish conspiracy theories about 11 September. And these Goldberg failed to discuss.

People with Jewish names who write or broadcast are aware, not of the Asian family's daily downpour of prejudice, but of a light and constant drizzle of anti-Semitism. Last week a Timothy Harvey e-mailed me the following: "Can you kindly confirm or deny whether: You are a CRADLE Jew (born of Jewish parentage), You are CLOSET Zionist (uncritical supporter of Israel), You are a COVERT Islamophobe (harbour surreptitious anti-Muslim sentiments)."

Jew. Zionist. Islamophobe. I found the following in a well-constructed website called Media Monitoring. It invited readers to respond to one of my articles "which amounts to nothing more than an attack on Muslims and Islam". "His [my] generalisation of the treatment towards women by Muslim men as 'based on a hatred and fear of female sexuality' demonstrates," said the site's author, "the sick and perverted workings of his own mind".

Here's my actual sentence: "The violent misogyny of the Taliban or the Saudi mutawwain (religious police) is based on a hatred and fear of female sexuality."

It must have been what I meant.