Anti-Zionists are fools if they think they have a monopoly on compassion

To ask for a more complex reading of the situation is not to exonerate Israel

Howard Jacobson@Independent
Friday 26 February 2016 19:36
Protesters in London calling for a boycott of Israeli goods
Protesters in London calling for a boycott of Israeli goods

And so, the end is near, and now we face... But let us not be maudlin. Let us, instead, return to a theme I’ve addressed often in the 17 years I’ve been writing feuilletonisms – sometimes misconstrued as opinion pieces – for this newspaper. Death? Cyclists? Offence-taking as a lifestyle choice? No, none of the above.

Instead, this being Israel Apartheid Week, allow me, one last time, to address the charge made frequently against anyone for whom Zionism isn’t a dirty word, that such a personage wilfully and maliciously conflates anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism in order to discredit the former.

Since I am one of the personages so charged, no matter that I have never conflated the two, I will repeat my innocence of the accusation. No, I do not say that an anti-Zionist must be an anti-Semite. Might I ever have said it? Perhaps where anti-Zionism comes to mean that Jews can go to hell in a handcart I might have thought it; but where the anti-Zionism is contingent not eschatolgical, a condemnation of a particular series of political choices and events, not an indictment of heartless expansionism lodged forever in the Jewish character, then no, I am not a conflator. Condemn away, I say.

What I do, however, maintain is that an anti-Zionist might be an anti-Semite and, in some instances, demonstrably is. Whatever its originating motives, anti-Zionism has become, for those who want to use it this way, a get-out-of-jail-free card. Anything can now be said about Jews under cover of anti-Zionism, as though, because an anti-Zionist need not be an anti-Semite, it must, by a perverse logic, follow that he never is.

What those who warn against confusing Israel-hatred with Jew-hatred must answer is why the two frequently confuse themselves. The recent alleged goings-on at Oxford and other campuses suggests that the distinct line which anti-Zionists wish to see drawn between their ideology and anti-Semitism is not respected within their own movement. Call a Jew a Zio, perpetuate the blood libel and mutter of worldwide Jew conspiracy, and you either betray the purity of intention you claim for your cause, or you demonstrate there was never such a purity in the first place.

I won’t play the game of “you suspect my motives so I suspect yours”. I simply ask of those who believe I cannot make a distinction whether the blurring they see is theirs not mine. Look into your hearts. How innocent are you?

And don’t tell me you weep when you read sad stories about the Holocaust. Holocaust denial is ignorant and repugnant, but Holocaust lachrymosity is neither a mark of wisdom nor compassion. You can mourn a dead Jew and disrespect a living one. So when an anti-Zionist tells me that his fervent wish is to see the end of Israel but he cannot be an anti-Semite because he regrets the Holocaust, I don’t necessarily feel I am in the presence of a friend.

That many who use phrases such as “Zionist oppression” and “apartheid state” do so unthinkingly, that the words themselves are no more than mood music, so much sounding brass in the service of an orthodoxy intolerant of disagreement, an attentiveness to language should tell us. Rhetoric always declares itself in heat and cliché. If more anti-Zionists were thinking for themselves they would not make the friends, or indeed the enemies, they do. For there are many who do not declare as anti-Zionists with whom they could find common cause in the matter of ending this brutal and all-damaging occupation. Anti-Zionists fool themselves, demean their opponents and do little to further peace, if they think they have a monopoly on compassion.

One can overreact. How significant is the opinion of a few Oxford students? So “Hitler was right” placards appear on our streets every time there’s renewal of Gaza violence and you never know when the organ-harvesting version of the blood-libel is going to pop up next. This is still not yet Kristallnacht, is it? To which the only sane answer is no, this is not yet Kristallnacht. The trouble is, Kristallnacht wasn’t Kristallnacht either, before it was.

The danger of any prejudice lies in its becoming respectable. It’s far easier to oppose a fringe opinion than an orthodoxy. Orthodoxy compels a single rallying cry, and eventually blesses a simplistic, exclusionist vocabulary. Even a newspaper that calls itself independent can give refuge to such orthodoxies. A week ago, the musician Roger Waters was given a whole page in this newspaper to describe the lonely heroism of his stand against the Israeli occupation. Since every word he had to say conformed to conventional anti-Zionist wisdom – including the canard that “the only response to BDS is that it’s anti-Semitic” – it was difficult to grasp just wherein his heroism lay. There might be places where he would be savaged for his opinions, but outside of a settlement in Yitzhar I’m hard pressed to imagine where they’d be.

Certainly a reader would have had to look hard in the pages of last Saturday’s Independent to find a view that didn’t concur with his. Half the letters page was devoted to the question of the Government making the boycott of Israeli goods an offence. Every single letter published deplored such a move. And an editorial in that day’s paper said the same: “The simplest thing the Israeli government could do to discourage boycotts,” it concluded, “would be to grant Palestinians the liberation and sovereignty they deserve.”

The simplest thing, indeed. Waters must have felt a little less lonely reading that. But the phrase “the simplest thing” undoes itself. To ask for a more complex reading of the situation is not to exonerate Israel. Just as to call for diversity of opinion is not to silence unwelcome views. It’s unanimity that’s intolerant. You don’t get to truth by picking up a student newspaper. Only when you don’t speak with the mouth of the multitude can you think of yourself as brave. That doesn’t mean you’ll be right, but at least you won’t be wrong by rote.

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