Howard Jacobson: If there really is a smear campaign to try to silence the critics of Israel, it isn't working

Call those who disagree with you ‘witch-hunters’ often enough and they will see you as one in turn

Saturday 10 May 2008 00:00 BST

I wonder if I might take robust issue with an article my fellow columnist Johann Hari wrote last week, in which he complained about a "campaign to smear anybody who tries to describe the plight of the Palestinian people". In so far as he feels it personally, I sympathise with him. It is infuriating to be contradicted when you know you're right, or to have your motives impugned, or to be in any way misrepresented, no matter that you are well equipped to handle your detractors.

I would be surprised, though, if he, or anyone else, is the victim of anything so concerted as a "campaign". Some of those he cites in evidence of his charge – Melanie Phillips, for example, and Alan Dershowitz – don't hunt in packs. It is impossible to conceive of either as being subject to co-ordination, or acting in that spirit of group solidarity which the word "campaign" implies. There are many reasons why two individuals, or indeed a hundred individuals, might think similarly, one of those reasons being that they are right to think so. This is one of the dangers of arguing that you are the victim of a campaign – it opens you to the suspicion that what feels like a campaign to you is simply a number of people finding the same fault with what you've said.

That isn't a case I want to make against Johann, whom I find thoughtful on the subject of Israel, even when I don't agree with his conclusions. I do, however, think he is mistaken in this instance – mistaken tactically and in fact – to invoke the spectre of a campaign, a front mobilised with aforethought to defame anyone who speaks ill of Israel. Indeed, accusing your detractors of carrying out a campaign often amounts to carrying out one in return – for it is a smear in itself to accuse people who disagree with you of acting out of no other motive than malice. He who says I smear him when I don't smears me.

Something else doesn't feel quite right to me about Johann Hari's unearthing of this "campaign", and that is his assertion that "it is an attempt to intimidate and silence – and to a large degree it works". To my ear, that answers intimidation with intimidation, since it impugns the intellectual honour of those of whom he speaks, and coerces us into thinking the worst of them.

Furthermore, it is patently untrue that "intimidation" has worked. Johann himself is demonstrably not intimidated. Nor is it easy to see who else is. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, it cannot surely be argued that the Palestinian case is not heard. Let's put it this way: if there really is a smear campaign in operation to intimidate and silence those who try to describe the plight of the Palestinian people, it isn't working.

That describing the plight of the Palestinian people is not the same as alleviating it I entirely agree. There are times when the to and fro of paper argument between commentators feels obscene, while the suffering continues. And I find it as unforgivable as Johann finds it that anyone should minimise the hell in which hundreds of thousands of Palestinians now live. But how a thing is does not always tell the story of how a thing came to be, and this is why the arguing must go on. Johann is right to object to any attempt to close down discussion, but call those who disagree with you "witch-hunters" often enough and they will at last see you as a "witch-hunter" in turn.

The reason for the virulence of some of the attacks Johann describes is not hard to locate. He finds the smearing of Israel's critics loathsome; others find the smearing of Israel loathsome too. I know – neither side will have it that "smearing" is what's going on. But until all parties take responsibility for their partisanship, the conflict on paper, like the conflict in the disputed territories, will go on with undiminished hatred. The week before last, Johann Hari wrote about the systematic defilement of Gaza by the Israeli army. I have no idea if this is true but I do not accuse him of fabrication. I have been to Israel. I saw with my own eyes the brutality of which a country that's been at war every hour of its life is capable. I talked to settlers whose language was so abhorrent I'd have pulled their settlements apart with my bare hands. But that's not where the story begins or ends. I also met Zionists whose passion for Israel was not remotely imperialistic or Jew-centred and whose humanity remained undimmed by bloodshed and by slander.

It didn't help Johann to convince those who didn't want to be convinced that in the middle of his reporting on the defilement he perpetrated falsenesses, or falsely emphasised, or offered as self-evident historical truth events which are subject to intense controversy. He cited, as many cite, the catchphrase "a land without people for a people without land", though that was not a formulation of Israeli making or even general Israeli belief. It was coined by the British before Zionism existed and didn't answer to the hopes for Arab/Jewish co-operation which early Zionists, perhaps naively, entertained.

In support of his assertion that Palestinians were forcibly and by deliberate pre-arrangement evicted in 1948, Johann adduces the conclusions of the historian Ilan Pappé – something of a believer in campaigns and conspiracies himself, a man whose work has been questioned at every turn, not least by historians on whose findings he has drawn. Johann can if he so desires make Pappé his historian of choice. But there are problems of context and attribution with his history, in this case an immoderate rhetoric of blame, a refusal to consider the circumstances in which peoples are moved, not simply as a matter of temporary expediency but in response, in the heat of battle, to a similar ambition on the other side. When you are threatened with rather more than eviction yourself, you do not always act with probity.

Pappé is as a red rag to a bull to pro-Israeli intellectuals, as Johann must know. Cite his version of history alone and it is disingenuous to be surprised when those who with fair reason read events differently turn angry. This has been a long war, fought brutally on both sides. No, the Palestinian case must not be silenced. But nor must the Israeli. And it won't do to cry foul when you're censured for silencing the one in the act, however humanely, of publicising the other.

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