Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Still no hope of common sense in the war against anti-Semitism

These defenders to the end of all Israeli actions knowingly mix politics and race

Monday 08 February 2010 01:00

One would not choose to roll around naked in a field of nettles. One learns that choosing to write on anti-Semitism is just as rash, possibly more so. Protesters and malicious maligners stalk anyone who ventures on to the subject. And for the only Muslim weekly columnist in the country (who knows for how long) to tread into that field is extreme recklessness. Or reveals a worrying proclivity for masochism. Stinging rebukes will arrive before I am awake and all manner of outrageous allegations will roam the streets of the internet, rogue rumours against which there is no defence. Every word typed can be distorted or has the potential to offend. The column will madden both hyper-Zionists and insufferable Islamicists. So divisive is the issue today that many who see themselves as "reasonable" Muslims and Jews may not be too happy either. Ah well so be it. No more procrastination. Unto the breach dear friends.

The lofty, intellectual lawyer Anthony Julius, whose most famous client was Diana, Princess of Wales, has written Trials Of The Diaspora, an erudite history of anti-Semitism in Britain. He convincingly exposes the "polite", almost naturalised anti-Jewish attitudes still rife among genteel folk of this country. When Diana chose him as her divorce lawyer, to The Daily Telegraph Julius was a clever Jew who was unlikely to understand the "English" idea of fair play. The paper was obliged to publish a grovelling apology.

George Orwell wrote a stirring essay in 1945 on this English prejudice. Julius describes a train journey when he was a young boy. An Englishman who did business with his father praised the excellent manners of a young Jewish girl who knew his daughter, as if such good manners were remarkable and unexpected. Orwell describes such moments too and asks: "Was it a conscious effort to behave decently by people whose subjective feelings in many cases must have been very different?"

This week we had a report published by the Community Security Trust, a Jewish organisation that monitors hate crimes against British Jews. In 2009, there were 598 incidents and attacks, 56 per cent more than in 2006, another bad year. I believe both Julius and the CST. Wagner said: "I hold the Jewish race to be the born enemy of pure humanity and everything noble in it."

In a coffee shop before Christmas, I overheard a group of yummy mummies of all races going on about Bernie Madoff and how "these people" got the world into the mess it is in. It really is all around us. Just look up the Jew-haters on the internet, the neo-Nazis and Islamicists and the bloggers who say anti-Semitism is exaggerated. Across Europe, even in Sweden, Jewish citizens say hatred against them is in the air once more.

More wounding than racism itself is the denial of it, the invalidation of lived and felt experience. Racist statements and judgements are today defended with unprecedented ardour and conviction. Black and Asian people are instructed to learn toleration, to understand banter and brave free expression, to stop inventing pain and to end their wretched PC whinges. Muslims too are suspected of making up stories, imagining humiliation and "using" discrimination for unholy purposes. Ironically, Julius rejects the claim that Muslims are facing increasing hostility in Britain. I know Muslim activists who say exactly the same about the rise in anti-Semitism.

We should trust witness and victim testimonies of bigotry. But we can't and shouldn't become credulous. Unquestioning accommodation would be naïve. Accusations of racism are used by all vulnerable groups to deflect legitimate concerns about, say, female genital mutilation, or forced marriages, or the too many young black men sunk into drug addiction and violence, or the lack of real democracy in the Muslim world.

Julius plays that game, dextrously extending the accusation of anti-Semitism to implicate principled critics of the Israeli state. Jewish objectors, like the esteemed American Tony Judt, are also cut down with a poisoned blade. Richard Goldstone, the South African Zionist, has found himself similarly discredited by Zionists for writing a scathing UN assessment of the Israeli assault on Gaza. Similar treatment is meted out to others who try to remain scrupulously fair yet tough when scrutinising the government of Israel.

These defenders to the end of all Israeli actions knowingly mix politics and race. Their enemies do the same: when Lebanon was attacked, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said: "This is a war that is fought by all the Jews." It wasn't. To say so is iniquitous, just as bad as the Jihadis who claim all of us Muslims are on their side or must be. The much admired writer Anne Karpf points this out in a beautifully articulated column: "If the Israeli government (wrongly) elides Israel with all Jews it is hardly surprising if anti-Semites do so too."

By reproducing this conflation in his book, the eloquent Anthony Julius undercuts his powerful case that anti-Semitism, a very light sleeper, is up again. Doubters have been given a reason to repudiate him. Oh, the pity of it all.


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