The Jewish community should see Melanie Phillips and Douglas Murray for what they are – wolves in sheep's clothing

Why were these polite faces of an extreme ideology invited to speak at Jewish Book Week? Their ideas shouldn’t be quietly listened to, but loudly protested

Rivkah Brown
Thursday 05 March 2020 19:58
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Melanie-Phillips
Melanie-Phillips

Were Melanie Phillips and Douglas Murray to hold the same kinds of views about Jews as they do about Muslims and trans peole, they would not have shared a stage at Jewish Book Week (JBW).

Had Phillips said it was the “Jewish world” that is “given a free pass”, had Murray called “the whole antisemitism issue” a “delusion”, the pair would be public enemy numbers one and two among British Jews.

As it was, our most prestigious cultural event welcomed them with open arms. Perhaps the same logic that distinguishes brown “migrants” from white “expatriates” turns those with unsavoury views into provocateurs.

Welcoming the JBW audience on Tuesday night, Phillips acknowledged her and Murray’s reputation as enfants terribles: “The fact that both of us are on this platform,” she told the packed-out auditorium, “should warrant a trigger alert.”

Phillips had been invited to interview Murray about his latest contribution to the culture wars, The Madness of Crowds. Yet when she opened with the most basic of questions – why Murray had written the book – there was little clarity. Speaking with all the fluency of a chocolate fountain recycling brown liquid, Murray suggested that certain subjects had become “unsayable”. What those subjects were, he was unable to say.

Murray was practising a skill that both he and Phillips have honed over the course of their careers: the ability to talk in a way that makes crystal clear what you think, without having to come out and say it. Murray would never openly state that he disdains trans people; instead he says that trans people too often top the news agenda and asserts that the notion that the basic facts of trans identity are “complicated”.

“We are Jewish Solidarity Action (JSA),” came a cry from the gallery. “Solidarity with trans women!” As the protesters were escorted from the auditorium, I thought perhaps ideas like Murray and Phillips’s shouldn’t be quietly listened to, but loudly protested. Perhaps the event’s quasi-intellectual framing was inviting us to seriously consider viewpoints that – in my view – should not be even momentarily entertained.

I stayed, but decided to confront the speakers after the event. Yet my impassioned spiel went out the window when I found myself drawn into a lively tete-a-tete with Phillips. “I suppose we’ll just have to agree to disagree!” I chirruped. Here we were, at another stall in the marketplace of ideas, and here I was, buying Phillips’s wares.

Sadly, the organisers’ response to the protest was to double down. “Jewish Book Week has always been a platform for a diversity of voices,” they tweeted last night, in response to JSA’s action. “We take pride in providing our audiences with the opportunity to hear and question different perspectives – including those they may not themselves share – on the topics that matter.”

Yet Phillips and Murray are not simply right-wing “thinkers” with whom we might disagree. They are the polite faces of a dangerous ideology.

Parleying in their plush armchairs, contemplating whether trans women are women and whether racism exists, the wolfishness of these sheep was entirely apparent to me. Yet to many in my community, it is not.

Part of the reason for this, I believe, is that both Murray and Phillips’s thinking makes an exception for Jews – Phillips for obvious reasons, Murray for less obvious ones (though Phillips joked that she suspected him “a secret Jew”).

Murray – a man seemingly unbothered by, even unbelieving of the existence of, most forms of prejudice – has called antisemitism “the vilest and most deadly prejudice of all”. Why Murray is so appalled by antisemitism but not by Phillips’s alleged Islamophobia is hard to say.

Phillips, meanwhile, complained at the event that identity politics produced a binary view of power: either one is a victim or a victimiser, but never both. I put to Phillips that this sounded a hell of a lot like a certain Jewish state. In an apparent volte-face, she asserted that this was a binary conflict, with Israel the victim, Palestinians the victimisers. For her own people, Phillips seemed willing to undermine her own argument.

This selective prejudice brings to mind a certain Boris Johnson, doling out bagels to Jews and insults to Muslims. Too many Jewish people have become happy to humour those who oppress others, so long as they don’t doesn’t oppress us. Yet A politics that targets one minority targets us all. This kind of political nimbyism, then, is not just morally abhorrent – it is dangerous short-sighted.

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