New Statesman Essay, 10th October 2005
If you challenge liberal orthodoxy, your argument cannot be debated on its merits. You have to be in the pay of global media moguls. You have to be a Jew.
On the Saturday of the great anti-war demonstration of 2003, I watched one million people march through London, then sat down to write for the Observer. I pointed out that the march organisers represented a merger of far left and far right: Islamic fundamentalists shoulder to shoulder with George Galloway, the Socialist Workers Party and every other creepy admirer of totalitarianism this side of North Korea. Be careful, I said. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq has spewed out predatory armies and corpses for decades. If you’re going to advocate a policy that would keep a fascist dictator in power, you should at least talk to his victims, whose number included socialists, communists and liberals – good people, rather like you.
Next day I looked at my e-mails. There were rather a lot of them. The first was a fan letter from Ann Leslie, the Daily Mail’s chief foreign correspondent, who had seen the barbarism of Ba’athism close up. Her cheery note ended with a warning: “You’re not going to believe the anti-Semitism that is about to hit you.” “Don’t be silly, Ann,” I replied. “There’s no racism on the left.” I worked my way through the rest of the e-mails. I couldn’t believe the anti-Semitism that hit me.
I learned it was one thing being called “Cohen” if you went along with liberal orthodoxy, quite another when you pointed out liberal betrayals. Your argument could not be debated on its merits. There had to be a malign motive. You had to support Ariel Sharon. You had to be in the pay of “international” media moguls or neoconservatives. You had to have bad blood. You had to be a Jew.
My first reaction was so ignoble I blush when I think of it. I typed out a reply that read, “but there hasn’t been a Jewish member of my family for 100 years”. I sounded like a German begging a Gestapo officer to see the mistake in the paperwork. Mercifully, I hit the “delete” button before sending.
Rather than pander to racism, I directed my correspondents to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, a member of the Socialist International which had decided after being on the receiving end of one too many extermination drives that foreign invasion was the only way. No good. I tried sending them to the Iraqi Communist Party, which opposed the invasion but understood the possibilities for liberation beyond the fine minds of the western intelligentsia. No good, either.
As the months passed, and Iraqis were caught between a criminally incompetent occupation and an “insurgency” so far to the right it was off the graph, I had it all. A leading figure on the left asked me to put him in touch with members of the new government. “I knew it! I knew it!” he cried when we next met. “They want to recognise Israel.”
I experienced what many blacks and Asians had told me: you can never tell. Where people stand on the political spectrum says nothing about their visceral beliefs. I found the far left wasn’t confined to the chilling Socialist Workers Party but contained many scrupulous people it was a pleasure to meet and an education to debate. Meanwhile, the centre was nowhere near as moderate as it liked to think. One minute I would be talking to a BBC reporter or liberal academic and think him a civilised man; the next, he would be screaming about the Jews.
Politicians I’d admired astonished me: Tam Dalyell explained British foreign policy as a Jewish conspiracy; Ken Livingstone embraced a Muslim cleric who favoured the blowing up of Israeli women and children, along with wife-beating and the murder of homosexuals and apostates.
I could go on. The moment when bewilderment settled into a steady scorn, however, was when the Guardian ran a web debate entitled: “David Aaronovitch and Nick Cohen are enough to make a good man anti-Semitic”. Gorgeously, one vigilant reader complained that the title was prejudiced – the debate should be headlined: “David Aaronovitch and Nick Cohen are enough to make a good man, or woman, anti-Semitic.”
Mustn’t forget our manners now, must we?
I resolved then to complete two tasks: to apologise to Ms Leslie, which was a matter of minutes; and to work out if there was now a left-wing anti-Semitism, which took a little longer.
As I’d had little contact with Jewish religion or culture, I’d rarely given anti-Semitism a thought. I suppose I’d assumed it had burned out in the furnaces of Auschwitz. When the subject came up, I dutifully repeated the liberal mantra that “not all anti-Zionists are anti-Semites” and forgot the corollary “but all anti-Semites are anti-Zionists”.
You have to clear away a heap of rubbish before you can distinguish between the two. At first glance, there’s a good case for saying that the liberal left is Jew-obsessed. Israel receives more criticism than far worse societies, most notably Sudan, Syria and pre-war Iraq. You can call the double standard anti-Semitism if you want, but I’m not sure it gets you anywhere. It is simply the ineluctable workings of what is known in the human rights trade as “selection bias”. Israel is a democracy with an independent judiciary and free press. Inevitably, it is easier in an open country to report abuses of power than cover, say, the deaths of millions and enslavement of whole black tribes in Islamist Sudan. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a former US ambassador to the United Nations, came up with “Moynihan’s Law” to encapsulate the process. It holds that the number of complaints about a nation’s violation of human rights is in inverse proportion to its actual violation of human rights.
He wasn’t absolutely right, and the law certainly doesn’t work in Israel’s case, but you get the point. As long as people know biases exist, no harm is done. In any case, it’s not a competition, and it’s no defence of Israel to say it’s better to be Palestinian than Sudanese. Human rights are universal.
The issue is whether the liberal left is as keen on universal principles as it pretends. An impeccably left-wing group of Jewish academics, who are against the war in Iraq and occupation of the West Bank, gathered recently at [www.engageonline.org.uk as they could see parts of the left retreating into special pleading. Their union, the Association of University Teachers, had proposed that academics abandon the freedom to exchange ideas, on which intellectual life depends, by boycotting Israeli universities. Asked why the boycott applied only to Israel and not nations with far greater crimes to their names, the AUT had no reply.]
Racism is often subtle in England. David Hirsh, an Engage supporter, caught it well when he wrote that “the act of singling out Israel as the only illegitimate state – in the absence of any coherent reason for doing so – is in itself anti-Semitic, irrespective of the motivation or opinions of those who make that claim”.
I’d agree, if it weren’t for a brutal counter-argument that few have the guts to make. Get real, it runs. Universal values are for the birds. The left had a respectable record of exposing the dark corners of the right in South Africa, the Deep South, Pinochet’s Chile, Franco’s Spain and the Colonels’ Greece. Only the bravest had much to say about the Soviet Union, China or Cuba. On the whole, those monstrosities were opposed by the right. Looking back, you can see that good came out of the activism of both sets of critics. Equally, good will come from our obsession with Israel. The Palestinians need help and you shouldn’t ask too many questions about the helpers.
All of which sounds reasonable, until you ask a question that I’ve delayed asking for too long: what is anti-Semitism?
In its 19th- and 20th-century form, it was a conspiratorial explanation of power from the radical right. In this it differed from standard racism, which is generally resentment of powerless outsiders who look odd, lower wages and take jobs. The template was set by the reaction against the American and French revolutions. How could Americans proclaim such insane ideas as the rights of man, the counter-revolutionaries asked. How could the French overthrow the king who loved them and Holy Mother Church which succoured them? They couldn’t admit that the Americans and the French wanted to do what they had done. Their consent had to have been manufactured by the new rulers of the world. Originally these were the Freemasons, who were damned for peddling enlightened ideas. Only after Jewish emancipation opened the ghettos were the Jews press-ganged into the plot. They represented everything that was hateful about modernity: equal rights, religious toleration and the destruction of tradition.
I don’t like the term “Islamo-fascism” – fascist movements are national movements, not religions. Still, no one can fail to have noticed that in one indisputable respect the west is the “root cause” of Islamist terror: militant Muslims have bought the ideology of the European counter-revolution wholesale.
The appeal is understandable. There is a chosen people: the Germans, the Italians or the Spanish in classic fascism; Sunni Muslims in totalitarian variants of Islam. Domination is theirs by right, but they are denied their inheritance by a conspiracy of infidels, be they westernisers, Jews, sell-out leaders or the corrupters of women and youth.
You can read for yourselves the histories of the links between Nazism and the Arab world in the 1940s, but to bring you up to date, here is what Article 22 of Hamas’s covenant says of the Jews: “They were behind the French revolution, the communist revolution and most of the revolutions we heard and hear about, here and there. With their money they formed secret societies, such as Freemasons, Rotary Clubs, the Lions and others in different parts of the world for the purpose of sabotaging societies and achieving Zionist interests.”
That’s right, Rotary Clubs.
Please don’t tell me that it helps the Palestinians to give the far right the time of day, or pretend that Palestinian liberals, socialists, women, gays, freethinkers and Christians (let alone Israeli Jews) would prosper in a Palestine ruled by Hamas. It’s not radical, it’s barely political, to turn a blind eye and say you are for the Palestinian cause. Political seriousness lies in stating which Palestine you are for and which Palestinians you support. The Palestinian fight is at once an anti-colonial struggle and a clash between modernity and reaction. The confusion of our times comes from the failure to grasp that it is possible to have an anti-colonialism of the far right.
While we’re at it, don’t excuse Hamas and Islamic Jihad and all the rest by saying the foundation of Israel and the defeat of all the Arab attempts to destroy it made them that way. Anti-Semitism isn’t a local side effect of a dirty war over a patch of land smaller than Wales. It’s everywhere from Malaysia to Morocco, and it has arrived here. When the BBC showed a Panorama documentary about the ideological roots of the Muslim Council of Britain in the Pakistani religious right, the first reaction of the Council was to accuse it of following an “Israeli agenda”. The other day the Telegraph reported that Ahmad Thomson, a Muslim lawyer who advises the Prime Minister on community relations of all things, had declared that a “sinister” group of Jews and Freemasons was behind the invasion of Iraq.
To explain away a global phenomenon as a rational reaction to Israeli oppression, you have once again to turn the Jew into a supernatural figure whose existence is the cause of discontents throughout the earth. You have to revive anti-Semitism.
The alternative is to do what the left used to do. If you look at the list of late-20th-century leftist causes I have mentioned, you will see that the left, for all its faults and crimes, was against fascism. It used to know that the powerful used racism to distract the powerless, as they do to this day in Egypt, Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia, where the deployment of Jew hatred is positively tsarist. Although I know it’s hard to credit, the left also used to know that the opponents of fascism, including the opponents of Saddam, had to be supported.
But the liberal left has been corrupted by defeat and doesn’t know much about anything these days. Marxist-Leninism is so deep in the dustbin of history, it is composting, while social democracy is everywhere on the defensive. Hindu, Jewish, Muslim and Christian fundamentalism are beating it in the struggle for working-class and peasant minds. An invigorated capitalism is threatening its European strongholds. There’s an awful realisation that Tony Blair and Bill Clinton may be as good as it gets. The temptation in times of defeat is to believe in everything rather than nothing; to go along with whichever cause sounds radical, even if the radicalism on offer is the radicalism of the far right.
In 1878, George Eliot wrote that it was “difficult to find a form of bad reasoning about [Jews] which had not been heard in conversation or been admitted to the dignity of print”. So it is again today. Outside the movies of Mel Gibson, Jews aren’t Christ killers any longer, but they can’t relax, because now they are Nazis, blood-soaked imperialists, the secret movers of neoconservatism, the root cause of every atrocity from 9/11 to 7/7.
It’s not that the left as a whole is anti-Semitic, although there are racists who need confronting. Rather, it has been maddened by the direction history has taken. Deracinated and demoralised, its partisans aren’t thinking hard enough about where they came from or – and more pertinently – where they are going.