Hatred that needs no ‘context’

For the past 14 years, there have been two debating chambers used by members of the House of Commons. The first is the one we are all accustomed to seeing on our television screens, with government and opposition members facing each other confrontationally, their exchanges moderated by the Speaker. The other is a much smaller room - the Grand Committee Room adjacent to the magnificent Westminster Hall.

Since 1999, this has been used by the Commons as an additional debating chamber, and the dialogues held there are known as Westminster Hall debates. MPs are seated in a U-shape around the chair, an arrangement that is supposed to signify that the proceedings are non-partisan in nature.

The subject-matters of Westminster Hall debates are generally more wide-ranging than those that take place in the Commons. On February 25, the Conservative MP Gordon Henderson used the opportunity of a Westminster Hall debate to raise "the issue of hate incitement against Israel and the west by the Palestinian authority". A number of MPs - Labour as well as Conservative - spoke in support of his contention that "a culture of hate has wormed its way into the very fibre of Palestinian society. Incitement to hate is pervasive in Palestinian school textbooks, on television programmes and at cultural and sporting events. Palestinians have been consistently and unremittingly taught to hate Jews, Israel and the west."

The evidence for this is so incontrovertible that I will not waste time in repeating it in any great detail. In any case, some of it was cited by Mr Henderson during the debate. He reminded MPs that "during the Palestinian application for statehood at the UN in September 2011, the PA's official TV channel broadcast a map that depicted all of modern Israel and the Palestinian territories wrapped in the Palestinian flag with a key through it… at a time when President Abbas was telling the UN that he sought two states living side-by-side, residents on the west bank were being shown a map carrying an unmistakable message of Palestinian sovereignty over the whole area…

What I found shocking was the speech by Alistair Burt

"Last summer, a PA TV broadcast showed a painting depicting Israel as an ogre with a Star-of-David skull-cap that impales and eats Palestinian children in Gaza."

Of course, such anti-Jewish propaganda is pretty much routine throughout the Islamic world. I'm sorry to say that I found none of it, as described by Mr Henderson, at all shocking. But what I did find shocking was the speech made by the minister for the Middle East, Mr Alistair ("Friend of Israel") Burt, in reply to the debate.

Mr Burt sought neither to deny nor to minimise the nature or the extent of anti-Jewish propaganda in the Palestinian media. But, although he did not - at least not in so many words - justify such propaganda, he urged his audience, several times (seven by my reckoning) to be mindful of "the context" in which such hate-speech was aired.

This "context", he explained, was the continuing military conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. "To neglect any sense of any activity that may have been perpetrated by Israelis during the occupation as any part of popular anger against Israel misses an important part of the context. That is not to minimise the damage done by incitement, but not to mention that and not to feel that it is part of the context is, in my view, simply wrong."

Later in his speech, Mr Burt said: "To place it all in terms of the rhetoric and not to understand the wider context will not help us to get to where we need to be."

I had to scan these words several times in order to assure myself that I was reading them correctly. And if I was reading them correctly, here we had the spectacle of a British government minister saying publicly that Judeophobic propaganda of the crudest sort, while thoroughly deplorable, must be contextualised, and that such contextualisation can help us comprehend - at least to some extent – how it is justified in the eyes of those who spread it.

Let us be clear about this. Anyone who attempts (from whatever motive) to contextualise antisemitism is playing - however innocently - into the hands of antisemites. It's a dangerous game. I hope Mr Burt will never again play it.

    Last updated: 1:45pm, April 9 2013