Collaterally damaged again

By David Aaronovitch, December 6, 2010

I would like to agree with Leeds Jewish Representative Council president Hilton Lorie, quoted on the front page of last week's JC à propos of l'affaire Davis, when he said that wisdom lay in knowing "when to keep shtum". So this is the end of this week's column. Goodbye. . .

Meh - as I gather people say these days. I am neither by profession nor inclination a shtum-keeper.

And Mr Lorie's response to Mr Davis's fairly standard and reasonable criticisms of the Israeli government seemed to represent something familiar in this eternal discussion - the constant need to slaughter the messenger. In the hope, presumably, that the message, never being delivered, will cease to represent something real.

A few weeks back. I chaired an event for the JCC at Hampstead Town Hall, in which Howard Jacobson, Melanie Phillips, Brian Klug and Tony Lerman debated the category of "Ashamed Jews", a status invented by HJ in his Man Booker-winning novel, The Finkler Question.

And this, as the evening drew on and the participants and questioners revealed themselves, is what occurred to me: most of us, a lot of the time, seem to have become collateral damage in the battle between long-entrenched views on Israel and the diaspora. We get put in this camp, or that camp, whether we like it or not.

You kill the messenger presumably in order to destroy the message

It wasn't Howard, brilliant and impassioned though he was about the singling out of Israel as a pariah, who made me think this - nor Brian, with his thoughtful calibration of how Jews could be critical without tipping over into an Israelocentrism, that put the Jewish state at the centre of all problems and solutions.

Paradoxically, it was the two most opposed speakers, Melanie and Tony, who, as far as I was concerned, together helped to close down the room for thought.

I respect both of them, as it happens, and both for their courage. But often - and not just in that JCC discussion - I have got the feeling that there is some ancient, basic battle going on between their two tribes, that drew the rest of us in, whether we wanted it or not.

Melanie's view requires little recapitulation to readers of this slot. As she put it last week, the essential truth in the Middle East is "Arab intransigence and genocidal hatred" and - she implies - anyone assigning to Israel any responsibility (and that is the majority, regrettably, of British Jews) is either morally or mentally deficient and is siding with the Israel-bashers.

In Tony Lerman, there was something altogether subtler and surlier. And let me confess here to a certain childish sense of injustice. Some time ago, I wrote in these pages about the strange case of the Judeophobic Israeli, Gilad Atzmon, and his relationship to the equally Judeophobic Austrian Jewish writer, Otto Weininger. That both were Jews who loathed Jewishness qualified them, I thought, for the title of "self-hating Jew".

It was not, I imagined, a particularly controversial piece given what Weininger and Atzmon both had written.

Not long afterwards, I found myself under attack by Lerman in the Guardian's online comment section.

My thoughts displayed "intellectual laziness, or an ideological predisposition dressed up in academic language, or both". The way Weininger, wrote Lerman, related to his Jewishness was "far too complex" for the self-hating label, and the charge itself was "a political and personal insult that demeans the accuser and demonises the accused".

I read this with incredulity. What was my cleverly hidden "predisposition", my ulterior motive?

But the sentence that made sense of it all was this: "calling someone a self-hating Jew in the context of the Israel-Palestine conflict is intended as a demeaning political insult, a way of delegitimising the views of Jews with whom you violently disagree".

So, because some people unscrupulously use the term "self-hating Jew" as a weapon in the Israel battle (a point I had already made) it was illegitimate for anyone else, for any reason, ever to call a Jew who hates Jewishness "self-hating", even in the context of describing some problems of antisemitism.

In other words, everything was to be judged by its utility to one side or another in the Big War, that most of us are not always fighting - but in which, as the artillery of the round-robins flies heavily overhead, we can always be intellectual collateral damage.

Last updated: 11:03am, December 6 2010