A worrying choice of words

Last week as he was thinking about his column on Gilad Shalit for The Times, I said to Danny Finkelstein (we were having an Elders cabal over by the book-case), that someone, somewhere was bound to say: "A thousand Palestinians for one Jew! Just shows that they believe a Jewish life is more valuable than an Arab one."

Of course such an observation, in such circumstances, would be demonstrably absurd. The 1,000 to one ratio was not set by Israel, but by Hamas. Israel would have accepted the release of Shalit in return for, say, one Palestinian prisoner. But among many otherwise thoughtful people, the idea has gained ground - especially following action against Hizbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza - that the Israelis are "disproportionate"; they'll kill a zillion of yours for a handful of theirs.

It wasn’t ‘chosenness’ that led to Zionism but its opposite

Even so, when the predicted complaint was made in the predictable place (the Guardian's opinion columns), the source surprised me. Deborah Orr is a clever, sensitive writer, as little given to bombast or prejudice as any columnist. Yet she ended a column last week by saying that the exchange "tacitly acknowledges what so many Zionists believe - that the lives of the chosen are of hugely greater consequence than those of their unfortunate neighbours".

In a sense, of course, had the word "Zionists" been altered to "Israelis" then Orr would have been right. But only in the sense that, say, a kidnapped Brit garners more attention in the UK than a kidnapped German. The headline "Devastating earthquake in Ruritania, Bristol man hurt" is not a caricature. If that's what she'd meant then it wouldn't have been worth writing. So she meant something else. That there are "many Zionists" (an undefined group in this instance) who believe that, because Jews are somehow "chosen", their lives are more valuable than those of goyim.

What was so shocking to me about this phrase was its casualness – not its deliberation. The writer just didn't realise, it seemed, that this charge about "chosenness" – as applied specifically and categorically to Jews (whether "Zionists" or not) is one of the most recurrent and poisonous tropes in antisemitism. It is a variant on medieval charges against Jews, on the psychology of the Protocols, on modern antisemitic belief. Had she been confronted with the suggestion that, say, blacks were a bit childlike, undisciplined, sensual and physical rather than intellectual, she'd have recognised immediately the contours of old-time racism. The alarms would have gone off, the thought would have been interrogated, the problem noticed.

I am not a Zionist. And I am not an anti-Zionist. I wasn't born in 1947 and have no idea what I would have thought about a Jewish state back then, in the wake of the near destruction of Europe's Jews - itself a culmination of centuries of antisemitism. The founding of Israel was attended by the same kinds of triumphs and disasters that accompanied the founding of other modern states. There is nothing unique about it. Look, for example, at the attempts to create a Kurdish entity. But the desire for a state for Jews did not originate in a belief in Jewish superiority, and is not maintained now by such a belief. It wasn't "chosenness" that led to Zionism but its opposite - exclusion and persecution.

I'm not saying that there aren't horrid Zionists, racist Zionists, nasty Jews, witless Israelis, but Orr's reaction seems to come from a place that deems all Zionism - all belief in a Jewish homeland - to be beyond respectability. How else can we understand the easy quantification of "many Zionists"? How many? As measured how? By opinion poll? Show me the figures, then.

The polarisation of discussions on the Palestinians and Israelis is notable and distressing. It has become an issue in which people play to the gallery by showing how committed to the cause they are. In a conference speech that mentioned only three foreign countries (Iraq and Afghanistan were two), Ed Miliband garnered applause for a gratuitous reference to stopping Israel's blockade of Gaza. He may have been right, but it looked like pandering to a popular prejudice.

What worries me here, as it increasingly has done for a decade, is the way in which the Palestinian issue is leading to a slippage in sensibilities, from concern, to partisanship, to an almost unconscious acceptance of the characterisation of Jews or Zionists or Israelis which replicate ancient libels. So I can state, without any danger of perjuring myself, that Deborah Orr is no racist and no antisemite, and then add that that is exactly what scares me.

    Last updated: 1:46pm, October 28 2011