My misguided, misfiring joke

By Toby Young, June 19, 2014

At the age of 17, after failing all my O-levels, my father suggested I spend some time on a kibbutz. One of the reasons I had done so badly was because I'd spent the previous three years in a permanent haze of marijuana smoke and I think my father was canny enough to realise that, in Israel, with its heavily guarded borders, illegal drugs would be harder to come by.

Or perhaps he just thought it would be good for me to get away from my rather unsavoury group of friends. At any rate, it turned out to be a masterstroke. Israel was the making of me.

Not smoking the wacky backy was a big help. My brain had been frozen in a state of adolescent befuddlement and, as the fog began to clear, I experienced a kind of awakening. I found myself becoming passionately interested in politics and read the Jerusalem Post every morning from cover to cover.

I moved between different kibbutzes - Ein Gedi, Degania Alef, Misgav Am - and quickly began to learn the history of Israel. I remember working on the date groves in Degania Alef and hearing about the Yom Kippur War from my supervisor. He described the dogfights he'd witnessed right above where we were standing. I also remember hurrying into a bomb shelter in Misgav Am as Katyusha rockets were fired over the border from Lebanon.

I don't know whether it was my age or the fact that my mind had finally been "switched on", but I fell in love with Israel. I loved the fact that it had the first female Prime Minister long before Margaret Thatcher, that it had no qualms about gays and lesbians serving in the military, that it had a free press in spite of being on a permanent war footing. I was captivated by the idea of a small state doing its best to remain true to its democratic values while being surrounded by enemies.

The question of Israel’s survival is no laughing matter

Ever since then, I've thought of myself as a Zionist and done my best to defend the state of Israel in the media. I'm often pitted against "progressives" who will denounce Israel's slightest deviation from human rights and international law but happily turn a blind eye to the slaughter of Christians in Egypt or the oppression of Kurds in Iraq or the treatment of women in Saudi Arabia. Even though I'm not Jewish, I cannot help but ask whether this is fuelled by antisemitism. Why else would Israel be held to a higher standard than any other Middle Eastern country?

So it came as a bit of a shock when I was attacked as an "antisemite" last week. Admittedly, it was my own fault. I was caught off-guard by an ITN camera crew as I emerged from a television studio in Westminster and asked about the row between Michael Gove and Theresa May. "The whole thing is the Home Secretary's fault," I said, being a staunch Gove loyalist.

"The Education Secretary made some off-the-cuff remark about a minor Home Office official and as soon as Theresa May heard about it she went ballistic. She reacted like some Israeli tank commander on being confronted by a stone-throwing Palestinian."

Within seconds of this being broadcast, dozens of people denounced me as an "anti-semite" on Twitter. Some people felt so strongly about it, they even tracked down my email address and let me have both barrels.

"I was disgusted to hear your comments and analogy this evening on the news," wrote one man. "I considered this comparison to be provocative and offensive and indicative of attempts by people like yourself to de-legitimise Israel."

It was supposed to be a joke, but I now recognise it was an ill-judged remark. I was appealing to a stereotype of the Israeli Defence Forces that has been put about by Israel's enemies and is completely at odds with the reality. As Richard Kemp, the former commander of British forces in Afghanistan, told the UN: "During Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli Defence Forces did more to safeguard the rights of civilians in a combat zone than any other army in the history of warfare."

If there are any Israeli tank commanders reading this, men who probably risked their own lives to avoid killing civilians, I apologise. The question of the survival of the state of Israel is no laughing matter.


Toby Young is a writer and founder of a free school

Last updated: 1:08pm, June 19 2014