Tunisia, and our black and white mentality

By Nick Cohen, January 21, 2011

Every morning I read The Times, the Guardian, the Telegraph, the Financial Times and the Independent. I stay with the Today programme until Radio 4 drives me away by insulting my intelligence with Thought for the Day and look at the Economist and the New York Times if I have a moment. But I knew nothing about Tunisia.

No journalist thought it worthwhile to tell readers about the grotesque figure of Leila Trabelsi, an Imelda Marcos and Marie Antoinette rolled into one, who was looting a country millions of western tourists knew well. No one looked at how she hoarded gold on the one hand, while keeping her dirty old man of a husband sweet on the other. No one bothered to look at her equally ghastly and rapacious children, who, along with the wider clan, formed a Mafia state that forced businesses to pay off the ruling crime family.

I would have liked have to read about the brutality of the secret police, as well, and to have had a little advance notice that the subject people was preparing to revolt. Leaving all political considerations aside, Tunisia was in journalistic terms a great story from the Middle East that virtually sat up and begged journalists to take notice, but because it did not involve Israel, foreign desks looked the other way.

This newspaper normally looks at how the Jew-obsession of journalists and politicians topples over into antisemitism, and worries about the consequences for Israel and the diaspora. As the case of Tunisia shows, the consequences for Arabs, Berbers and Kurds are worth thinking about, too. Antisemitism is unique among religious hatreds. It is a racist conspiracy theory fashioned for the needs of messianic and brutal rulers, as dictators from the Tsars to the Islamists via the Nazis have shown. Many other alleged religious "hatreds" are not hatreds in the true sense. If I criticise Islamic, Orthodox Jewish or Catholic attitudes towards women, for instance, and I'm accused of being a bigot, I shrug and say it is not bigoted to oppose bigotry.

By contrast, the antisemitic conspiracy theories the Middle East took from fascist Europe, and the immigrant Muslim far right is now pumping back home again, have nothing to do with the religious practices of Jews. I do not have to tell readers that a cabal of bankers and revolutionaries do not seek world domination and that the "Israel Lobby" did not gull Yankee goys into fighting the Iraq war.

Democrats fighting tyranny have no backing from liberals

Antisemitism's first victims are not always Jews either. In the Middle East, dictators use antisemitic discourse to tell their wretched populations that Jewish conspiracies cause their countries' ills, and insist that on no account should they demand democracy and human rights because these are Jewish frauds: facades behind which the secret rulers of the world jerk the strings of power.

A liberal-left that hollers its commitment to anti-racism until it is hoarse is failing to confront one of the barbarous varieties of racism the human race has invented because it regards the Israel-Palestine conflict as the Spanish Civil War of our age; the foreign cause that trumps all others. And just as the left of the 1930s allowed its obsession to blind it to the crimes of Stalin so the left of the 2010s is allowing its idée fixe to blind it to the crimes of the Middle Eastern dictators and the Islamists. Even mild criticism of the suffering Israel's enemies inflict is bad form; a treacherous diversion from the struggle against the hated Zionist entity.

Tunisia shows the blindness that follows. I have had good people from the British trade union movement confessing that they knew nothing of the trade unionists fighting and dying in Tunis. They realised to their belated embarrassment that their officially designated "comrades" in the country were in the dictatorship, which was mowing down men and women who had the right to expect their support. It is the same story across the region. Democrats and reformers fighting tyranny have virtually no backing from Western liberals and leftists, who barely know of their existence.

If readers enjoy attacks on liberal hypocrisy, then they should not enjoy them too much. The worst that I can say about the prevailing liberal view that Israel is a perfect source of evil is that it mirrors the settled view of the friends of Israel who see it as a perfect victim and blot out all thought for the Palestinian in the process. It should be possible to combine the ideas that Israel has a right to exist, that the Palestinian demand for a state is a just one and that the liberal enemies of religious and secular tyranny in the Arab world need our help.

The fact that so many have a nervous breakdown when they try to keep more than one notion at a time in their minds is a sign of deeply and shamefully Manichean thinking has taken over our minds.

Nick Cohen is an Observer columnist and the author of 'What's Left?'

Last updated: 11:23am, January 21 2011