The new polite antisemitism

By David Aaronovitch, March 27, 2008

By minor serendipity these two things happened on Tuesday of last week. First there was the laconic posting in the comments section accompanying my column in the online edition of The Times. I’d written about the row over the oath. Anyway, in amongst the “I am British and they’ll have to force me to take an oath over my cold, dead body” stuff, was this from “Edward” of Lincoln. Repeating a line that I’d used, Edward simply appended: “Ah the international people. Don’t you just love them?”

The comments moderator didn’t see it, and nor would many of the readers. But Edward knew and I knew who “the international people” were; his opening “ah” was one of confirmation (yes, this is what they are like) — and “don’t you just love them?” meant more or less the opposite. The International Jew, the rootless cosmopolitan, the eternal outsider, the underminer of nations, don’t you just hate them? And there it was, slipped in there, as it couldn’t have been for anyone else.

Edward is not an everyday event for me. Nor is Sophie Allem — from context, a black American woman — who wrote to me over the weekend from the US telling me how outraged she was that I should be persecuting

the bonkers jazzman, Gilad Atzmon, and permitting the stealing by

“European Ashkenazi Jews” (or Khazars) of Middle Eastern lands belonging to “people of color”. Sophie helpfully added a link to her website, where her recommended reading list turns out to include the Protocols and Mein Kampf.

On the same evening as Edward slithered around the taste-and-

decency guards, I attended a dinner at the Commons held to discuss “antisemitic discourse”, and comprising of a number of MPs, a gaggle of journalists — including two from the BBC — a writer or two and several folk from the community. The event was governed by a convention known as Chatham House Rules, whereby I can tell you what was said, but not who said it. And no, I can’t leave tantalising hints so that people can work it out. What do you take me for?

The opening contribution, by Mr X, was thoughtful. He told us that, in his view, the memory of the Holocaust and “exterminatory” antisemitism acted to obscure the modern re-emergence of a different kind of anti-Jewish prejudice.

This he described as “English”, a polite amalgam of imputing certain characteristics to Jews and denying the existence of Jew-hatred in others.

Jewish traits typically include an unprecedented capacity to wield influence in their own interests, as suggested by Walt and Mearsheimer’s book (first published as an essay in the London Review of Books), the holding of dual loyalties, and the ability to take leading positions in society out of proportion to actual numbers.

Antisemitism denial consists of downplaying the outright prejudice against Jews shown by others. Examples might include suggesting that the Hamas Charter is somehow void, that the leader of Hizbollah didn’t quite mean the things about Jews that he is supposed to have said, and that President Ahmadinejad didn’t argue that Israel should be wiped off the map — despite the fact that this is the translation used by Iranian news agencies themselves.

Mr X pointed out that whilst old-fashioned antisemitism was once the province of the right, the new antisemitism tended to be a characteristic of the left.

As the fish was served, I thought to myself, “Yes, this seems right, broadly”. And then it all went haywire, somehow. One of the BBC people was determined, for reasons I never quite understood, to have a discussion as to whether or not it was antisemitic to take seriously the historical works of Ilan Pappe. Apparently Mr Pappe favours a single-state solution (ie no Israel), but what that had to do with his historical works wasn’t quite clear. So we wasted some time on that.

Then we got enmired in definitional stuff. Was one particular Guardian columnist — who I recognise from my old street-fighting, caucusing days as a Stalinist throwback to the anti-imperialist alliance — invoking blood-libel imagery in a description of the IDF in Gaza? Heads were shaken, positions occupied. In fact, I was as sure he’d have said it about any army he didn’t like — Israeli, American or British — as that he wouldn’t have said it about the Russians, the Al Aqsa Brigades or the People’s Liberation Army.

Now, it wasn’t a conference, and no vote had to be taken or decision made. It struck me that we had taken two steps forward and one step back. Mr X had crystallised what my own experience was telling me was happening. Not that the Jewish people were in any great danger of finding themselves in a British version of Belsen, or any physical peril beyond the occasional and sporadic. But that there is hard argumentative work to be done in pointing out that a soft antisemitism is waxing. In doing that work, however, there needs to be real mental discipline, or else the discussion will degenerate and Edward will escape.

    Last updated: 12:11pm, June 4 2008