In January 2013, a watershed was reached in the history of anti-Zionism. Holocaust Memorial Day (HMD), a time for reflection and collective grief for the suffering of the victims of genocide, was overshadowed by two men.
First, LibDem MP David Ward drew a parallel between the death camps and the “atrocities” against the Palestinian people by “the Jews”.
Gerald Scarfe’s cartoon in the Sunday Times on HMD itself was, I am sure, a genuine attempt to criticise the policies of Benjamin Netanyahu. Mr Scarfe’s work is never pretty. It is sad that he did not realise that his cartoon was being published on HMD.
But it is shocking that he does not seem to have realised that, for many, it would contain echoes of the blood libel. As a cartoonist of some standing, it is to his shame that he did not feel that it might be seen as part of a long tradition of cartoons — prevalent in Nazi Germany and in the Muslim world today — that depict Jews as bloodthirsty.
But beyond the poor judgment of Mr Ward and Mr Scarfe, there is something more worrying taking root here. Anti-Zionism long ago passed the “dinner-party test” that Baroness Warsi quite rightly identified as applying to Islamophobia. I have lost count of the times otherwise liberal and intelligent people have said to me: “It must be fascinating working at the Jewish Chronicle, but how do you deal with the Zionists?”
When I raise the issue of Israel with my politics students on the journalism course I teach, there is always someone who equates Zionism with fascism.
This has been true for some time. What is different about January 2013 is that these ideas have seeped from the margins of politics, from dinner party prattle and the naïve, ill-informed politics of the student union straighr into the mainstream of British politics and journalism.
It is no surprise at all that Mr Scarfe produced a “grotesque” cartoon. That is what he does. Nor should he be stopped from expressing his view that Mr Netanyahu is building his country’s security on the blood of the Palestinian people, if that is what he thinks. What is worrying is that at no point did anyone at the Sunday Times who saw the cartoon, from the sub-editors and art department upwards, stop to say: “Gerald, are you sure about this?”. Mr Scarfe says he now regrets it, so presumably he would have welcomed someone pointing out the resonances. Somehow, it just slipped through.
The case of David Ward is more serious. For an MP casually to express views previously only found on the authoritarian left of British politics should be of concern to everyone. The cod psychology that links the treatment of the Palestinians under Israeli rule to the suffering of the Jews during the Shoah is insulting to both sides.
The only way to deal with casual prejudice is to confront it, which is precisely what the Jewish community did this week. The result is that the acting editor of the Sunday Times, Martin Ivens, made a gracious admission that a mistake had been made.
The Liberal Democrats may be a longer-term project but Mr Ward has at least been censured.
As for that tricky dinner-party question about working with Zionists, I usually reply: “I thought we were all Zionists. Aren’t you?”