When I stood down as political editor of the New Statesman at the end of last month, I decided to write my final piece for the magazine about Israel’s military intervention in Gaza.
In my three years at the left-wing publication, I had written regularly of my concerns at the rise of radical Islam in Britain and the growing influence of organisations sympathetic to Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood among young Muslim activists. I rarely wrote about Israel/Palestine, but it was not difficult to see that it was a touchstone for NS readers for whom, generally speaking, support for the Palestinian cause is an article of ideological faith.
The piece I wrote was pretty moderate stuff (liberal hand-wringing some would call it). It was impossible to justify the brutality of the assault on Gaza even if you accept that Hamas is a viciously antisemitic crypto-fascist organisation devoted to the destruction of Israel (which I do).
One reader calling himself “Bob” captured my position pretty accurately when he wrote on my blog that my argument seemed to be: “I just don’t know who to blame… it’s a bloody mess… I almost despair.”
Others were not so charitable, taking me to task for daring to challenge the poisonous alliance of Islamists and totalitarian leftists who gathered to the Palestinian cause (as they had done to the anti-Iraq war cause before it).
“It is not the left who are stealing land and slaughtering kids. This execrable person has set up a straw man in order to justify his arguments,” said “stevem”.
One regular visitor to my blog who calls himself “gnueo” called my article a “cesspit” and suggested that I would have to take partial responsibility for the destruction of Israel when its evil deeds brought about its inevitable demise.
Many of the more unpleasant comments were removed by the New Statesman’s tireless web editor, who has the misfortune to wade through thousands of words of this vitriol every day.
Others have written about the open sewer that the blogosphere becomes as soon as the subject of Israel is raised. Just last week in these pages, Daniel Finkelstein of The Times made some helpful suggestions for dealing with nuisance correspondents. Like him, I have found that a polite response can sometimes unsettle the more rabid reader, which is why I take time to engage with people who post on my blog.
However, in my time at the New Statesman I have become convinced that there is something else going on here.
People on the left get more passionate about suffering brought about by the Israel-Palestine conflict than they do about almost any other subject.
I discovered just how deep this feeling ran earlier this year when I wrote about a trip I had made to Israel as a guest of Bicom. I tried at the time to address the question of why the British left had fallen out of love with Israel. It is hard to believe now, but it was once a great liberal cause. On the face of it, the answer is simple: before we discovered the Palestinians, Israel represented the hope that enlightenment values might triumph in a world of horror and cruelty. The end of the love affair came about because liberals could no longer tolerate the Israeli state’s systematic oppression of the Palestinians.
But it is not entirely explicable in these terms. Why are we not marching in the streets against British and American “war crimes” in Afghanistan where civilians are being killed on a regular basis? And don’t the five million people killed in the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo deserve a mass demonstration or two? And what about Darfur, which seems to have slipped from our collective sympathy radar?
There is a perfectly innocent explanation for this, in which the reaction of the liberal left seems entirely rational. The unresolved situation of the Palestinians represents an open sore in the Middle East. Without a resolution of the situation, the stability of the whole region is threatened. The actions of the Israel government are therefore not just perceived as inhumane, but as uniquely irresponsible.
But even taken at face value this explanation is unsatisfactory. Surely if the values of the left mean anything then we should not be selective in choosing the peoples whose suffering we champion. Should we take to the streets only when oppression has a global strategic significance?
There is, of course, another explanation for the left’s hostility towards Israel, of which JC readers will need no reminding: the suffering of the Jews was once seen as exceptional and now their capacity for inflicting suffering is regarded exceptional, too.
I hesitate to call this antisemitism, but I do sense a feeling of relief in parts of the left that Israel now represents for them the ultimate expression of the oppressor state.