Here’s a story in which I take no pleasure. Some time ago, I was asked to participate in a “debate” on antisemitism at a respectable literary festival. The other speakers were to be Denis MacShane MP and the radical Israeli historian, Ilan Pappe. Though the debate’s topic was unclear, with a book due to be published on conspiracy theories, I happily agreed.
Two weeks before the event, I was called by the organisers to be told two things: first that Mr Pappe had had to withdraw and second that they had invited Gilad Atzmon, the Israeli musician, to take his place. Atzmon, for those who don’t know, is a man who spends his evenings playing the saxophone and his days on the computer, variously churning out Judeophobic nonsense and indulging in extensive pseudonymous self-promotion.
In essence, his stock argument is that Jews are responsible for their own historic misfortunes due to their tribalism and aggression. He then serves this stuff up larded with post-modernist gobbledegook borrowed from his incomprehensible, academic mother.
So I said no? No, Denis MacShane said no, but I said yes. I was too proud and arrogant not to believe I could show a roomful of British people that a line was in danger of being crossed.
The day was bright, the tent was warm. A co-speaker, arranged at the last minute, was the journalist Nick Cohen. This was worrying, not because Nick is anything other than excellent, but because British audiences hate ganging-up. If it was two beauteous elves against one hideous orc, they would side with the orc.
From the platform, I was able to see to my right at the front a group of people some of whom had greeted Atzmon as he arrived. Towards the back was the unmistakable Aryan presence of Michele Renouf, of the Number One Ladies’ Antisemitic Agency, pal of David Irving, cursed by being born too late to marry Reinhard Heydrich.
My plan was simply to read out what Atzmon had written, which I did. Nick Cohen then questioned why such a speaker would be regarded as respectable. Atzmon began by suggesting — as if it were (a) true and (b) a bad thing — that we had learned our debating tactics “in the synagogue”. From there it was downhill, mostly a diatribe about warmongers, in the course of which Atzmon said that he stood by every Judeophobic word of his that I’d read out.
Then the thing happened. As he finished, Lady Renouf gave him a big hand, but so too did the people below to the right. Stupidly, I took issue with their decision to applaud, suggesting in my choler that they must be anti-semitic to cheer such sentiments.
“Rubbish”, one of the front row shouted back; indeed, one of their number “had done more for Jewish heritage than anyone in the country”.
And this is what staggered me — it turned out to be sort of true. Later on that evening, I emailed this man and asked how it could be that he was so interested in Jewish history and the early experience of British Jews, and could end up co-applauding the Judeophobia of an idiotic musician, alongside Renouf, whose political forebears marched to the sound of, “The Yids, The Yids, We’ve got to get rid of the Yids”?
I’ll boil his answer down for you — he was seething about Gaza. On the day, he’d hoped for Avi Shlaim, but the silly Atzmon would just have to do. Reading what he had to say I felt it was as though the IDF had dumped white phosphorous on his judgment as well as on Gaza.
Forget the Zionists, he no longer seemed to have the capacity to distinguish between criticism of Israel and antisemitism. Perhaps, I found myself thinking, he found the fading lamentations of dead, underdog Jews preferable to the sometimes awful actions of all-too-human live ones. And perhaps there are not a few elite Britons who kind of agree with him. It is the kind of thing that I wished I hadn’t learned, as perhaps did the Jewish student who came up to me afterwards in tears. But again, maybe I needed to know.