The first conversation was, in a way, the most painful. It happened on the morning of Sunday October 8, and it was with someone I love. It went like this.
She: Do you think anti-Zionism is antisemitism?
Me: The best definition I’ve found for Zionism is: a Zionist is someone who thinks the state of Israel has the right to exist. It rather clarifies things. Some people have a different definition.
She: So you think it is, yes?
Me: Anti-Zionism is very often a cover for antisemitism, alas. I think Israel DOES have a right to exist. It doesn’t give it the right to f*** Palestinians over, but the important thing to remember is that Hamas doesn’t give a f*** about the Palestinians.
They f*** them over just as badly if not worse. [At the time, I did not know the full degree of Hamas’s brutality towards the Palestinian people.] It’s all rather complicated as well as horrible.
Members of the Jewish community attend a Manchester vigil for the victims of the attacks (Photo: Getty Images)
So far, so good. Now bear in mind that at this stage, Israel had not begun its airstrikes against Gaza. All anyone knew at this stage was that Israelis were being murdered in the most horrific ways. Anyway, the conversation continued thus:
She: I find the “Israel has a right to exist” argument unclear. Do you mean the right to exist based on ethnic nationalism as opposed to civic nationalism?
There were other questions, which betrayed a near-total ignorance about Hamas (my knowledge of them, at the time, was also far from complete), but the point where I lost my temper, or tried and failed to keep it, was the “ethnic nationalism” bit.
Now, as it happens, I know a fair amount about “ethnic nationalism”. I cut my political teeth on Anti Nazi League demonstrations, I had a Rock Against Racism sticker on my electric guitar, which must have really helped things given that I never performed with it, and went on numerous demonstrations against the apartheid regime in South Africa. Now there was an ethno-nationalist state if ever there was one. And yet not once did anyone ever suggest that the state of South Africa should be wiped off the map. All anyone suggested was that they have a better government.
And yet here we are. I have seen people posting maps of the Middle East pre-1948, where the word “Israel” does not appear, the clear implication being that things would be better if the word was no longer there.
Other arguments: the friend, now friend no longer, who said that the Nova rave was provocatively close to the border with Gaza, and that the venue had been decided only two days before, so Hamas probably thought they were attacking a military installation. I said that it wasn’t exactly hard to distinguish between people dancing and soldiers and … well, and so on. I don’t need to explain here, surely.
And then a much better friend assured me that his point was valid. It had occurred to neither of them that maybe the main outrage should be reserved for the perpetrators of barbaric atrocities against innocent civilians. (A fair number of whom, it has been pointed out, would probably have been against Netanyahu’s government and policies. As am I, for the record.) I could fill up the rest of this article with very similar stories. I can sum it up with one comment from someone I know, or thought I knew, very well indeed: “It’s good to see both sides.”
Excuse me? There are sides now? Like this is a debate, or a football match? No, unless the sides are these: Jews on one, and on the other, a homicidal, no, genocidal death cult. And, as we know, that genocide is in their very constitution.
But for some reason, these thugs, whose reign of oppression against the very people they claim to represent, and who have not even allowed an election since 2007, are to be given a fair hearing. And, as I say, all these arguments took place before Israel’s response. Now for many years I was equivocal about the situation in the Middle East. I could see the formidable grievances of the Palestinians. I could also see why the state of Israel needed to exist, and needed to protect itself. So in the end, I decided to stay out of arguments on the subject. I had friends in both camps; and my joining in the argument wasn’t going to help.
Things have changed now, and changed radically. I choose the word carefully: it means “from the root”. Last year my editor on this newspaper assured me that I was, in fact, Jewish, or could count myself as such if I chose. At first I thought this was a matter of almost amusing interest: I even wrote a funny piece about it here.
I’m not in the mood for making jokes any more. My Jewish roots might have been long buried out of sight but they are there. I also have roots, I like to think, in the very concept of humanity: that part of us that abhors the murder and kidnap of babies, infants and children. Not to mention adults. But I have since learned that there is a “yeah, but…” if the victims are Jews. And it would appear that these Jews don’t even have to be in Israel, if the pro-Palestinian demonstrations, loud and vocal in their demands for another Holocaust, are anything to go by.
I had suffered antisemitism when a schoolboy, because my surname is Jewish and I look Jewish. But I shrugged it off because (a) schoolboys are stupid and (b) I really didn’t consider myself Jewish. What I had not expected to learn, at the beginning of my seventh decade, was that not only was antisemitism real, but that it was more than just that mild distaste that a certain kind of Briton has for the Jews. You know: “They’re all right, I suppose, but do we really want them in our clubs?” Now it’s revealed as a chilling disdain for the idea of their very right to breathe. As my friend Caroline Gold wrote to me a few days ago: “Eventually you find out that people revert to their Factory Settings.” I am now discovering what those factory settings are.
I hope I am wrong about this. I have had much support from non-Jews, and although I can only speak for my circle (broken though it now is), I have noticed that the higher up the social ladder one goes, the more likely one is to meet one of these “both sides” arguments.
Oh, and they are all well-meaning, left-leaning. So am I. And I still think the Palestinians are getting a raw deal: in fact, it’s now rawer and more painful than ever, which is saying something. But then that was always Hamas’s plan.
There is hope. I have a very good friend, working-class and a natural mid-left Labour voter, who was so appalled by the abuse his own best friend was getting from Corbyn supporters, that he decided to get a large and intricate tattoo of the Star of David on his chest. His reason? Not just to show solidarity, but to remind himself, should he find himself in the kind of situation where one’s life depends on whether one is Jewish or not, where his heart lies, in case his courage fails him.
I wish more of my British, non-Jewish friends were like him.