An uncomfortable question hasbeenrattling around at the back of my mind this week: Did I used to be an anti-Semite?
The thought is prompted by the essays in “A New Antisemitism? Debating Judeophobia in 21st Century Britain,” published jointly by Profile Books and the Institute of Jewish Policy Research.
Note the question mark in the title. Some contributors, such as prominent lawyer and author Anthony Julius, argue that the fears are overstated. Others, polemicist Melanie Phillips chief among them, are much less sanguine. In the process the book addresses the trickiest question of them all: When does legitimate criticism of Israel cross the line into something altogether more vicious?
Whether you share the glass half-full or glass half-empty tendency, the collection could hardly have arrived at a better moment. Optimists will see the emergence of Michael Howard — the son of Jewish immigrants — as the Conservative Party’s leader-elect as proof that old prejudices are dying away.
Pessimists point to more troubling signs, including an increase in racially motivated attacks, not to mention a new pan-European survey which suggests that 60 percent of British people believe, somewhat bizarrely, that Israel is the prime threat to peace in the world. (It comes almost as a relief to learn that the figure was even higher in Germany, Austria and Holland.)
There have been suggestions that the survey relied on too small a pool of respondents to be reliable. To me, though, the figures have the ring of truth. I have lost count of the number of Palestinian sympathizers I have stumbled across in the last few years. To find a person who is willing to voice sympathy for Israel is a genuine event. Most of the time I am on my own.
Until 20 years ago I was very much on the other side of the argument. As a left-wing teenager in the Seventies, I was so committed to the anti-Zionist cause that I would send off for pamphlets from the Arab League offices in London and then quote from them at length in my school history essays. In my youthful ignorance, I had bought into the standard line that Tel Aviv was an outpost of American imperialism.
Supporters of Israel occasionally make the mistake — for good reason — of crediting the anti-Zionist left with all sorts of sinister motives. Sometimes those motives really are at work. But we should never forget the power of ordinary stupidity too.
One event — the slaughter of thousands in the Syrian town of Hama in 1982 — forced me to re-evaluate everything. I can still remember my bewilderment at how little coverage the event received in the British media. Years later, when I read Thomas Friedman’s compelling account of the Arab-Israeli conflict, “From Beirut to Jerusalem,” I couldn’t help being struck by his summing up of the rules of the game in the states surrounding Israel. The rules, he wrote, are Hama Rules.
Mr. Friedman is not among the contributors to “A New Antisemitism,” but more than one author cites his definition of what might be called the fellow-traveling version of anti-Semitism: “Criticizing Israel is not antisemitic, and saying so is vile. But singling out Israel for opprobrium and international sanction — out of all proportion to any other party in the Middle East — is antisemitic, and not saying so is dishonest.”
I’m still not sure I accept that precise formulation. After all, anti-Semitism embodies a precise set of attitudes. I’m absolutely confident that I never shared them. But Mr. Friedman is right in spirit. And that, I have to say, troubles me almost as much.
Melanie Phillips’ defense of Israel — along with her nonconformist views on education and social policy in general — have helped to make her something of a hate figure to the British left. If there is such a thing as a British neoconservative, this self-styled “progressive” comes close to fitting the bill. Having made her name on the Guardian, she now occupies a berth at the right-wing Daily Mail. To imagine how great a journey that entails, you have to try to imagine Anna Quindlen throwing thunderbolts from the pages of the New York Post.
How does Miss Phillips account for the British public’s unrelenting hostility to Israel? Ignorance, she told me, is part of the problem. “The vast majority of Brit people have no interest in or knowledge of Jewish people or the history of the Middle East, and no particular interest in foreign lands far away. They rely entirely on very superficial sources of information — I’m not just talking about uneducated people — and because their ignorance is so complete it’s created a vacuum into which has come a fantastically sophisticated propaganda campaign by the Arab side. That in turn has legitimated what has always been a subterranean prejudice here. It was always there — some of us felt it more than others — but now it’s come roaring into sight.”
Now in her early fifties, Miss Phillips used to subscribe to the bien pensant view of Israel as a regional bully, partly because, as a domestic policy specialist, she paid relatively little attention to foreign affairs. Her own epiphany came during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, when media criticism of the Israelis went, she felt, beyond the bounds of reasonable comment.
At the Guardian, where she later served as news editor, she found herself increasingly at odds with the conventional wisdom. “I used to have this argument at the Guardian, which amazed and horrified me. I used to say, ‘Why do we make a front page splash when the Israelis kill five Palestinians, when the murder of thousands of Muslims by Muslims is a nib on page seven? It’s a double standard.’ And they would say, ‘Of course it’s a double standard because we hold Jews to account by Western standards. We can’t judge the Third World by our standards.’ When I first heard this argument I was gobsmacked [stunned], because to me it was racist. It’s moral and cultural relativism.”
It would help, of course, if the Israelis did a better job of putting their case to the media. Back in the era of the Six-Day War, the world used to marvel at the eloquence of foreign minister Abba Eban (although Michael Oren’s recently published history of the 1967 conflict notes that Eban’s reputation at home was much more mixed. Prime Minister Levi Eshkol called him “the learned fool.”) On a recent trip to Israel, Miss Phillips was depressed by the government’s heavy-handed approach to the fundamentals of public relations.
“They have no idea of the extent of the professionalism of the Palestinian propaganda machine. It’s chaos, absolute chaos. They have absolutely no idea what is going on in Britain, and they’re not interested. Why? First of all, they think Britain and Europe are incorrigibly anti-Semitic. Who can fight it? Secondly, they think that Israel can always expect to be on its own. Thirdly, having said they’re on their own, they still take America for granted. They think that because Bush is now completely on-side they have no problem.”
After September 11, Miss Phillips discovered that she was out of step not only with the metropolitan elite, but with Middle England as well. She has appeared on BBC panel shows in true-blue Conservative towns and listened with horror as middle-aged, middle-class voters cheer when speakers describe George W. Bush as a greater war criminal than Saddam Hussein. The general view, she has discovered, is that there is no such thing as the War on Terror, and that the world would be back to normal if only the Israelis were to stop being stubborn and make peace.
Dazed, a little weary, she has decided there is a book to be written about all this. It comes as a shock to learn that, despite her media profile, despite the fact that her powerful critique of the education system, “All Must Have Prizes,” and her study of the suffragette movement have both won ample coverage, she is having trouble finding a publisher. “I want to write a book about the mood of appeasement in Britain, which in my view is based on a number of things, including anti-Semitism. I’ve got a really good agent. Yet I’ve been told by a publisher that no British publisher will touch it.”
It’s some comfort that her on-line blog, called simply Melaniephillips.com, is now up and running. But there is no question that she seems slightly beleaguered at the moment. Before our interview ends, I ask her how she coped not just with shedding old ideas but old friends as well. She gives a wry smile, and replies that the friends shed her. Not for the first time, she really does sound like a genuine neocon.
Clive Davis writes for the London Times.