Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Blood and the Thunderer

We all have a duty to choose our words carefully - and that includes those making the accusation of anti-Semitism.

by Martin Pollard, WCIA Chief Executive

A few days ago I found myself caught up in an argument on Facebook – one of those you sort of do, sort of don’t go looking for – about David Ward’s comments on Holocaust Memorial Day. In case you’ve missed this particular controversy, Ward is the Liberal Democrat MP for Bradford East who posted the following on his blog:

“…saddened that the Jews, who suffered unbelievable levels of persecution during the Holocaust, could within a few years of liberation from the death camps be inflicting atrocities on Palestinians in the new State of Israel and continue to do so on a daily basis in the West Bank and Gaza".

This is arguably a fair comment about Israel, but wrapped up in an unfortunate choice of words which could certainly be construed as anti-Semitic. Making any blanket reference to “the Jews” sounds clearly like criticism of Jewish people, or Judaism, as a whole; this may not have been Ward’s intention (his later apology seemed sincere) but it offended enough people for that not to matter.

It also undermined his argument. During my minor Facebook altercation I was trying to make the point that this kind of slapdash choice of language does no favours to those who would engage in a legitimate critique of the state of Israel. By leaving himself open to accusations of anti-Semitism, or at the very least insensitivity, Ward lost not only the moral high ground but also the chance to engage in rational debate about the continuing political and humanitarian mess in the Middle East. He wanted to draw attention to the plight of Palestinians; instead he drew the ire of the Holocaust Educational Trust, his own party and a fair chunk of the general public.

Fast forward to today and we have another ‘anti-Semitic’ controversy, again with the emphasis on unfortunate timing around Holocaust Memorial Day. This time, Rupert Murdoch has apologised for a cartoon by Gerald Scarfe in the Sunday Times (possibly the first time Murdoch has apologised for anything, as fellow cartoonist Steve Bell noted acidly on the Today programme). We are told by the paper’s acting editor Martin Ivens that “Jews (and others) throughout the country reacted to this cartoon with a visceral disgust”.

But on this occasion, the controversy is in my view wholly unjustified, and raises serious questions around freedom of speech. Scarfe’s cartoon shows the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu building a wall containing Palestinians’ blood and body parts. The caption reads: “Israeli elections. Will cementing peace continue?"

Brutal, yes. Shocking, perhaps. And understandably offensive to some, especially considering its poorly-timed publication. But it is highly questionable whether such an image can be considered anti-Semitic. This cartoon plainly falls in the category of political comment, not religious or cultural diatribe: it is about Israel and its actions in the Occupied Territories; more specifically it alludes to Israel’s continuing policy of building illegal settlements on Palestinian land. It does not contain a stereotypical image of Jewishness. It contains blood; but contrary to the view of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, it does contain a ‘blood libel’.

Anyone comparing Scarfe’s trenchant political point with the obviously anti-Semitic cartoons produced regularly in Iran and elsewhere is at the very least disingenuous. More worrying is the pernicious subtext – heard all too regularly – that in some way to criticise the actions of the Israeli government is to promote distrust or hatred of Jews.

No-one should doubt that there are two sides to the Israel/Palestine story, and no peace activist or anti-Zionist should convince themselves that Israelis are not themselves under threat, or that their security concerns are not real. It is the duty of any careful critic to listen to both sides, and certainly to stand firm against the anti-Semitism that does emerge – sometimes explicitly enough to cause me a gasp of horror – in public debates about Israel and Palestine.

But we must also claim, as loudly and vociferously as necessary, the right to criticise any state that fails to afford protection or equal rights to those within the borders it controls, or that effectively ghettoises a substantial portion of the population. That criticism can and should be levelled legitimately against the government of Israel – as it can against other governments – until a lasting peace is finally achieved. And if we all choose our words carefully, we should do so without fear of causing irrelevant offence.

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