This morning, press monitoring group Media Lens shared a piece by New Statesman writer Sarah Ditum in which, among a flurry of rash assertions, she defines anyone who questions the existence of Israel as an anti-semite. As the wife and daughter-in-law of two beautiful, powerful Jewish women who not only question the right of Israel to exist, but openly reject the idea, I felt moved to respond.
In her piece entitled ‘Being right about the Iraq war has made the left insufferable’, Ditum argues that the Left (defined as anti-austerity, pro-Social Democracy types who are likely to vote Corbyn) are obsessed with being right – about Iraq and foreign misadventures, about economic policy, about the devastating impacts of ‘austerity’. Apparently, seeking out policy which brings socio-economic progress at home, and a positive contribution to peace and prosperity abroad qualifies not as common sense, but instead “a sense of burning, brilliant superiority.”
She begins with the fact that she opposed the Iraq war, as did I. She was 21, so was I. But our opposition stems from very different places. To Ditum, it was a matter of timing and argument. For me, it was a matter of neo-colonialism. Ditum advances the argument used by so many lingering Iraq war advocates – Saddam was a bad man, we had to get rid of him. This is an argument which overlooks the ‘we’ being referred to: The ‘we’ who installed Saddam Hussein by supporting the Ba’athist coup of the democratic government in 1963 in efforts to stamp out pan-Arab socialism? The ‘we’ who sold weapons to, and gave diplomatic support to, Saddam Hussein as he gassed the Kurds during the Iran/Iraq war of the 1980s?
The fact is, Britain and her ally the United States have a long and dark history of overthrowing democratic governments and backing dictatorial regimes of the bloodiest kind, if it is in the economic interests of the political class to do so. From point of view of citizens in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Mali, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere around the globe who are still living daily with the consequences of this foreign policy, ‘we’ are not the good guys.
So when ‘the Left’, as Ditum describes us, are critical of Iraq, we are not simply scoring points against the long-gone Blair government. We are saying we are a stand for a government which is a responsible member of the international community, not a belligerent actor on the world stage. Considering the hideously destabilising effects of UK/US beliigerence on the Middle East and North Africa, combined with the fatal undermining of the United Nations, it seems perfectly fair that voters would consider this when choosing which party leader, and potential Prime Minister. That Ditum considers this a trivial matter says more about her than it does the targets of her scorn.
But the diatribe contained a final kicker. Recalling feeling uncomfortable about criticism of Israel within the Stop the War movement, Ditum adds:
(An aside: over ten years later, I am very sure that if you “question” the existence of Israel, a state that has given refuge to a universally persecuted people, you are in fact an anti-Semite.)
This one small statement contains three whopping assumptions.
1. That Israel is a safe place for persecuted people.
2. That a Jewish State on the land of historic Palestine is the answer to anti-Semitism.
3. That to disagree with that premise is anti-Semitic.
Let’s deal with point 1 first. A state that has given refuge to a universally persecuted people?
Does Ditum mean the immigrants fleeing Eritrea, Sudan and Sierra Leone, which are referred to as ‘infiltrators’, and ‘a cancer’ by leading Israeli lawmakers? Does she mean the Ethiopean Jews who were given forced long term contraceptive injections to prevent them birthing non-white Jewish children, because Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu considered them “a threat to the Jewish…state?”
While Israel presents a homeland to Western European and American Jews, it treats Mizrahi Jews (Jews from Arab countries), and Ethiopian Jews with unbridled racism.
One point 2, the Zionist project – a national political movement established in the late 19th century – sought to ensure that when the Mandate of Palestine attained its independence, it would become not a secular democracy for all its Muslim, Jewish, Christian and Bedouin inhabitants, but an exclusively Jewish state. As someone who opposes theocracy, or ethnic supremacists states wherever they exist – I make no exception for Israel. Neither do my Jewish wife and mother-in-law, a small number of courageous anti-Zionist Israelis, and a growing number of people around the world, including many with Jewish heritage. Anti-semitism is a civil rights struggle that should be countered on a nation by nation basis, like all other toxic forms of racism. The solution is not a state founded on the ethnic cleansing of 750,000 Arabs, the destruction and Hebrewization of their cities, and the continued occupation, disenfranchisement, illegal detention and murder of Palestinians to this day. As one Israeli put it to me during an interview last Summer, ‘the greatest threat to Judaism in the world today is Israel.’
And with her final naive statement, Ditum has deemed all those who support that analysis anti-semites.
Now, it is certainly possible that criticism of Israel can come from anti-semitic people, or be framed in an anti-semitic way. But to suggest that Israel was a) the logical and correct response to anti-semitism, or b) that ALL criticism of it therefore constitutes anti-semitism, is patently absurd.
This piece comes amid a wider effort by the supposed liberal press in the UK to discredit the social democratic ideas of Jeremy Corbyn, while smearing him and his supporters as lunatics, anti-semites or ‘infiltrators.’ This provides yet more evidence of the need not only for a new politics (the kind embodied by Corbyn), but a new media too.
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