It was almost four years ago that I vowed to never again attend a public demonstration about the Israeli-Palestinian confict. Gaza was in flames from IDF tank fire, and homes in Ashdod and Beersheba were on the receiving end of Hamas rocket fire. So, off I popped on the Victoria Line from my inward looking London suburb, keen to join the debate and strut around Westminster on what would otherwise have been a very dull Saturday afternoon. I wanted to voice my concerns at what I saw as a disproportionate and counter-productive Israeli response, but equally keen to deplore the hundreds of Hamas rockets that were being fired into southern Israel. Wanting people to stop dying is hardly an especially fine line to tread, you might think?
Apparently, it was. I don’t think I’ve ever seen more Nazi insignia in my life than I did on that afternoon, as upper-middle class ‘activist’ after upper-middle ‘activist’ queued up to wave their placard equating the Star of David with the Swastika, equating Ben-Gurion with Hitler, equating Gaza with the Warsaw Ghetto. As someone from a semi-Hebraic background (I am what one of my friends describes, in the words of John Agard, as a ‘half-cast symphony’), I was deeply offended not only by the ignorance and ridiculousness underpinning such statements, but also by its smugness. Such imagery is clearly used with the intention of causing offense. Yes, I fell for it. But the sight of so many taking a collective dump on history and on any reasonable concept of accuracy, for the sake of scoring distastefully cheap points was too much for me.
It still is too much, and, as I said, I vowed to never again to go to another demo about Israel and Palestine.
However, on the back of the recent escalation of violence in Gaza and southern Israel, I succumbed to temptation. You could accuse me, entirely reasonably, of actively seeking out such displeasure. But upon the advice of a friend (and blog columnist for this very publication – I blame her) I performed a twitter search of the word ‘Zionist’.
I read all about ‘Zionist agents’, ‘the Zionist-owned banks’, ‘Zionist puppets’, ‘the Zionist media’, and even more bizarrely ‘Zionist hospitals’, from people who would define themselves as being of the left. At least the more violent, blood-curdling proclamations were from those who would probably see themselves as radical Islamists: ‘the Zionist need [sic] to be wiped clean off the face of the earth’, just to give you a flavour.
My favourite of the lot, however, was from a chap who declared, ‘Go back home Zionist’. In terms of undermining your own argument, that tweet is quite an impressive achievement.
Replace the word ‘Zionist’ with the word ‘Jew’ in all of these comments and, if you haven’t worked this out already, the anti-semitism is clear. Don’t you get it? It’s the Jews who are controlling the world...
Another numpty—this time a comrade of the centre-left—accused me of being ‘like an IDF spokesman’ for simply pointing out that Israeli rockets were, technically speaking, more accurate than Hamas’s. I was also at pains to point out that the IDF must do much more to make sure its equipment and its use is far more discriminatory than it currently is. I did not say that I thought it was okay to murder Palestinian children, to roll up their ashes in pages of the Qur’an and smoke it in halls of the Al-Aqsa mosque.
I do not believe that charges of anti-semitism against this particular person stack up; my grandfather anglicised our surname far too much for that. However, for engaging with the issue beyond any level of superficiality I became one of them, one of the bad guys. I became a ‘Zionist’, and it is by un-packing this word and its pejorative use on forums like twitter that we get close to understanding why many otherwise progressive thinkers discard any degree of nuance when it comes to Israel and Palestine.
The word ‘Zionist’ has become a label for anything disliked by anyone who has decided that they don’t like Israel or Israeli policy. Theodor Herzl, or the variety of definitions of Zionism from Jews themselves, doesn’t come into it.
Put simply, the problems in the Middle East are too bloody complicated. It is one of those annoying topics in which the more one attempts to understand it, the more difficult it becomes to master. Unfortunately, it is also one of those topics with shrill opinion holders a-plenty, shouting from the rooftops about how it isn’t really that difficult after all. It’s a lot easier to reduce the Middle East into a Star Wars-esque good versus evil battle. My unscientific twitter sample had its bad guys sounded out pretty clearly: it’s the Zionists, stoopid.
This isn’t intended to be an expose of the foolishness of many on the hard, illiberal left on Israel. I think Nick Cohen has beaten me to that one. Instead, I write this just to say that I’m bloody fed up of being called or insinuated to be bigoted, simply for having engaged with the complexities of what is, after all, the most intractable of geo-political quagmires. And I’m fed up of having to watch as anti-semitic tropes as old as European civilisation are wheeled out again in mainstream publications like The Guardian (which I otherwise read with pleasure).
I know that we all live very busy lives, but can’t we all just use our brains a bit more?
Alex Diner is a researcher for a Labour MP