It's not what you said, Baroness Tonge, it's how you said it

Written by Total Politics has a free weekly Friday email bulletin. Follow this link to register. on 19 March 2012 in News
What the former Lib Dem peer has failed to understand, says Sadie Smith, is that there's no place for stereotypes in constructive debate about the future of the Middle East

This morning three children and a man, thought to be a rabbi who taught at the school, were gunned down in a ride-by shooting at Ozar Hatorah secondary college in south-west France. The attack mirrors a series of similar ones perpetrated against paratroopers believed to have returned from a tour of Afghanistan, although it’s currently not clear whether the events are linked. Responding to the attack, the Inter-parliamentary Coalition on Combating Anti-Semitism (ICCA) said:

“The ICCA unreservedly condemns this anti-Semitic attack perpetrated on innocent children. All children have a right to feel safe in their schools and learn free from fear. Antisemtisim, like every other form of racism, is a disease that poisons society and this incident needs to be taken very seriously.”

Meanwhile, back in Blighty, Baroness Jenny Tonge has chosen to walk from the Liberal Democrats rather than apologise for her comments at a speech at Middlesex University where she said, inter alia, that Israel would “not last forever” but “reap what they had sown.” On Friday, she made a personal statement in the Lords where she claimed she was not “anti-Semitic, but anti-injustice”, and set out where she felt the problems were in terms of the Israel-Palestine conundrum. Apart from a slight nod to conspiracy theory (“It is not mindless. It is the deliberate humiliation of the Palestinians since the Oslo agreement – a carefully thought-out strategy, designed to make life for the Palestinians impossible”) most of what she said could be filed under “fair enough”.

But when it comes to racism in general and anti-Semitism in particular, it is not what you say, but how you say it. It is possible to criticise Israel, as it is possible to criticise any state, without resorting to tropes that are laced with sentiments that are discriminatory. If somebody said to me, for example (actually, I have heard this) that Muslims in the Middle East are routinely abducting Christian girls in order to force them into marriage and childbirth with the aim of extending the “control” of Islam across the globe, the only acceptable response on the part of the listener is something along the lines of, “I’m sorry. You bloody what?” Similarly, if I was to suggest, as Baroness Tonge did in 2010, that the west’s tendency to wink at bad behaviour on the part of the Israeli state is down to “Holocaust guilt”, then I would be rightly pilloried.

After the Haiti earthquake, also in 2010, the Palestine Telegraph reported that the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) who had been assisting with the clear-up operation had been harvesting organs from the victims for use in transplants. This is modern variation on the Blood Libel, the anti-Semitic rumour as old as racism itself and just as repellent, which holds that Jews routinely abduct children of other races for sacrifice in their religious ceremonies. Baroness Tonge called upon the IDF to disprove the negative in the Haitian allegation; to set up an independent inquiry to check that those bloodthirsty Israelis hadn’t been up to their old Jewish tricks. Replace “Israeli” with “Iranian” or “Iraqi” and the entire left-wing commentariat would have fallen silent as they prepared to grab their torches and pitchforks to unite under the banner of anti-racism.

As the ICCA notes, prejudice is a disease that leads to suffering and sometimes death, but one that can find its justification in the legitimate. Not all people opposed to Polish immigration, for example, will be racist. But all racists will be opposed to Polish immigration. Not all anti-Zionists are anti-Semites, but all anti-Semites are anti-Zionist. It’s one of those irregular verbs: I have legitimate concerns about Israel, you are an anti-Zionist, he is an anti-Semite.

Israel has its problems, let’s be clear about that. But if you’re incapable of engaging in debate about how to solve what is – essentially – a complex land issue, without resorting to the sort of stereotypes that encourage isolation on both sides, then you have no constructive part to play in such discussions and can only exacerbate the horror that you claim to want to end.

Tags: Anti-semitism, Anti-Zionism, Baroness Tonge, Israel, Lib Dems, Racism

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