By Melanie Phillips January 29, 2005
In Tuesday evening I had the misfortune to take part in a high-profile and packed debate in London in the 'Intelligence Squared' series. The motion was 'Zionism today is the real enemy of the Jews'. The motion was proposed by three Jews: Avi Shlaim, the 'revisionist' Israeli historian; Jacqueline Rose, a professor of English; and Amira Hass, a journalist for Ha'aretz in the disputed territories. Opposing it were three Jews: myself, Shlomo Ben-Ami, a former Israeli Labour foreign minister, and Raphael Israeli, professor of Islamic, Middle Eastern and Chinese history at the Hebrew University.
My side lost by 355 to 320. It is hard to convey the sickening nature of this event, and not just because we lost. The sub-text of the motion was that the Jews are responsible for their own destruction; the real danger they are in comes not from Islamic terrorism, nor the attempt to ethnically cleanse the Jews from Israel, nor the rise in anti-Jewish feeling in Britain and Europe, but from the Jews themselves because the Israelis have turned into monsters. Thus the attacks on them, far from being deplored, are implicitly endorsed; and, to carry this thinking to its logical conclusion, the way to defend the Jews is to remove the source of the contagion -- in other words, to destroy the state of Israel.
This grotesque libel, which doubly victimises the Jews -- first by ignoring and even inciting the real terror they face, and second by blaming them for it -- is of course now a commonplace in Britain. What made this debate all the more troubling was that this shocking motion was proposed by three Jews. The Jews who were opposing it were therefore placed in the appalling position of having to defend the Jewish people from a calumny about Jews which was issuing from the mouths of other Jews.
This sport of Jew-baiting has now become the vogue among the British media, which uses Jews to unleash the most blatant untruths and vicious lies and libels about Israel so that the media can disavow any anti-Jewish prejudice, on the grounds that Jews cannot be anti-Jew. Alas, would that this were so.
They, of course, do not see it this way. Indeed, one of the most astonishing and odious aspects of their behaviour is the way they claim the moral high ground. Israel, they say, has betrayed the ethics of the Jewish people. To arrive at this analysis, they rely upon blatant lies, omissions and distortions about both the history and present situation of the Jews in first Palestine and now Israel. They single out and concentrate on examples of bad behaviour by Israel -- which undoubtedly happen and should be deplored -- while decontextualising them so that the rarity of such events is not acknowledged, Israel is held to an impossibly perfect standard of behaviour which would be expected of no other country in such a parlous situation, self-defence is turned into aggression, and the ways in which Israel behaves infinitely better than most other countries faced with a similar situation are resolutely ignored. They take the existential threat to Israel and twist it into its opposite, so that Israel is presented instead as posing an existential threat to the Palestinians.
They dwell obsessively, maliciously and disproportionately upon the 'crimes ' of Israel -- which are for the most part actually examples of Israel's attempt to defend itself -- while ignoring totally the real crimes, the massacres and aggression and tyrannies, which are perpetrated against the peoples of Arab countries, including the Palestinians, by Arab states.
This scapegoating of the Jews, this moral inversion which blames them for their own destruction, is a calumny which has repeated itself over and over again throughout the long history of the oldest hatred. For this ancient libel to be perpetrated by Jews themselves is, as I have said, nothing new. It is none the less unutterably shocking to hear it in action in 21st century Britain. I came away from that debate feeling the kind of emotion one feels -- in a totally different context -- when forced to listen to or even watch the details of paedophile assaults on children. It is a physical numbness, a feeling of the very darkest despair; a feeling that a very great evil has been unleashed which reveals the depths of pathological malice to which human beings can descend -- to turn on their own at a time when they are already under murderous attack. It seems like a repudiation not just of their Jewishness but their humanity.
And all this wrapped up in the highest level of sanctimoniousness, humbug and sheer, laughable, intellectual dishonesty and vacuousness. Thus Professor Avi Shlaim -- whose 'scholarship' has been comprehensively shredded by Ephraim Karsh and others --brazenly re-interpreted the motion to allow him to defame Israel by claiming that 'Zionism today' was one and the same thing as the policies of Ariel Sharon in the disputed territories. Not only did he grossly distort the history and present circumstances of Israel's presence in those territories, but his approach begged the question of what in heaven's name-- if Sharonism was 'Zionism today' --the myriad political parties in Israel opposed to Sharonism were. Were these not Zionists too?
The fact was that by proposing this motion, Shlaim has associated himself with a statement which -- despite his denials -- singles out the Jews as having no right to their own country, and singles out Israel as the one country in the world whose existence is illegitimate. Zionism is today, as it has always been, the national liberation movement of the Jewish people and Israel is its territorial expression. There are many different types of Zionism today, as ever; Sharon's version is but one. The motion condemned Zionism today, full stop. As a result, this debate will be used by the enemies of Israel and of the Jewish people to do them further harm -- and Shlaim, Rose and Hass made that possible.