The Independent still has Howard Jacobson

Howard Jacobson: Let prejudice be servant to the facts, and not the other way round

I am wary of accepting someone is an ‘ardent’ Zionist on the say-so of someone who isn’t

‘Words matter.” I take that unexceptionable little sentence from a recent letter to the New York Review of Books, co-signed by Vanessa Redgrave, Julian Schnabel and Martin Sherman.

Arguing against the banning of Israeli films from film festivals, the writers remind the boycotters of the attitudes they share with the Israeli film-making community. “If those who are fighting within their own communities for peace are insulted, where then is the hope?” Where is the hope, and where, moreover, is the sense, in the boycotters misdescribing the thing they oppose? “The protesters use the term ‘apartheid regime’. We oppose the current Israeli government, but it is a government. Freely elected. Not a regime. Words matter.”

Words matter.

It’s in the spirit of words mattering that I take issue with a number of accusations of pro-Israeli bias made recently by our former ambassador to Libya, Oliver Miles, and endorsed in his column last weekend by Richard Ingrams.

But let me be clear – ceci n’est pas une pipe. This is not an article about Israel, for or against. Nothing I say could not be said by anyone on either side of the debate, pro-war, pro-peace, Palestinian or Israeli, provided that they too believe words matter. The question bothering Oliver Miles and Richard Ingrams is why two Jews have been appointed to the Iraq enquiry, not least as one of them, the historian Sir Martin Gilbert, “has a record of active support for Zionism”.

What does “active support” for Zionism mean and why, even if it were a true account of Martin Gilbert’s position, should it be a disqualification? The phrase “active support for Zionism” is not a world away from the phrase “apartheid regime” in that both intend to shut down discussion. No right-minded person will have truck with either. But words matter. At what point does a refusal, say, to call Israel an “apartheid regime” make a man a Zionist? When does sympathy for Zionist aspiration – the return of Jews to their ancient homeland – become “support”, and when does that support become “active”? I am, by people who rise hysterically early on a Saturday morning to add their thoughts to the internet version of this column, often accused of actively supporting Zionism myself. Even when my subject is the teaching of English in our schools, or the present condition of stand-up comedy, I am charged – such is the tenacity of an idée fixe – with being an active supporter of Zionism.

But I am no such thing. Ceci n’est pas une pipe. I am no more an active supporter of Zionism because I discern unreasoned hatred in some articles I read about Israel than I am an active supporter of the Church of England because I think it’s a good idea to have women priests.

There were many, at the time we were being talked into invading Iraq, who saw reason for not toppling Saddam Hussein. This did not make them, with the possible exception of George Galloway, active supporters of Ba’ath Party dictatorships. We are in trouble intellectually when an expression of understanding for someone else’s ambitions (which need not mean one shares them), when dissent from a commonly held set of assumptions, makes us guilty by association.

What Martin Gilbert has done to make him an “active supporter of Zionism” neither Oliver Miles nor Richard Ingrams says. But let us, for the sake of argument, leave it at Gilbert believing things that Miles and Ingrams don’t. Why does that make him an unsuitable member of the enquiry? Everyone believes something that other people would rather they didn’t. Am I mistaken, for example, in thinking that Oliver Miles now earns his living as a professional – and therefore we must assume “active”, or he is not worth his money – lobbyist for Arabic interests? He who would argue for strict impartiality must be impartial himself. If not, then on what grounds does he charge others? How, I ask again, even allowing what we need not allow, is Martin Gilbert’s membership of the panel of enquiry compromised?

Answer – and we now enter a still darker cave of obfuscated innuendo – because of “the Israeli dimension in the Anglo-US invasion of Iraq”. The what? Richard Ingrams has the facts – “it is a fact that the campaign to overthrow Saddam Hussein was initiated well before 9/11 by a group of influential American neocons … nearly all of whom were ardent Zionists.”

Time permitting, we could do a practical criticism exercise, of the sort I enjoyed as a student of Eng lit, comparing “ardent” Zionism with “active” Zionism. Which is the hotter? Which the more malignant? And how, in the company of “active” or “ardent” Zionists, do we distinguish the unadjectived Zionist, the Zionist pure and simple, or does no such creature exist? Is every Zionist ipso facto that little bit too zealous in his Zionism?

Words matter. In words, rhetoric betrays its prejudice. No Zionist is other than an active Zionist in Miles and Ingram’s world, just as no Zionist is ever capable of disinterested judgement, because Zionism allows nothing to stand in its way, including Saddam Hussein. “It is a fact.” Quite what Israel had to gain from overthrowing Saddam has never been plain to me – which doesn’t of course prove anything, any more than Richard Ingrams’ “facts” prove anything – but an ardently active Zionist would surely have seen that Iran not Iraq was the enemy and that an America tied up with the one was less likely to be in a position to deal efficiently with the other.

Since I am wary of accepting that anyone is an “ardent” Zionist on the mere say-so of someone who isn’t, I have no reason to believe that the infamous cabal of neocons was acting on behalf of Israel when it pushed for the invasion of Iraq. We can hold them culpable without holding them culpable of that. But Ingrams has one more “undeniable fact” to assert. Not only were the neocons Zionists, many were “more concerned with preserving the security of Israel than of the US”.

So tell me what shred of evidence there is for this “undeniable fact”. It is a grave charge. Putting another country’s security before your own amounts to treason. No evidence is produced to support this accusation because no evidence can be produced. It is a calumny predicated on a self-perpetuating assertion – that Zionists are treasonable in their zeal for Zion, because that’s the nature of Zionist self-interest. It doesn’t take much to discern in that the older calumny, that Jews are the enemy of whichever nation harbours them.

Words matter because hate hangs on their coat tails.

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