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.

More from Howard Jacobson

21 Responses to “The Independent still has Howard Jacobson”

  1. zachary esterson, PhD student, Cardiff Says:

    Jacobson observes acutely on the use of the cipher term “Zionist”.

    Sometimes it means simply someone who does not actively support the dissolution of the Jewish state of Israel.

  2. PetraMB Says:

    The notion that Israel pushed for the Iraq war has been shown for the antisemitic calumny it is, see e.g. here:
    In February 2002, ahead of a visit by Ariel Sharon to Washington, the Washington Post carried a story by Alan Sipress under the headline: “Israel Emphasizes Iranian Threat.”
    “As Prime Minister Ariel Sharon arrives today for a White House visit, Israeli officials are redoubling efforts to warn the Bush administration that Iran poses a greater threat than the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein. A series of Israeli leaders have carried that message to Washington recently in the hope of influencing a debate that has centered not on Iran but on whether to pursue the overthrow of the Iraqi government.”
    The article went on to quote Israeli defense minister Fouad Ben-Eliezer: “Today, everybody is busy with Iraq. Iraq is a problem…. But you should understand, if you ask me, today Iran is more dangerous than Iraq.” The article added: “Though Israeli officials have few kind words for Saddam Hussein, they see him posing less of a threat than Iran after more than a decade of U.N. sanctions and international isolation.”

    Another earlier refutation is here:

  3. Anthony Posner Says:

    I am an anti anti-zionist? Does that make me a zionist?

    Perhaps Chomsky could set me straight?

  4. Saul Says:

    “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.”

    I noticed that this op-ed was not open to comments on the Independent web site.

    I wonder why??

  5. Anthony Posner Says:

    You can comment on Jacobson’s Independent review of “A Serious Man”.

    Isn’t Jacobson The Independent’s retort to the accusation that it is an anti-zionist/anti-semitic rag? If Jacobson has not explored this theme in his column, then one might conclude that he is unwilling to write about the ironical implications of The Jewish Writer in The UK.

    • Brian Goldfarb Says:

      “If Jacobson has not explored this theme in his column, then one might conclude that he is unwilling to write about the ironical implications of The Jewish Writer in The UK.”

      Actually, Anthony, Jacobson frequently comments on the
      “ironical implications of The Jewish Writer in The UK”, as you put it. Some months (a year or so?) ago, he addressed an Engage meeting on these very topics, and he has referred to it more than once in his Independent column and been posted (or linked to) here.

      This is not to “get” at you, but there are now so many pages to Engage that it becomes difficult to search out these references/links.

  6. zachary esterson, PhD student, Cardiff Says:

    I like this line:

    “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 dictators”

  7. Maven Says:

    MPAC UK doesn’t hold back: “Will Jewish Zionists Airbrush the Iraq Inquiry?”

    The suggestion is that because they are Jews they won’t be honset.

    BTW can anyone demonstrate that the two Jewish members of the enquiry are “Zionists”? Isn’t this just a code word for “Jews”?

    Also, aren’t Blair and Brown “active Zionists” by their affiliations to Labour Friends of Israel and Brown’s association with the JNF?

  8. Absolute Observer Says:

    As thr CST notes, once you start talking about the “Israel Lobby” it is going to impact on Jews outside Israel. It immediately raises the issue of “dual loyalty” which we see at work here.

    It is yet another instance of where something is deemed to be “merely” antizionist” brings with it and contains within it antisemitic echoes and implications, in this case singling out Jews on the grournds that they are “supporters of Israel” and, by so doing rasing that support to the status of a crime or defenct thereby making them untrustworthy.

    That is how antisemitism works.

  9. James Mendelsohn Says:

    Thank God for Howard Jacobson

  10. zachary esterson, PhD student, Cardiff Says:

    Martin Gilbert is certainly sympathetic because he both lived there and wrote a sympathetic history of Israel.

  11. Miriam Says:

    zachary esterson, PhD student, Cardiff Says:
    “Martin Gilbert is certainly sympathetic because he both lived there and wrote a sympathetic history of Israel.”

    I don’t know what sympathetic means in the above quote.
    Do you think it was untruthful?

    I read the book and while it was a popular history of Israel it was also truthful.

  12. Anthony Posner Says:

    Briian Goldfarb,

    Has Jacobson addressed the “ironical implications” with regard to his employment on The Independent?

    • Brian Goldfarb Says:

      Why don’t you ask him? He’s probably got a website Nd/or a public email address.

      I can only guess, not being Howard Jacobson.

      Of course, his answer might be of the order that The Independent isn’t breaking the law, however much he might dislike its policy towards Israel, he is a freelance and he isn’t censored. Further, he needs to earn a living, and writing novels isn’t exactly the way to make a fortune. And he reaches some people who otherwise might believe everything the Indie writes. Further, as he notes, he doesn’t write only about “Jewish” matters.

      If you ask him and don’t like his answer, perhaps you should say so to _him_, not me.

  13. Inna Says:

    “BTW can anyone demonstrate that the two Jewish members of the enquiry are “Zionists”? Isn’t this just a code word for “Jews”?”

    The better question (IMO) is whether you can demonstrate that the gentile members of the enquiry feel that Jews have no right to a state of their own either because they don’t believe that states should exist or because they feel that the Jewish people should not have a state. Put another way, can Ingrams and Miles demonstrate that the other members of the enquiry are NOT Zionists (ardent, active and otherwise)?

    Because I don’t think they can. Indeed, I don’t think they can demonstrate that about most anti-racist people which I still firmly believe is the majority of the population. I think most non-racists are also Zionists.

    So yes, this whole hullaboo is about Jews. Because otherwise why would they pick on the two Jewish anti-racists in the panel and not the gentile ones?



  14. The Good old Days Says:

    I thought the Chilcott Commission had to do with Iraq and not Israel.

    An antizionist/antisemitic myth is that Israel pulled the strings to make the US got to war in Iraq. It is a lie. It is not true. It is a fabrication.

    This has rebounded back on two emiment British Jews, one of which wote a sympathetic book on Israel.

    Apparently, therefore, any British Jew who has written a sympathetic book on Israel is to be barred from certain aspects of British political life, even when Israel is a complete irrelevance to the matter in hand.

    This is how antisemitism works.
    It is pernicious and dangerous.

    (This is a different question, of course, to the support of the war at the time by one of the members of the panel, which is a political, as opposed to a racist judgement).)

  15. Absolute Observer Says:

    By discussing Gilbert’s book on Israel in relation to the Iraq war one is perpetuatingthe antisemitic and racist agenda set by Ingram’s and Miles.
    That was their aim. One does not discuss the veracity of antisemitic claims. One shows why they are antisemitic and dispose of them accordingly. That’s what anti-racists do and should do – even if some seek to make “the Jews” an exception.

  16. Susan Says:

    OK, Let’s assume that Martin Gilbert is sympathetic to Israel. Why would that matter on a panel concerning invading Iraq. There is no reason to assume that Jews or Zionists were more likely to support invading Iraq. Ingrams assumes that a tiny handful of neocons represent the entire Jewish world. An incorrect assumption when 78% of American Jews voted for Barak Obama and 77% of American Jews opposed the Iraq war. Ingrams and his ilk are convinced they know the truth and don’t have to check the facts. This is racist, but it is also just plain bad journalism as well.

  17. Absolute Observer Says:


    Just a thought about your comment. There are some neocons that are Jewish, but why do people need to associate place the word “Jewish” in connection with neocons. It is really the equivalent of connecting the terms “Bolshevik” and “Jewish”, or that psychoanalysis is a “Jewish science” because Freud and many others were Jewish.

    Neoconservative is native to the US (and UK). Many, but, by no means all, of those who despise it (and they have my sympathy on this) go one step further and imply that it is an “alien” (i.e “Jewish”) import.

    That is why they then make the next move by connecting it with the “Israel Lobby”. Then, they put the two together and link neocon and Jews with an “alien” power that “determines” US foreign policy.

    You give antisemitism an inch, it takes a mile!

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