To get to my starting point, I need the following preamble. I have always considered myself to be ideologically motivated, to possess a strong political philosophy through which I interpret the world. This happens to put me on what is conventionally called the left, a designation I’m happy to acknowledge, albeit one that someone who runs a blog in Israel (and is as conventionally right-wing as I am left-wing) called “part of the sane left”. However, events over the last decade or so have made me consider myself the very model of moderation, rationality and, indeed, pragmatism, compared with those I’m going to be talking about and who are supposed to be on the same “side” as me.
Let me start with a quote from a hero of mine, Nick Cohen, because it indicates the topsyturvy world we live in. This is from one of his Observer columns (15 July 2012). He says “Is opposition to reaction reactionary? Or a loathing of religious bigotry, bigoted? To slam ‘Islam as oppressive of gay and women’s rights’, said a Guardian columnist last week, is to manifest the ‘progressives’ prejudice’. True liberals did not criticise illiberal religion. They denounced criticism of prejudice as prejudiced.”
Truly, we have gone through Alice’s “Looking Glass” into a parallel world, except that it is, as was hers, the mirror-image of the one we thought we lived in. It used to be, not very long ago, that illiberalism, wherever it came from, would be routinely condemned by the Left. This meant that even those in the Third World who breached human rights would be condemned for such activities. Now, at least some on the Left want us to understand that there are different, and acceptable, standards of human rights in the Third World. I coined a phrase (probably not original, however I can but hope) for one website comment, that an attack on academic freedom anywhere was an attack on it everywhere. Just substitute ‘human rights’ for academic freedom, and you will understand exactly what I mean and where I’m coming from.
Allow me to illustrate this further with another passage from Nick Cohen, this time from 27 May 2012 (also in The Observer). It dates to a time when Tony Blair was still Prime Minister (2007) and still able to appear as a good liberal, in the widest sense of that word. He was being interviewed by John Humphrys, and Blair refused to concede to Iran a different notion of democracy from the one we take for granted. Thus, the following brief exchange is instructive (I’ve edited it even more than Cohen did):
Blair: “There is a global struggle in which we need a policy based on democracy…”
Humphrys: “Our idea of democracy?”
Blair: “I didn’t know that there was another idea of democracy…”
Humphrys: “If I may say so, that’s naive…”
Blair ”…democracy [means] you can get rid of your government if you don’t like them.”
Humphrys: “The Iranians elected their own government…”
Blair: ”Hold on, John, something like 60% of the candidates were excluded.”
I’m not trying to suggest that John Humphrys believed what he said about democracy: he was (and is) a journalist doing his job, but his words are indicative of what too many on the Left are, these days, prepared to say. And Blair put up a fair defence of representative democracy: note his comment that he “didn’t know that there was another idea of democracy”.
So there you have my starting point: the first quote from Nick Cohen, which sums up the thesis of his book “What’s Left?”, asserting that part of the Left, which used to be the proud defender of everyone’s human rights and a doughty fighter for freedom and equality, being prepared to suggest that, really, just about everything is relative. This is confirmed by John Humphrys, who is merely repeating an attitude increasingly common on this side of the political divide.
How has this happened, and where does it lead? Many argue that this change in the Left (to the extent that it is a change) began to happen after Israel had the temerity to successfully defend itself from what it saw as the threat of annihilation in 1967. Many who had, until then, been staunch defenders of Israel began to change their tune now that Israel appeared militarily secure. This is reflected in a Guardian article written by Michael Frayn at the time which argued, tongue in cheek on his part, that if only Israel had lost, the world would have been so sympathetic… I would want to argue that it might not, actually, be that much of a change: we have this aphorism, attributed to August Bebel, 19th century German Social Democrat, that “antisemitism is the socialism of fools”.
In turn, this leads to the astonishing sight of some British trade unions attempting to promote boycotts (probably in contravention of British equality laws) of what, under Tony Blair’s approach, is a democratic state, a member in good standing of the United Nations, for alleged breaches of human rights, while being prepared to ignore, or even condone, far worse breaches by other states. And, of course, to fail to even realise that this is what they are doing.
This first came into sight for me when my then trade union (the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education) started to pass resolutions calling for a boycott of Israeli (and only Israeli) universities, back in about 2000. It didn’t really help when a colleague of mine, then on the National Executive, argued that I should have seen what the resolution looked like before amendment: I suggested that this was about as comfortable as African-Americans felt when confronted by so-called US liberals: they were the ones who would hang you from a low branch! It only got worse when my union amalgamated with the Association of University Teachers to form the Universities and Colleges Union. The attitudes generated are typified for me by the following: on 27 July 2007, the online version of the British Medical Journal held a poll on whether to boycott Israeli universities or not. Tom Hickey, a long-serving member of the UCU Executive wrote the following, in support of the boycott: “In the case of Israel, we are speaking about a society whose dominant self image is one of a bastion of civilisation in a sea of medieval reaction. And we are speaking of a culture, both in Israel and in the long history of the Jewish diaspora, in which education and scholarship are held in high regard. That is why an academic boycott might have a desirable political effect in Israel, an effect that might not be expected elsewhere.”
Note the, hopefully unconscious, conflating of Jews and Israelis, which is an antisemitic trope in itself, as well as the potentially racist assumption that only Jews and Israelis really care about their children’s education. Despite his attention being frequently drawn to it, Hickey has never re-visited, explained or apologised for this.
We also have a respectable British political party, The Greens, deciding that the European Union Monitoring Commission on Racism working definition on antisemitism should be dropped from its statement of principles. This definition stated, inter alia, that it was for the person who was allegedly discriminated against to say whether this had happened or not, not for some third party to decide for them. As an aside, this is, of course, just the starting point for any further action. The Green Party decided, however, that its Executive knew better than any alleged victim whether this had happened or not. Substitute “racism” for antisemitism, and see whether this makes any sort of sense. Or, come to that, whether they would have dared to even think in these terms. UCU has now, also, dropped the EUMC working definition.
Further, we have that bastion of the “progressive left”, Ken Livingstone, literally embracing someone like al-Qaradawi, a noted homophobe and misogynist (to say nothing of being antisemitic) and claiming that he is supporting progressives in the Middle East. You have to understand that I am a recidivist Labour voter: I continually re-offend. However, I am far from ashamed that I have voted, twice, for Boris Johnson and that I didn’t vote for the Labour candidate in the last general election: she was (still is) the Assistant General Secretary of Unison, which had recently passed a boycott motion. There was no way I wanted her for my MP. Perhaps we might talk later of the so-called “Livingstone Formulation” (a term coined by David Hirsh, founding editor of the website Engage, formed to fight the academic boycott of Israeli universities).
The situation on the left is further muddied by the existence of groups such as Jews for Justice for Palestinians (JfJfP) – a bit like being againstsin, something we’re all in favour of – and Independent Jewish Voices, a group of which the author and journalist Linda Grant said, having perused the list of signatories in The Guardian, The Times and The Jewish Chronicle, and noted their claim that they were denied a voice by the Jewish establishment (whatever that meant and whoever they were), that “many of [the signatories] are but a phone-call away from an op-ed in The Guardian or The Independent”. What these groups do, intentionally or otherwise, is to allow Left anti-zionists to argue that there are these voices on the Jewish left who say these things, so it’s alright for them to say the same. This attitude ignores, of course, the fact that any and every survey taken of British Jewry shows overwhelming support for the right of the State of Israel to exist, most often in a two-state situation.
Why is it that it is only Jews who are to be denied a state of their own, when no-one questions the right of there to be something like 30 Moslem states, let alone however many there are that claim to be Christian? Or, as Maureen Lipman noted, in a brief discussion on Radio 4‘s Today programme with fellow actor Roger Lloyd-Pack concerning the Habimah Theatre production of The Merchant of Venice at The Globe, “It’s always the Jews, isn’t it”.