What is legitimate criticism of Israel?

As mentioned in a previous post, Alex Stein reckons that the Guardian gets a cheap thrill out of covering Jew-on-Jew disputes. So I was alert to the way Gaby Wood presented the rumpus which ensued the establishment of Independent Jewish Voices in her article The New Jewish Question in today’s Observer.

The article requires that readers evaluate at least two opposing views about anti-Israel discourse without any preamble, any whatsoever, about what antisemitism actually is. This is a serious omission since an understanding of antisemitism in its different manifestations is crucial to evaluating whether the different criticisms of Israel are or are not antisemitic. Which lends weight to Alex Stein’s theory that it’s mostly just titillation for those Guardian hacks.

Many have written about the relationship between anti-zionism, criticism of Israel and antisemitism. I got a lot out of reading Jonathan Freedland, for example, who carefully considers whether anti-zionism is antisemitism and of course he finds that criticism of Israel’s policies (not the same thing as anti-Zionism, but assumed to be by many journalists and treated as such by a large number of Israel’s anti-semitic critics) is antisemitic if it falls into certain well-defined categories largely but not entirely to do with singling out and punishing Israel for transgressions which are globally common-place, willingness to attribute transgressions to Israel without evidence, the glamourisation or appeasement of states, groups and individuals who, pariahs by most standards, overtly seek the destruction of Israel, and the unthinking, unevidenced foregrounding of Israel as the world’s biggest problem. Otherwise criticism of Israel can be legitimate (assuming it’s accurate). Of course it can – this is everyday knowledge. Nobody who speaks for me says otherwise. For the highest concentration of criticism, look in the Jewish and Israeli press.

Having said that, I believe that is is difficult for writers to both avoid antisemitism and grope for a solution to the Palestinian / Israeli conflict – but only insofar as it’s difficult to meet the demands of rigorous scholarship. Most political writing, particularly journalism, falls foul of uninformed decision-making about what to gloss, what to omit, and what to state strongly. If the overstatement, omission and glossing all go in one direction, this implies an anti-Israel bias. An anti-Israel bias is ultimately undesirable because it is precisely that – a bias, an imbalanced view. Whether or not that imbalanced view is antisemitic does not necessarily depend on intent – the biased writer does not have to actively hate Jews to be antisemitic; equally, I’d imagine, it’s possible for there to be incompetent Jew-haters who entirely fail to gain any antisemitic credibility. What matters are the implications or effects of the biased writing. Systematic distortions and mistranslations which stacked up to betray an anti-Jewish crypto-polemic are what hamstrung David Irving in the end. The only people who could expose these were the expert witnesses, the history scholars.

Unbiased criticism of Israel is legitimate, cannot be antisemitic, and can only help. How do you know if you’re unbiased? You study hard with an open mind, without agenda or an expectation for simple answers, and with an honest awareness of your own preconceptions. Of course there’s more than that, but it’s the best I can do for now.

Since I flagged the lack of evidence about censorship of dissenting Jews, I should mention that Tony Judt tells Gaby Wood that his lecture ‘The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy’ due to take place at New York’s Polish Embassy was cancelled after some intervention he attributes to a number of Jewish organisations, including the ADL, whose modus operandi he compares to late Communist Society (i.e. damaged reputations rather than purges). I don’t know his work, but I’m aware that the most respected critics of the so-called Israel Lobby have been known to publish with embarassing numbers of holes in their arguments. Nevertheless, Tony Judt’s experience looks like an example of suppression of dissent to me. Question: isn’t the Polish embassy in some way implicated here? Shouldn’t it a) choose the topics to which it offers a platform very carefully on the basis of their value to US-Polish relations and b) defend these carefully chosen topics under if they fall under attack from pressure groups? Does the Polish Embassy fail to understand its own interests, or is it part of ‘The Lobby’ too? Noam Chomsky makes a similar point regarding another dodgy bit of work on ‘The Lobby’.

There’s something fishy about the whole story. Shonky bit of journalism, Gaby Wood. I don’t have time to turn detective.

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