The Battle of Hastings

by Tom Doran

A society of laws: the Supreme Court of Israel, Jerusalem.

People like me know the script when it comes to defending Israel against its outright haters, the people currently attacking synagogues all over Europe in the name of Palestine. They are unhinged, implacable, terrifying… But for this very reason, a known quantity. We’ve been here before, again and again. We have Seen This Movie.

But there is another category of anti-Semitic discourse that is much harder to pin down, in large part because it doesn’t know it’s anti-Semitic. This we might call the MISTIA tendency – “more in sorrow than in anger” – which seems appropriate, since it is an idea swathed in a pseudo-intellectual haze.

It goes roughly like this: “We love Jews, we really do. Christ, Spinoza, Einstein… Ten out of ten all round. But as your friends, we must sorrowfully – nay, ruefully – be brutally honest: you’re not living up to our expectations. The rest of us are counting on you to be nice and enlightened and harmless, but there you go, blowing up innocent Arabs just because you feel like it. It’s a tragedy, I tell you.”

I’ve certainly been guilty of this myself, in the past. I am an unabashed philo-Semite, and this has occasionally led me to moralise excessively, as if I were somehow owed Jewish virtue. But as I’ve spent more and more time learning and thinking and talking about the Middle East, and especially since visiting Israel, I have painstakingly sought to train myself out of it. I don’t always succeed.

But at least, as many a British journalist has sighed in relief, I’m not Max Hastings. Here I should say that I respect the man enormously. His works on military history have been commended to me by people who know, and his breadth of knowledge and intellect are evident in his writing.

But not for nothing did Private Eye dub him – unfairly, but still truthfully – “The World’s Worst Columnist”. When he’s on form, he can be quite astute, but when he gets it wrong, he really gets it wrong. His recent Daily Mail column is a textbook example, and is – if only by implication – one of the most anti-Semitic things I have ever read in a British newspaper, and I read the Guardian.

To be absolutely clear: there’s no doubt in my mind that Hastings is wholly innocent of any conscious anti-Jewish bias. Indeed, it’s apparent from the piece that he sincerely considers himself a friend and ally of the state of Israel, and to a large extent this is probably the case. But this only makes the implications of his argument all the more disturbing.

The central accusation – that Israel is employing wildly excessive force in Gaza to the end of punishing innocent Palestinians – can quickly be dispensed with. The disingenuous “proportionality” argument has already been demolished by better writers than me; I direct you in particular to this pointed rebuttal from Israeli parliamentarian Hilik Bar and this longer meditation by Shany Mor. Suffice it to say, those making the claim simply don’t take into account Israel’s real choices, nor do they care to.

The rest of the column makes an argument, or observation, that I happen to agree with in its broadest outlines. Israeli politics and society have indeed experienced a noticeable – but often exaggerated – extremist drift in the past couple of decades, and it is intensely worrying to many of us.

But you know who else worries about it? Israelis. Constantly. The coarsening, brutalising effects of endless war are, like everything else in the Jewish state, a hotly disputed topic. Even solidly right-wing Israelis will, as a rule, acknowledge the problems posed by the growing strength of the nationalist far-right and the ultra-Orthodox community. A senior aide to Benjamin Netanyahu did so to me in person.

This is because, for all this, Israel is still a modern, self-critical democracy. If you’ve ever spoken to an Israeli soldier or politician – again, an effort very few critics of Israel bother to make – you know that each and every military action they take is agonisingly weighed against its potential consequences to an extent most Western powers barely aspire to. Hastings himself is conscientious enough to quote some of these figures in his column, thus dynamiting a central pillar of his own case.

I should also note, in passing, that the piece abounds in the most basic of factual errors. Barack Obama, to cite a representative example, is called “the only recent US president to try to persuade Jerusalem to moderate its policies”. This would be news to most Israelis, since pleas for Israeli moderation have been made, in public and private, by every American president since Eisenhower.

But all this falls within the bounds of reasonable disagreement and basic incompetence. What does not, and what gives this article an unmistakably sinister dimension, is the sentiment expressed in the following sentence, third paragraph from the top:

[T]he Jewish people have been historic standard-bearers for civilisation.

Hastings, somewhat evasively, puts this in the mouth of “much of the world”, but it’s clear from the rest of the article that this reflects his personal feelings. In a rhetorical tic characteristic of the new anti-Semitism, he keeps citing Jewish people who agree with him as if this somehow bolstered his argument. “A historian friend, himself a Jew”, “a team of Israeli documentary-makers” and “many other Jews” are all conscripted to form a kind of Hebrew phalanx around Hastings’ own words.

For those of us steeped in the Israel/Palestine debate, this itself is an enormous, honking klaxon warning. If your criticism of Israel is legitimate, then why do you feel the need to prove it by stressing the Jewishness of your citations? When criticising the government of, say, Venezuela, does anyone feel the need to keep inserting variations on “…as many Venezuelans will concede”? Of course not, because Venezuelans, unlike Jews, are seen as individuals.

Here we get to the heart of the matter. Look again, and closely, at the sentence extracted above. On its face, it’s a sentiment I share to a large extent: Jews have indeed laid more than their share of asphalt on the road to modernity. But in this context, the implication is unmistakable: Jews, more than any other people, are expected to uphold “civilisation” on behalf of the rest of humanity.

Think about that for a moment. “[S]tandard-bearers for civilisation”; this is a much different claim than “many great historical figures have been Jewish”. Who exactly asked to bear this standard, and in what sense could they have spoken for the Jewish people as a whole? When did they – all 14 or so million of them – apply for this job?

In this way, in the guise of friendship and solidarity, the Jews are collectively made to bear the moral burdens of all humanity. This is not a new demand, to put it mildly. That Jews are uniquely obliged to be paragons is merely a sick inversion of the ancient Christ-killing slander, even if meant benignly.

My country, the United Kingdom, spent 30 years fighting a violent insurgency based in its sovereign territory. Thousands of civilians, in Northern Ireland and the mainland, lost their lives to terrorism. This was a profound test of the British state, and this test was not passed with flying colours. We locked hundreds of people up without charge or trial, shot innocent civil rights protesters and too often allowed brutality to run unchecked among our fighting men.

We should be ashamed of all of this. But when most British people consider our record in Northern Ireland, they do so in cognisance of the full historical context. They acknowledge the toll random attacks on civilians take on a society, the impossible choices asymmetric warfare forces on governments, and that the behaviour of many, even most British officials was exemplary.

When it comes to Israel, this considered approach is jettisoned. If Palestinian children are dying, it must be because Israelis want them dead, or simply don’t care. Defenders of Israel are so bored with saying this we could cry, but one more time: no nation on Earth would tolerate the deliberate targeting of its civilians – however ineffective – with equanimity, and without resorting to decisive force.

To Max Hastings and others who would be critical allies of the Jewish state, I say this: the Jews are not an example, or a lesson, or a tragedy. They do not exist for your moral edification, nor to uphold an abstract thing called “civilisation” on your behalf. They are, in fact, human beings, with all that implies.

This post originally appeared on Tom Doran’s blog at the Independent.

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One thought on “The Battle of Hastings

  1. Pingback: The Battle of Hastings, part two | The Gerasites

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