This is a guest post by Jonathan Hoffman
No-one who takes even the slightest interest in the world around them can have failed to notice the poisonous nature of some – on occasion, much – of the discourse about Israel from people whom the spin doctors call ‘opinion leaders’. Here are just two examples (both of which are too recent to be mentioned by Robin Shepherd). In August a number of public figures criticised the award by Barack Obama of the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Mary Robinson, the former Irish President, because she had presided over the UN’s Durban Conference against Racism in 2001 which gave a platform to some profoundly antisemitic comments by some NGOs. Robinson’s response was not to defend her record but to bizarrely accuse her critics of ‘bullying’: “There’s a lot of bullying by certain elements of the Jewish community.” Ben Bradshaw – then a UK Health Minister – said much the same thing in January: “Israel has a long reputation of bullying the BBC… The BBC has been cowed by this persistent and relentless pressure, and they should stand up to it.” (He was rewarded by Gordon Brown with promotion to the Cabinet, as the Culture Minister).
Both these statements are patently ridiculous and defamatory. The word ‘bullying’ implies the successful use of force upon a weaker person to achieve an unjustified result. What ‘force’ is it that ‘elements of the Jewish Community’ used on Mary Robinson (and on Desmond Tutu who she also mentioned)? And did Israel surround Broadcasting House with tanks?
As Robin Shepherd correctly observes, such statements speak volumes about what he calls the ‘pathology’ of Europe and nothing about the Middle East:
I mean, even when Israel deserves censure, even when there are good grounds for protesting at Israeli behaviour, isn’t it blindingly obvious that the use of ridiculous and defamatory analogies with Nazism or apartheid, the repetition of entirely distorted renditions of the historical context, and the making of casual and reflexive denunciations of criminality gives Israel a free pass to ignore all criticisms, including the reasonable ones? Which school of political campaigning did these people go to?
Robin Shepherd is eminently well qualified to discuss the reasons for the degradation of Israel discourse in Europe. He is now Director of International Affairs at the Henry Jackson Society. Previously he was in charge of the Europe programme at Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London. He speaks Russian, French, Slovak and Czech and has also served as Moscow Bureau Chief for The Times. As I wrote in the Jerusalem Post (1 August) Shepherd
has paid a price professionally as a result of calling for a more sober and less hysterical approach to Israel. Having written an op-ed on the subject in The Times in January 2008, he was subjected to fierce intimidation from the powers-that-be at Chatham House. It eventually led to his departure.
For those of us who have watched with growing disbelief the spread of anti-Israel falsehoods and misrepresentation from the fringe into parts of the mainstream in Europe, Shepherd’s book strikes many chords. His key insight is that the atrophy process says little about Israel or the Palestinians – but everything about Europe.
Shepherd observes that ‘multiculturalism’ has resulted in Europe throwing out the baby – the preparedness to defend liberal democracy and other Western cultural norms – with the bathwater – the colonies and the negative aspects of nationalism. The atmosphere is “depressingly anti-intellectual”. “Denial is the order of the day. … Belief has given way to relativism; passion to apathy; resolve to appeasement.” This makes Europe the virtual antithesis of Israel, the democracy under fire which has a national religious culture. Europe is – for the moment – able to “dissemble about the true nature of Islamist terrorism” whereas Israel “has no choice but to confront it”. Europe is contemptuous of using military power to defend liberal democracy but “for Israel it is an existential necessity”.
The book is full of other insights as well, for example about the roots of the opposition to Israel post-1967 in what Shepherd calls the ‘radical Left’. With the realisation that the Western proletariat was not going to be an instrument for change, attention turned to liberation movements outside the West – for example, the PLO. Israel was simply ‘on the wrong side of the barricades’. I also found Shepherd’s taxonomy of antisemitism very useful. He divides it into the ‘subjective’ and the ‘objective’. The former applies to those who hate Jews and use Jewish manifestations – most obviously, Israel – to express that bigotry. The latter refers to the ‘object of attack’ and describes instances of antisemitism where the perpetrator does not hate Jews but comes to the same irrational and bigoted conclusions as the former.
The final chapter is entitled “Contagion: Is America Next?” Shepherd enumerates the reasons why the quality of the Israel discourse in the US has not deteriorated to the same extent as in Europe, though warns that it could. Having seen Walt and Mearsheimer present their appalling apology for a book (‘The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy’) at Chatham House – where Shepherd was employed until only recently – one surely has to be alive to the risks.
Robin Shepherd has written a profoundly important book. It is hard to think of anyone who would not take something from it: those interested in international affairs certainly but also policymakers, legislators and those working in the field of community cohesion. It is beautifully written with many examples to support the thesis, but not so many as to draw attention away from that thesis. The research is meticulous with every reference sourced.
Many times in the book Shepherd laments the anti-intellectual quality of much of the discourse in Europe about Israel.
But happily his book is the antithesis of ’anti-intellectual’.