Loyalty Tests for Jews?
5 December 2011
(Note: this article was updated on 8 December, with the apology by Paul Flynn MP. See at end, below.)
The suggestion by Paul Flynn MP (Labour, Newport West), that Britain ought not to have a Jew as Ambassador to Israel, fuels the growing sense that it is becoming increasingly acceptable to say things about Jews that we had hoped were consigned to history. It also infers that Jews in public life must undergo systematic loyalty tests throughout their careers. Such logic is plainly racist, even if Flynn did not mean it to be.
If this phenomenon were restricted to the usual suspects of the far right, then it would be easier to comprehend. The depressing reality, however, is that far too many such accusations come from within mainstream liberal-left sources in Parliament, media and campaigning circles. Indeed, Flynns outburst occurred in a Select Committee hearing with Britains most senior civil servant, Sir Gus ODonnell.
When the accusations are openly about Jewish conspiracy (eg Tam Dalyell MP in 2003, a cabal of Jewish advisers), it is relatively straightforward to call them for what they reveal. (Although Paul Foot in the Guardian famously argued otherwise.) When the accusations come against pro-Israel lobbies, or Zionists, it can be more challenging. The instinct is to accuse certain MPs, media outlets and journalists of hiding their antisemitism behind a cover of anti-Israelism or anti-Zionism, but the reality is surely far more complex: as keenly shown by this example, with Rob Halfon MP writing in the Jewish Chronicle that he does not believe for one moment that Mr Flynn is antisemitic.
It was Rob Halfon himself who interjected against Flynns outburst, and the former head of Conservative Friends of Israel is an unforgiving opponent of antisemitism and extremism. So, his saying that Flynn is not an antisemite is important here. Indeed, the remainder of Halfons article (aptly titled "A Shocking Outburst of Prejudice") is sternly critical of Flynn and the phenomenon his words reside within. As Halfon puts it
...when I tried to interject, Mr Flynn then accused me of being a neo-conservative and part of a clique that wanted to bomb Iran.
Mr Flynns actions betray an extraordinary mindset on the left, that allows normally highly intelligent and engaging individuals to lose all sense of proportion when the word Israel is mentioned.
...[this mindset ignores Syria and Iran], preferring to focus on Israel as part of some vast international conspiracy usually involving American and British Conservative politicians.
This strikes to the heart of the matter. The framework for the attack is one of right wing conspiracy, and adjectives such as Zionist or pro-Israel or neo-Con provide a nasty dog whistle spin that is heard only by those who either oppose antisemitism, or are turned on by it.
The fact that the left also uses this hate lexicon to denote miscreants within their own ranks (as seen with the excoriation of Tony Blair and the excommunications of David Aaronovitch and Nick Cohen) makes matters only worse: reinforcing the notion that once you are labelled with Zionism or Israel, you are understood to be an insidious alien threat to the body politic.
Nevertheless, those blowing this dog whistle are blissfully self-assured of their progressive anti-racist credentials; and perceive themselves as having the courage and insight with which to explain Western embroilment in Afghanistan, Iraq and (rapidly) Iran. Worse still, the whistlers instinct is to interpret objections and concerns as further proof of just how embedded the pro-Israel conspiracy has become.
All of this constantly reinforces the vicious cycle of accusation and counter-accusation.
Any regular reader of the London Review of Books, New Statesman, Guardian and Independent cannot fail but be struck by their urgent warnings of Israels singular wickedness; and of the powerful, perfidious reach of the lobby that sustains it (sometimes pro-Israel, sometimes Zionist, sometimes Jewish, even kosher sometimes any combination of the above, even in the same article). The temptation is to blame such media for creating an environment from which suggestions such as Flynns emerge. Again, the reality is more complex and more depressing: because these outlets display the intellectual and political milieu of their leading influences, whilst also reflecting (and reinforcing) the attitudes of their readers.
Whilst Paul Flynn MP should be publicly disciplined by his party for this outburst, we should note that his initial intervention towards Sir Gus O'Donnell was on the basis of his representing two constituents who had written to him concerning their having been detained by Israel, and their belief that the Ambassador had been more concerned with Israel's interests, rather than their own.
In representing his constituents concern, Flynn always risked being seen as agreeing with it, and there may be those who consider his age (he is 76) as mitigating his lack of politically correct language. Nevertheless, his "neo-con...bomb Iran" reported attack on his fellow Committee member, Rob Halfon MP, was surely absent from his constituents' letter (even if it did most likely reflect their opinions); and shows a thoroughly modernist approach to the subject area.
This neo-con...bomb Iran aspect reveals a very worrying overlap between the opinions of serious anti-Israel activists and those of an MP who has previously holidayed in Israel with his family. It strongly suggests Paul Flynn is symptomatic of a far deeper attitudinal malaise, whereby things that ought to be restricted to openly racist circles may now be voiced within progressive ones. In fact, the malaise is now so utterly axiomatic in proper far left media and activist circles that the Palestine Solidarity Campaigns attempts to disown the worst of the antisemitism around it, now risk seriously splitting the anti-Israel movement.
Where anti-Zionist attitudes prevail, they inexorably present an essentialised image of anybody whom you might (rightly or wrongly) associate with Israel. The essential trait is the same as that underpinning the Jewish conspiracy myth: Jews cannot truly assimilate into the surrounding body politic, they are forever alien and therefore always at risk of working for their mutual interest against the rest of society.
Put this mindset into practise and there is only one logical outcome. Namely, loyalty tests for Jews in public and political life, wherever and whenever they might come into contact with areas of interest to the pro-Israel / Zionist / Jewish lobby: and that is why Paul Flynn MP should be publicly disciplined by his party, regardless of what he meant, or which of his constituents he was representing when he began descending this slipperiest of slopes.
Paul Flynn MP has apologised for his words, telling the Jewish Chronicle on 7 December
Clumsily expressed remarks of mine have caused anger and upset.
I greatly regret the interpretation that has been placed on them and I fully understand why offence was given. Some of the interpretations of these words were exaggerated suggesting malign intent that was never present or intended. Inference was built on inference.
My friend Robert Halfon absolved me of the charge of antisemitism but said that my remarks could imply an unacceptable prejudice. On reflection, it is clear that Robert's criticism is fair.
Other greatly respected friends have urged me to withdraw the remarks and apologise. This I am happy to do.
There is no reason that anyone of any race or religion should be debarred from public office. That has always been my opinion. The comments were made in a heated exchange in a select committee discussion on probable warmongering. Other information received contradicts criticism I quoted on the conduct of our ambassador. I regret any offence caused. However, I will continue to press for a full legitimate inquiry by Sir Phillip Mawer into the Fox-Werritty conduct.
The issue raised is of supreme importance. The UK is stumbling towards a war in Iran that could have dreadful unforeseeable consequences. History proves that in the past the momentum of preparations for war frequently leads to war. I continue to urge the Government to seek to reduce tension, pursue conflict resolution and cease war preparations.
The two greatest errors of my 25 years in parliament were joining Bush's war in Iraq and the incursion into Helmand. They resulted in 569 British deaths with little gained. Are we about to commit another blunder? A war in Iran could cost us dearly in blood and treasure.
I have been an elected representative for the past 40 years and I do not have an atom of racism or antisemitism in me. If there was someone would have noticed by now. Most of the comments received were polite and reasonable. Others sought to shoot the messenger. It's the message that's crucial. War must be avoided.
A spokeswoman for the Labour Party said the chief whip had spoken to Mr Flynn
He has recognised that his remarks were unacceptable. He has withdrawn them and apologised.