As the conflict in Gaza simmers, Jonathan Freedland wonders why British progressives fail to defend British Jews under attack as they defend other groups under attack.
The crux is this:
Take last month’s demonstrations against Israel. Riazat Butt, the Guardian’s religious affairs correspondent, describes in a joint edition of the Guardian’s Islamophonic and Sounds Jewish podcasts how at one demo she heard the cry not only of “Down with Israel” but “Kill Jews”. An anti-war protest in Amsterdam witnessed chants of: “Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the gas.”
At the London events, there were multiple placards deploying what has now become a commonplace image: the Jewish Star of David equated with the swastika. From the podium George Galloway declared: “Today, the Palestinian people in Gaza are the new Warsaw ghetto, and those who are murdering them are the equivalent of those who murdered the Jews in Warsaw in 1943.”
Now what, do you imagine, is the effect of repeating, again and again, that Israel is a Nazi state? Even those with the scantest historical knowledge know that the Nazis are the embodiment of evil to which the only appropriate response is hate. How surprising is it if a young man, already appalled by events in Gaza, walks home from a demo and glimpses the Star of David – which he now sees as a latter-day swastika – outside a synagogue and decides to torch the building, or at least desecrate it? Yet Galloway, along with Livingstone, who was so careful in July 2005, did not hesitate to make the comparison (joined by a clutch of Jewish anti-Israel activists who should know better).
The counter-arguments here are predictable. Some will say they take pains to distinguish between Zionists and Jews. Intellectually, that’s fine; in the seminar room, it holds water. The trouble is, it doesn’t mean much on the street – at least not to the man who saw a group of Manchester Jews leaving synagogue on January 17 and shouted “Free Palestine, you motherfuckers,” before giving them the Nazi salute.
The liberal left should know this already. After all, when Jack Straw wrote his notorious piece about the hijab, full of qualifications, progressives understood that none of that would matter: it would be read as an attack on all Muslims. And so it was. For all Straw’s careful phrasing, Muslim women whose heads were covered were attacked. Liberals warned Straw that he was playing with fire. Today’s anti-Israel activists need to realise they are doing the same.”