Saturday, August 19, 2006

Hari's Piece: anecdotes and antidotes of antisemitism.

Look, I don't know how these rumours got out of a bust-up between me and Johann Hari. I like him. Honestly. And not only because of that boyishly sexy picture of him that appears next to his columns.

Here's one of his latest: The spiteful resurgence of anti-Semitism. This is one of those The New Antisemitism articles that appears from time to time. I don't think this general tendency among liberals and neoconservatives alike has anything to do with a perceptible increase in antisemitism or Jews. Obviously, the fanatical worshippers of Israel (who obviously include most power-worshipping intellectuals working in Britain and the United States) work very hard to denounce its critics and opponents as antisemites, and liberals occasionally exhibit their obedience by saying "yes, isn't it awful?" But I will, if only for fun, do Hari the courtesy of considering his own arguments. I think he'd like that: can you see the look on his little face already?

Hari's proof of a resurgent antisemitism appears to consist of the following: a) an experience with the notorious far right front the IHR; b) an experience with his hairdresser; c) an obviously embellished account of the Edinburgh festival from Jamie Glassman and d) quite predictably, a mention of Gilad Atzmon (whose approach has changed somewhat, although one wouldn't expect Hari to be interested).

I want to ponder some of Glassman's claims for a moment. If you read the article, he tells you the following:

The great Lenny Bruce, a comedian who suffered endlessly at the hands of the American authorities for the right to freedom of speech and to break taboos, once did a bit that began: “Are there any niggers here tonight?” His liberal audience was initially shocked at this racist outburst, but as the monologue continued he made it clear that it was “the suppression of the word that gives it the power”. That was taboo-busting. That was a righteous plea for freedom of speech.

But there again:

Reginald D. Hunter is doing sell-out shows in the new E4-sponsored venue, the Udderbelly. Three hundred come along every night to see Hunter’s Pride and Prejudice and Niggas. You should see the poster.

I was laughing along until he announced that he was about to be extremely controversial and break the last taboo of stand-up comedy. Long silent pause. "Jeeeeews" Another long pause with some giggles from the audience. "You see, you’re not allowed to say that."

He went on to say how its illegal to deny the Holocaust in Austria. He has a good mind to go to Austria, stand in the street and say the Holocaust didn’t happen so that he could get arrested and tell the judge he was talking about the Rwandan holocaust. Whether or not he thought there should be a law against going to Rwanda and denying that genocide, he didn’t say.

By claiming that making a joke about Jews is the one last, great comic taboo, he simultaneously provides the moral justification for a crack at the Jews and he silences them from the right to complain, as this would only confirm the unspoken premise: that Jews are overprotected in society or even worse that Jewish media controllers are obsessed with silencing any criticism of their own.

Well, there you have it: a Jewish comedian using obscene racist language is fine, it's taboo-busting. But this black guy coming out and saying something about "Jeeeeews" is apparently an outrage. I think it's misguided to compete over the representation of oppression, but I wouldn't dream of slandering someone who might reasonably be offended that the suffering of one oppressed group is insufficiently represented as an antisemite. It would be racist. Glassman, a writer for Ali G (which used to be a funny show, but has happily propounded lazy stereotypes of every kind even when it purports to be satirising them), insists that comedians have the right to say anything, but also a responsibility to think about who they might be offending. Anyone who might be offended by the n-word remains curiously outside Glassman's thoughts.

I don't want to labour the point too much. Glassman offers other instances in which it would be hard to deny that antisemitism is present - although he happily conflates these with perfectly sensible views, such as the claim that Cheney is more dangerous than bin Laden, and that the Iranian president doesn't actually wish to nuke Israel. Because that's what it's all about: for Glassman, it is less a matter of seriously tackling racism than it is of disciplining the left.

Back to Hari. Mark his salutary reminder that Jews are not exempt from racist attacks and harrassment, and that they have to be on the lookout for "suicide packs" because "Remember: 38 percent of British Muslims believe British Jews are 'a legitimate target'". This devious racist slur was not wholly manufactured by Hari, since the loaded poll originally appeared in The Times. That said, even The Times did not impute the phrase "legitimate target" to those who answered the question. Nor did it invent the bit about "suicide packs": this much was entirely invented by Hari. Perhaps before instructing others about a nebulous 'resurgence' of anti-Jewish racism, he should deal with his Muslim problem. Perhaps he should also think twice about describing Jews as a "tribe".

In an amazing stroke of ingenuity, Hari cites his lack of surprise at antisemitic arguments as proof that they are becoming mainstream. He is even surprised at his lack of surprise - but then ignorance is the mother of amazement. I have to confess that however marginal antisemitism may be (and it is), I would not be especially surprised to encounter someone who repeated those views. I would be revolted and outraged, and would certainly have a go at someone who came out with this rubbish. But not surprised, especially. What would be surprising would be if there were no nutters in the world.

Of course there is an issue of people on the fringes of discussion taking criticism of Israel to mean criticism of Jews. Unsurprisingly, as Hari notes, people like Melanie Phillips repeat this antisemitic argument. But we have to distinguish between four categories of such people: 1) the oppressed, who take Israel "the Jewish State" literally at its word and mistake their enemy (but then even Hamas and Hezbollah, who do come out with antisemitic arguments, nevertheless have had no problem meeting Jewish supporters like Noam Chomsky); 2)European critics of Zionism who get it profoundly wrong, and need to be challenged; 3) anti-semitic provocateurs like Phillips and the semite-haters at Harry's Place, for instance; and 4) the fascist filth and their penumbra. The first two we can have a serious discussion with, the others we have to fight relentlessly.

I'm not sure if there should be a separate category for those who diminish the cause of anti-racism by roping it into their hectoring of Muslims (that is, who use Jews to provide an anti-racist patina for racism), or who use it to whip the left into shape.