Well, not much really…. Just that when you invite people who don’t consider each other to be “within the pale”, as British columnist David Aaronovitch said, then the discussion on anti-Semitism turns into character assassination.
No one expected a calm discussion during the debate entitled “Anti-Semitism – Alive and Well in Europe?”, which was organised by the Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival. Along with Aaronovitch, the panel included Gilad Atzmon and the Observer columnist Nick Cohen.
It’s not clear why Cohen was invited to join at the very last minute when his views, to the naked eye at least, are akin to those of Aaronovitch’s. It would be fair to describe both men as supporters of Zionism who believe that anti-Semitism is on the rise and that much of it is “unfairly” blamed on Israel’s actions.
Atzmon’s views, on the other hand, are well-known to those who follow websites on Palestinian activism. He has very strong views on “Jewishness” and “Jewish identity”, and makes a clear distinction between Jews as a people and those who commit crimes in the name of “Jewish ideology”.
Both Aaronovitch and Cohen launched an attack on Atzmon. Aaronovich took the podium for 18 minutes (when we were told each speaker would only have 10, and indeed Atzmon had less than 10) during which he gave a theatrical performance, reading out paragraph after paragraph of Atzmon’s articles to prove the point that the man was “fascist”. I doubt anyone in the audience managed to grasp what he was saying, but when you spit out the word “Jews” then at least it gives the impression what you’re saying about them is bad!
Cohen, other the hand, kept wondering, over and over again, why “upper-class”, “educated”, “white” people would waste such a beautiful spring day debating anti-Semitism with a “nutter” (well, at least I could say I learned something about racial and class prejudice that day!)
One can imagine how shocked and angry Atzmon was by the time it was his turn to take the podium. And this is why the event became a missed opportunity. He tried to steer the debate back to its theme, but at times his emotions failed him. In between having to answer to the attacks levelled against him by Aaronovitch and Cohen, and trying to remind people of what they came to discuss, much of his ideas were lost on those who’ve never followed his writings.
Once the floor was opened for questions, a member of the audience said the discussion, as a whole, "was a profound disappointment”.
So why did the Oxford Literary Festival invite Atzmon? After all, he's the "proud self-hating Jew" who wonders how America has allowed its foreign policies to be shaped by "ruthless Zionists". He's the one who insists that the burning of synagogues is illegitimate, yet he believes the motivations behind such actions are political rather than religious or racial.
Cohen certainly conceded that whenever Israel launches a fresh attack on Gaza or Lebanon, synagogues and Jewish cemeteries are attacked in the UK. Yet somehow he refuses to accept the correlation between Zionist policies and anti-Semitism. He wants us to believe that anti-Semitism is fuelled by pure hatred for the Jews. After all, Chinese property wasn’t attacked in the aftermath of the Tibetan clashes last year. Sudanese property wasn’t attacked when Darfur was in the media.
Well, Mr. Cohen, maybe it’s because China and Sudan are being condemned in the international community, especially in Britain, while Israel to this day is being hailed as the West’s indispensable partner. Maybe it’s because what Israel has committed in Gaza during “Operation Cast Lead” earlier this year has created more devastation than what happened in Darfur (and this is according to the head of the International Red Cross). Maybe it's because it is acceptable for British Jews to join the IDF, and actively take part in Israel's wars, while British Muslims or Chinese or whatever would never dare join a non-British army.
The response from some members of the “upper-middle class, educated, white” audience proved that these questions are not an endorsement of conspiracy theories. They are legitimate questions.
One man raised the question of the pro-Israeli lobby in Washington. It was their pressure that led Obama to back down on his decision to appoint Mr. Freeman as an advisor, a man well-known for his criticism of Israel. “In those circumstances,” the man asked, “is a rise in anti-Semitism surprising when democracy is affected by that type of lobbying activity that prevents Obama from being able to appoint Ambassador Freeman?”
We know what Atzmon would’ve said, but neither Aaronovitch nor Cohen answered that question.
None of this justifies attacking synagogues or anti-Jewish graffiti. If anything, Atzmon - whom Aaronovitch and Cohen blasted as a “fascist” and a “nutter - was saying ordinary Jewish people “must be saved of the crimes imposed on them.” The crimes taking place in Palestine aren’t being committed just in the name of Israel, but in the name of the Jewish people. That’s not a conspiracy theory, that’s a fact. If you’re in doubt, go and read the Israeli government’s statements during Operation Cast Lead.
Is it so outrageous to ask Jews in the UK to disassociate themselves from what is happening in Israel, without being labelled as an “anti-Semite”? Apparently it is. When people applauded Atzmon for making that point in the discussion, they were attacked by Aaronovitch who shouted "Shame on you! How dare you!", even addressing one member in the audience by saying “You Sir, are an anti-Semite.”
In the aftermath of the July 7th attacks, Muslims were attacked everywhere. It became so dangerous that a fatwa had to be issued allowing women to take off the headscarf if they felt their lives were in danger. Yet at the same time, the Muslim community was under enormous pressure to disassociate itself from the terrorists who blew up those trains and busses. While they were being attacked themselves, they were still expected to make a clear statement that what happened on July 7th does not represent them and is not being committed in their name.
Try and say that to the Jewish community today without being called an “anti-Semite”.
Now I don’t want to ponder too much semantics but it is very ironic that anti-Semitism has been coined as a term exclusively for Jews when most of them do not belong to the Semitic race. Arabs, on the other hand, are Semitic. So if for one moment I, as an Arab, could reclaim that definition, I leave you with one point to think about.
In the beginning of his speech, Aaronovitch wanted to illustrate just how bad Atzmon was. He quoted the Guardian’s Jon Lewis who described Atzmon’s writings as “extremely popular in the Arab world.” Aaronovitch then fixed his audience with a gaze and asked them to keep that sentence at the very front of their minds.
On second thought, I think I did learn something about “anti-Semitism” that day.
Dima Omar is a Palestinian journalist and filmmaker. She is based in London.