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Mar 2003 Journal

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Entering the lists (editorial)

At the end of 2002 the Independent asked 52 public figures – from Tariq Ali to Michael Winner – to list their heroes and villains of the year. The villains named and shamed in the paper’s columns extended from such transient celebrities as conman Peter Foster and butler Paul Burrell to the likes of George Bush and Ariel Sharon. The last named two received six ‘villain’ nominations each but, since President Bush also figured as ‘hero’ on one entry, the Israeli premier won the villainy stakes by a short head. Not that the 52 ‘movers and shakers’ showed total bias: three actually listed Osama bin Laden as their devil, and one each nominated Saddam Hussein and Robert Mugabe. Still, the fact remains that Ariel Sharon topped the devils’ league table.

Astonishingly, no one named the Iranian, Syrian and Saudi heads of state, who finance suicide bombings, or the mullahs who sentenced a Nigerian ‘adulteress’ to death by stoning, or the head of Cairo TV responsible for screening The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

It would not have been so bad if at least one of Sharon’s accusers had nominated the Israeli opposition candidate Amron Mitzna as their hero, but none mentioned the fact that, uniquely in the Middle East, an Israeli prime minister can actually be voted out of office.

Tariq Ali made Noam Chomsky his hero – picking a Jew who, professing to see Israel as Washington’s catspaw, would not shed a single tear over its destruction. In his encomium on Chomsky, Tariq Ali gives him the pretentious appellation refusenik – as if occupying a professorial chair at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology were on a par with sharing a lice-infested bunk in the gulag. Ali, the patrician onetime barricade-builder in Grosvenor Square turned all-purpose pundit, shows cavalier disregard for the meaning of words, the basic raw material of punditry. Having demeaned the term refusenik, he waters down the connotation of untermenschen by attaching that loan word from Hitler’s vocabulary to Sharon’s perception of the Palestinians.

The fact is that two years into Sharon’s premiership, Palestinian students attend Israeli universities and Palestinian voters elect Knesset members who potentially affect the shape of the incoming government. Of course, Palestinians in the Territories are suffering death and hardship, but they are casualties in a war for whose outbreak Sharon bears less culpability than Arafat.

Tariq Ali seems to think that his background entitles him to pontificate about the Middle East. He, who currently peddles pacifist nostrums to resolve the Iraq crisis, has in the past done little to resolve the crisis in our northern cities. Where was he when disaffected Pakistanis in Bradford made a public bonfire of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses and, a decade later, burnt buildings in their own city?

But even if we can show up the mendacity of the deep-dyed Israel-baiters, the decibels of their vituperation keep rising. A favourite tactic of theirs is the ‘double standards’ charge (i.e. why should Iraq be barred from acquiring nuclear weapons if Israel has them?). This contention leaves out of account the pivotal fact that the Jewish state was almost strangled at birth by its Arab neighbours, whose combined population today is 20 times that of Israel. (If one adds non-Arab Muslim states like Iran and Pakistan to the equation, Israel is outnumbered 50 to one.)

More crucially, it ignores the geopolitical reality that even a nuclear-armed Israel could never hope to suborn the 22 states in the Arab League – while the latter, led by an A-bomb-happy Saddam Hussein, could obliterate Israel.

The unthinking refusal of many bystanders to take this on board is one of the woes that currently beset us. Another is the fact that some of the most cerebrally endowed of our co-religionists – Chomsky, Hobsbawm – have squeezed their brains into the vice of Marxism, and consequently reject Zionism as ‘bourgeois-imperialist’. A third is that Jewish-born luminaries with the double qualification that their brains have not been addled by Marxist dogma and that they enjoy ‘street cred’ – Tom Stoppard, Woody Allen – seem indifferent to the fate of Israel.

Would that we still had an Isaiah Berlin in our midst who could plead the case for the existence of a Jewish state before the bar of public opinion. Is it too much to hope that someone of the calibre of Simon Schama will step into the breach?

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