Saturday, March 31, 2007

The danger of Melanie Phillips

Published in the Jewish Chronicle - by Jonathan Freedland

[any emphasis by me]

It is an unwritten rule of my trade that you do not attack a colleague: dog doesn’t eat dog. We’re meant to show our teeth only to those in power, not humble scribblers like ourselves. But it is a tribute to one of my colleagues that her conviction and energy have made her a figure of genuine influence, one who has — as I shall reveal — moved beyond commentating on public affairs to affecting them. She is now more than a journo, rather a player in the national and, crucially, international conversation.

I am speaking of my fellow resident of this slot, Melanie Phillips. Though I always enjoy her company, I confess that I disagree with Melanie on most things. That’s fine: disagreement is a Jewish sport and we enjoy it. But in recent months, I feel Melanie has crossed a few lines that should not be crossed — and cannot go unchallenged.

First was a piece she wrote on her blog in which she condemned the Independent Jewish Voices group: it was headlined “Jews for genocide”. Now, as it happens, I have multiple criticisms of IJV — most of them amply aired already on these pages. But even their most trenchant opponents must surely blanch at the notion that these critics of Israel and of Anglo-Jewish officialdom are somehow in favour of genocide — literally, eager to see the murder and eradication of the Jewish people. I understand Melanie’s apparent logic — that by criticising Israel, IJV align themselves with a radical Islamism that wants Israel wiped off the map, ergo IJV are pro-genocide — but it is an absurdity, one that drains the word “genocide” of any meaning. For if Mike Leigh and Stephen Fry are for genocide, what word is left to describe, say, the Sudanese regime and their murderous assault on the people of Darfur?

But it was a sentence in Melanie’s January JC column that really got me going. “Individual Palestinians may deserve compassion,” she wrote, “but their cause amounts to Holocaust denial as a national project.” Read that line again. I have, along with the entire piece that preceded it. Think about what it means: that the Palestinian urge for national self-determination — their desire to have what we Jews yearned for so long, a homeland of our own where we might govern ourselves — is nothing more than a collective plot to deny Jewish suffering. So those Palestinians living under curfew and hemmed in by checkpoints aren’t angry about this hardship or desperate to throw off a 40-year occupation. No. Their shared desire, their national project, is to join David Irving in pretending that Hitler did not murder six million Jews. Of course, it follows that such people — a nation of neo-Nazis — deserve nothing, let alone a state of their own.

Some will tell me there is no point getting agitated by such sentiments, that newspaper columns are merely tomorrow’s fish-and-chip wrap. That may be true of what most of us in the column business churn out. But Melanie Phillips is different. She has acquired a particularly devoted audience — far beyond these shores.

In the United States, Melanie has a substantial following, with thousands logging on daily to her website or lining up to hear her lectures — several of the leading lights of American Jewry among them. They snap up copies of her book Londonistan, in which Britain — a rotting, decayed island awash with amorality — is on the brink of an Islamist takeover. Above all, they swallow whole her insistence that Europe is back in the 1930s, and that Britain now seethes with Jew-hatred.

I hear this from several well-placed leaders of Britain’s Jewish organisations, who have had to hose down their American counterparts. “I understand it’s not safe to walk down the street here as a Jew,” one US Jewish bigwig told a British colleague. “From what I hear, you guys are experiencing the kind of pogroms my grandmother lived through,” said another. Both these remarks were offered during recent fact-finding missions to Britain by major American Jewish organisations, here as if visiting a besieged community of Jews in peril.

In response, no less than the Chief Rabbi has had to join other British communal leaders to tell these visiting donors — associated with Aipac and the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organisations, among others — that London is not the Warsaw ghetto, that Europe is not an inferno and that there is no need for the big US bodies to come to Anglo-Jewry’s rescue. They have also had to explain that the US method of doing business — offering heavy financial help to pro-Israel MPs, for example — would not play well here.

Of course, it is mad to blame one person for shaping this distorted world view. But when asked where they had picked up this apocalyptic impression of the state of British Jewry, the Americans apparently cited one name again and again. Melanie will doubtless be heartened by that — but it might not be so good for the rest of us.

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