Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 September 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Accusing people of being anti-Semitic when they criticise Israeli government over Gaza is a serious charge

A Palestinian family walks through the rubble of a destroyed area of housing on August 16, 2014
A Palestinian family walks through the rubble of a destroyed area of housing on August 16, 2014

There is a common tendency to accuse those who take up the cause of Palestinian victims as supporting terrorists, of being anti-Semitic if they criticise the actions of the Israeli government or somehow being unconcerned about victims in Israel as if the two things are mutually exclusive.

It’s a serious charge precisely because anti-Semitism is always wrong, always stupid, always indefensible. Not an accusation to be made carelessly, then. 

It could hardly be argued, for example, that the Holocaust survivors who published a letter in the Guardian on Saturday, August 16 are anti-Semitic; yet in the letter they unequivocally condemn Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. 

As I argued before in this column, you can’t judge the morality of an action by first asking which ‘side’ it came from: if it’s wrong, it’s wrong. And there is wrong being perpetrated by both Hamas and the Israeli state. I am not being anti-Israeli, anti-Semitic or supporting terrorism by saying that, any more than I was anti British when I protested against the UK and US invasion of Iraq.

I distinguish the actions of a state and its people. Equally, I don’t assume that every Palestinian supports Hamas any more than it would have been right to assume that every Irish Catholic supported the IRA.

In this context the moral debate over which side is right and which is wrong is irrational. We are faced here with two wrongs:  Hamas for shelling Israeli civilians and the Israeli state for responding in such a brutal, indiscriminate and disproportionate manner.  We must condemn both.

But this does not mean that in some well-meaning attempt to be even handed we suggest the conflict is evenly balanced and symmetrical. Where we should be focussing our attention is on human suffering, and when we do so our eyes turn to Gaza.

The Gaza strip has the same population as Northern Ireland, but covers an area smaller than Lough Neagh. A single month of intense bombing of densely populated civilian neighbourhoods has resulted in thousands of injuries, the destruction of hospitals, homes, and vital infrastructure, and the deaths of some 1,900 Palestinians. There is a debate over how many of these were ‘combatants’, but to put it in perspective, the most recent UN figures suggest perhaps two thirds were civilian; and in any case, over 450 were children.  

On the Israeli side, 64 soldiers have been killed, as well as three civilians, by Palestinian forces.

But we don’t arrive at the ‘correct’ ethical result just by ‘keeping score’, so to speak.  This is where the question of responsibility comes in.  The state of Israel, as the occupying power in the region, has a responsibility not only to its own citizens, but to those under occupation.

It is simply not good enough to undertake such massive bombardment of Gaza and then blame Hamas for ‘hiding among civilians’.  The question is: would the missiles rain down with such intensity if the civilians were Israeli?  I think not.  I think the Israeli leadership would work night and day to find another way. 

When human suffering is taking place on such a scale we cannot in Milton’s phrase, stand ‘eyeless in Gaza’, turning a blind eye to the actions of state of Israel.

We say Israel must treat Palestinian civilians with equal concern as if they were Israeli: and this is no more anti-Semitic than opposing the Tory government is anti-British.  Nor does it equate to supporting Hamas or their actions. 

In this conflict, the only side we take is that of humanity.

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