Lyndon Hood - workstation philosopher, Lower Hutt

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

It was probably astute of Helen Clark to say the New Zealand Government has "solid grounds" for believing it had caught itself some misbehaving Israeli intelligence types. Rather than, for example, "clear and reliable intelligence". This from the security service that brought you Ahmed Zaoui.

Having got that out of my system I have to admit that I'm convinced.

What I'm actually thinking about is the issue that bridged the gap between the court case and John Howard's peculiar offer of mediation between New Zealand and Israel: the vandalism of historic Jewish graves in a Wellington cemetery and the reporting of the conclusion that it was caused by Government rhetoric.

In consequence of my above-mentioned conviction, I do not find the Government's response "disproportionate". Nor did I hear anything that would qualify as anti-Israel in any broad sense. So can we draw any useful conclusions from this incident?

The real answer is of course that people need less anti-semitism of the actual, direct kind. Which is a big enough problem for anybody. But, either way, it would help if people learned the difference between Israel and Judaism.

There is confusion.

In a way this is just a more complicated version of the usual confusion between a state, its government, and its people. On the one hand, Schumck A might accuse the guy in the Nike hoodie who watches The SImpsons religiously but happens to think Dubya has made some bad foreign policy decisions of being "anti-American"*. On the other, Schmuck B might verbally abuse an exchange student from the US about, say, Abu Ghraib or the bombing of Cambodia.

It's more complicated because with Israel there's a whole religion in the mix. Israel was created to be the one and only Jewish state (unless you're on of those who believe it's there to facilitate the Apocalypse) and, apparently, feels some responsibility for Jewish people internationally. Jews generally end up cast as apologists for Israeli actions. At least one cartoonist has gotten into trouble because there's no obvious symbol for Israel that isn't a symbol for Judaism.

But there are plenty of Israelis who aren't Jewish (and a good few of those who are didn't vote for Ariel Sharon). And there are truckloads of Jews who aren't Israelis.

This confusion** works, on the one hand, for Israel's government of the day and its supporters by leaving detractors open to vague charges of anti-semitism. On the other hand it works against Jews all over the world, by putting them in the firing line in controversies over Israel's actions.

In the case at hand the connection between the diplomatic wrangling with Israel and the vandalism of the tombstones has, reasonably, been drawn. But the publicity given to some emphatic opinions on the subject (it seems to me that the media was angling for a sensation) has probably been counterproductive. It looked like a message to the Government that it shouldn't say anything bad about Israel, no matter what, otherwise look what happens. I don't get the feeling, in the circumstances, that this has won many friends for Israel or increased the general estimation of the Jewish Council.

Having said that the problem is inherent in the nature of Israel, how can it be minimised? Public figures should be clear what entity they're talking about. Generally they are. Governments should do what they actually can about anti-semitism (which, again, is the real problem) at every opportunity. And Jewish bodies should from time to time show themselves able to disassociate themselves from Israel. And Israel should stop acting like it's every Jew in the world.

National radio spoke to a Jewish student in France, about Ariel Sharon's call for French Jews to come to Israel (Avoid anti-semitism! Come to the Middle East!). Effectively a travel advisory for people who aren't really your citizens. Anyway, this guy's own angle was that, sure there are problems but we're working on it. Our problems are not Israel's.

I've no idea how many people out there feel that way. But it's not a sentiment this Lower Hutt gentile had heard expressed before. It seemed helpful to me.

*Or the guy from Al-Jazeera who wants to take his kids to America one day. Hands up who saw Control Room! Thought so. Good, eh?

**I've been saying "confusion". There is, of course, a stream of thought that willfully conflates all of these (state, leaders, people, political and religious) to suggest that all or most of the individuals making up the wildly various religious and ethnic tapestry of Judaism are involved in some kind of conspiracy. If "confusion" is the old ladies who stopped knitting Afghan sweaters after September 11, the conspiracy theory is thinking that the earth is flat and that it is also out to get you. And this is someone who thinks that Bush stole Florida talking.