Sir Gerald Kaufman, the longest-serving member of the British House of Commons, has died. His name will mean nothing to Israeli or American readers, and probably means nothing to most British ones, but I have something to say about him nonetheless.
Kaufman was an outspoken critic of Israel, in a country where there is no shortage of them. What makes him worthy of comment is that he was Jewish. He was in fact one of a considerable band of anti-Zionist Jews here in the UK and notably in the US. There are those, many in fact, who call him and his friends self-hating Jews, but I am unsure exactly what that means and I am therefore uncomfortable with its use. It's easy to say it, but that doesn't make it a good thing.
I'm not even sure calling him anti-Zionist is an easy thing to do. He claimed to be a great supporter of Israel, but I think what he meant, like so many of his friends, is that he supported the idea but not the reality. Such people believe in an Israel that has never existed, one that lives in neighbourly harmony with the Arab world.
Their narrative is that Israel was a wonderful idea that went wrong. It occupied somewhere called Palestine and treated the natives rather badly (Kaufman, believe it or not, actually claimed that Israel treats the Palestinians the way Nazi Germany treated Jews, a claim that placed him well outside the norm of discourse).
Their proof is that Israel has all the weapons and Palestinians have no country of their own, which must surely mean that it is Israel's fault that they don't. For certain …. let us call them self-doubting British Jews …. this must mean that Israel has lost its moral compass, led on by the far-right government of Benjamin Netanyahu, hell-bent on crushing the national aspirations of the ancient Palestinian people.
That this view is entirely ahistorical and ignores every normal measure of reality is nothing new. We live, in any case, in a new world.
No, what concerns me is not that so many British (and American) Jews who campaign against Israel are sadly wrong, it is that they have misunderstand the effect of their campaigns. They are entitled to be wrong, because whilst we may have more Nobel Prizewinners than any other group we also have no shortage of people, let us say, at the other end of the intellectual spectrum. We are, perhaps, a race of extremes. Enough of that, though.
No, my concern is that Jews who publicly criticise Israel are doing more than they know. They think it is not only legitimate but correct for them to do this, but they miss an important point, which is that what they say is not said in a vacuum, it is said in a world that is looking for exactly people like them.
I could call them useful idiots, which does I am afraid describe nicely what they are (Kaufman, Chomsky, Finkelstein et al), but I prefer not to be simplistic in my name-calling, so let's look more closely at what that means.
Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein don't bother with a veneer of loving Israel but hating everything it does, they simply came out years ago as wishing it dead. Why, I don't claim to know, but that level of hatred is, I suggest, pathological, by which I mean it's not normal to hate anything THAT much. Whether Jews at the barking mad end of the spectrum actually help the anti-Zionist world I don't know, because the people who listen to them are already converted to hatred of Israel, which is why they listen to them. Their pronouncements are simply too unreasonable to convince any intelligent waverer.
It is people like Sir Gerald Kaufman who are the more dangerous, because in most respects they are intelligent and thoughtful. Sir Gerald devoted his life to the city of Manchester, and who would deny he did a lot of good work over a lifetime in politics? He resembles the Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, in that respect. Corbyn is dedicated, and could do much good, but his unthinking obsession with the myth of Palestinian victimhood makes it impossible to see him as intelligent enough to become Prime Minister. Corbyn's anti-Zionism is nowhere near as destructive as Kaufman's, though.
My one and only argument with anti-Zionist Jews is not that they hate Israel, which is their prerogative, but that they cannot see, in their desperation to claim the right to criticise the country, how deeply harmful that is, not only to Israel but to all Jews.
It comes back to that old argument, is anti-Zionism anti-Semitism? Well, in my view there would not be one without the other, and what an anti-Zionist British Jew does is make it acceptable to hate Jews, if for no other reason that so many Jews support Israel. The idea is, I believe, that I, for example, unreservedly support Israel, and I'm Jewish, therefore since Israel is a rogue state, and I support it, being Jewish is by definition a bad thing. It's a circular argument we cannot escape.
By this logic, anti-Zionism is at least based on anti-Semitism, and so those who promote anti-Zionism are promoting anti-Semitism. They certainly don't intend to, but they do. Sir Gerald Kaufman, I am quite sure, would never knowingly have done such a thing, but there you have the problem. He didn't know he was doing it. He should have, but he didn't.