I first spoke up for Jews in the 1950s at the age of about eight when I confronted my paternal grandmother, a fanatical Irish republican, about the photograph of Hitler at the bottom of her bed. “What about the Jews, Granny?” I asked. “British propaganda,” she replied. Fortunately my parents thought she was a lunatic, but I reckon I owe to her my early revulsion against violent Irish nationalism, Anglophobia and anti-Semitism.
I was reminded of Granny last year when I was on a panel with George Galloway (spewing his usual venom) at the West Belfast Festival, a republican event to which I have twice been invited because I’m a notorious critic of the IRA and its political wing and they need to prove to their sponsors that they embrace diversity. In Belfast, in areas of vicious tribal territorial rivalry, Irish and British flags are augmented by Palestinian and Israeli, and both sides are as blindly loyal to their chosen people as they are ignorant about them.
Ten years previously I’d been booed because I was critical of Gerry Adams in his presence. This time I was hissed when I suggested that - considering the festival has a Palestine Day - its organisers might consider inviting an Israeli voice to their next festival.
Republican leaders are smart. They had an Israeli the following year, Rabbi Arik Ascherman of Rabbis for Human Rights, a political activist who sides with Palestinian citizens and farmers against Israeli police and settlers, so I doubt if he rattled many cages. With the subtitle “The ongoing Nakba, 65 years of oppression, apartheid and war crimes” Palestine Day then went ahead merrily, culminating in a panel discussion called “Join the Campaign, Boycott Israel”, with some usual Irish suspects and Jeremy Corbyn MP.
In the Republic of Ireland there are few friends of Israel (the Israeli Foreign Ministry views Ireland as the most hostile country in the EU), possibly because the Irish see the Israelis as colonial oppressors and so identify with the Palestinians, so I weigh in on Israel there more often than in London, where I live.
I’ve occasionally broadcast or written critically about the ludicrous Irish participants in various Gaza flotillas, the cultural terrorism of the Ireland-Palestine Solidarity Campaign (IPSC), which has been viciously bullying musicians into boycotting Israel, and the appalling anti-Israel bias of Trocaire, the Irish Catholic Church’s overseas development agency, which has hired at least three IPSC members and calls on Irish politicians to back a boycott of Israeli settlement products. The Irish government has given Trocaire more than €160 million in recent years, and Catholic churches and schools and shops collect for it. It matters.
In a ding-dong with me on BBC Radio Ulster, Trocaire’s Director, Justin Kilcullen, explained that Trocaire worked closely with Israelis. Guess which Israelis? Yep, Rabbis for Human Rights, along with the Israel Committee Against House Demolitions and Breaking the Silence. As I tried to point out, an admirable aspect of Israel that distinguishes it from its neighbours is that tolerates dissenting views, but this is used by its enemies as a means of attacking Israel, not as a reason to praise it.
What really made me cross was when Kilcullen said something sneering about the well-organised Israeli lobby which pops up every time the country is criticised. Well, as again I tried to get across, if there were such a lobby in Ireland, there would be no need for people like me – with no Jewish background or special interest in the Middle East – to counter the defamers.
Fortunately, having developed a very thick skin after years of abuse from IRA sympathizers, the brickbats I get when I defend Israel leave no bruises. There is much about Israel of which I’m critical, for instance the spread of settlements and the appeasement of the ultra-orthodox, but it’s a decent country that treats well all those who live in it, including Christians and the Muslims. So when in Ireland the left, the Catholic Church and the Irish government indulge in knee-jerk anti-Israel propaganda while keeping quiet about the evils of Hamas, Hizbollah, Iran and so on, those of us who care about fairness feel obliged to do something.
From the time I first heard about the Holocaust I’ve hated anti-Semitism with a passion (I still find myself sometimes looking at cherished Jewish friends and thinking “It could have been you”) and I have a simple rule of thumb for smoking it out. If you approach Israel as a prosecuting attorney and if you denounce its human rights abuses while showing little or no interest in the monstrous brutalities of its surrounding states, or the threat they pose to Israel’s survival, then I think that – whether you know it or not – you’re probably driven by anti-Semitism.
Like Irish nationalists, Jews tend to be articulate to a fault, but it often seems as if – like Ulster unionists - its defenders are projecting the message of “Everyone hates us and we don’t care”. And just like Ulster unionists, Israeli spokesmen can be rude, unhelpful and leave their defenders feeling frustrated, fed up, furious and abandoned. Yet, while I wish you guys were better at PR, I admit to feeling rather ambivalent, since I loathe the smooth and convincing lies of Irish republicans, the Muslim Brotherhood and others of their ilk, and I rather like bluntness.
If anyone wants to know anything more about my attitude to Jews, I refer you to Howard Jacobson’s wise and funny The Finkler Question. Since in the 1980s I wrote a biography of the publisher and political activist, Victor Gollancz, who was never happier than baiting the Jewish establishment, I’ve been just as entranced, irritated and confused as the Jacobson’s gentile protagonist. I had to address the issue in my latest satirical crime novel, Killing the Emperors, having made the unsettling discovery that most of the leading figures in the art world who distorted the art market as they promoted the untalented perpetrators of the nonsense that is conceptual art were Jewish. I found defending that a lot harder than defending Israel.