09 February 2012

The New Statesman & Ben White: A Marriage Made in Hell?

You know, I thought that The New Statesman had got over its hang-up about Israel after it had the grace (or was forced?) to apologise for its "A Kosher Conspiracy?" front cover of a Magen David piercing a union flag. I should have known better, of course. The New Statesman (hereafter NS) is, after all, the weekly paper of record for the "progressive left" of the UK. Well, a couple of days back, Robin Shepherd, owner/publisher of that excellent on-line paper The Commentator, drew all of our attention to an article just published by the NS by the ever-reliable Ben White: ever-reliable, that is, to attack Israel from all the wrong angles. Although I have included a link to the NS article below, Shepherd tells us all we really need to know in a long and well-argued article (more importantly, the first link below).

Shepherd lets us know the context of his concerns very early in the piece, when he says that "In the context of Iranian threats to destroy the country, the loss of Turkey as an ally and the new pre-eminence of extreme, anti-Israeli Islamists in Egypt, the rantings of Western anti-Zionists have now acquired a new and more dangerous significance."

Among these, of course, are the sayings of Ben White. Shepherd goes on to note that

I[Shepherd] make[s] no direct analogy, but enter Ben White, author of, “Israeli Apartheid: A Beginner’s Guide“. On Sunday, he published an extensive piece in the leading weekly magazine of the British Left, The New Statesman. Essentially, it’s a trash job on Israeli democracy. It, perversely, charges a British pro-Israel grouping, BICOM, with having unwittingly revealed, in a series of recent essays, that Israel is not in fact a proper democracy at all: it’s a racist “ethnocracy“ run by and for Jews.
Back in the days when White still spoke to mere mortals who disagreed with him (by commenting on Engage, for example), I recall (along with others) taking him to task for his use of this word - "ethnocracy" - because the last thing Israel was or is is an ethnically homogeneous society. In comparison, in terms of those who are actually citizens (as opposed to actually entitled to enter and remain, legally, within its borders, such as all European Union citizens), somewhere like Britain is actually less diverse than Israel. After all, the vast majority of those who are UK citizens were actually born and bred within its borders; which is far more than can be said of Israel. If White were to substitute something like "a uni-religious society", he would be far more accurate. But the term would apply just as much to the UK, where something like 90% or more of the population would, if forced, acknowledge that they were Christian rather than anything else.

Not that such truths bother Ben White.

Shepherd goes on to make many more pertinent points, among them this:
Mostly, [White's article is] a re-hash of the old arguments that because Israel is a Jewish state it can’t be a true democracy. The fact that it’s had an elected parliament for longer than almost half the countries in the European Union – the 10 members from central and eastern Europe plus Spain, Portugal and Greece – is obviously not mentioned. Nor is the fact that it has one of the finest supreme courts in the world. Nor is the fact that Arabs in Israel have a tradition of living in a liberal-democratic environment that has been absent for Arabs living anywhere else in the region. (And the way things are going that is not likely to change due to the so-called “Arab Spring. “)
Anyway, enough from me. The Shepherd article is here, and the link to the New Statesman is here.

By Brian Goldfarb.


Francis Sedgemore said...

"...the term would apply just as much to the UK, where something like 90% or more of the population would, if forced, acknowledge that they were Christian rather than anything else."

Actually, to be fair on the English, this isn't true. When polled, you might get a majority say that their religion is "Church of England", which is not quite the same as saying that they are "Christian". It is more a case of saying what they feel is expected of them, and not wishing to be singled out as non-conformist, let alone the godless heathens they are in reality.

Only a few percent of the British people of Christian heritage are actually Christian. With the other established religions the proportion of believers is higher, but we should probably question the data on the UK's population of professing Muslims, owing to the increased social and political pressure on them to comform to perceived community norms.

Brian Goldfarb said...

Francis, hallo. Long time since I commented on your blog. Sorry about that!

You don't even have to be fair to be right. That was a bit sloppy. Probably what I should have done is to have taken a bit more time and made the point about the Church of England being established, thus, in a legalistic sense, lumping all UK citizens under the same banner, except for those who clearly claim not to fit, something like 25% of the population. 

That's a bit clumsy, but hopefully you know what I mean. 
More importantly, those who reside in the UK as born and bred citizens (irrespective of actual geographical background in the previous generation(s)) share a culture. They share a language, despite shades of accent and dialect; they share a literature - it's astonishing how Shakespeare speaks to so many from such diverse origins; we share music - it's not an accident, I suspect, that the World Music movement started in the UK...etc and so forth.

Now, if we look at Israel, we start off with two cultures: that of the majority - the Jews - and that of the major minority - the Muslims. Then, among the Jews, even if we ignore religious differences possibly wider than among Christians in the UK, we have those from a huge variety of backgrounds: from Arab lands, from the (conventionally defined) west, from the former USSR...
If Ben White was something other than he is, the comparison that really makes sense is with the culturally diverse USA.
But of course, the last thing Ben is looking for is a rational approach to the Middle East.

Sorry for the length of the reply...it's the academic in me!

Francis Sedgemore said...

I've yet to set foot in Israel, but hope one day to do so. However, from what I know of the country, one thing it shares with Perfidious Albion is its nature as what Amartya Sen calls a "plural monoculture". That is, the land is ethnically diverse, but there is little mixing of the various cultures.

Talking of that prolix old fraud Shakespere, Britain's ethnic diversity goes back a very long way, due in large part to England's maritime and imperial heritage. Black people were a feature of urban life in Elizabethan times.

Back to the good old "C of E", which, incidently, is now in the care of a Welsh immigrant. This institution may be established, but unlike the established churches in, say, the Scandinavian countries, residents of England (specifically England, not Wales or Scotland) are not considered to be members by default. You have to be baptised or confirmed into the Anglican church in order to be a member.

In Wales they have their own affiliate of the worldwide Anglican Communion, and Eglwys yng Nghymru has no official standing in a land ruled by presbyterian ayatollahs. When it comes to Scotland, the official church is the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, which is Lutheran bordering on Calvinist in theology and practice (in contrast to the quasi-catholic with and evangelical undergrowth Anglican church). Sorry to labour this point, Brian, but it is important if you wish to understand the cultures of the British Isles.

I'm with you entirely on Ben White's motivation.