Left in the dark without enlightenment
A new book by Nick Cohen sheds light on the anti-Israel alliance between the far left and the far right
The New Statesman and The Observer are not necessarily the first publications one would turn to for a fierce critique of attitudes of the left towards the war in Iraq, Israel-Palestine and America. The NS is after all the home of the hard left, where John Pilger has the freedom to write (as last week) that “a genocide is engulfing the people of Gaza”. Never mind the facts, Israel and the United States must be held responsible for the world’s evil.
The Observer is more unpredictable, supporting, for instance, the war in Iraq before the full extent of the obfuscation by the Blair government was exposed. Its commentators nevertheless have the habit of wrapping themselves in the angst of liberalism. Thus in the midst of the Israel-Hizbollah conflict last summer, columnist Will Hutton opined that Israel “frequently resorted to the doctrine of disproportionate response, not an eye for an eye, but 10 or 20 Palestinian deaths for every Israeli loss”.
Yet these two journals are also the home of Nick Cohen, a liberal commentator so shocked by the way in which the hard left and liberals have bought into an antisemitic/anti-Zionist comfort zone that he has felt the need to take them on in his Observer column, in occasional NS articles and now in his new book, What’s Left? How the Liberals Lost Their Way.
Cohen cannot be dismissed as just another Jewish writer complaining about media bias, as some of his critics would have it. Although he bears the priestly name of his grandfather with pride, he was brought up Presbyterian. His intellectual journey to his current position began on the Saturday of the 2003 demonstration against the war in Iraq. In his column in The Observer that week, he noted that the march’s organisers represented a merger of far left and far right. Be careful, Cohen warned, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq “had spewed out predatory armies and corpses for decades”.
He argued that those who wanted to keep him in power should perhaps talk to Saddam’s victims, liberals and socialists alike.
His words drew an email response from my colleague, the Daily Mail’s Anne (now Dame) Leslie, who told him: “You are not going to believe the antisemitism that is about to hit you.” Cohen was sceptical, arguing there was no antisemitism on the left. He was mistaken; he was buried by an avalanche.
In Cohen’s view, the far left, represented by the Socialist Workers Party, has bought into a bizarre conspiracy theory that somehow Freemasons and Jews are one and the same and engaged in a warmongering conspiracy. In the view of the liberal-left, the fascistic ideologies driving the Middle East conflict find as their “root cause” the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.
As a journalist and in his new book, Cohen is particularly harsh on George Galloway, the Respect MP, whom he likens to Oswald Mosley. He also is highly critical of Ken Livingstone, the London mayor, for his association with Islamic clerics — who hate Western values — such as Yusuf al-Qaradawi.
The “principled left” is for Cohen a thing of the past. In his writings and in conversation with the JC for this column, the author makes it clear that he is not totally surprised by the far left’s decision (in the shape of the Socialist Workers Party) to link itself with the far right in its hatred of Israel and the adoption of the Palestinian cause. After all, with the collapse of socialism in the former Soviet Union and the demise of the socialist agenda over the last century, it needed a new cause for agitation and for anti-Americanism. Anti-Israel campaigning has become part of that cause.
What he finds more deeply disturbing is the way that mainstream, right-minded liberal thinking has espoused the same cause. The comment pages of The Guardian lost balance in the hands of Seumas Milne, the intelligent son of a former BBC director-general, Alasdair Milne. Similarly, the highly educated, Oxbridge-dominated liberals who people the BBC hierarchy also have bought into the same mythology.
There would be no need for the BBC’s frequent impartiality studies on the Middle East and its highly defensive monitoring of its own reporting unless it suspected there was a bias. Indeed, on occasion it is there for everyone to see, as when Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen chose to use his New Year blog to bemoan “the death of hope, caused by a cocktail of Israel’s military activities”.
US-based polemicist Christopher Hitchens, writing in The Sunday Times, finds much to admire in Cohen’s thesis. He notes that in the last decade or so, if the anti-war rabble had its way, then Kuwait would have remained part of an imperial Iraq, Bosnia and Kosovo would have been cleansed and annexed by a Greater Serbia, and the Taliban would have been heroically ruling Afghanistan. Such thoughts might be thought to be harboured by a secretive and sinister fringe. Instead, in a strange role reversal the principled radicals who fight to overturn bad regimes are treated with disdain by the BBC.
It is only too easy when working within the mainstream liberal/left media to nod sagely and accept the conventional wisdom that the Iraq war was down to a few Jewish neo-conservative intellectuals in Washington and that Israel, with its liberal democratic values, is the aggressor in the Middle East even though such analysis turns reality on its head.
It is far harder to attack the left on its home turf and to provide a different narrative of events. Some credit must go to Roger Alton, editor of The Observer, and John Kampfner at the New Statesman, who believe that the liberalleft can also view the Middle East, from Iraq to Palestine, through a different looking glass.