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 Jewish Chronicle - - COMMENT & ANALYSIS - ALEX BRUM­MER

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.

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