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Christians and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict Read all my posts on this topic

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Appeasers, resisters and a Sandalista Mass

Honestly, it wasn't just that I forgot the clocks were going forward. I'd been meaning for ages to pay an exploratory visit to my local Catholic church, and with 11 o'clock Mass substituting nicely for 10 o'clock Holy Communion it seemed clear that a suitable occasion had arrived.

I can't deny, though, that low expectations lay in large measure at the bottom of my procrastination. I also can't say that those expectations were exceeded. On this evidence the wasteland created by the trendy lefty interpretation of Vatican 2 is as dire as Damian Thompson says it is.

The church was full, mind, but that's no great achievement in a city as cosmopolitan as this one now is. A solitary parish priest is obviously grossly overstretched and, as he reminded us this morning, with blocks of flats springing up on every pocket handkerchief of empty land the parish is on track to double its population, recession notwithstanding. With a church packed to bursting-point with Africans and Poles, what chance is there that mission to the heathen natives will get a look in?

A special dishonourable mention must go to the music. It was like the drippiest variety of Evangelical happy-clappy with added Valium, a fitting counterpoint to the puke-green wall behind the altar. The fact that it was still being rehearsed at three minutes past eleven merely added insult to injury.

So it is with increased fervour that I join Damian T in his approbation of the Scots Catholic composer James MacMillan. He has proved that contemporary music need not contribute to stripping the liturgy of reverence and mystery - try his sublime Mass. And for good measure he has his head screwed on politically as well. Last week he laid succinctly into the editor of the Guardian over the paper's support for Islamism.

Support for Islamism? Some mistake, surely? You've been at the Melanie Phillips again, Grumpy, haven't you? What about this...

'It is also true that a document signed by Mr Abdullah [deputy general secretary of the Muslim Council of Britain] at a recent international conference is in many ways offensive, with sweeping threats against those who stand with Israel and a slip into racialised language in relation to the Jewish state.'

So far so good, but I reckon if I ask you to guess what the next word is you won't have too much trouble. Close your eyes, and read on when you've had a stab at it.

'But '

Well done! You'd certainly have seen it coming if you've already read this in the leader:-

'Hazel Blears, had decided to cut contact with the largest Muslim civil society group until its deputy general secretary, Daud Abdullah, was sacked - a perverse decision if the aim is building the broadest possible alliance to take on the extremists.'

So someone undeterred by anti-Semitic language from signing a call to Jihad on behalf of Hamas is an invaluable member of the anti-extremist alliance. To coin a Wodehousean phrase, this is vastly well. There seems to be genuinely no limit to what we may be enjoined to accept in order that still worse things may be warded off:-

'A month ago the Guardian revealed that the government was considering setting arbitrary criteria to define extremists, such as support for sharia law - an approach that would have branded many mainstream Muslims enemies of the people. Thankfully the idea was ditched [...]'

Get that: 'mainstream' Muslims think it is not extreme to call for the introduction of a parallel theocratic jurisdiction in Britain, therefore nobody else has any business thinking it is.

Can you imagine the Grauniad telling us that in the interests of building an alliance against the far Right we must take care not to alienate 'mainstream' BNP voters by telling them their views are extremist? Of course not - the BNP aren't nearly scary enough.

Continuing to scan the papers, Ruth Gledhill of the Times is admirably robust on Dr Abdullah. I agree with her that this quote from David T of Harry's Place is telling:-

'The exposure of one faux-moderate as an extremist creates a domino effect. You just watch for the statements of outrage, and of support for the poor maligned nutter, and you uncover their constituency.'

But then we come to Damian T's Torygraph colleague, the dashing trendy vicar George Pitcher. Barely able to contain his glee over Dr Michael Nazir-Ali's decision to hand in his mitre, he writes:-

'It is said he was disappointed not to have been made Archbishop of Canterbury, but in truth he would have been awful in that role; his comments on British Muslims alone, had they emerged from Canterbury, could have left blood on the streets.'

'Blood on the streets'. No need to ask whose blood, or who'd have spilt it. Dr Nazir-Ali witnessed how Christians were intimidated into compliance in his native Pakistan. Has he given up hope that a repetition of the process in Britain can be prevented? It would be tragic if he has, though this kind of official flannel from the C of E would make such a conclusion understandable.

'As we rejoice in the power of his Spirit,
may God grant us today the faith of the apostles,
the boldness of the prophets
and the strength of the martyrs.'

When the Society of St Francis included this prayer for Pentecost in its office book, published in 1992, being a Christian in Britain was still pretty much the same cosy business it had been for a couple of centuries. Seventeen years on, it begins to look as if the prayer ought to have that well-known warning appended to it: be careful what you pray for - you might get it. Personally, I don't have the boldness of the prophets or the strength of the martyrs, and I'm not at all sure I want them, thank you very much. But how much longer is meaningful Christian witness in this society going to be possible without them?

Monday, March 16, 2009

On calling a Jew a Jew

In June 2006 I wrote a brief post reacting to a letter in the Times from one Stephen Hugh-Jones, in its turn a reaction to an op-ed by Melanie Phillips. My post has now attracted a series of comments from Mr Hugh-Jones in which he complains that I have smeared him - libelled him, indeed - as a closet anti-Semite and calls on me to apologize.

I am certainly always willing to apologize to anyone I have misrepresented. This post, however, is not an apology but an attempt at an apologia. I hope to place beyond any possibility of misunderstanding the reasons why Mr Hugh-Jones's letter left an unpleasant taste in my mouth and continues to do so. If the letter inadequately expresses what he meant to say, or if it reveals more about his attitudes than he meant to reveal, the fault is plainly not mine.

Please stay with me: this is rather more than an obscure blogger's defence of his integrity. First, because Mr H-J is a mediacrat of some significance. He is the former International Editor of the Economist, and still enjoys the magazine's hospitality as an occasional blogger.

And second, there are some serious issues at stake - issues of what should and should not be said to and about Jews, and what it is permissible to notice about what others say to and about Jews. Let me again commend Howard Jacobson's recent piece in the Independent as a reminder as to why this discussion is timely. It has now become a commonplace, not least in supposedly serious and reputable newspapers, to say such things as that Jews have recreated the Warsaw ghetto in Gaza, that 'Palestinian Anne Franks' lie dead there. These are not true claims in any meaningful rational sense, but they evidently have a cathartic function for those who make them. It's time for people, and not just Jewish people, to demand less catharsis and more scrupulous precision in what's said about Jews. I certainly make no apology for raising that demand myself.

Before we go any further, here is the full text of Mr H-J's letter:-

'Sir Melanie Phillips (
comment, June 6) thinks the doctrines of multiculturalism and minority rights spring from “a systematic onslaught” by the elite against British identity and values.

'If so, the elite has taken its time. It is 350 years since Jews were readmitted to Britain, and some 150 since the last formal bars against Jews and Roman Catholics (and atheists) were removed. The Phillipses of the day reacted much as the present one. Does she think they were right?'

Let me begin by stressing that I did not call Mr H-J an anti-Semite. What I did want to do was point out the way he draws attention to the fact that Melanie Phillips is Jewish. Make no mistake: that fact, that 'J' word, is on the table, not because I put it there or Ms Phillips put it there, but because Stephen Hugh-Jones put it there.

Let's understand clearly how the letter does this. Having invoked two historical events involving Jews, it ends by throwing out a rhetorical question. And the rhetorical force of the question lies entirely in the phrase which the reader is left to supply: does she, as a Jew, think they were right?

Since the question is rhetorical, furthermore, it implies an assertion: Melanie the Jew is happy to take advantage of British liberties whilst seeking to deny them to (Muslim) others. It points simultaneously to her Jewishness and her hypocrisy.

I will be very interested to see whether Mr Hugh-Jones feels able to deny any of this. It's a sly little piece of innuendo; for its author to react, when someone catches him at it, by huffing and puffing about smears and libels might charitably be labelled chutzpah. It might less charitably be called humbug.

Ad hominem arguments are dubious enough at the best of times, and it's my view that an ad Iudaeam argument - or any other kind that works by putting people in a racial pigeonhole - is particularly distasteful. Mr H-J is naturally perfectly entitled to disagree with every word Ms Phillips wrote. But it cannot be the case that the article is any worse than it would have been if it had been written by someone who was not Jewish, and to imply otherwise is plain racism.

It is of course true that Melanie Phillips makes no secret of being Jewish. She frequently writes as a Jew addressing Jewish concerns. In this instance, however, she was writing about what she perceived as a matter of common concern to British citizens. Mr H-J or anybody else is free to find those concerns totally bogus. But the anti-racist principle is clear: Ms Phillips is entitled to have concerns as a British citizen, as a European, as a woman, as a member of the human race - and not exclusively 'as a Jew'. That is what being fully 'one of us' is about, and someone to whom it is denied - by having her Jewishness gratuitously and irrelevantly thrown in her face - is indeed, as I wrote in my 2006 post, being treated as 'not quite One Of Us'.

Ah, I hear Mr H-J cry, that's the whole point, isn't it? It wasn't gratuitous and it wasn't irrelevant. It wasn't just 'she's a Jew', it was 'she's a Jew and therefore a hypocrite'. The hypocrisy is the real issue, and if it can only be exposed by referring to her Jewishness then that reference is amply justified. Look how good we Brits have been to the Jews since Cromwell let them back in - and now here's Melanie wanting to deny the very benefits she enjoys as a Jew to the poor Muslims!

The first thing to be remarked on is the whiff of patronage this exudes. It puts Ms Phillips in her place, a place which is hers by virtue of her Jewishness. She must be reminded that she is the beneficiary of British tolerance so that she may be truly thankful and learn to practice the Golden Rule. This place is evidently not the place of the Hugh-Joneses of this world. Theirs is one of not needing to worry that anyone might find them intolerable. Again, I stand by what I wrote in 2006: the subtextual message to Ms Phillips is that she is not quite One Of Us.

The second point is that the charge of double standards depends on putting words into Melanie Phillips's mouth, making her an opponent of 'minority rights'. Mr H-J refers to the readmission of Jews to Britain by Oliver Cromwell, nearly four centuries after their expulsion by Edward I in 1290 (and here he is sloppy with his facts, for Edward had the power to expel the Jews from England and Wales, but not from Scotland, and the Scots never chose to follow his example). So was Ms Phillips suggesting the mass expulsion of British Muslims? Of course not - so where's the relevance?

Similarly, concerning the legal emancipation of the Jews in the nineteenth century, my original post contained this challenge which Mr H-J has signally failed to take up in his (so far) three comments:-
'Nor does he tell us what formal bars exist against law-abiding Muslims, or what
formal bars he imagines that Melanie Phillips is proposing.'
Jews enjoy equal rights under the law and Muslims enjoy equal rights under the law. Where did the article say they shouldn't, Mr H-J?

Thirdly, I challenged the validity of Mr H-J's historical analogy thus:-
'A pity the writer didn't have space to elaborate on which bits of British
identity and values were compromised by the emancipation of the Jews. The Jewish
terrorist threat in early Victorian London has somehow got left out of all the
history books I've read.'
His response to the first sentence is 'None, of course: that was exactly the point I was making in my letter to the Times.' Well, that in itself is good to know, but it makes his point not a very exact one at all, and reinforces the point I make in the following sentence. Melanie Phillips's article focussed specifically on the very real challenge presented by violent Islamism (whilst explicitly dissociating the 'hundreds of thousands of Muslims [who] lead law-abiding lives and merely want to prosper and raise their families in peace' from it); Mr H-J's letter implies there is some precedent for violent Islamism in the history of British Jewry (if it doesn't mean to do so, why is that history invoked?), but he is so far unable to say what that precedent is.

Now that is a point of some importance. I'm currently reading Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, one of which, the Prioress's Tale, deplorably recounts the fictional murder of a Christian boy by Jews and connects it with the historical murder of St Hugh of Lincoln. The latter is, of course, also blamed on 'cursed Jewes'. I'm not suggesting that a faulty historical analogy that falsely hints at Jewish murderousness is up there with the blood libel. But it certainly deserves to be challenged. If Jews engage in violence they are, of course, open to censure on the same terms as anybody else, but inventing Jewish violence, however obliquely, is an unacceptable incitement to prejudice.

To recap, then, the charge of double standards simply doesn't stand up. In fact it doesn't have either of the legs it would need to stand on. The logical structure of an accusation of double standards is 'you say a about x and b about y, and x is like y but a is not like b'. We've seen that not only is there no a to conflict with b, but also x is not like y.

So let's strip away the misrepresentation and the bogus analogy. What's left of the letter? Nothing but the information about Melanie Phillips conveyed by a single word. We've noted that 'You're a Jew' is a problematic response to an article one disagrees with. 'You're a Jew and a hypocrite', when the charge of hypocrisy is groundless, is like 'You're a Jew' only a lot, lot worse.

I might, despite all this, have concluded that I had gone over the top in my post and should give Mr H-J the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps I was making a meal of a letter which meant to say little more than 'I can't stand Melanie Phillips'.

I might, had I not googled him and discovered one of his Economist blog posts, covering the demonstration against David Irving and Nick Griffin when they spoke at the Oxford Union in late 2007.

One of the more interesting aspects of this post was that I first discovered it reproduced in its entirety on David Irving's website (no link - google 'David Irving Stephen Hugh-Jones'). Not necessarily with Mr H-J's blessing of course. But not without reason either, despite the fun that, to give him due credit, Mr H-J pokes at Irving.

Irving's fixation with the notion that at least a substantial part of the historical record of the Holocaust was fabricated by Jews in order to screw money out of the rest of us, and Griffin's leadership of a party which keeps open house for people holding such views? All a bit of a joke. They are 'controversial', that time-honoured journalistic cop-out word. But the excoriation of the demonstrators is serious stuff. They are 'baying' demonstrators - less than human in their behaviour. Whilst Mr H-J is perfectly justified in denouncing Trotskyist thuggery, he manages to elide the various issues raised in such a way as to make it seem disreputable even to want to wave placards at Irving and Griffin, and goes on to suggest that the student Jewish society's presence was most discreditable of all.

And here we get a distinct echo of the letter to the Times. Like Melanie Phillips, the Jewish students are seeking to deny others the freedom they enjoy themselves. They are doing a bad thing which is particularly bad because they are Jewish. In one of the most bizarre and grotesque moral equivalences I've ever read, Mr H-J equates Jewish objections to Holocaust deniers with German objections to Jews wearing yarmulkas and going to synagogue.

Where do you start with that one? There's no evidence of awareness that Holocaust denial is literally a matter of life and death for Jews, a racial slur which implicitly sets them up for a new Holocaust. Or that, whilst German Jews may indeed have briefly benefitted from the Weimar Republic's liberalism, Hitler's political ambitions benefitted a great deal more. His 'unwelcome views' certainly never got silenced.
By the way, if Mr H-J doesn't grasp the difference between allowing someone free speech and giving them a platform, I trust he will be willing to pull a string or two for me at the Economist. Publication in that prestigious journal is an honour in exchange for which I would gladly forego the anonymity which provokes him so...

Mr H-J doesn't much care for anti-Semites of the Holocaust denying variety, let's be quite clear about that, but he seems to care even less for the kind of people who feel strongly enough about them to wave placards at them. Oh, and he doesn't seem to like my blog either. Not just the bit where I had a go at him, not the deficiencies of my prose style or the gaps in my knowledge, but the whole idea of it. The vigilance against anti-Semitism thing. It's all about smearing people. It must mean that I don't like Palestinians. In a word, it's crap.

So, no, no apology for Mr H-J. I didn't call him an anti-Semite and I'm still not calling him an anti-Semite. On the evidence available he looks to me like a rather doctrinaire libertarian (though not, I fear, quite a consistent enough libertarian to avoid loose use of the intimidatory word 'libel') with a certain penchant for seeing Jews, specifically, as hostile to other people's liberties. To resort to my least favourite management buzzword, I'd say he has some issues. And I'm modestly pleased with myself for spotting those issues back in June 2006.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009


The average Brit gets caught on CCTV 300 times a day. If you haven't read it in the Daily Mail, you've read it in the New Statesman. So it must be true, then.

Or not. David Aaronovitch gives us the secret biography of a junk statistic, and it's a real eye-opener.

Over the weekend I nicked my brother-in-law's copy of Damian Thompson's Counterknowledge for long enough to skim-read it. What the book reveals is scary enough, but I think I find Aaro's piece even more worrying. In my rationalist wisdom I can look down from a great height on those poor souls duped by the claims of reflexologists, creationists and 9/11 truthers, but how do I innoculate myself against the kind of disinformation exemplified by that '300 times a day' stat? It's like a virus spreading through the mainstream media, accepted and passed on uncritically because it supports a mainstream political agenda - one which I at least partially subscribe to, so my guard is down too.

Thomson exposes the scandal of universities offering degrees in homoeopathy, but at least we can easily divine that they're not worth the paper they're printed on. Sociology, on the other hand, is a real academic discipline dealing, potentially at least, with real and important knowledge. When a social scientist who works at a reputable university, and is entrusted by something ironically called the Office of the Information Commissioner with the writing of a an official report, announces that it is 'politically autistic' to expect an attention-grabbing statistic to have an empirical basis, how and where are we to draw the line between counterknowledge and the real thing?