The election of Malia Boutattia as President of the National Union of Students (NUS) has been controversial to say the least. Her critics have called her a Daesh sympathiser, anti-Semite and racist. Such allegations are neither new nor unique to Boutattia as anyone who has fallen prey to the right-wing media or pro-Israel lobby will know. Bilious rhetoric accompanying the character assassination of anyone who opposes Israel in public has become a commonplace; so much so that it is now a dominant feature of our society and public discourse.
This week it was also the turn of Labour MP Naz Shah, who resigned from her position as Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell for tweeting an “anti-Semitic” picture and comparing Zionism to Al-Qaida. Meanwhile, the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn has been accused of “institutionalised anti-Semitism” and celebrities and artists across the globe are constantly being labelled “anti-Semitic” for showing solidarity with Palestinians, including Roger Walters, Russel Brand and Zayn Malik.
The rise of discrimination and racism in any form is a concern. No doubt there are genuine anti-Semites who need to be exposed but more often than this is not the case with the people thus accused; most of those who are vocal in their criticism of Israel harbour no antipathy towards Jews per se. Nevertheless, the elision of valid criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism has become an effective way of silencing Israel’s critics. The line between criticism of Israel and its Zionist ideology on one hand, and anti-Semitism on the other, has been blurred, intentionally so, just as the line between Israel and its occupation of Palestinian land has been blurred. They are not unrelated — Zionism thrives on the back of anti-Semitism — but criticism of the former is not the same as the latter.
Occupation is no longer part of the lexicon of Israeli politics; Israelis refer to the occupied West Bank as “Judea and Samaria”; the Jewish people’s “historical rights”; and Israel’s “generous concessions” (can anyone actually name one?). This is illustrated perfectly by this revealing interview given by Israel’s Justice Minister, Ayelet Shaked. The right-wing member of the Jewish Home Party is a zealous opponent of a Palestinian state and has called for the genocide of Palestinians. She’s a member of a group with a powerful voice — included amongst its number is current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — which wants to erase occupation from the political discourse altogether.
This, of course, is nothing new, and it is being done on a daily basis by the Israelis’ destruction of historic Palestine. Having forced Palestinians to concede 78 per cent of their land through the Oslo process, the remaining 22 per cent upon which a rump Palestinian state is supposed to be formed is being grabbed by illegal settlements metre by metre. In all of this, Israel wants it both ways; it wants all of Palestine as a “non-occupier” and yet still call itself a democracy.
The occupied territory and Israel “proper” has, in effect, become one and the same thing. This isn’t something that has happened fortuitously; it is the result of a clear strategy of “transcending the Israel Palestine conflict” in order to shift the epicentre of the regional zone of conflict. The latest retort to critics is that “Israel’s occupation is the least of the Middle East’s problems.” True as that may be, pointing to a different problem does not solve the problem at hand, especially one that is almost 70 years old. Despite this fact, criticism of Israel’s brutal policies towards Palestinians in the occupied territories, in the midst of the chaos that is the current Middle East, is viewed as a determining factor of “anti-Semitism”. This allows Israel to get away, literally, with murder; it is held to be above criticism and can thus act with impunity.
To a large degree, this is all due to the polarisation of society and politics rooted in the world shaped by neo-Conservative policies. As others have pointed out, the dominant ideologies that shape our lives are opaque. Their power “lies in their ability to operate namelessly.” Societies are burdened with austerity, economies collapse, militarism rises, regimes are overthrown and states collapse, but the cause of all this and more usually remains hidden and unspoken. “So pervasive has neoliberalism [and I would add neo-Conservatism] become that we seldom even recognise it as an ideology,” wrote George Monbiot in Britain’s Guardian recently. It is the world as it is and anything different is just ideological fantasy.
Previously, I have written that ideology is a dirty word; it’s socially and politically toxic. Accusations of being “ideologically motivated” are hurled at opponents in an effort to discredit their claims. Modern political orthodoxy is deeply suspicious of anything suggestive of ideology. We are living in a “post-ideological world” at “the end of history”, a rare moment when ideology is dead and buried. “Progressive” states, we are led to believe, are not in the business of advancing ideology; their role is to protect human welfare, social prosperity, peace and stability and promote “rationality”.
This is simply not true. We are going through a deeply ideological stage. While neo-liberalism has had a pervasive impact on economic policies, neo-Conservativism has had an equally if not more powerful impact on politics, culture and society. Its most potent elements may be in the US, but there’s been a steady migration of its pernicious policies into Britain and Europe since the “war on terror” began in 2001.
Self-styled anti-extremist experts harp on and on about a “global Islamist conspiracy” to undermine western democracy; they draw constant attention to an international social movement, with clearly defined “ideas”, “narratives”, “symbols” and “leaders” driving the “global jihadi insurgency”. Politicians and right-wing commentators alike propagandise discredited theories about terrorism, further fuelling a climate of fear and bigotry.
This is not accidental; it’s the result of years of effort by social and political movements that, in spite of their political differences, have found common cause in “protecting western civilisation” against Islamism, Islam, Muslims, jihadists, Muslim terrorists or whichever other designation serves their propaganda purposes at the time.
What they forget to mention is that equally potent, if not more so, social and political movements are at the root of our current problems. An international jihadi conspiracy may well be responsible for brutal acts of terrorism, but can this be compared reasonably to the global instability created by neo-liberal economic policies, social disharmony fostered by a militaristic extreme right-wing and the clash of civilisations mantra that are driving a massive wedge between communities? These are not only pitting people of different faiths and cultures against one another, they are also dividing society along other fault lines, the most serious of which is that between the rich and poor.
Neo-Conservatism, too, has clearly defined ideas, narratives, symbols and leaders. Racist ideas about Muslims sustain the narrative that the West is locked in a clash of civilisations with a medieval religion. The narrative is supported through propaganda and reinforced using symbols by leaders who typically come from the extreme right and the extreme left. Who’d have thought that the likes of Christopher Hitchens — once a champion of the left — and extreme right-ring neoconservative Richard Perle or the Evangelical Christian Jerry Falwell would become soulmates as cheerleaders of US imperialism?
If ever one needed evidence of the horseshoe theory of politics, the neo-Conservative gift of “the war on terror” is it. Extreme sections of different ends of the political spectrum have merged through their common, fiery hatred of Islam. The net result has been disastrous: local politics has become globalised and foreign conflicts are indigenised, creating a reality that is hostile and suspicious of Muslims and anyone critical of Israel.
Neo-Conservatives promote neo-liberalism. One of their main articles of faith is that American power is benevolent and a force for good in the world. Even now, major neo-Conservative ideologues like Tony Blair and Dick Cheney still believe that their invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a good thing, even while admitting their failure to plan for the aftermath. The lynchpin of their political doctrine is, though, the Zionist state of Israel. “Support for Israel is a key tenet of Neo-Conservatism,” note Professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt in their riveting expose of “The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy” (2007).
For decades, neo-Conservatives have been pushing hard for what they call a “clean break” from the policies of the past to steer the Middle East and, in particular, Israel on a new course away from its obligations under the Oslo Accords and international law. This is the blueprint of an Israeli think tank, the Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies.
“Transcending the Arab-Israeli conflict” and “using every possible energy on rebuilding Zionism” are key tenets of this new vision for the Middle East, which also promotes the “Balkanisation” of the region, triggered by the western invasion of Iraq. “Iraq in their eyes,” writes Brian Whitaker, “is just the starting point, ‘the tactical pivot’ – for re-moulding the Middle East on Israeli-American lines.” Ominously, they also decided that “disorder and chaos sweeping through the region would not be an unfortunate side-effect of war with Iraq, but a sign that everything is going according to plan.”
What is the objective of all this chaos and mayhem? The emergence of “a new Middle East” geared to Israel’s security and interests. “What really animates the Neo-Conservatives is the preservation of Israel,” say Mearsheimer and Walt. “That lies at the back of everything.”
Israel has long been a hyper-sensitive issue in US politics. Britain’s body politic may not in the past have been similar to America’s in its reflexive defence of Israel, but this is no longer the case. Just as the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Council (AIPAC), is wedded to the neo-Con agenda and Israel’s security above everything else, there is a proliferation of pro-Israel lobby groups in Britain espousing equally divisive politics centred on the Zionist state. The likes of BICOM, the Henry Jackson Society and Conservative Friends of Israel, aided and abetted by a stridently right-wing press, police what is said about Israel in the public domain.
As the authors of this report by Spinwatch demonstrate, there is a deep “integration between the UK Israel Lobby and the Israeli state.” They also note that “BICOM has direct connections with Israel through a number of think tanks and in particular the institutions of what [we] call ‘neoliberal Zionism’.” The authors also maintain that these institutions have made “cynical use of [Jewish] history to smear critics of Israel.”
The golden age of neo-Conservativism may have passed but its impact remains with us. It has fuelled the “clash of civilisations”, poisoned our society and shifted the political culture to the right while fostering fear, prejudice and bigotry. Naz Shah and Malia Boutattia are the latest to feel its effects, but they won’t be the last.