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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.


Stephen Hugh-Jones said...

Good God! Near to three thousand more droplets of slime from the keyboard of grubby little Cyrus. And still this self-appointed arbiter of morals hasn't the courage--leave aside grace or common honesty--even to sign his name.

Why not? I suppose it's always tempting not to, when you're smearing people. Is he really "intimidated" by the word "libel". Take heart, Cyrus, one can accurately use that word without proposing to rush to law about it. In a longish life I've been libelled almost as nastily, to rather more readers, and I've never yet sued anybody.

And what are these 3,000-odd words of taradiddle for? Evidently, to spread a bit wider the dirty little lie that Cyrus first aimed at me. And, second, to try to bury the fact that a lie it was ("an untruth spoken knowingly"--and in this case maliciously), by piling on further lies. Let's take a loook at them:

1. A dirty lie it indeed was. Cyrus put in my mouth a total fabrication: the fiction that I was reminding Melanie Phillips that "Jews aren't quite one of us". That phrase and that fabrication are Cyrus's unaided work. I've never in my life had such a thought; I regard it as wholly false, frankly absurd and grossly offensive--to any Briton, Jewish or not. Yet on his self-invented, utterly fictitious basis Cyrus turns a letter disagreeing with Ms Phillips about multiculturalism into evidence for a barely-concealed charge of closet anti-semitism. You father your words on me, Cyrus, and then build your vile smear around them. And now for the fresh lies:

2. It seems that with "sly innuendo" I called attention to the fact that Melanie Phillips is Jewish. For pity's sake! One might as well stand accused of slyly insinuating that the Pope is a Catholic. Ms Phillips makes her background plain urbi et orbi, as she is wholly welcome to, and as I proudly would if I were Jewish. And any Times reader would know of it.

Did I even "draw attention" to it at all, slyly or openly? I did not. Ms Phillips's dislike of multiculturalism is specifically directed against our attitude to Muslims. The obvious parallel is the 17th-19th century changes of heart that replaced earlier hostility to two other faith-based communities, Jews and Catholics. I'd have cited exactly the same parallel if her article had come from a Christian, a Buddhist or a man from Mars. (And no, Cyrus, my letter did not imply, as you later pretend, that "there is some precedent for violent Islamism in the history of British Jewry". I'd have to be a total ignoramus, or regard all Times readers as such, even to hint at anything so silly).

Even if I'd done what Cyrus falsely claims, what would that show? Not in decades has any civilised West European used "Jewish" in a derogatory sense. Nor have I, ever. And not just because I was in my impressionable pre-teens when we learned the horrors of the Holocaust. No, the mere idea is simply potty, to anyone who admires the huge contribution that Jews have made to Europe and to Britain; as I do (and said as much in a 1980s review of a book on Britain's Jews for the Economist).

3. Allegedly, my question what Ms Phillips thought of past centuries' steps toward multiculturalism really meant "does she, as a Jew, think they were right?". Tosh. The words "as a Jew" come, yet again, strictly from Cyrus's malign imagination. I was disagreeing about multiculturalism with the writer of an article. Can one not challenge a writer who happens to be Jewish without being accused of emphasising their Jewishness?

4. Allegedly, I was accusing Ms Phillips of "hypocrisy". Another figment of Cyrus's fertile imagination. What an idiot I'd have looked: she habitually makes her views plain as a pikestaff, and everyone knows it. And in fact "she's a Jew, and therefore a hypocrite", which Cyrus fathers on me, is, yet again, totally and offensively his own invention

5. Allegedly, I also ascribed "double standards" to her. More strictly Cyrusian fantasy.

6. Allegedly, I "put words into Melanie Phillips's mouth, making her an opponent of minority rights". That takes some chutzpah--I trust I may use the word, if Cyrus can?--from a man who has put mucky fiction after fiction into my mouth. But still, he's the expert in that black art, maybe for once he's right? He is not. Ms Phillips's exact words in her article were "The doctrines of multiculturalism and minority rights, themselves the outcome of a systematic onslaught by the British elite against the country’s own identity and values...". My letter said that she "thinks that the doctrines of multiculturalism and minority rights spring from 'a systematic onslaught by the elite against British identity and values" . And Cyrus calls that putting words in her mouth!
And so on, and on. And all this from a man who talks of the "defence" of his own "integrity", while coining lie after fabrication after absurdity to besmirch mine.

And if Cyrus doesn't want to believe me, perhaps he will believe Melanie Phillips. She is hardly famous for condoning anti-semitism. Yet her letter of reply in the Times contained not a hint of that charge, not a sliver of Cyrus's fatuous would-be evidence for it.

And so to his denunciation of a later piece of mine. That too rests on a grotesque travesty of what I actually wrote (for the truth, see of 1 December 2007). Witness...

7. One piece of almost ludicrous fiction. In the Cyrusian myth, I "equated Jewish objections to Holocaust deniers with German objections to Jews wearing yarmulkas and going to synagogues". I didn't. What I wrote was that a co-president of the Oxford students' Jewish Society was reported as saying that by joining the demo against the meeting it "didn't want to deny people free speech, we just don't want to give them any more platforms to air their views." This struck me as an illogical self-contradiction; and my own follow-up was " those in the 1930s who 'had nothing against Jews, I just dislike their yarmulkes, synagogues, bar-mitzvahs and kosher kitchens. And money' ".

I was actually thinking of British anti-semites of those days. How even Cyrus could see the illogical nonsense that I ascribed to them--if indeed he genuinely did so--as portraying 1930s Germany, God knows. (The Nazis "had nothing against Jews", didn't they? He should read some history).

And so on, and on. And all this from a blogmonger who talks of the "defence" of his own (anonymous) "integrity", while coining lie after fabrication after absurdity to besmirch mine.
Well, I could go on and on, like he does. But I've already written far more than I meant to, and frankly life is too short to be spent refuting a mucky little libeller. He's "modestly pleased with himself". So be it: strangely, clever fools often are proud of their follies, and I'm sure he gives himself plenty of occasion for it. Let's leave master Grubby in his play-pen to his favourite pastimes of baiting lefties and hating Christian Aid and Palestinians. While I rejoin the grown-up world.

Though not without checking that this rebuttal of his smears actually appears in his precious blogspot. And, yes, signing my name....

Stephen Hugh-Jones
2 April 09

SnoopyTheGoon said...

Aw shucks. The man is certainly going at it...

Has a way with words too. "grubby little Cyrus" and whatnot.

IMHO he needs a good BJ and a few beers.

Anonymous said...

Oh ho ho ho. When someone who claims to be serious spends 3,000 words untruthfully calling SnoopyTheGoon a racist or (let's say)a rapist, will he just laugh it off with a few beers?

Stephen Hugh-Jones said...

I am still (July 14) waiting for your withdrawal of your lies, Cyrus, you scummy little smearbag