The ongoing teacup-storm following Baroness Tonge's allegedly incendiary analysis of Middle East politics at the University of Middlesex last week is a worthwhile reminder of what is really at stake. This morning's exchange between Lady Tonge and Robert Halfon MP (Conservative) was revelatory, particularly since Halfon is one of seven current Tories listed on the Conservative Friends of Isreal web-site as being on that organisation's Parliamentary Committee, along with James Arbuthnot, James Clappison, David Amess, David Burrowes, Priti Patel and Lee Scott.
These "Friends of Israel" groups are unitentionally hilarious, principally because they appear to be a combination of propaganda front and package holiday firm for gullible politicians who are shown exactly what the Israeli government wants them to see and no more, and repay the favour by behaving as stooges to shout down any dissident voices who question either the actions of Israel or the moral high ground upon which these lickspittles position themselves.
Halfon's briefing had clearly been to repeat the phrase "conspiracy theory" as often as possible in relation to Lady Tonge's views, and to criticise her for sharing a platform with Palestinians who have a less analytic, more visceral reation to the way they have been treated. Had Lady Tonge stood up and read from "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion", he might have had a point, but instead he extrapolated from her views that there is a vast pro-Israel lobby (represented by such bodies as Conservative Friends of Israel) as evidence that she suffers from delusions.
Since his intellect is clearly either not functioning in the morning or has departed on a permanent vacation, he then decided to extend the critique to not having condemned the atrocities in Syria. Even the presenter thought this was somewhat out of order - but, for reasons best known in Moscow and Beijing, the current revolution in Syria does not yet enjoy the international backing that the uprising in Libya did last year.
As an aside, I must not pass up the opportunity to note that Mike Freer, MP for Finchley and Golders Green, is vocal in pro-Isreaeli circles while wishing to crack down on squatting ever since Libyan dissidents occupied property in his constituency owned by the Gadaffi family - still, it's consistent stoogepersonship for oppressive regimes, I suppose.
Halfon resorted to all the old rhetorical devices, bnt one made me sit up and realise precisely how far we have come. When called out on whether he supported freedom of speech, he qualified it, and then evoked the knee-jerk opportunism of Lapdog Clegg, Hamster Face and Milibland in uniting in their repugnance at the misreported distortions of what Jenny Tonge actually said to the students. For an Israeli apologist, he has done nothing to convince the sceptical that the role of the outside world is to pump in money to Israel while turning a blind eye to what is going on there.
It is impossible to conduct any discussion on the future of Israel without being accused of anti-Semitism, but unfortunately economics, politics, demographics and reality intrude into this deranged narrative of moral superiority and the game of "don't kick me" that has been perpetrated upon the rest of the world for far too long. Under American tutelage relationships between Israel, Egypt and Turkey improved - to be swept away by the Arab Spring and the massacre of relief workers that took place a couple of years ago. Now Israel survives on American money and its status as a nuclear power - given the theocratic underpinnings of its state ideology is it any wonder that other extremist theocratic states feel threatened and aggressive towards it?
The real aim of Halfon and his cronies is to stifle debate. Free speech and a defensible cause go hand in hand, and, as has been seen in other parts of the world where there is a sectarian divide, comprehension of others' viewpoints is essential to resolving a situation to mutual benefit. Sharing a platform with people of opposing views is not to endorse those views, but to engage audiences and debaters alike - would Halfon condemn "Baroness" Warsi for having shared the "Question Time" stage with Nick Griffin? Probably not, but then relativism and intellect are out of the water. Progress is not made through entrenchment, but then the Israeli lobby want all past transgressions retrospectively forgiven and then airbrushed out of history.
He also then attacked Tonge for supporting "terrorists" in the West Bank and Gaza. Nobody condones violence either direct or indirect - but an economic blockade and land expropriation directed against whole communities are aggressive actions too. My reading of Lady Tonge's position is that she is a controversialist, but her views are reasonable in the context of the last fifty years of political history, and that attempting to describe the impact of Israel's procrastination in implementing widely-supported expectations of the international community is neither inflammatory nor, critically, anti-Semitic.
Eventually, as Lady Tonge suggested, people and states may lose patience with Israel - this is hardly apocalyptic or calling for its violent overthrow. But it is much easier to cry foul towards opponents and besmirch their reputations and motives than to engage and accept that it is possible to hold an opposing view of both the moralities and the practicalities of the situation. Groups such as "Friends of Israel", active in Labour, Liberal and Tory parties, are pro-Israeli lobbies, and should be prepared to admit to that - and to be accused of such bias is hardly evidence of a conspiracy theory. It suits them to abuse opponents with the subtle insinuation of madness.
However, for expressing such views, I would anticipate that I will be written off by these people (to borrow Brian Coleman's phrase) as somebody who "seventy years ago would have been in the blackshirts". Notwithstanding the fact that seventy years ago all British fascists who posed a danger to society were interned - it was 1942, after all - this is the usual response to criticism of the pro-Israeli position: equating liberalism with anti-Semitism means that any voice raised against the tide of bullshit is portrayed as having been formulated through long exposure to the inner circles of Nazi thought - hardly the basis upon which debate can ever take place.
As with virtually all on the left, I have never had a problem with Israel's existence, nor have I seen it as necessary for it to be destroyed. Compliance with international law and respect for human rights is not even too much to ask, it is the basis upon which participation in the global community should be predicated.
PS: (slightly updated)
Another interesting example of the terms of debate here. The "Jewish Chronicle" reports the events with the kind of slant that the "Sun" would be proud of. Whatever Ken O'Keefe's views are, they aren't those of Baroness Tonge, and a misleading headline that is potentially actionable.
Note Mike "Rent-a-Gob" Freer's intervention, as well.