The BBC debated antisemitism, but who got ‘muddled’, Melanie Phillips or Robert Cohen?

The BBC debated antisemitism, but who got ‘muddled’, Melanie Phillips or Robert Cohen? August 1, 2019

We were 38 minutes into a live 45 minute BBC radio debate on antisemitism when the UK’s leading pro-Israel polemicist and regular Times and Jewish Chronicle columnist, Melanie Phillips, gave me the endorsement quote which will now be appearing on all of my future publicity materials:

“Robert Cohen is genuinely motivated by good ideals”

Melanie Phillips, Speaking on BBC Radio 4 ‘The Moral Maze’, 24 July 2019.

Such is the power of selective quotations! But since I want to be fair in my reporting, here’s the unedited quote which will not be appearing on any leaflets or posters:

“The problem with Robert Cohen, who I think is genuinely motivated by good ideals, but I think he is, to use his own word ‘muddled’. He thinks Zionism, as it is expressed today, is about colonialism and he used a very interesting phrase ‘the indigenous Arab population’, suppressed, oppressed and so on. They are not indigenous. The indigenous people of the State of Israel, of the Land of Israel, are the Jews. They’re the only extant indigenous people for whom this was ever their national kingdom.”

You’re probably wondering why Melanie Phillips was talking about me rather than to me since I was also taking part in the debate. I need to explain the format for the Moral Maze which has been on air since 1990, wrestling with topical ethical issues and hosted by the former TV news reader Michael Buerk.

Each week there are four regular panelists and four guests, described as ‘witnesses’ who bring different perspectives to the debate. Each guest is then questioned by two of the regulars for no more than eight minutes. You’re brought into the studio when it’s your turn and hoicked out once you’re done. At the end of the programme Michael Buerk and the panelists mull over the opinions they’ve heard but rarely reach a consensus and rarely have their minds changed by what they’ve heard.

Aside from Melanie, the regulars that evening were Matthew Taylor, Mona Siddiqui and Tim Stanley. My fellow witnesses were Baroness Rabbi Julia Neuberger, the Bishop of Worcester the Rt. Rev. Dr John Inge, and Adam Sutcliffe, professor of European History at King’s College London. Considering my own credentials are merely ‘blogger and speaker on Israel/Palestine’, I was in esteemed company.

So while Melanie was denying Palestinian history, I was stuck on the other side of the studio window, sitting with the radio engineer and the show’s producer, unable to respond. And there was so much that needing saying.

How long do you have to be around before you stop being an off-comer or interloper or stranger in the Land? Is the existence of ancient kingdoms the prerequisite for a modern national identity? And isn’t it likely that at least some DNA in today’s Palestinians is inherited from first century Judeans? As for ‘blood and soil’ nationalism, I’m not sure it has such a great reputation. And if ancient kingdoms are to be our modern Jewish claim to sovereignty, shouldn’t their previous destruction give us pause for thought on whether this is really a sound project for long term Jewish security?

I was tempted to barge my way back into the studio. But the producer was already telling Michael Buerk to start winding things down to a conclusion.

So how well did I fare in my first encounter with one of the most well-known, committed and compelling defenders of Israel and Zionism? Melanie Phillips has a reputation as a fearsome debater who takes no prisoners. She plies her craft on the global stage. I have a small blog, which earns me mostly angst.

Twenty minutes earlier I was just taking my seat as Michael Buerk asked me his warm-up question:

Michael Buerk: “Would it be fair to call you a Jewish anti-Zionist?”

I decided I didn’t quite like this reduction of my position to “anti-ness” and since time was not on my side it was best to land some thoughts at the first opportunity.

Robert Cohen: “I think I’d rather describe myself as a Jew who is deeply concerned about what Zionism has come to mean both for the Jewish people and the Palestinian people. And I’m also concerned about how Israel and Zionism has confused and muddled our understanding of what antisemitism means.”

And so it began.

Melanie Phillips: “So just to be clear, is your problem with Zionism or is your problem with the behaviour of Israel’s government?”

It was time to land some big points.

Robert Cohen: “I know there’s an argument that says you can be critical of particular policies or particular governments of the State of Israel but you mustn’t criticise the fundamentals of the fact that there is Jewish State and it is founded on a Zionist ideology. But that doesn’t work for me anymore. I’ve grappled with this issue for more than 30 years now to get to the point where I am now and I think it’s a false distinction to say the problem is just Netanyahu or a particular policy. In my view, there is so much similarity, in terms of government policies and attitudes towards the Palestinian people that you’ve got to understand that whether it’s the left or the right it’s fundamentally driven by a Zionist ideology and that’s what becomes problematic for me.”

Melanie Phillips: And what do you think Zionism is?

Robert Cohen: “Zionism, from a Jewish perspective, started off as a response to antisemitism in Europe and the idea was that it was national self-determination for the Jewish people. And I think that’s true. I also think it’s true that for the Palestinian people it has played out as a settler colonial project which has dispossessed them of their land and their rights. Both these things can be true and I think the difficulty we get into with antisemitism is that we are binary in how we talk about this…we seem to be incapable of holding both these ideas in our heads as being both true.”

Melanie Phillips: “Well’s that’s because I would suggest that one of them is not true. Zionism didn’t start as a response to antisemitism in Europe. Nor is it a colonial project. The Jews are the only people for whom the Land of Israel was ever their national kingdom. Zionism is simply the self determination of the Jewish people. What’s your problem with that?”

Robert Cohen: “What you’ve just done Melanie is exactly what confuses and muddles our understanding of antisemitism. Because you’ve turned Zionism into Judaism….as soon as you do that you merge what is a political ideology into a tradition of Jewish connection through scripture and festivals to the Land of Israel, I get all that. But as soon as you muddle all that up together you then create an environment in which advocacy for the Palestinian people becomes very difficult.”

Melanie Phillips: “You say it’s a muddle but how would you characterise that Jews pray for the return to Zion and have prayed for the return to Zion ever since they were exiled from Zion by colonialist oppressors many hundreds of years ago…”

Robert Cohen: “…I don’t deny any of these connections…”

Melanie Phillips: “…is that a muddle to you?”

I could have gone in several directions at this point. I could have reminded Melanie that the biggest names in pre-State Zionism, Theodor Herzl and Chaim Weizmann, had no inhibitions about the using the language of colonialism to describe their project. I could also have asked Melanie why she thought nearly all rabbis from across the religious Jewish spectrum were so opposed to Zionism throughout the early decades of the movement. I could have asked if she understood that for rabbinical Judaism, ‘Exile’ was both a physical and spiritual concept. But in the moment I went with a simple human rights point.

Robert Cohen: “I have no problem in accepting the thousands of years’ connection between Jews and the Land of Israel. There is a big difference between having that connection…and establishing a nation state that then privileges Jewish people and discriminates against non-Jewish people.”

At this point Michael made Melanie hand the questioning over to Tim Stanley, an historian and leader writer for the Daily Telegraph. Tim’s questioning began with recognition that for some, Zionism was a socialist project as well. This enabled him to present Zionism as a left-wing “civil rights” project.

Tim Stanley: “Do you accept that there’s still that element of Zionism? That’s why some people find left wing criticism of Zionism confusing.”

This was helpful in allowing me to continue my critique of Melanie’s description of Zionism as Judaism.

Robert Cohen: “You’re absolutely right that early Zionist pioneers from the late 19th century through to the early 20th century were often socialist and very secular, they weren’t religious at all, so they weren’t coming at it in the way Melanie was just talking about. However, their version of socialism was a socialism for Jews. When they came to Palestine and set up kibbutzim and they had a very left wing understanding, they weren’t inviting the local Arab indigenous people to join them in the Kibbutz. So this was socialism for Jews…I think there is no doubt that if you look at how Zionism actually played itself out…ultimately Zionism was on a collision course with the indigenous Arab population. This was always going to happen whatever strain of Zionism you might have advocated.”

Tim then changed direction and decided to pursue the trope about singling out Israel in a way that other countries are not. The inference being that we should challenge those who criticise Israel because they are likely to be motivated by malicious antisemitic intent.

What doesn’t get challenged is the presentation of Israel as a normal western style democracy. What’s unfair is not the attention Israel receives but the free pass it gets. Normal western style democracies don’t annex, besiege and occupy land considered, under international law, to belong to others. Nor do normal western style democracies discriminate against their own citizens on the basis of religion/ethnicity. Israel is certainly an eccentric member of the family of democracies. I attempted to make these observations to Tim Stanley, ending with this question back to him: “Are you saying that we have to fix China and Saudi Arabia before we’re allowed to get round to Israel?”

My eight minutes in the ring were up. And I was still standing.

Despite the limitations of the show’s format and duration, it was a better discussion of a complex issue than you normally get to hear. I’d recommend listening to all of it, in particular the contribution from Adam Sutcliffe who was adept at putting antisemitism and the Holocaust into a longer historical context and recognising the significance of Islamophobia across Europe.

It was good to hear a diversity of Jewish voices on a single radio show. But both before and after the broadcast, I suggested to the production team that the Moral Maze should invite a Palestinian to talk about Zionism. That’s the only way we’ll elevate the debate and avoid the constant focus of antisemitism skewing our understanding of what Palestinian solidarity is about. The Jewish and Palestinians experience is now so interwoven that both peoples have the right to comment, from multiple perspectives, on what Zionism and antisemitism has come to mean.

As for Melanie Phillips, I’d hoped to say hello to her after the broadcast was finished. But it became clear that the production team had no intention of allowing the witnesses to mingle with the regular panelists.

It was a shame, since I wanted to thank Melanie for her role in launching my original blog in 2011. I’d always read Melanie’s writing on Israel and promised myself that I should not write a single word for public consumption until I’d learnt how to address the muddle and confusion in a Melanie Phillips’ article.

The day I could was the day I hit the publish button. And now I have her endorsement quote too.



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