The Orwellian defenestration of David Ward
It was inevitable that antisemitism smears would be deployed against supporters of Palestine at some point during #GE17. Even so it was a surprise to hear Tim Farron, Liberal Democrat party leader, cornered by pro-Israel lobbyist Eric Pickles in the House of Commons on Wednesday, appeasing the witch hunters by declaring that one of his own parliamentary candidates would be banned from standing.
The language used to denounce David Ward, former Lib Dem MP for Bradford East, as in so many of the cases we have seen in the Labour Party, the National Union of Students and elsewhere, takes us deep into Orwellian territory.
While Ward could probably sue the Jewish News for calling him “the Israel-hating, Jew-baiting former MP David Ward”, other media have been less hysterical but equally dishonest.
What had Ward actually written on his Twitter feed in July that year?
“Am I wrong or are am I right? At long last the Zionists are losing the battle – how long can the apartheid State of Israel last?”
It must be clear to all but the most partisan that Ward is talking here about the continuation of apartheid, not of Israel itself. It may be controversial to refer to Israel as an apartheid state, and it makes some people very cross, but it is decidedly not an expression of hatred of Jews.
Further yet, taking into account the legal opinion of Hugh Tomlinson QC on the definition of antisemitism adopted last December by Theresa May’s government, if Ward had in fact questioned the “continuing existence” of the state of Israel, that in itself could not be used to prove his antisemitism, since he has expressed no hostility to Jews as Jews.
This view has received a ringing endorsement in the pages of the London Review of Books from former Lord Justice of Appeal Sir Stephen Sedley (who happens to be Jewish). Sedley wrote that the inadequacies of the definition so ardently embraced by Pickles and May allow “perceptions of Jews which fall short of expressions of racial hostility to be stigmatised as anti-Semitic.”
The Lib Dem’s Farron said at a rally in St Albans on Wednesday that he found comments David Ward has made in the past “deeply offensive, wrong and antisemitic.”
So what has Ward said, apart from talking about apartheid Israel, that Farron might think fits this description?
According to LBC, “Mr Ward also caused controversy in 2013 when he wrote on his blog accusing ‘the Jews’ of atrocities against Palestinians. He was condemned by politicians, Jewish groups and Shoah survivors when he equated Jewish suffering in the Holocaust with Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.”
This is another example of Orwellian word games. What Ward actually said on his website – and credit is due to the Spectator for taking the trouble to quote him in full – was that he was “saddened that the Jews, who suffered unbelievable levels of persecution during the Holocaust, could within a few years of liberation from the death camps, be inflicting atrocities on Palestinians in the new State of Israel and continue to do so on a daily basis in the West Bank and Gaza.”
This is not “equating” Jewish suffering with Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, it is lamenting the fact that one has followed historically upon the other. It is not “accusing” the Jews of atrocities, it is regretting that those who have suffered injustice in the past are now inflicting it on others.
I have, in discussions about the Middle East where my Jewish heritage comes up, heard countless questions worded almost identically to David Ward’s statement. It is an almost constant refrain – “How is it possible that people who have suffered so much can cause so much suffering to others?”
I recognise these questions for what they are – expressions of sincere concern and bafflement at a seemingly inexplicable state of affairs. They are based on the understandable misapprehension that the Israeli state, which calls itself “the Jewish state”, represents all Jews. They usually lead to productive discussions about the history of Israel and Palestine, offering me the opportunity to explain that – despite the claims made by and on behalf of state of Israel – very many of us do not identify with Israel and resent the erroneous assumption that we all share its ideology.
Ward would have done better to avoid using the problematic pair of words “the” and “Jews”. As Oxford philosopher Brian Klug has explained, a negative stereotype of “the Jew” is at the heart of antisemitism, projecting an illusory malign and mysteriously powerful figure onto individual Jews and Jewish organisations.
Ward apologised as soon as he realised how his words might be misread. After being dumped by Farron, he offered a creditable account of himself on his Facebook page, indicating that he well understands what antisemitism truly is and realises that generalisations about all Jews are unacceptable.
But he is hardly alone in making unwarranted generalisations. They come most often from people claiming to speak for “the Jewish community” as if this was an undifferentiated mass with no individual opinions. Now that is antisemitic!
If people making comments like David Ward’s express any hostility to Jewish people or give any hint of harbouring hateful feelings against us, I have no hesitation in chastising them for their antisemitism. But there is nothing in Ward’s comments of themselves that even hints at hatred of Jews – and this, as Sir Stephen Sedley reminds us, is what antisemitism is.
I have written to Tim Farron asking him to explain why he has departed from Nick Clegg’s view in 2013 that what David Ward said then was neither racist or antisemitic.
Maybe part of the answer lies with the extreme Zionist Campaign Against Antisemitism, which claimed that it had “worked with outraged Liberal Democrats to raise the issue with Mr Farron when news of Mr Ward’s selection broke.”
The CAA continued gleefully:
“The knockout blow was delivered by Sir Eric Pickles and the Prime Minister during Prime Minister’s Questions. Sir Eric praised the Prime Minister for adopting the International Definition of Antisemitism on behalf of the government, and asked whether she felt that all parties should “not just pay lip service to it, but to actually do something about it”, before attacking Mr Ward’s views.”
Farron obligingly caved in.
I will await with interest the Lib Dem leader’s response to my personal letter, which concluded:
“We are on dangerous ground when we allow proponents of a partisan political (in this case pro-Israeli) stance to determine what may and may not be spoken about. Freedom of expression is seriously at risk here and you, as a Liberal Democrat, should be defending it, not conniving in its demise.”