Daily Mail columnist Melanie Phillips' awakening as to what it means to be a Jew today in England during an appearance as a panelist on the BBC's current affairs program Question Time. An Israeli professor in the audience questioned the double standard according to which America can track down terrorists have way around the world while Israel is criticized for doing the same with respect to terrorists on its own backdoor.
Phillips followed up by noting that the world still evinces some sympathy when Israel children are killed, but none when Israel acts to prevent its children from being murdered. The audience hissed.
A little later in the show, fellow panelist, Will Self asked Phillips archly, "If Britain declared war on Israel, where would your sympathies lie?" With that he wanted the audience to know something not immediately obvious from Phillips' name - i.e., she is Jewish. And more importantly, that anything she says can be safely disregarded since Jews can never really be loyal citizens of any country.
When Phillips replied to Self's question that it is inconceivable that Britain would ever attack the only viable democracy in the Middle East, the audience laughed derisively at her description of Israel as a democracy. With that the penny dropped for Phillips: To defend the state of Israel in England today is to mark oneself as not really British.
Nor was that the end of Phillips education. More than a year later, she was a panelist on a BBC radio program. Her fellow panelist was veteran left-wing rabble-rouser Tariq Ali, who delivered his standard stump speech about George W. Bush being a greater threat to world peace than Saddam Hussein. The real rogue state with nuclear weapons that needed dealing with in the Middle East, he charged, was not Iraq, but Israel. And the audience erupted in applause and cheering, even though this particular broadcast was taking place in the heartland of Conservative Britain - Wokingham, Berkfordshire.
Of these experiences, Phillips would write later, "I no longer feel comfortable in my own country because of the poison that has welled up toward Israel and the Jews. . . . It is not an exaggeration to say that, in Britain at present, it is open season on both Israel and the Jews."
I have no trouble crediting Phillips' account of her BBC appearances, for on a recent visit to England I too happened to catch Question Time. Though I'm not British, and even though I was safely ensconced in a friend's study, not on the panel in front of a hissing and jeering audience, I too experienced a great sense of unease. The subject that night was the letter of 52 British diplomats lambasting Prime Minister Tony Blair for his support of American policy vis-à-vis Iraq and Israel.
There was not one member of the panel who could be remotely described as a defender of Israel, and there was one skilled panelist, billed as an American Moslem scholar, eager to dig in the knife at every opportunity. Not that much skill was required. The criticism of Israel was more on the order of cheerleading than intellectual argument. To get the audience going nothing more was needed than to mention Israel. (To be honest, many of the panelists did the same with Tony Blair.) It was like watching Tommy Lapid rail against charedim at a Shinui rally.
Mindless Leftism, on the level of Tariq Ali, seemed pretty much the common denominator, and I wondered at the education system that had produced this mostly young audience.
What makes the situation in Britain so much worse than that in the United States, where a similar Leftism is largely regnant on many elite university campuses, is the lack of any intellectual counterweight. Many of the most widely read and respected columnists in America are consistently strong defenders of Israel: George Will, Charles Krauthamer, Martin Peretz, Victor Davis Hanson, Jeff Jacoby. By contrast, in England only Phillips, Michael Gove in the Times, and Barbara Amiel in the Telegraph can be reliably counted on to fill that role, and Amiel has been largely discredited by the travails of her husband Conrad Black.
In the United States, the conservative think tanks, such as the American Enterprise Institute, Heritage Foundation, and the Hudson Institute, provide an intellectual ballast to the universities. As a consequence of those think tanks, and of such neo-conservative journals as Commentary and Public Interest, the intellectual ferment for the past quarter century in America has been on the Right.
The Left, on the other hand, has shown no inclination to move beyond the received verities of the New Deal. One measure of the intellectual rigor mortis on most of the Left is the total inability to rethink the world in the wake of 9/11. In the 2002 elections, the Democrats main issue was prescription drugs for seniors, just as it had been in 2000.
Neocon thought, of course, views Israel as a crucial bastion of the defense of Western values. But the neo-liberal The New Republic is hardly less supportive of Israel's war on terrorism. There is simply no equivalent in England to these influential journals, nor to the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal.
At the popular level, as well, there are many forces in America that provide important support for Israel that simply have no parallel in England. One of those is the tens of millions of evangelical Christians, who are Israel's most fervent supporters in the United States, and who wield enormous influence within the Republican Party. A second factor is the existence of talk radio, which is dominated by conservative and mainly pro-Israel voices.
Both Melanie Phillips and Michael Gove told me that they cannot, in the current intellectual climate, find British publishers for their latest book proposals: in Gove's case an argument for a more faithful neoconservative approach to the war in Iraq and in Phillips' a plea for common sense in education, family life, defense of Western values and Israel.
The absolute monopoly of British intellectual life by the mandarins of the BBC and leftish dons should be a cause of concern not only for Israel but for every British Jew.