I recently responded to a Facebook discussion about protests against Israel’s military action in Gaza, and boycotting Israeli products. The discussion was based around a rather unpleasant Spectator article by a journalist called Douglas Murray, who seems to be in the game of producing deliberately provocative, ill-founded polemical articles designed to sell more copies of the paper. Here he was commenting on protests outside shops selling Israeli goods, and included a link to a video of a demonstrator who was recorded praising Hitler. His condemnation of the ignorant young man in the video is fully justified, but, in a sloppily-researched article, he tars all anti-Israel protest with the same brush, saying

“barely a week now passes without some further denigration caused by anti-Semitic, sorry, pro-Palestine demonstrators targeting businesses run by Jews/stores selling products produced by the Jewish state. You know, like Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Marks and Spencer, Starbucks and so on. Most of this fairly random targeting of whatever business sounds a bit Jewish goes unnoticed. Sometimes protestors manage to get the business closed – as with the Ahava store in liberal, enlightened Brighton. Generally they just succeed in intimidating shoppers and making it easier for people to shop elsewhere in some non-Semitic store.”

(The fact that the Ahava shop was actually in London is the least worrying inaccuracy in the piece; but I am not here to nit-pick).

The comments following the blog piece featured the sort of pseudonyms or approximations to names that seem to be permitted on most public blogs these days, such as “The_Missing_Think” and “sarah_13”, giving anonymity to their authors and making the “discussion” more like just a collection of unpleasant and pointless electronic graffiti. Naturally the Facebook discussion, whose participants were not hiding behind such anonymity (there seems to be a requirement on Facebook to use things that at least look like names, although of course they still might not be real names) was a lot more polite and grown-up. It ended up, after a few exchanges, as a discussion between myself and another correspondent who was clearly pro-Israel. His main argument was that since there are a lot of unpleasant governments in the world but only one being targeted with a boycott, the targetting of Israel amounts to anti-semitism.

Now, the question of where to direct one’s energies in a wicked world has always been a problem for me. Sometimes it seems the only thing one can do is ignore it all and resort to escapism. Ah, but then along comes Edmund Burke, reminding us that the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”. Mind you, boycotting companies is fairly easy, especially if, like me, you don’t spend much and rarely visit town centres. If someone were to give me a list of companies to boycott and why, I would happily do it if I felt the cause was justified. At the moment I am not actively boycotting anyone, except perhaps for Tesco – mainly because of what they have done to small shops, although I probably wouldn’t want to go there even without that reason.

Although it might sound like one is unfairly singling out one issue from the many that deserve attention, I rationalise my so-far theoretical support of the “boycott Israel” campaign by accepting that the Palestine Solidarity Campaign has done the necessary homework, and if, for example, the Ukraine Solidarity Campaign (which may or may not exist) were to produce similar data on Russian products to boycott, I’d happily go along with that too.

There are, nevertheless, various reasons why what is happening in Palestine might be of more interest to people in this country than events in other troubled parts of the world; chiefly of course the fact that Palestine was under the British mandate when Israel was set up (although they eventually passed the buck to the UN) and because of that, there are likely to be familial links stemming from that time (e.g. my late uncle was stationed in the Middle East during WW2) and unfortunately there are also more recent connections, in that British companies sell arms to the Israelis – including a factory near my home which makes parts for missiles that have been identified in attacks on Palestinians.

What is more interesting for me, though, is my correspondent’s interpretation of protests against the actions of the Israeli government as “anti-semitism”. There are two issues here. First, it is surely wrong to say that acts committed by a body such as the Israeli Defence Force can be associated with a country – in other words, with every single citizen of that country – rather than with its government. Of course, politicians are always trying to conflate the two – to convince us, for instance, that it was Britain, together with the USA, which invaded Iraq in 2003, rather than the armies of those countries, under the direction of their governments. (Since we know, from the atrocities that came to light, that armies do not always act in accordance with their remit, the former distinction is also valid; to say nothing of the fact that individual soldiers, or small groups, can and do commit acts of brutality which go far beyond their army’s remit).

But even if one were to assume for now that the Israeli army was acting with the approval of every Israeli citizen, how could a criticism of its actions amount to anti-semitism? An anti-semite, according to my dictionary, is a person who persecutes or discriminates against Jews, and that in turn means behaving in a certain way because they are a Jew. There is nothing wrong with my hating a Jewish person because they have run off with my wife, stolen my wallet or concreted over my favourite park. If, on the other hand, my wallet is stolen and I suspect a Jewish person to have stolen it merely because they are Jewish, then I am guilty of discrimination. So, if a Jewish person comes up to me, identifies him or herself as the President of Israel, and informs me that he or she is reponsible for ordering the recent attacks on Palestinians in Gaza, I can surely justifiably criticise that person if I think his or her actions are unjustified and disproportionate, without being charged with anti-semitism. In fact, singling out a particular country’s government for criticism might even indicate that one cared more, rather than less, for that country and its people than those of other places where similarly horrible things are happening.

But there is a further issue lurking here, and it is the one that interests me most, because I suspect that it may be at the heart of this problem. What exactly is Jewishness?

I think if you went out into the street and asked random people that question, most would say that Jewishness was a racial characteristic. After all, the Jews were persecuted and almost exterminated by the Nazis as part of their programme of building a “master race”. But of course most of us realise that there is also a religious dimension – Jews practise the religion of Judaism. In common parlance, I think “Jewish” can probably mean either of these; the dictionary is not clear, as it offers two definitions, one racial and one religious. Which of these is the more important? As someone who has never had any religious beliefs, and has never considered himself to be a member of any race other than the human race, this question genuinely intrigues me.

Does it matter though? Discrimination and persecution are, after all, unacceptable whichever of these (or many other) attributes they are based on. Even so, I am unhappy with giving them equal status. As Polly Toynbee pointed out several years ago in the Guardian, race is something you have no choice over, whereas religion is something you choose; so I feel a little more free to criticise someone on the basis of religion than on the basis of race. As an example, if someone were carrying out what I regarded as an unacceptably cruel slaughter of an animal, and explained that it was because of their religion (and I’m not thinking of any particular religion here, as several religions demand the slaughter of animals in a particular way), I think I would be justified in criticising that practice, but not if it was in some way connected with the person’s racial origin  (though admittedly it is difficult to think of any such practice I might conceivably object to). The religious person would quite probably respond to my criticism by saying they were “offended” by it, but I would (hopefully) stand my ground, as I do think that in choosing a religion one tacitly signs up to all its more gruesome practices too.

When my Facebook correspondent stated that Israel was “a Jewish country”, which one of these types of Jewishness did he mean? I asked him, but got no answer. Often, on blogs and Facebook, if you don’t get in quick, you find people have got bored or gone away or turned their attention to one of the other dozen interesting discussions going on at that time, so I was not surprised to see no response. But I think my question was being actively ignored – as indeed had a similar question on the original blog, though to be honest, in that case both the questioner and the respondent were being equally strident and uncooperative. I guess this debate is not one where one often encounters polite, measured argument.

My attempts to find an answer from on-line resources suggested that Israeli citizenship might depend on both factors, but that religion was probably the main one. And this is important to me, because I simply don’t think it is acceptable to have a state based on race in the 21st century – although to be honest, having a state based on religion is almost as bad.

To be sure, many of the old countries that exist today (i.e. those that weren’t simply invented a few decades ago by imperial powers) evolved out of racially and religiously homogeneous communities, but have since transcended those crude beginnings. Israel is a relatively new country; one might hope that it could have been based on loftier ideals than race or religion.

But hang on a bit – there’s an elephant in the room here, and I am going to be accused of being disingenuous if I continue to ignore it. The elephant is the Holocaust. Of course Israel was created in the aftermath of the organised slaughter of Jews and it is understandable, not only that the Jews wanted a homeland, but that the international community, some members of which may not have been too quick to act when the horror started, wanted to give them one. Indeed it had already been promised, of course, in the Balfour Declaration.

However, we also know that decisions made in the heat of the moment are not always the best ones. Surely the anti-semitism – which did not stop with the revelations about the death camps – should have been dealt with at source? And isn’t encouraging Jewish people to emigrate to a new homeland dangerously close to what the Nazis originally pretended they were going to do, and some more moderate elements of the NSDAP might have actually advocated – viz. sending them off to some “homeland” far away?

In the 1990s we learnt a new term for this practice of cordoning off different groups of people geographically: ethnic cleansing. I used to wish the media and politicians would refuse to utter such a vile phrase, since its use surely only helped to give the practice itself some sort of legitimacy. Surprisingly, Michael Ignatieff, in his 1993 book Blood and Belonging (whose title I have borrowed for this blog piece), does use it himself, although he also uses the somewhat more neutral terms ethnic cantonment and ethnic apartheid.

Ignatieff’s book describes six journeys he made to various troubled places around the world where he could “see nationalism in as many of its guises as possible”. A self-proclaimed cosmopolitan (his parents were from Russia and England; he was born in Canada and educated in the USA, and has worked in Canada, Britain and France), he wanted to find out what exactly nationalism is, and why it prospers in these places. It was a personal journey: many of his destinations were places with which he had already had some association. He didn’t go to Israel, but he did visit the former Yugoslavia, where he lived for some time as a small child, and where “ethnic cleansing” was invented four decades later.

Ignatieff reminds us that the “ancient hatreds” that were supposed to have provoked the conflict in that region, and were thus deemed insoluble, because they were ancient, were a fiction: before the second world war there had been no such troubles, and then, as in the 1990s, nationalist paranoia only took hold after being whipped up by extremists. These warlords, Ignatieff says, offered not just protection from the “other side” but a solution: “if we cannot trust our neighbours, we must rid ourselves of them. If we cannot live together in a single state, we must create clean states of our own … rid yourself of your neighbours, the warlord says, and you no longer have to fear them.”

Ignatieff describes the difference between such countries and those of Western Europe in terms of two distinct types of nationalism, “civic” and “ethnic”. This crude model can be refined in various ways, including examining the different meanings of the word “ethnic”, as well as the distinction between “nation” and “state”. These matters are dealt with more thoroughly in David Miller’s 1995 book On Nationality. I will have more to say about this in my next blog piece in this series.