Harriet Sherwood and the political hysteria of the Guardian Left

I clearly remember an argument I had with a friend in 1999, after Rudy Giuliani, then mayor of New York City, threatened to cut off city funding to New York’s Brooklyn Museum of Art (which received $7 million a year from NYC’s taxpayers) over an exhibit, titled “Sensation,” which included a depiction of the Virgin Mary stained with elephant dung.

My friend not only argued that Giuliani was wrong in threatening to cut off funding to the museum which chose to display an exhibit so blatantly offensive to Christians, but that he was guilty of “censorship.”

Of course, as I tried in vain to convince my friend, while reasonable people could of course disagree with the wisdom of the mayor’s decision, the mere decision by a government authority to cut funding didn’t amount to censorship – as, even if the museum was forced to close the exhibit due to lack of funds, the “artist” was still free to display “Sensation” without fear that he would be arrested or his art confiscated.

Similarly, one of the more telling aspects of the row over recent criticism, by NGO Monitor and others, of New Israel Fund’s decision to provide grants to NGOs engaged in campaigns of delegitimization against Israel, was that NIF’s critics were engaging in “McCarthyism”  – which almost comically conflates serious, substantive criticism with the reckless, unsubstantiated, career-ending accusations of disloyalty which characterized the McCarthy era.

And, just a couple of weeks ago, an article I posted as my Facebook status update, which was highly critical of Noam Chomsky along with my own cheeky reflection that folks who may have once admired the “Linguist” may wish to consider unburdening their bookshelves of his volumes, elicited one comment by a friend to the effect of, “what about free speech?” – as if my recommendation that friends reconsider their respect for the totalitarian defending MIT academic was inconsistent with the spirit of free expression and the liberties afforded Americans by the First Amendment.

Harriet Sherwood’s piece in the Guardian (Israel’s ban on boycotts faces legal challenge from civil rights groups), as with Carlo Strenger’s CiF piece, which framed as “totalitarian” recent Israel legislation allowing for civil penalties against BDS activists, employs the kind of extreme, unrestrained rhetoric to characterize the bill which has become one of the defining rhetorical tricks of the anti-Israel Guardian Left.

In a straight news story, Sherwood not only fails to provide even a modicum of balance – as there isn’t even a perfunctory quote from one of the bill’s supporters to balance criticism from NGOs and others – but inserts the most hyperbolic characterizations which veers beyond the significance of the law itself to impute, to Israeli society, the very worst political mores, including one accusation that “Fascism at its worst is raging [in Israel].”

While the latter accusation was leveled by Ben Caspit, from the Israeli paper, Maariv, it would seem that the job of a journalist – or anyone, for that matter, commenting on political issues operating under the premise of serious thought – is to weed out such hyperbole, and to separate emotionally charged invectives from intellectually serious historical comparisons.  

As such, it is baffling how anyone who truly understands what the word fascism denotes can sincerely level such a charge.

While the wisdom of allowing for monetary rewards to Israeli companies or organizations injured by boycott activities is indeed debatable, the freedom of expression in Israel is not under assault.  As anti-hate speech laws in Europe testify to, placing narrow, and reasonable, restrictions on speech is not generally considered an assault on the broader liberty. 

In the world of anti-Israel journalism squatters legally evicted from land they don’t own aren’t merely individuals to which we should empathize, they are victims of Israeli “ethnic cleansing.  The bigoted comments of some rabbis aren’t merely offensive views to be condemned, they indicate a “rising tide of religious fascism” which undermines the “very soul of Judaism”.  Israel’s security fence isn’t simply a defensive measure by a state to protect its civilians from terrorist attacks which also has some unfortunate consequences for some Palestinians, it’s part of a systemic “apartheid” regime imposed by a callous, morally illegitimate state.

Agree or disagree with Israel’s new anti-BDS law, but the fact that Israel and her supporters even have to defend the state from charges that it’s descending into fascism or totalitarianism is further proof of the unseriousness and, often, pure malice, which increasing defines Israel’s critics.   

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