Jenny Tonge, Israel and the bounds of “civil public discourse”.

Posted: March 2, 2012 in Current affairs

"Excuse me for speaking!"

The resignation of Liberal Democrat peer, Jenny Tonge  (28 February), over her recent remarks about the future of the Israeli state, comes in the wake of yet another “storm of controversy” that blows up every time a public figure offers any word of criticism about Israel’s conduct in the Middle East, however reasonable it might be. Apparently Tonge said that “Israel will not last forever”, which was then taken to mean that she was denying Israel’s right to exist.

Britain’s Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, said Tonge’s remarks were “dangerous, inflammatory and unacceptable…[and] have no place in civil public discourse”.

For the record, what she actually said was “Israel is not going to be there forever in its present form” [emphasis added], which in no way infers that it does not have the right to exist. She went on to argue that:

 “One day, the United States of America will get sick of giving £70bn a year to Israel to support what I call America’s aircraft carrier in the Middle East – that is Israel. One day, the American people are going to say to the Israel lobby in the USA: enough is enough. Israel will lose support and then they will reap what they have sown.”

Now, she may turn out to be right about that or she may not. But it is a reasonable argument nonetheless and I would think any “civil public discourse” worth its salt would be big enough to accommodate it without the need to launch a witchhunt to silence the messenger. But of course the public discourse Lord Sacks has in mind is really a narrow range of opinion and debate that is confined to the established political classes and internally policed by the political equivalent of attack dogs and bomb disposal units.

In the end, Tonge’s party leader, Nick Clegg, called on her to apologise but she stood by her remarks and resigned the party whip in the Lords. The dogs have been called back to heel, the controversy has been defused. As an independent peer, she can say anything she wants now and if it’s in any way controversial or offensive it won’t matter because then she will be speaking outside of the bounds of civil public discourse.

That’s British democracy for you but it won’t last forever, you know…in its present form.

  1. Mikey says:

    No-one wants to comment then? Why could it be, in a free and fair democracy that this page remains blank? What is there to fear in speaking out?

    Why is it that any citizen may think he can define what may or may not be discussed? Why should he have a controlling hand on the shoulders of any elected politician? What did the lady say that supports enemies real or imagined of anyone?

    Everyone of has the option of living here (or going somewhere where they really don’t let you speak out), because ordinary blokes like my uncle fought for their freedom to do so. Three cheers (or maybe two) for the House of Lords, and best of luck to Jenny Tonge.

    To those whom it concerns so much, try this: “The British Empire will not last forever. One day the support the UK has enjoyed from its former dominions will diminish and it will have to take a new place alongside other nations”. Same kind of historical statement; different names – who’s offended now? Not I: it happens that way.

    If you consider the process of history a dangerous fire, get youself a big ocean to pour.


    • Thanks for your comment Mikey!

      The Israel-Palestine conflict is one of the most tightly policed topics of public discussion in the West. I was going to use the word “debate” instead of “discussion” but that’s the nub of the problem: there is no debate. We can debate the problem of Islamic fundamentalism in England or sectarianism in the north of Ireland and be as critical or offensive as we like. But we can’t debate Israel’s conduct in the West Bank or its attacks on Gaza. We can have a go at the democratically elected Hamas regime in Gaza okay. But we dare not criticize Israel’s overwhelming military and political stranglehold over this tiny, densely populated and economically deprived part of the world.

      It’s all part of a broader democratic deficit in the West; an absence of real debate and a weak, ineffectual political class that is afraid to speak truth to corporate power. What we are witnessing in the west, then, is the death of democracy in its ideal sense, a stagnation of parliamentary politics and the rise of plutocracy.

      • Mikey says:

        Hello AA,

        The Israel / Palestine (alphabetic order, note) situation is an example of the kind of thing engineered by, among others, PC people. To use a few wide ranging metaphors, the person who has no will to fairly debate can play a number of trump cards – or you could see him as a fighter plane with a better rate of roll “refusing combat” with one less agile but better armed. “I am offended by you” is a common PC trump card, These days we also have PC Plod shouting “Calm down” at anyone who looks like challenging being stopped in the street – even if they have hardly spoken.

        This is an era where nobody wants the other side to deploy their arguments fully.

        There is so much I could say about Israel and Palestine, but it would be restating what has already been said so many times. Instead, I want to contrast two personal recollections:

        1. Benjamin Netanyahu raging at the Newsnight presenter that it was the cowardice of the UK not going to war in 1938 that was responsible for the deaths of 6 million Jews – 1938, when we had slow biplanes for defence and Hurricnes and Spitfires were not in the squadrons

        2. That impressive lady mayor of the West bank (forgive me, I can see her face and hear her voice, but not recall her name) smiling while she said that her people could even walk down one side of the street and leave the other side to “the other side” (my quotes) – but having her offer disdained

        It is quite possible to have so much sympathy over the Holocaust, yet be appalled by what has befallen the Palestinians, and this does not make one a demon who wants to slaughter women and children of any “side”. But it takes a certain maturity to comprehend this, and realise that change must come – dialogue, or conflict.

        Was that “good televison”, AA?


  2. Sorry for the delay replying Mikey – I’ve been away on holiday…or offline as they say. I prefer holiday, myself.

    I’m not sure this has anything to do with political correctness; more like propaganda and censorship. In fact it’s got to a point in the Israel-Palestine “story” where self-censorship is the norm, a self-censorship borne of fear or deeply embedded cultural assumptions about what is one of the longest-running conflicts in modern history. Every rational being, including politicians and journalists, knows that this is a very asymmetrical conflict in which one side has all the political capital while the other side has none worth talking about. The solution rests firmly with the Israeli state but so long as the West underwrites its intransigence and maintains current levels of military and economic subvention, what reason on earth has Israel to change its attitude? And as long as western politicians and journalists maintain the fiction that it’s some kind of level-paying field that demands concessions from both sides, the stalemate continues because the Palestinians have little or nothing to give in return for the just solution they seek: an independent, viable state of their own. The one the western powers took away from them in 1948.

    • Mikey says:

      Hello AA,

      Self censorship is the nastiest, because it arises from exactly from this hijacking of the entire agenda that you have described. A few years back I ran first into the wall of condemnation that the pro Israel web sites put up whenever there is a breath of criticism – in fact, I’m surprised they haven’t parachuted into this discussion; perhaps it would be too counterproductive.

      PC does impinge on this because a lot of people beleive that even mention of certain topics (race, religion, gender, sexuality) brings about this same kind of organised condemnation. At this stage, I think it is for advocates of what PC originally may have stood for (which I believe may have amounted more to sticking up for those who had suffered than bashing people who were not necessarily the oppressors, but may have looked like them) to explain excactly what this politico-social philosophy stands for, rather than against. But I won’t lose sleep if they cannot be bothered.

      Anyway, I agree with the rest of your analysis, and it’s hard to see how it can all end with more than a few survivors of one side only in residence. Perhaps (paradox of paradoxes) we may even see a New Exodus before the last act (I have avoided another cliche, there).


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