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Mary, not so contrary
While Mary Robinson falls foul of the new accepted definition of “anti-semitism” in America, in dear old Ireland a republican can joke about “the black ’n’ prams”.
Eamonn McCann, 12 May 2004
It’s official. Anybody who complains about the occupation of Palestine hates Jews.
Mary Robinson discovered this after accepting an invitation to address graduates at Emory University in the US. A college newspaper recalled that she had remarked in an interview that, “the root cause of the Arab-Israeli conflict is the occupation.”
Professor Kenneth Stein then announced he was “troubled by the apparent absence of due diligence on the part of decision makers who invited her to speak.” He explained that the remark exposed Ms. Robinson as an anti-semite: the university authorities ought to have known this, and recognised her unsuitability for speaking at an Emory graduation.
The notion that opposition to the occupation of Palestinian land can have no source other than race-hatred of Jews has been part of Israel’s propaganda arsenal for years. But it’s been a largely ineffectual weapon. It ignores history, contradicts logic and defies common sense. It has never entered mainstream discourse. Until now.
Robinson’s reaction to the slur was instructive. She is a former president of Ireland and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. To describe her as sharing the ideology of Nazism – the plain meaning of Stein’s charge – was surely beyond all tolerable limits. But she didn’t lash out angrily. She didn’t demand a retraction from Stein or that the university disown his remarks as her price for fulfilling the engagement. She didn’t sue or threaten to sue. Instead, as Bob Fisk wonderingly reported, she responded with “a pussy-cat’s whimper.”
She was “very hurt and dismayed,” she had told the Irish Times, and found it “distressing that allegations are being made that are completely unfounded.”
The mewling of a kitten, right enough. I wondered why. I never contributed to the gush of uncritical adulation of Robinson which emanated from the Irish liberal elite a few years back. But I always found her a feisty lady, and with a singularly well-developed sense of her own entitlement to respect. Why so coy and timid now, in the face of an ignorant libel from an obvious jackass?
The answer is to be found in the definitive American dictionary, Webster’s New International, where, in the latest edition, anti-semitism is rendered as: “opposition to Zionism: sympathy with opponents of the state of Israel.”
Fisk took the trouble to contact Webster’s official publicist, Arthur Bicknell, to ask him to account for this bizarre definition. Bicknell had a not-bad (well, at first hearing) explanation. The job of all good dictionaries was not automatically to embalm “correct” definitions but dynamically to keep pace with the language as it changed and interacted with life. “Our job is to accurately reflect English as it is actually being used. We don’t make judgement calls; we’re not political.”
Showing sympathy for the victims of the Zionist State was what “anti-semitism” had come generally to mean. It wasn’t a controversial matter that Webster’s had to make a judgment on. The Stein definition had become entitled to official recognition.
Robinson’s wheedling response may have arisen, then, not from any sudden dread of confrontation but from an understanding that if she’d held firm to her ground she wouldn’t have been taking on one academic with a twisted mind but the twisted mind-set of a mainstream consensus.
The most important factor in the development of this consensus emerged in a “Meet the Press” appearance by Democratic presidential contender John Kerry, which I happened to catch on satellite on April 24. A week previously, Bush had ditched the central element in long-standing US Middle Eastern policy by endorsing Ariel Sharon’s plan to remove 7,500 settlers from Gaza as “balance” for making permanent the presence of 150,000 settlers in the West Bank and annexing the stolen land they occupy to Israel proper. This leaves available to the Palestinian people around 10 percent of the land they inhabited prior to 1948. Sharon also decreed, with Bush’s approval, that Palestinian families driven from their homes in 1948 will never be allowed to return.
Asked whether he agreed with Bush’s backing for Sharon’s plan, Kerry answered with remarkable alacrity, not an instant’s hesitation: “Absolutely! Israel has a right to defend itself against terrorists.”
Both main parties have broken with the bi-partisan US policy followed since the presidency of Jimmy Carter. Now, as the battle for leadership of the US is joined, Israel’s right ethnically to cleanse the Palentinians from their land is not a matter for debate. It’s a given. Well might the word-meisters of Webster’s conclude that no political judgment is called for.
This is what Mary Robinson was up against. She can be half-forgiven her diffidence.
But the rest of us can hardly be forgiven if we fail to draw the obvious lessons. One is that no significant change for the Middle East will be achieved by Kerry beating Bush in November. The best we can hope from the poll is that Ralph Nader will do well enough to leave a stronger and more confident opposition behind to build for the future. To hitch our hopes to a Kerry victory would be to help kill hope in Palestine.
I was walking through Dublin with a Republican friend who has served more than a decade for armed struggle against oppression when we passed two black women pushing babies in prams. “Ah,” remarked my companion, “the black ’n’ prams!”
The seconds of stiff silence which followed drew admonishment, “Lighten up. It’s a joke.”
Discussion of the remark’s humour quotient led to insistence that, “Say what you like, the system’s being abused.” Not that my friend blamed the abuse on Nigerians, Romanians or anybody else taking advantage of the “loophole” created by the Belfast Agreement. “I admire them. If having a baby born in Dublin gives you EU residency rights, they’d be fools not to take the opportunity. But it’s ridiculous, too.”
If the “anomaly” wasn’t dealt with, racism would advance. No matter what way you looked at it, the extra births put greater strain on maternity services. Immigrants arriving here pregnant were bound to be blamed. It was common sense, not racism, to say that these facts must be faced.
A strain on maternity services? In his new pamphlet, “Citizenship and Racism,” Kieran Allen reminds us that one of the most striking changes in Irish society in recent decades has been the fall in the birth rate. There were 62,878 live births in 1951. The figure rose to a historic peak in 1981 – 72,158. Then began the great decline. No mystery about it: women began using contraceptives. By 1990, the live births figure had fallen to 53,044. It’s stayed fairly steady since. The most recent Central Statistics Office estimate is that, assuming continuing immigration at current levels and “high fertility” among the immigrant population, there’ll be around 63,000 live births annually between 2006 and 2011. Near enough, the 1951 figure. Nowhere near ’81.
Of course, there’s strain on the maternity services, and it may well get worse. The people to blame are the politicians who have presided over the funding of the service since the ’50s.
Every time you smile at a “black ’n’ prams’’ joke, you are helping make decent people who do us the honour of coming to our country pay for the continuing crimes of corrupt politicians.