Stephen Pollard, on his Spectator blog, cites an interesting case of "idle and gratuitous mindreading" in a BBC correspondent's analysis of how Tony Blair will be perceived in his new role. The technique is clearly standard among the corporation's journalists: this is from a profile of the new Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, by the BBC World Affairs correspondent Paul Reynolds:
David Miliband's Jewish background will be noted particularly in the Middle East.
Israel will welcome this - but equally it allows him the freedom to criticise Israel, as he has done, without being accused of anti-Semitism.
I find this an extraordinary remark. Reynolds is an experienced correspondent, yet I can't begin to work out what he means. Surely he can't be saying that Israel regards it as relevant to its diplomatic goals whether the foreign minister of a particular democracy is a Jew. If that premise is what Reynolds is insinuating, then the least you can say is that he's plainly wrong. I have had the good fortune to speak in recent years to some of the most senior figures in Israeli politics and diplomacy, and I have never heard such a suggestion, even by implication, from any of them.
Perhaps they just determine on keeping it from me - but even then, such an aim would make no sense. Has Reynolds never heard of, say, Bruno Kreisky, Chancellor of Austria from 1970 to 1983? Kreisky, who died in 1990, was the most ferociously anti-Israel politician to lead any Western democracy since the founding of the Jewish state. Nor did he confine his invective to Israel. In a notorious statement to an Israeli interviewer, Zeev Barth, and reported in Der Spiegel on 17 November 1975, Kreisky described the Jews - not "the Zionists", or some similar equivocation - as "a wretched people" (ein mieses Volk). Kreisky was, of course, a Jew. I know of no evidence that a statesman’s being Jewish – not only incendiary figures such as Kreisky but also urbane politicians such as Sir Malcolm Rifkind - is any predictor of his views on foreign policy. Nor, I surmise, does Reynolds. Nor, I further surmise, does Reynolds have any evidence that Israeli statesmen believe there is. If he does, and he happens to be reading this, I'll be glad to acknowledge my error; but I'm sure he's making it up.
The problem with the sort of unsubstantiated and implausible notion that Reynolds has trailed here is that you don’t have to take it much further before you get into dangerous territory. Why might a Foreign Secretary of Jewish background be expected to favour Israel, not just historically and emotionally, but in current diplomatic disputes? The answer is, of course, that he might if he has some sort of “dual loyalty” – to Israel as well as to the UK. You don't need me to explain why that's an illegitimate and pernicious charge to make in political debate, against anyone. It’s an accusation about someone’s mental states and as such is unfalsifiable; it is thereby not a criticism but always and in all cases a slur. (A few years ago the writer Will Self, on an edition of BBC's Question Time, exemplified this technique by demanding of Melanie Phillips whom she would support if Great Britain were at war with Israel. I have, incidentally, an objection on similar grounds to the charge that someone – say, Norman Finkelstein or Noam Chomsky – is a “self-hating Jew”, and I never use the term.)
I’m certain Reynolds doesn’t have this in mind – I just don’t think he’s examined what he’s saying. I’m none too convinced, either, by his suggestion that mere critics of Israel run a routine danger of being castigated as antisemitic. Some fringe elements do level that charge indiscriminately (and I do mean indiscriminately; this bunch of far-right nutters has me on its list). The notion that this is a standard part of the political debate that a Foreign Secretary would occupy himself with is – again, unless Reynolds can adduce evidence to the contrary - frankly risible.
The question of the Miliband brothers’ Jewish antecedents is interesting in itself, without trying to draw inferences from them about views on foreign policy. Their father, the late Marxist theorist Ralph Miliband, is a man for whom I have a certain intellectual respect leavened with real contempt. See, most particularly, his essay for the annual Socialist Register in 1980 entitled “Military Intervention and Socialist Internationalism” - anticipating an issue that has much exercised the Left more recently.
Miliband argues: “In socialist terms, the overthrow of a regime from outside, by military intervention, and without any measure of popular involvement, must always be an exceedingly doubtful enterprise, of the very last resort.”
You might think, with the failures of our intervention in Iraq in mind, that he’s stating a mere truism. But if you read the essay, you’ll see that he’s not. The examples he has in mind, and discusses at length, are the then recent military interventions by Tanzania to overthrow Idi Amin in Uganda and by Vietnam to overthrow the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia. Miliband considers them alongside the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, which he objects to on the grounds that it “has obviously provided a very powerful reinforcement to the worst reactionaries in the Western camp”. You have to believe me – and you can check if you don’t – that he treats the overthrow of Pol Pot as analogously objectionable:
No doubt, a pliant regime now exists in Phnom Penh. But it lacks legitimacy and requires the support of a Vietnamese army of occupation. The enterprise has reinforced secular suspicions of Vietnamese designs upon Kampuchea. Like the Russians in Afghanistan, the Vietnamese have been drawn into a permanent struggle with Kampuchean guerillas, with the usual accompaniment of repression and the killing of innocent civilians. The invasion has also weakened Vietnam's international position, and strengthened reactionary forces in the region and beyond. Here too, it does not seem unreasonable to ask 'What kind of security is this?'
A few years ago a highly sympathetic biography entitled Ralph Miliband and the Politics of the New Left, 2002, rose and fell without trace (despite Tony Benn's prediction in the foreword that it would "help a whole new generation of socialists to appreciate the unique role that Ralph played in the progressive politics of the period"). Even the author, Professor Michael Newman of London Metropolitan University, conceded (p. 294) that Miliband's essay "was flawed because it understated the atrocities of the Pol Pot regime and the justification for intervention following its crimes against humanity." And to be fair to him, Newman - daintily but not evasively - identifies the intellectual origins of that "flawed" position (p. 318, n. 124):
... Miliband's judgement in aligning his position so closely to that of Chomsky appears questionable. Without any real expertise on the area, he had understated the enormity of the crimes and endorsed a particular interpretation which appeared to minimise the responsibility of the Pol Pot regime itself. It is not entirely clear why he took this position, but three factors were probably particularly important. The first was the depth of his condemnation of American policy in Indochina: having opposed the war against Vietnam so bitterly, he may have had a predisposition to hold the US responsible for all the crimes in the region. Secondly, there was the perennial problem that the Right was exploiting the crimes of the Khymer [sic] Rouge regime as part of its general anti-communist propaganda and he was probably reacting against this. And, thirdly, he was trying to develop a general theoretical argument against socialist regimes intervening in the way that the Vietnamese had done and his case would have become more difficult to sustain had he accepted that the [sic] Pol Pot had carried out crimes against humanity on a massive scale.
Amazingly enough, Newman goes on to say that (his emphasis) "Miliband's general points [in his essay] were important and have considerable relevance for the post-Cold War interventions by Nato". In my view, a general argument whose practical application involves denying the atrocities of the worst regime since the Third Reich can reasonably be dismissed out of hand. (Recalling this episode, I read with complacence an accusation from the same Noam Chomsky, a quarter-century later, concerning my "standard reaction of tacit acquiescence to horrendous crimes". The stars will burn out and the heavens implode before I manage to match the Professor's own accomplishments in that field.)
But I digress, a long way. This is a post about the Milibands and the Jews. And I am indebted to Newman's biography in that respect, because he does indicate that the late Ralph Miliband took a position on the Middle East that, while not much better informed than his views on Indochina, was incomparably more thoughtful. Writing in May 1967 to the American Marxist Leo Huberman, Miliband set out his views on what was clearly coming, and that came to be known as the Six-Day War. In effect he uses socialist categories to reason himself into a statement of the obvious (pp. 130-31 of Newman's biography):
[T]here would, from a socialist point of view, be a real problem here if it could be shown that Israel, for all its imperialist or rather Western-oriented commitments, was a genuine obstacle to socialist Arab revolutions, in Egypt or anywhere else. But this is nonsense. On the contrary, Israel is an excuse which most of these regimes use for not pushing further their revolutions. It is a bad excuse.
Naturally, I have asked myself many a time whether my views are influenced or shaped by the fact that I am Jewish. One cannot tell, though I would hope that even if I were not, I would still think that the liquidation of two million people, a large number of which are survivors from the camps, would be an appalling catastrophe. And certainly, being Jewish does not mean that one must, to prove one's socialist bona fides, be Nasserite à outrance [to the utmost].
I find this, once you make allowance for Miliband's political premises, not only admirable but also moving. In Miliband's mind's eye must have been the fate of those Jews who, unlike him and his father, had failed to escape from occupied Europe in 1940. I can't imagine - I don't know - how such statements would be received if they were, say, declaimed from the platform of a Respect party rally today. But for all their honesty, they are sentiments of no practical significance in forecasting the views of Ralph Miliband's son as Labour's Foreign Secretary. Of course no British government will be sympathetic to bellicose threats against Israel, and any government will rightly seek in that region a pacific two-state territorial settlement. There is a risk that Gordon Brown's government will not perceive fully, as Tony Blair undoubtedly did, the threats that Israel contends with, or understand that security is a prerequisite - not an outcome - of a lasting peace settlement. We can only judge that in practice.
I'm sorry to have taken 1,800 words and various diversions to say this, but David Miliband's antecedents give us no clue whatsoever to his stance as Foreign Secretary.