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Do we have a demagogue as minister of justice?

Now that the Lib Dems are back in opposition, it is worth reflecting on how the Conservatives are likely to act without their restraining hand. That hand will be sorely missed – and even sooner than we think.

Alarm bells should already be ringing because of the appointment of Michael Gove as Minister of Justice, apparently entrusted with the task of repealing the Human Rights Act. We know what to expect from him on matters concerning the Middle East, because he has never made any secret of his views. Consider the article he published in The Times on 11 September 2001 – hours before the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. Ten years later, Tim Montgomerie dignified it by republishing it on Conservative Home. The context was the debate at the UN over the recognition of Palestine, which it is safe to say Montgomerie opposed. Gove’s article contains this odious little paragraph:

“Arab nations, such as Arafat’s, Assad’s and Saddam’s, are tyrannies which need an external enemy to blame for the woes of an oppressed people. Israel is that enemy, as the Jews were for Hitler. It does not matter how much land Israel cedes, or how many settlements are removed to make the West Bank satisfactorily Judenfrei for Chairman Arafat. These tyrannies will still need their enemy. And so the campaign of terror against Israel will continue as long as their tyranny does.”

Gove lumps these three Arab leaders together – as well as “Arab nations” generally – without any shade of nuance. He insinuates that Arab hostility to Israel is caused by the “need” of “Arab tyrants” for an external enemy to divert the attention of the people they oppress from “woes” at home. There is a half truth here, because of the way in which certain Arab tyrants (e.g. Saddam) have exploited the Palestinian issue on occasion, but in Palestine (and Syria) hostility to Israel has surely always been a reaction to Israel’s refusal to recognise the rights of others and the threat it has posed to them, to say nothing of its cupidity. His article lacks any hint of an admission that the Palestinians living under occupation were systematically oppressed by Israel in a way that many (including the present writer) would argue constitutes apartheid for the purposes of international law.

Instead of seeking to understand the Al-Aqsa Intifada which was raging at the time he wrote his article (and, yes, it did include unspeakable terror attacks against Israeli civilians which led to the Israeli peace camp melting away), Gove plays the demagogue by attributing Nazi ideology to Arafat (“make the West Bank satisfactorily Judenfrei for Chairman Arafat”). This is outrageous, but let us take in the logical implications of Gove’s words. Would he accept that Palestinians who only use peaceful means in their struggle to remove the illegal Jewish settlements should be respected as fighters for peace with justice? His use of the word Judenfrei implicitly categorises them, as well as Arafat, as followers of Hitler and Goebbels.

In 2006, Gove published his book, Celsius 7/7 which contains, among other things, a more extended discussion of his views on Israel and Palestine. Like his 2001 article, it repays a visit. The superficiality of the knowledge he displays in the book contrasts with the opinionated certainty of his views. On p. 23, he seems to think that Afghanistan is part of the Arab World. There is a slipperiness in his writing which makes it hard to engage in serious debate with him. What on Earth is he implying when he refers on p. 17 to the Sykes-Picot partition as the “perceived division of the Middle East between France, Britain and their clients”? What is the significance of the word “perceived”? Is he suggesting that Sykes-Picot did not carve up the former Ottoman provinces, and that the idea that it did so was illusion rather than reality? He does not explain what he means. Perhaps he does not know himself.

Does Gove suffer from paranoia? For him, everything comes down to a strange pathology: grievances against Israel, America or “the West” can be explained to his satisfaction as the reflection of a weird form of self-hatred that is rampant in the intelligentsia of Western countries, especially among those who work in the media and academia. This self-hatred expresses itself in a moral relativism “that has prevented a defence of our culture being mounted with the necessary self-confidence and vigour” (p. 114).

Gove does not engage with truths that, for him, might be inconvenient. To do so would be pandering to this mysterious self-hatred. Instead, he digresses to castigate other targets such as the EU, the Northern Ireland peace process, and the Human Rights Act. He also indulges in some quaint writing as when, on p. 137, he attacks “the dogged refusal of too many in the legal establishment to put the defence of our civilisation ahead of the defence of the traditions with which their profession has grown comfortable” (whatever that may mean).

Identification with the Palestinian cause is no more than an opportunity to show contempt for bourgeois values (p. 72). It is

“the contemporary rallying point for the dominant radical impulse of our time- anti-Westernism. And attachment to the Palestinian cause is an emotionally satisfying and morally exalted way of attacking Israel – the country that is the West’s front line, the state that embodies Western values in a region and at a time when they are under particularly vicious assault” (pp. 69-70).

Far from speaking with the “moral clarity” he claims, Gove has lost his moral compass. Nowhere does he acknowledge that for decades Israel has been illegally colonising the land that, in the view of most members of the UN, now constitutes the State of Palestine, and has been denying its people their inalienable right of self-determination.

Another salient feature of Celsius 7/7 is the author’s rank hypocrisy over the use of comparisons involving the Nazis and the Holocaust to denigrate those who hold opposing views. We have already looked at one egregious example in his 11 September 2001 article, but such comparisons almost constitute a leitmotiv of the book. This does not stop him castigating Ken Livingston for having “an unhappy habit of bringing Nazi references into his public discourse” (p. 115). This is a reference to the incident when Livingston accused a Jewish reporter of behaving like “a Nazi war criminal and a concentration camp guard.”

Yet Celsius 7/7 and Gove’s wider journalism do precisely what he accuses Mr Livingston of doing (except that Gove accuses Arabs, rather than Jews, of acting like Nazis). He is even on record as comparing the Arab League Peace Plan to “the ‘clean’ dismemberment which Chamberlain and Daladier administered to Czechoslovakia in 1938” (The Times, 2 April, 2002).

Such a man is utterly unsuitable to run a ministry of justice or replace the Human Rights Act with a “British Bill of Rights”. In Celsius 7/7 Gove mentions the Human Rights Act twice. He appears to regret what he sees as two consequences of the Act: the prohibition of the deportation of individuals “if they are at any risk of torture in the country to which they are returned” (p. 86), and a rule against the use of evidence obtained from a witness “who it was alleged had suffered ill-treatment” during captivity (p. 137).

In order to retain his own credibility, David Cameron should remove this demagogue from the Ministry of Justice immediately.

John McHugo

John McHugo is the chair of the Lib Dem Friends of Palestine and the author of A Concise History of the Arabs and Syria: A Recent History (both published by Saqi Books).

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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