What with one thing and another, I followed the spring furore over the "Israel" symposium at Southampton University only rather loosely. It was obvious to me from surveying those invited to speak - including the ridiculous conspiracy theorist, Richard Falk - that this event was not a scholarly attempt to explore "International Law and the State of Israel". Rather it was to be what I believe the Americans call a "circle jerk", in which academics hostile to Israel would stimulate each other as imaginatively as they knew how.
But, for all that, I was against it being stopped. At the level of principle I believe in combating bad speech with better speech, and at the level of pragmatism I know how a certain mentality thrives on the legend of its own suppression. Or, to summarise, let them have their silly conference.
I still think that would have been better. What I hadn't realised is how far gone some of the conference's animating spirits are in what I can only call the New Judeophobia. The gap in my education was filled this week with the latest edition of the magazine Fathom and an article by Professor Sarah Brown, anatomising the thinking of the Southampton academic and symposium organiser Oren Ben-Dor.
One of the more unwelcome phenomena of recent life in the broad diaspora has been the appearance of a certain kind of Israeli exile who insists on telling us how bad Jews are. Of course, being an Israeli, such a person cannot (as George Galloway pointed out to Gilad Atzmon during one of the former's lucrative hosting stints for Mr Putin's RT television station) so easily be described as antisemitic.
But until last week I had imagined that Mr Atzmon was more or less unique in his bizarre fusion of opaque anti-colonialist sociological and anthropological jargon with classical far-right Jew hatred. I had not anticipated that a senior academic at a British university was treading much the same intellectual path and linking demonic modern Zionism to demonic ancient Jewishness. Yet, as Sarah Brown demonstrates, that is precisely what Ben-Dor does, most especially in a long article published in 2012 in an Edinburgh University Press publication, Holy Land Studies.
This is a short column and Ben-Dor is a long-winded and pretentious writer (his article is entitled "Occupied Minds: Philosophical Reflections on Zionism, Anti-Zionism and the Jewish Prison"), so it's hard to give the reader more than a flavour of his work. But it argues that Zionist and most anti-Zionist Jews are captives of the same primeval Jewish mindset, and that it is this mindset that, in effect, provoked antisemitic reaction, right down to the Holocaust itself.
In other words, Jews have been asking for it throughout history, and in fact quite like it when they get it.
This is Atzmon's argument, too. And it is one that has earned him plaudits from neo-Nazis. But Atzmon is not a university lecturer, and is on the very edge of respectability. What is depressing about Ben-Dor is that many left-wingers and sympathisers with the Palestinian cause in this country and elsewhere can no longer tell the difference between progressive thinking and "essentialist" bigotry that used to be the preserve of the anti-democratic and racist right.
What needs to be done now is not to try and silence such speech - it cannot be silenced and is in any case on the side of the silencers - but to counter it wherever it is found.