He is, according to Abi Wilkinson, a Corbyn-supporting journalist, “a racist scumbag” who is “chill with ethnic cleansing.”
It may seem surprising that Finkelstein, former member of the SDP and since that party’s demise a leading voice of “moderate” Conservatism, should be so characterised, even by Wilkinson who believes that “incivility isn’t merely justifiable, but actively necessary.”
His columns in The Times are typically reflective, considered and measured. This has not prevented him sometimes receiving the most appalling online abuse, accusing him of defending paedophilia, for example, because he expressed scepticism about groundless allegations levelled at politicians.
Sometimes this abuse has been tinged with anti-semitism, as with this bit of gratuitous Jew-baiting from a paedophile-obsessed troll in Germany calling himself Dame Alun Roberts.
Of course, just because you have yourself been the victim of racist abuse it does not mean that you can’t also dish it out. Even the fact that Finkelstein’s mother was a holocaust survivor does not mean that he could not himself be a racist scumbag, relaxed about ethnic cleansing, though it would make such a description particularly painful and therefore, if untrue, particularly nasty.
What has Finkelstein done to prompt such abuse?
Was he seen outside the Court of Appeal, joining hands with Katie Hopkins chanting “Tommy Tommy Tommy!” as the great white hope of British fascism was sprung from gaol last week?
Has he been using his Times column to call for the indigenous folk of Europe to unite to drive Islam back beyond the gates of Vienna, to the Bosphorus and beyond?
No, although in recent weeks he has written paragraphs like this about about immigration and the problems of multi-ethnic societies:
“It is therefore right to argue for control and moderation in allowing the migration that creates ethnically diverse societies; essential to recognise that integration is extremely challenging and will require great political effort; vital to see that civic equality will not happen by itself and prejudice will not easily disappear, both needing to be driven by enlightened leaders.”
Control and moderation! Creating diverse societies! Trying to make prejudice disappear! Demanding political effort to achieve civic equality!
What about international affairs?
“The allegation of dual loyalty is one of the most common ways I encounter antisemitism, through the suggestion that my political position on an issue is the result of my “zionism”. This, alongside the posting of comments about Israel to almost anything I or other Jews write.”
So I am afraid some – including, I fear, influential members of the Party that Willkinson supports – will ask, or even assume: he is a Jew, surely he has demonstrated racist scumbaggery in his writings about Israel?
“The Palestinians must have a homeland, they have a right to a homeland, in which they can live in prosperity and peace.
As most people agree, this should be broadly consistent with the borders that existed before the 1967 war. And Israel has made the creation of such a state considerably more difficult by its disastrously wrong and ill-considered decision to allow Jewish settlements to be built outside these borders.”
It doesn’t seem entirely beyond the pale of civilised discourse.
The odd thing about the 48 hours of Finkelstein twitter-hatred is that nobody, even amongst the many who have been piling in to support Wilkinson, has been able to point to a single racist opinion, racist argument, or racist statement that he has ever made.
Her attack came shortly after Finkelstein wrote about the anti-semitism controversy that has dogged the Labour Party. He wrote almost despairingly of the anti-semitism that has been on display both in wider society and particularly inside the Labour Party.
“Complacently, I had always assumed that what happened to my parents couldn’t happen to me or my children. There were too many liberal, progressive people who wouldn’t allow it. I no longer believe this with the same confidence. …
“It’s less the antisemitism itself that has induced this fear. It is the denial of it. The reaction I expect on the left to the rise of antisemitism — concern, determination to combat it, sympathy — is not the one I’ve encountered, at least not from supporters of the leadership. Instead there is aggression, anger at the accusation, suggestions that the Jews and zionists are plotting against Jeremy Corbyn.”
It is entirely of a piece with Finkelstein’s writings over many years: a plea for tolerance and understanding and a determination to combat racism. For what it is worth, I should disclose that I have met him on one occasion, and he was as polite and civilised in person as he always is in writing.
During the height of the twitter-storm, the writer Jamie Palmer asked if anyone could provide a link to a racist article written by Danny Finkelstein. None has yet been provided.
Instead Wilkinson explained that Finkelstein was a racist scumbag not because of anything he had written or said, but because he had been on the “Board” of the Gatestone Institute, an American based think-tank which has provided a platform to some brave and respectable people – Gary Kasparov and Elie Wiesel, for example – but also to some arguing for very unpleasant anti-Islamic policies.
For some reason, probably not a good one, the Gatestone Institute’s website no longer reveals who its “Board” members are, or even if it has a Board, or, if it did have one, what it actually did. Instead it now lists a number of what it calls “distinguished senior fellows” rather as though it were an Oxbridge college. Amongst the British “distinguished” fellows are such luminaries as Raheem Kassam, the boastful and absurd former adviser to Nigel Farage, accurately described by Marina Hyde as a “nebbishy shitposter … chiefly known for trailing around after Farage in a coat … with a brown velvet collar” (who doesn’t actually seem to have written anything for the Institute), and Douglas Murray, the journalist and author, who has written copiously for it.
Finkelstein is no longer listed, in any capacity, although in February of this year he appeared in a Gatestone sponsored conversation at the House of Lords with Khaled Abu Toameh, an Arab Israeli journalist. All this was entirely above board, with Finkelstein properly disclosing the event in the House of Lords Register of Members’ Interests, one of 15 paid speaking engagements between October 2017 and June 2018 (none of the others were for the Institute).
Gatestone is, Wilkinson says, an “Islamophobic far right institute” which advocates “deporting my husband from Europe.”
It is in fact very difficult to see precisely what, if anything, the Institute itself advocates, as opposed to the views of the various people to whom it gives a platform. All contributions to its website contain a footnote explaining that the views expressed “do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or of Gatestone Institute,” but as the Institute’s own views are not made known anywhere readily accessible, the views of its contributors are all we have to go on.
To be sure many, perhaps even most, of the articles on its website are broadly hostile to Islam, certainly to Islamism, and some are very unpleasant indeed. The sheer volume of material published on the “Gatestone” website makes it impossible to be sure, but I haven’t been able to find any article which advocates deporting people like Kadhim Shubber, Ms Wilkinson’s Muslim husband, who is a distinguished journalist working for the Financial Times, either from Britain or from America where he currently works.
Mr Shubber himself drew particular attention to one 2017 Gatestone contribution by Giulio Meotti, a journalist who, judging by his Wikipedia entry, seems to be some sort of Italian Johann Hari who has achieved a certain notoriety for being accused of plagiarism. Presumably he singled out the piece because it was one of the worst and it is, certainly, a stonkingly bad piece of journalism. Under the headline “Are Jihadists taking over Europe” Meotti makes the preposterous claim that “Europe could be taken over the same way Islamic State took over much of Iraq.” The article itself veers rather incoherently from justifiable concerns about Islamist terrorism, through tendentious claims about “self-segregated, multicultural enclaves in which extremist Muslims promote Islamic fundamentalism and implement Islamic law,” (I think these are the mythical no-go zones beloved of the far right), and finally into outright dishonesty with a bizarre claim that the head of the Swedish army was referring to Islam when he said “there might be a war within a few years,” when in fact he was clearly referring to a possible war with Russia. It’s writing of a very low order indeed, but it does not actually advocate deportation of Muslims. Nevertheless, I can see that anyone reading it, and stupid enough to take it seriously, might be more easily persuaded that mass deportation of Muslims was a good thing.
So what of Wilkinson’s suggestion that Finkelstein was, “at absolute best chill with calls for ethnic cleansing”?
Probably she has in mind the Dutch MP Geert Wilders, who has regularly been published by Gatestone. Wilders has described Moroccan criminals as “scum,” he has said he wants to “make the Netherlands ours again,” and in a 2014 speech which led to his prosecution and partial conviction (currently subject to an appeal), he appeared to promise to try ensure that there would be “fewer Moroccans” in The Hague in the future. Whether or not he was actually advocating “ethnic cleansing” of Moroccans (his defence was that he was advocating the deportation of Moroccan dual nationals convicted of criminal offences, and the voluntary repatriation of others) Wilders promotes profoundly unpleasant prejudices.
Or perhaps she was thinking of journalist and best-selling author Douglas Murray, another “senior distinguished fellow” who writes regularly for the Institute, as well as many other publications, including the Spectator where he regularly tops the “most popular” league table published on its website. He is combative, readable, provocative and influential. He has never advocated “ethnic cleansing,” although in a speech in a 2006 speech to the Pim Fortuyn Memorial Conference (nothing to do with the Gatestone Institute as far as I am aware) he demanded that “conditions for Muslims in Europe must be made harder across the board.” He expanded on what that meant:
“All immigration into Europe from Muslim countries must stop. In the case of a further genocide such as that in the Balkans, sanctuary would be given on a strictly temporary basis. This should also be enacted retrospectively. Those who are currently in Europe having fled tyrannies should be persuaded back to the countries which they fled from once the tyrannies that were the cause of their flight have been removed. And of course it should go without saying that Muslims in Europe who for any reason take part in, plot, assist or condone violence against the West (not just the country they happen to have found sanctuary in, but any country in the West or Western troops) must be forcibly deported back to their place of origin.”
It was not quite advocacy of ethnic cleansing (he did not spell out whether “persuading” innocent Muslim refugees to return was to be by use of the carrot or the stick), and it wasn’t published by the Institute, but it was the promotion of an unpleasant, deliberately discriminatory set of policies, and a dog-whistle to those wishing to deport Muslims.
In fairness, although Murray did not repudiate his speech when asked to do so in 2006, or for some years afterwards, by 2011 he had asked for it to be removed from the internet (which is why it is now only available on the Wayback Machine site) and has explained why:
“I realised some years ago how poorly expressed the speech in question was, had it removed from the website and forbade further requests to publish it because it does not reflect my opinions.”
Quite what Murray now thinks is wrong about the speech, apart from it being “poorly expressed,” is still opaque, but he evidently does not believe in ethnic cleansing, and perhaps not any more in “making conditions for Muslims in Europe harder across the board.” Even so, according to former MP Paul Goodman, now editor of Conservative Home, the Conservative front bench broke off relations with Murray as a direct result of it. Whether Finkelstein, who was at one time a speech-writer for David Cameron, was involved in the issue or aware of it, I have no idea.
Wilkinson’s charge against Finkelstein is that he sat on the Board of the Institute while people like Murray were writing for it. It’s a charge that would presumably apply to anyone sitting on the “board” of The Spectator, where Murray is a regular contributor, or of the BBC which has given Murray considerable air-time over the years (although it did also broadcast a guest calling him a “hate preacher,” something for which it then apologised), or even of The Guardian, which invited Murray to take part in a panel discussion about Donald Trump, an invitation which he declined and then rather haughtily wrote about in the Spectator. Indeed, given that Wilkinson herself regularly writes for the Guardian I wonder how “chill” she is with assisting an organisation that offered Mr Murray a platform. Does that make her a racist scumbag too, if slightly less of one than Finkelstein?
It is bad enough to accuse someone of being a “racist scumbag.” It’s unpleasant, it’s aggressive and it greatly lowers the tone of political debate – how can you expect to debate with someone who describes you as such? – but it is in the end just vulgar abuse. One person’s racist scumbag, I suppose, is another’s campaigner for slightly tougher controls on immigration. “Being chill with calls for with ethnic cleansing,” is far nastier and a great deal more specific.
“Ethnic cleansing,” a phrase originating in the horror of the Yugoslav wars, means forcibly driving out, deporting or killing people on the basis of their race or ethnicity. It is a particularly objectionable insult to hurl at the son of a holocaust survivor. It should not be made unless you are very sure of your ground. It is utterly baseless to make it against Finkelstein.
I don’t want to defend the Gatestone Institute. Much of the material on its website is nonsense, and some of it nasty nonsense. Just conceivably somewhere within the archives of the Gatestone Institute there may be some explicit calls for genocide or ethnic cleansing. It would be the work of years to read the outpourings of all the “distinguished fellows” and “writers” named by the Institute, but nothing that I have seen or that she or Mr Shubber has highlighted justifies Wilkinson’s charge that it “advocates deporting my husband from Europe.”
This brings us to Finkelstein’s own position on the mysterious “Board” of the Institute. It seems to have been no more than a publicity device for the Institute. It never met and apparently had no role in the running of the organisation. As Finkelstein described it:
“They listed me on a board and I didn’t actually know at first. The board never met or was asked to meet or had any role and rather lazily, once I do (sic) know, just left it. More recently I thought, mmm, being listed on a board is rather different to making a speech or two and I don’t want to be responsible for everything they do with no actual control, so I asked to be taken off. That I’m afraid is the unheroic truth.”
“I do not serve on the board and have never had any role of any kind running Gatestone or supervising it in any way. They listed me on the board, until I asked them to stop.”
He had been asked about his membership of the Board in 2015 by Nafeez Ahmed, and specifically about Murray’s “stated views on Muslims in Europe.” He replied:
“I naturally don’t (and didn’t) say that I didn’t know who it was or what it publishes or who it hosts. Of course I do. Being on the Board doesn’t mean I agree with every article or every speaker, nor does it imply that I don’t. … I find Douglas Murray stimulating an worthwhile and often right, without always agreeing.”
This has been presented by some as evidence that Finkelstein tried to conceal that he was “on the Board” of Gatestone, although clearly he did nothing of the sort. He was open about it in 2015 and he has been open about it in 2018, although – assuming his good faith which I do until the contrary is demonstrated – “being on the Board” did not mean much other than that for a year or two he allowed the Institute to use his name for publicity purposes.
Finkelstein’s politics are quite clearly not those of Murray, still less of Geert Wilders. He has described the idea that Muslims should be deported from Europe as “obnoxious and mad,” which of course it is.
In any case, he has accepted that he made a mistake and apologised. In fact he has done so more than once.
He should not have allowed himself to be named as a Board member. He should have paid more attention to the garbage the Institute was pumping out, and less to the fact that it had also provided a platform to brave and necessary voices like those of Gary Kasparov, Raif Badawi or the Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel.
It is very sad that Ms Wilkinson does not yet seem able to accept his apology, and sadder still that she will not herself apologise for traducing a decent man. No wonder political debate these days is so poisonous.