Growing up in West London a distance away from the city’s thriving Jewish communities, Melanie Phillips did not have a particularity deep relationship with Israel. The veteran journalist describes her childhood family as “three times a year Jews” based on the frequency of their synagogue visits.
Israel “didn’t figure large in our lives at all. It was not really talked about. It was there, we approved of it but we never went there,” Phillips told the audience in Jerusalem’s Beit Shmuel Hall on Sunday night.
“Israel was fine for other Jews. Other Jews needed it, that was great and we supported that, and we cared about its fate and its future — at a distance. But it wasn’t for Jews like us because we were absolutely fine because we lived in Britain,” said Phillips.
Now sharing her time between Israel and her native UK, the veteran journalist has undoubtedly changed her views both on the necessity of the Jewish state and on the future of the Jewish community in Britain.
In conversation with fellow UK journalist Matthew Kalman in the latest in an ongoing series of events sponsored by The Times of Israel, Phillips described how Israel had played a key role in her journey from long-time liberal correspondent and columnist at the left-leaning Guardian newspaper to assuming the mantle of an ultra-conservative heavyweight frequenting the pages of the Daily Mail and the Spectator.
Phillips said it was the 1982 Lebanon War which first burst the bubble of her “seventh heaven” on the Guardian’s high-brow editorial team.
The war, known in Israel as Operation Peace for the Galilee, was launched by an Israel Defense Forces invasion into southern Lebanon after repeated cross border attacks by the Palestinian Liberation Organization.
But in response to the war “came not just unfair criticism of Israel, presenting it as the aggressor for no good reason, but out of the woodwork bubbled up old fashioned anti-Semitism,” Phillips recalled Sunday, saying the visceral reaction “struck me with great force.”
‘As far as they were concerned I had become you’
Confronting her colleagues over what she saw as a double standard in her newspaper towards Israeli aggression and that of Syria, among others, Phillips said she was told that whereas third-world Syrians couldn’t be held to the same moral standards as the West, “we do you a great favor of assuming that Israel is on the same page” as us.
It was then that Phillips began her journey from what she called “a typical miss Guardianista” to what those same colleagues would later describe as “a neoconservative Jeremiah,” or in short: “Mad Mel.”
“At that point I realized that I had crossed a line,” Phillips said. “As far as they were concerned I had become ‘you.'”
Thirty-five years on, Phillips is now a regular on BBC’s “Moral Maze” and “Question Time,” and a widely-read columnist for The Times of London, The Jerusalem Post, and the Jewish Chronicle. She is not known for mincing her words. Her books “Londonistan” and “The World Turned Upside Down,” have put her at the forefront of the debate over multiculturalism.
Her thesis? That Europe’s rapidly expanding Muslim community has nurtured a home-grown Islamic fundamentalism that challenges the very foundations of Western justice and democracy, and threatens the defense of the free world.
In an exceptional example of British manners and humor, Kalman, quizzing Phillips on some of her most controversial views, was met with sharp and pithy answers that displayed the belligerent affect and acid wit she has become known for in her writing.
‘I would say that they are doing the smearing… of me’
Asked what she would say to critics who accuse her of fueling anti-Muslim sentiment by smearing all Muslims with the same brush, Phillips responded: “I would say that they are doing the smearing… of me.”
Phillips brought in quotes from the 1930s to Sunday’s event to prove there is no such thing as the Palestinian nation. Kalman challenged their legitimacy, given the fact that millions of people today define themselves as “Palestinian.” Phillips responded she didn’t realize Descartes’ famous adage now read: “I define myself, therefore I am.”
Beyond brief aphorisms, Phillips attempted to present not just a counter to the criticism of her positions, but the comprehensive world view behind her sometimes brash statements.
Jihadi terrorism is caused not just by violent extremists but by “an interpretation of Islam that has gained huge prominence and power in the Islamic world,” Phillips asserted. “Yes, many Muslims do not follow this but enough do for it to be a real problem within the religion. You can’t deal with it unless you understand that it’s based on religious sources,” she said.
“If you are like me and tuned into these things, you live with a lot of anguish about the future,” she said, speaking of rising Muslim anti-Semitism in the UK.
The West, Phillips said, is willfully ignoring the problem because it has been blinded by an obsession with its colonialist and imperialist past. This in turn has spurred the growth of popular right-wing movements across Europe.
“The far right has developed because the entire political spectrum has pushed this under the carpet by saying that anyone who objects to mass immigration is a racist,” she said.
‘If you are like me and tuned into these things, you live with a lot of anguish about the future’
According to Phillips, as opposed to the left-wing media’s self-flagellation, countries across Europe and the world must reclaim their national identities to enshrine Western values of life and liberty.
“I thought that Brexit was the best thing that I had heard in my professional lifetime,” she said to applause, explaining her ardent support for the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union.
This sense of national identity is the reason that while criticizing his “loose and inaccurate” manner of speaking, Phillips has said US president Donald Trump is essentially right in his promulgation of the United States’ version of European nationalism. Although Trump certainly has his flaws, in Phillips’ eyes, the way he has been treated by the media makes him “a man more sinned against that sinning.”
For Phillips, while the world does indeed present plenty of opportunity for angst, developments like Brexit and Trump’s election have produced a recent sense of hope.
“If Brexit really happens and Britain were to return to itself, rediscover a sense of pride that the West is really where it’s at, I think that would have a tremendous effect in Europe and also in America,” Phillips said, when asked if there was anything to leave the audience with a sense of optimism.
“If Mr. Trump does not completely implode or is brought down by who-knows-what, then you have a revival of the Anglo sphere and for the first time there is a chance that the West can come back to itself.
“I think that could actually be a start to solving all of those problems,” she concluded. “But for heavens sake… that is a shaky prognosis.”
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