I expect all of us have said something we regret at one time or another, but not everyone does so in front of 1.5 million people. That was my misfortune when I was caught off guard by an interviewer for ITN on my way out of a television studio in Westminster on Sunday.
I’d just done a review of the morning’s papers on Murnaghan and was feeling rather chipper on account of the exchange I’d just had with Diane Abbott about Labour’s electoral chances. Live on air, I offered to bet her £100 that Ed Miliband wouldn’t win the election and, to my delight, she refused to take it. ‘I never bet,’ she said. Not exactly a vote of confidence from someone who, until recently, was a key member of Miliband’s leadership team.
Anyway, I was feeling quite relaxed when the woman from ITN asked if I could give her a few words about the recent bust-up between Michael Gove and Theresa May. Wasn’t this another example of the Tory party snatching defeat from the jaws of victory?
The whole thing is the Home Secretary’s fault, I said. Michael Gove made some off-the-cuff remark about a minor Home Office official over lunch with some journalists and as soon as Theresa May heard about it she went ballistic. She reacted like some Israeli tank commander on being confronted by a stone-throwing Palestinian. I thought it was quite an amusing analogy, not least because Gove is fanatically pro-Israel. But judging from the reaction I got on Twitter, the humour was lost on most viewers.
‘Bewildered by your inappropriate, lazy, crass analogy just now, Toby,’ tweeted someone calling himself the Prince of Salerno. ‘Insensitive at best, v. offensive at worst.’
‘Disgusting comparison,’ tweeted Amanda Jacobson. ‘No reason for it. Bordering on anti-Semitic!’
I was a bit put out by this for a couple of reasons.
The first is that I’d already been roundly condemned on Twitter that day for being ‘Islamophobic’ on account of a piece I’d written for the Mail on Sunday about the ‘Trojan Horse’ plot. The fact that I’d singled out that word for criticism in the article, pointing out that it’s used by Muslim extremists to silence any criticism of their religious beliefs, however abhorrent, made not a jot of difference. In fact, it probably made people even more inclined to use it against me. To be branded an ‘Islamophobe’ and an ‘anti-Semite’ on the same day wasn’t much fun. I was beginning to feel like Jeremy Clarkson.
But the second reason is that I’m even more of a swivel-eyed, frothing-at-the-mouth Zionist than Michael Gove. Quite apart from all the sensible reasons for being pro-Israel — it’s an outpost of Western civilisation surrounded by medieval, theocratic states, etc, etc — I’ve had a lifelong romantic attachment to the place ever since spending three months as a kibbutznick at the age of 17. To this day, I only have to close my eyes and I can still see the female Israeli soldier I was in love with saying to me, ‘Oh Tuvia. All you’re interested in is sex and politics.’
It’s quite lonely being one of only about half a dozen defenders of Israel among the commentariat. I wrote about this in the Jewish Chronicle last year, recounting how I’d appeared on a current affairs programme to complain about ‘anti-Israel’ bias in the British media and all my evidence — the endless comparisons of Israel with Nazi Germany by the liberal left, the BBC’s suppression of its own £250,000 report into its coverage of Israel — was left on the cutting-room floor.
I’m such a dyed-in-the-wood philo-Semite, I married a Jewish girl. Well, Caroline’s dad is Jewish, which would have been enough to see our children carted off to the death camps if they’d been born in Germany in the 1930s.
After this lifelong devotion to the cause, I was expecting to receive the Israeli equivalent of the Legion d’Honneur. Maybe I wasn’t expecting that, but you’d think I’d be allowed to get away with one risqué joke about the Israeli Defence Force. Haven’t the Prince of Salerno and Amanda Jacobson noticed that I’ve been on their side for 30 years? Apparently not. Or maybe they have, but I’ve squandered all my credit in a single, ill-judged remark.
The final word should go to a tweeter called Yiftah Curiel: ‘It’s these kinds of unfortunate comparisons that make one “Lose Friends and Alienate People”. Is that the right phrase?’
Yup, I think it is.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.