Philip Hayes and Kristyan Benedict: deserving of amnesties?

January 10th, 2013 by Mark Gardner

In a case that speaks volumes for the frightening ease with which antisemitism can surface in anti-Israel tirades and rhetoric, a Liverpool music promoter, Philip Hayes, has been fined £120 for making antisemitic remarks to the Jewish Labour MP for Liverpool Wavetree, Luciana Berger.

Hayes admitted his offence and apologised profusely for it, both directly to Ms Berger the following day (on facebook) and also in court and through his solicitor. He had said the old lie about all Jewish people having money and later said, “I f**king hate Jewish people”.

The offence occurred after “a discussion about Gaza” between Mr Hayes and Ms Berger at the Liverpool Music Awards on 17 November, 2012. Mr Hayes was angered by that month’s war between Israel and Gaza.

The victim, Luciana Berger MP, is also one of the three Jewish MPs to have been singled out by Amnesty International’s Campaign Manager, Kristyan Benedict, in his twitter “joke” of 20th November, which read:

Louise Ellman, Robert Halfon and Luciana Berger walk into a bar…each orders a round of B52s…#Gaza

A B52 is both a cocktail drink and a long-range US bomber plane. Luciana Berger MP’s contribution to the debate on Gaza in the House of Commons was to express concern about the impact of the Israel-Gaza conflict upon communal relations in the UK. So, there is no factual basis for Benedict’s “joke”.

There are serious questions, and lessons, from both the Hayes case and that of Benedict / Amnesty.

Mr Hayes was an abusive antisemite: but he has apologised. In light of Mr Hayes’ previous anti-racist and anti-fascist work, and in the spirit of Restorative Justice, ought we to basically accept the apology and move on?

Mr Benedict is not exactly a fan of Israel and neither are his employers. His offence is not remotely as clear cut as that of Mr Hayes, but then again, his apology would not pass Restorative Justice muster; and neither would that of Amnesty. It leaves  us with nothing to really move on from.

Three days prior to Mr Benedict’s subtle association between Ms Berger and (non-existent) carpet-bombing in Gaza, Mr Hayes made the same assumption about her stance, but was being somewhat more forthright. Both the BBC and Asian Image have good reports on the Hayes case, the offence, the sentencing, his apologies and his denials of antisemitism. The below is based upon these reports:

At the music ceremony, Ms Berger was talking with Simon Glinn of the Liverpool Philharmonic when Mr Hayes joined them “and embarked on a conversation about the situation in Gaza”.

The prosecutor claimed that Mr Hayes said “all Jewish people had money” and that he referred to a solicitor as a “f**king Jewish t**t”

Mr Hayes told Ms Berger that the Prime Minister of Israel is “your Prime Minister”. (To which she replied, “David Cameron is my Prime Minister”.)

Then, after the awards ceremony, as the MP was leaving the venue with Mr Glinn of the Philharmonic, Mr Hayes caught up with them and told Ms Berger:

I f**king hate Jewish people

(The BBC report shies away from mentioning ‘the f word’ in its report on this part of the abuse.)

There seems no doubt that Mr Hayes was genuinely remorseful for his actions. His solicitor claimed that he had drunk alcohol that night for the first time in five years. Mr Hayes apologised to Ms Berger the following day and his solicitor related how he had played a leading role in Liverpool anti-fascist activism. After sentencing, the solicitor spoke on behalf of Mr Hayes:

I sincerely apologise for the hurt and offence my behaviour has caused Ms Berger…for over 30years, I have always tried to fight racism in every form…I have tried to promote tolerance and celebration of all…I do not believe the words I spoke that night reflect who I am, but…I said them and caused offence…

I would like to thank my family and friends for the support they have shown me and I would like to think that support is due to the fact that they know this was a terrible act which I have accepted I committed, but that I am not a racist or an antisemite.

The link between anti-Israel emotion and antisemitic abuse is very well documented. For example, in 2011, CST recorded 84 antisemitic incidents (out of 586 that year) that included anti-Israel or Middle East related discourse. (See annual report pdf, page 24.) In 2009, CST recorded 293 antisemitic incidents (out of 924) that included such discourse. (See annual report pdf, page 22.) Most anti-Israel activists seem ambivalent, at best, to such facts.

So, there is nothing unusual about Mr Hayes’ actions, but what is very unusual (and welcome, despite the circumstances) is the strength of his apology.

Nevertheless, serious concerns remain:

  • the speed with which alcohol caused what (were presumably) very deeply submerged racist emotions to surface
  • the manner in which anti-Israel emotions were transformed into antisemitism against local Jews. (Both Ms Berger and the solicitor who was also abused.)

On a political and philosophical level:

  • is it possible to be an anti-racist, to use such racist language, to apologise – and then return to being an anti-racist?

And then, as ever, there are the deeply troubling exceptions that are made for antisemitism within so much of the anti-racism movement:

  • what appears to be the absence of concern in anti-racist circles about this incident
  • the likelihood that such remarks would be political and social suicide, regardless of alcohol or apology, had they been made about Black or Muslim people, rather than Jews: “I f**king hate Black people”, or “I f**king hate Muslim people”

Of course, Amnesty International’s B52 joker, Kritstyan Benedict did not declare that he f**king hates Jewish people, but neither did he issue an apology of substance for his tweet, saying merely it was a “giggle” and “light-hearted… some didn’t – so apols to those who booed”. Yet even those “apols” came with a barb, a link to a 2nd message:

Those justifying the killing of civilians need to spare me the sanctimony – you know who you are #Gaza #Israel (and #Syria for that matter).

Can we imagine a senior Amnesty staffer singling out three Black or Muslim MPs for a “joke” about carpet-bombing?

Subsequently, Amnesty almost managed a sort-of-apology, but not quite. The tweet only had “the potential to be offensive”, it was a “satire” of the MP’s views that was “inappropriate and offensive”: err…except Ms Berger seems to have expressed no such views. And they explicitly denied that the singling out of three Jewish MPs was either racist or antisemitic. This was, after all, about Jews and Israel, not another minority group:

The tweet in question was ill-advised and had the potential to be offensive and inflammatory but was not racist or antisemitic.

The use of dark satirical humour to highlight the MPs’ political views was inappropriate and offensive.

Apparently, Mr Benedict “would apologise to anyone offended by the tweet”. Really?

So, do any of these parties deserve an amnesty for their attitudes to antisemitism?

Who is worst in all of this and what does it tell us about the relationship between antisemitism and anti-Israel attitudes?

The choices, in no particular order:

Philip Hayes – drank alcohol for the first time in five years, an anti-Israel rant turned into an antisemitic one, and he was deeply shocked by his own behaviour.

Kristyan Benedict – singled out three Jewish MPs for a “joke” implying they supported the carpet-bombing of Gazan civilians. (A carpet-bombing that was not actually occurring.) 

Amnesty International – do not simply acknowledge that its officer’s act was offensive per se; and they know, for sure, that it was not antisemitic. This, regardless of whatever British Jews and their representative bodies may think about it; and regardless of the actual views of the three Jewish MPs regarding whether or not they wish to see Gaza bombed by B52’s; and, of course, regardless of how it compares with how other minority groups would be treated.