On March 12, two students at the University of St Andrews, where I work, visited the room of a third, who was living in the same hall of residence, and had what appears to have been an intense conversation on the subject of the state of Israel and its policies towards the Palestinians. At some point in the course of this conversation, it is alleged, the two visiting students placed their hands down their trousers and rubbed them on the large Israeli flag which the student whose room it was had on his wall. As a consequence of this, they have been charged with acting in a ‘racially aggravated manner intended to cause alarm or distress’ and making ‘comments of an offensive nature… contrary to the criminal justice act’. The case – which has been postponed twice – is to be resumed in August.

I do not know the students concerned, or the facts of the matter (which are presumably, in any case, sub judice). The closest I get is that my wife, who is a Palestinian refugee ran into one of them who told her that, if convicted and sent down from the University, he intended to do voluntary work at a refugee camp in Gaza.

I find the matter highly unfortunate regardless of what happened on that occasion on March 12, because it strikes me as antithetical to what being a university undergraduate ought to be about. As an undergraduate I remember with great regret occasions on which I was intellectually arrogant, pugnacious and naïve, and when I have no doubt I hurt some people’s feelings greatly. I hope that they have forgiven me since. Some, I like to think of as still being friends. But it is through experiences like this, far more than any lessons in citizenship, which teach people the skill, tact and sensitivity that are needed to live in a multicultural society. If conversations like this land one in court, then the vital space needed to produce this awareness is lost.

But – while I would like to make people aware of this case – my purpose in this piece is to talk about a wider issue. Not very helpfully, I think, The Courier – our local newspaper – as labeled the case from the outset as being about ‘anti-Semitism’. It strikes me as highly unlikely that the accused are indeed anti-Semitic – at least not in their own understanding of the term. And (assuming that there is no actual evidence to the contrary), that should presumably be the end of that matter. Criticism – even aggressive criticism of the State of Israel – is not anti-Semitism. This is, of course, despite that consummate skill with which supporters of Israel try to imply that criticism of that country is tantamount to hatred of Jews in general.

But does that mean that there are no limits to what is acceptable when it comes to expressing one’s criticism or citizens of Israel and their country? To give one example, a friend of mine who lives in Dundee – a Palestinian citizen of Israel – has expressed to me his concern about the extent to which Israelis manning stalls in that city’s Overgate shopping centre sometimes feel intimidated by pro-Palestinian protests against their work. To give another anecdotal example, I learned from an Israeli I spoke to in Jerusalem who claims that a sister of his who lives in Britain is too frightened to reveal her nationality.

I suppose that some will feel little sympathy for these people, whose discomfort is perhaps analogous to that felt by Apartheid South Africans. They may argue that it is precisely this sort of stigma that ultimately helped to propel change in this case.

I don’t necessarily deny this. But what worries me is that, by creating a radical separation between anti-Israelism and anti-Semitism we do two things: first, we risk ending up producing categories of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Jews much is the same way as the anthropologist Mahmood Mamdani perceptively describes the production, by the Western media, of categories of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Muslim. It is easy enough to say that one does not have anything against Jews as Jews but that one does have a problem with Zionism. But what do we then do when we are confronted with living, breathing Zionists? Realistically, many Jews do in fact support the state of Israel, including its violent actions against Palestinians. Realistically, many people are born into Israeli citizenship. For these people, Israel is their country. And the prospect of its potential dissolution is understandably terrifying. To express to such a person views which (as it happens) I myself hold – that Israel does not have (as nor does any other country have) a ‘right to exist’. That it certainly does not have the right to be recognized ‘as a Jewish state’ (any more than I expect other countries to recognize the right of my own to exist as a Protestant state), that it was founded on the ethnic cleansing of another people and that, practically speaking, its policies of illegal occupation and expansion in territories which once upon a time might have provided for a viable Palestinian state have now made impossible any solution that would not lead, in effect, to the end of Israel as we know it – to express these views to such a person in a certain kind of way might indeed be tantamount to intimidation.

I am certainly not talking here about what kinds of speech about Israel should be subject to legal sanction. I personally believe that the right to freedom of speech should be restricted only in the most extreme of circumstances. But I do think that it is worth considering at what point certain kinds of language directed at people who happen to be Israelis, or people who happen to be Jewish supporters of Israel ought to be considered socially unacceptable. I don’t think that the glib response of ‘I’m not anti-Semitic, I’m just anti-Israeli policies’ is necessarily enough.

There is, however, a corollary to this, which some may find rather shocking. I also think that we need to start adding some nuance to how we react to anti-Semitic discourse. Some may be drawing a breath at this moment. But that, in a way, is precisely my point. In the liberal pantheon of post-World War II liberalism, Adolf Hitler is Satan, and anti-Semitism is pretty much tantamount to Satanism. This, I think, is entirely reasonable in a sense. Satan, after all, is a myth, whereas the Holocaust isn’t. But it does depend, I think, on the anti-Semitism proceeding from a person who is embedded in a particular tradition – the same Western tradition which, through a particular set of historical and ideological circumstances, ended up being collectively responsible for murdering nearly six million Jewish people, together with some hundreds of thousands of gypsies, gay people and people with learning difficulties.

To make my point with regard to a faintly less controversial topic, let us consider for the time being the issue of racism in general. After all, whatever else it is, anti-Semitism is itself clearly a form of racism. Now racism is of course always utterly unacceptable. But not all racism is equally bad. There is awful racism (for example, as when a Syrian television series thought it was amusing to black up its actors and have them perform an ape-like dance in the context of a well-meant story about colonialism), and there is really awful racism (as when, reportedly, Japanese gangs roam the streets of Tokyo looking for Korean immigrants to beat up, and there is simply unimaginably awful racism, as when gangs in the Congolese civil war believed that eating pygmies gave them magical powers, and that it was therefore OK to hunt them for their flesh. Moreover, the badness of racism cannot simply be reduced to the extremity of opinions expressed. It also relates to complex issues of historical power relations. If a white British person says something a bit rude about French people in general, that is clearly not as bad as if she or he says something roughly similar about Pakistanis in general. Yesterday, my wife and I witnessed a couple of people in downtown Amman throw a racial jibe at a car full of black girls. That was bad, not least because of the historical difference in power relations between ethnic Arabs and black Africans. But I still submit that it would have been worse if the same slur had come from me.

The problem is that, in the present day, the proliferation of discourses of classic anti-Semitism in the Middle East is eagerly seized on as a way of utterly condemning a wider range of Islamic actors, a pretext for shutting off any possibility of dialogue. Given their own liberal insistence on the conversation stopping evil of anti-Semitism, this in turn forces apologists for these actors to change the subject, or gloss over its existence. Many times, I have come across pro-Palestinian Western activists who correct me when I turn to the subject of anti-Semitism among Palestinians and Arabs. I have got it wrong they say. These people are never anti-Semitic – only anti-Zionist. But this is simply not true. At almost any bookstall in the Middle East, one can find a copy of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Time and time again, I have listened to people tell me about how the perfidy of the Jews from the earliest times, about the Jewish plot to control the world. When I sacrificed a sheep to celebrate the birth of my son, the butcher joked – when I commented on the skill with which he dispatched the animal ‘if only we were dong this to the Jews’. The man was being deliberately extreme, I think, trying to shock me. But even so.

It upsets me to hear this from people. It worries me. And apart from anything else, it frustrates me that the people who say these things to me are so utterly unaware of how counterproductive the things they are saying are. But I think that it is very important to understand two things. First: these sentiments, as grotesque as they are, don’t come out of nowhere. Palestinians – unlike Germans in the 1930s, or Russians in the 1890s, or English people in the 1190s actually have the experience of having really very significant crimes committed against them by people who, while they did not represent all Jews, did try to claim to. These claims also undoubtedly have played a role in shaping the anti-Semitic discourse of some Arabic people. Moreover, it is important to recognize that as widespread as they are, these discourses have a significant amount of plasticity. Quite apart from the fact that (well, obviously) all Palestinians (most Arabs I know are Palestinian) don’t hold the same opinions about Jews, my experience has always been that even individual Palestinians often express multiple, sometimes conflicting narratives, ranging from the liberal (the irony is the Jews, who were themselves victims, came to become oppressors), the modern anti-Semitic (a sinister Jewish conspiracy runs the world and is responsible for all the evils of modern life), the Islamist (Jews coexisted peacefully under Islamic rule for hundreds of years, only an Islamic state can solve our present-day conflict), the neofundamentalist (the Jews have always been a bad lot; they killed the prophets God sent down, and gave the prophet Muhammad no end of trouble). Which narrative is adopted often seems to have as much to do with contingent and emotive factors than any immovable set of beliefs. For example, even the most die hard Arabic holocaust deniers can, in my experience, be persuaded to reconsider their positions when one makes it clear that the holocaust does not in itself justify the Zionist project. The underlying formula, I would suggest, is simple: as long as Israel refuses to acknowledge the historical and ongoing victimization of Palestinians, Palestinians are damned if they will concede an inch of victimhood to Israelis, which logically requires denying it to Jews in general as well.

Am I simply trying to excuse the inexcusable? Well yes, in a way I am. By this I mean that while racism in general and anti-Semitism in particular is never ‘excusable’ as such, an understanding of how people come to express such views does, I think, help to move us away from the idea that anyone of any background in any context who can be shown to have some anti-Semitic opinions must on that account be utterly anathametised.

My point in the end is, I suppose, a simple one. For all we may talk about the profound inequality of power relations between Israelis and Palestinians, the total unbalance of a media discourse which equally apportions blame, we must still view pro-occupation Israelis as victims of their own circumstances – with understanding and a measure of sympathy. We must recognize (from our own position of relative comfort) that their fears have some justification, and that their present situation is a difficult one – however much of their own making. At the same time, if we are to shift the discourse on Israel-Palestine towards a more genuinely balanced recognition of the enormous underlying injustices which are locked into the present media narrative, we must start to confront the anti-Semitism issue head on, rather than just talking around it.