THE death of Shimon Peres last week, and the tributes to him, made me think. His legacy is controversial.

In the 1980s he was architect of Israel’s nuclear weapons programme, and ordered the kidnapping of the nuclear technician and peace activist Mordechai Vanunu for revealing details of Israel’s secret plans to develop weapons of mass destruction. Vanunu subsequently spent 18 years in jail and 30 years later remains under constant surveillance by the Israeli state intelligence forces.

In the meantime, Peres gradually moderated his views, in later years arguing that peace could only be achieved by recognising a Palestinian state alongside Israel. He was hailed by Tony Blair as an “inspiration, mentor and friend” and awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

As I read his obituaries, it struck me how far the debate over Palestine and Israel has been sidelined over the past few years. That may be partly because it’s been overshadowed by the carnage in Syria, and the catastrophic refugee crisis there.

But that’s not the only reason. Even contemplating writing this column has left me with a sense of trepidation.

A decade ago politicians, journalists, ordinary citizens, felt no hesitation about highlighting the historic injustice perpetrated against the Palestinian people.

But over the past few years, people have become more reluctant to publicly express criticism of the Israeli state for fear of being labelled racist and anti-Semitic. That in turn is a product of an insidious and ongoing campaign by supporters of the Israeli state to silence support for the Palestinian cause, and to prevent serious public scrutiny of the routine human atrocities carried out against the populations of the West Bank and Gaza.

The England and Wales College of Policing now talks of a “new anti-Semitism, sometimes referred to as anti-Zionism”, while the UK Government has attempted to prohibit councils, student unions and other public bodies from boycotting Israeli goods.

This conflation of two completely different issues – anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism – is now pervading our political culture. During the UK Labour leadership debate, lifelong campaigners against racism were routinely branded anti-Semitic by MPs from their own party, whose views on immigration would make them welcome in UKIP, no questions asked.

It can be tiresome trying to explain this distinction over and over again to people who should know better. Anti-Semitism is defined in the dictionary as hostility, prejudice or discrimination against Jewish people. Any hatred of people based on ethnicity, creed or religion is wrong – and should not be tolerated.

Zionism on the other hand is a nationalist political ideology that was founded with the express purpose of creating a Jewish homeland in the Land of Israel. It became a mass movement during and after the Holocaust. That movement only succeeded in achieving its aims as a result of an armed guerilla struggle which included the bombing of hotels, the massacre of civilians and the forced expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs from their homeland.

Anti-Zionism is not racism. Expressing opposition to the colonisation, segregation and oppression of a people on ethnic grounds is fundamentally anti-racist. Indeed, over the decades, many Jews have been ferocious critics of Zionism.

“The Israeli state idea is not according to my heart. I cannot understand why it is needed. It is connected with many difficulties and a narrow-mindedness. I believe it is bad,” said Albert Einstein.

Another famous Jew, Holocaust survivor Primo Levi, said: “Everyone has their Jews. For the Israelis they are the Palestinians.”

If these statements were made in today’s fevered climate, Einstein and Levi would be stand accused of anti-Semitism from some quarters. Indeed, one activist suspended by the Labour Party this weekend for supposed anti-Semitism is, apparently, Jewish.

For what it’s worth, I happen to believe that a two-state solution that respects both Israel and Palestine’s right to exist would appear to be the best way forward in the near future.

The impetus to create a homeland for the Jews was driven by their terrifying persecution. Many nations supported the creation of the state of Israel including the two arch-enemies, the USA and the USSR.

At the time, it seemed like an easy solution to the most grotesque, abominable atrocity of recent centuries. And it absolved European countries from having to absorb millions of Jewish refugees into their own populations, or from facing up to the racist tensions at home that might be unleashed.

I can see why, having established a homeland, and having suffered persecution for millennia, some Jewish people are sensitive when Israel’s right to exist is questioned. So we absolutely should be sensitive to the impact of history.

But let’s be clear. Some 750,000 Palestinians were, in the eyes of the world, dispensable. And they still are. The injustice they suffered has never rectified, and has never even been acknowledged by some people. They are an inconvenient, troublesome remnant of history.

Never mind that their lives were destroyed forever, or that the legacy of 1948, and of the subsequent brutal land grabs by the Israeli state, is largely responsible for the bloody chaos that rages across the Muslim and Arab world to this day.

Let’s hunt instead for words that might just be imagined as anti-Semitic.

We should not be silenced from telling the truth about what the Israeli state does to maintain its supremacy in that part of the world. Nor from criticising the billions of dollars that pour into Israel every year from the USA, furnishing the state with the military hardware to enslave the Palestinian population.

This year alone, according to the UN, 769 Palestinian structures – homes, businesses, community centres – have been demolished to make way for Israeli settlements. A thousand people have been displaced and made homeless. The Israeli state continues, unchecked, to bulldoze Palestine out of existence.

I don’t know if or when we will ever see a solution to the Palestine question. I worry that a climate is being created whereby we are not even able to talk about it. And if we are silent long enough, there won’t be any Palestinian land left to fight over. Handy that. Problem solved.

Unless you’re a Palestinian.