Site Meter Yehudi Yerushalmi: February 2009

Thursday, February 19, 2009

A Vicious Strain of Ancient Prejudice

I received the following extracts from an article in an email today:


-----I was once in Melbourne when bush fires were raging 20 or 30 miles north of the city. Even from that distance you could smell the burning. Fine fragments of ash, like slivers of charcoal confetti, covered the pavements. The very air was charred. It has been the same here these past couple of months with the fighting in Gaza. Only the air has been charred not with devastation but with hatred. And I don't mean the hatred of the warring parties for each other. I mean the hatred of Israel expressed in our streets, on our campuses, in our newspapers, on our radios and televisions, and now in our theatres.

-----A discriminatory, over-and-above hatred, inexplicable in its hysteria and virulence whatever justification is adduced for it; an unreasoning, deranged and as far as I can see irreversible revulsion that is poisoning everything we are supposed to believe in here - the free exchange of opinions, the clear-headedness of thinkers and teachers, the fine tracery of social interdependence we call community relations, modernity of outlook, tolerance, truth. You can taste the toxins on your tongue.

-----But I am not allowed to ascribe any of this to anti-Semitism. It is, I am assured, "criticism" of Israel, pure and simple. In the matter of Israel and the Palestinians this country has been heading towards a dictatorship of the one-minded for a long time; we seem now to have attained it. Deviate a fraction of a moral millimetre from the prevailing othodoxy and you are either not listened to or you are jeered at and abused, your reading of history trashed, your humanity itself called into question. I don't say that self-pityingly. As always with dictatorships of the mind, the worst harmed are not the ones not listened to, but the ones not listening. So leave them to it, has essentially been my philosophy. A life spent singing anti-Zionist carols in the company of Ken Livingstone and George Galloway is its own punishment.

-----Speaking on BBC television at the height of the recent fighting in Gaza, Richard Kemp, former commander of British Troops in Afghanistan and a senior military adviser to the British government, said the following: "I don't think there has ever been a time in the history of warfare where any army has made more efforts to reduce civilian casualties and deaths of civilians than the IDF (Israeli Defence Forces) is doing today in Gaza."

-----But when it comes to Israel we hear no good, see no good, speak no good. We turn our backsides to what we do not want to know about and bury it in distaste, like our own ordure. We did it and go on doing it with all official contestation of the mortality figures provided by Hamas. We do it with Hamas's own private executions and their policy of deploying human shields. We do it with the sotto voce admission by the UN that "a clerical error" caused it to mis-describe the bombing of that UN school which at the time was all the proof we needed of Israel's savagery. It now turns out that Israel did not bomb the school at all. But there's no emotional mileage in a correction. The libel sticks, the retraction goes unnoticed.

----In recent years a laughably benign locution, "criticism", had become for what is in fact -a desire to word a country not just out of the commonwealth of nations but out of physical existence altogether. Richard Ingrams [editor of the magazine Private Eye] daydreams of the time when Israel will no longer be, an after-dinner sleep which is more than an old man's idle prophesying. It is for him a consummation devoutly to be wished. This week Bruce Anderson [political columnist] also looked to such a time, but in his case with profound regret. Israel has missed and goes on missing chances to be magnanimous, he argued, as no victor has ever been before.

-----What do we, in the cosy safety of tolerant old England, think we are doing when we call the Israelis Nazis and liken Gaza to the Warsaw Ghetto? Do those who blithely make these comparisons know anything whereof they speak? In the early 1940s some 100,000 Jews and Romanis died of engineered starvation and disease in the Warsaw Ghetto, another quarter of a million were transported to the death camps, and when the Ghetto rose up it was liquidated, the last 50,000 residents being either shot on the spot or sent to be murdered more hygienically in Treblinka.

-----Given the number of besieged and battered cities there have been in however many thousands of years of pitiless warfare there is only one explanation for this invocation of Warsaw before any of those - it is to wound Jews in their recent and most anguished history and to punish them with their own grief. Its aim is a sort of retrospective retribution, cancelling out all debts of guilt and sorrow. It is as though, by a reversal of the usual laws of cause and effect, Jewish actions of today prove that Jews had it coming to them yesterday.

-----Berating Jews with their own history, disinheriting them of pity, as though pity is negotiable or has a sell-by date, is the latest species of Holocaust denial, infinitely more subtle than the David Irving version with its clunking body counts and quibbles over gas-chamber capability and chimney sizes. Instead of saying the Holocaust didn't happen, the modern sophisticated denier accepts the event in all its terrible enormity, only to accuse the Jews of trying to profit from it, either in the form of moral blackmail or downright territorial theft. According to this thinking, the Jews have betrayed the Holocaust and become unworthy of it, the true heirs to their suffering being the Palestinians. Thus, here and there throughout the world this year, Holocaust day was temporarily annulled or boycotted on account of Gaza, dead Jews being found guilty of the sins of live ones.

----One particularly popular version, pseudo-scientific in tone, understands Zionism as a political form given to a psychological condition - Jews visiting upon others the traumas suffered by themselves, with Israel figuring as the torture room in which they do it. This is is pretty well the thesis of a new hate-fuelled little chamber-piece by Caryl Churchill's Seven Jewish Children, an audacious 10-minute encapsulation of Israel's moral collapse - the audacity residing in its ignorance or its dishonesty - currently playing at the Royal Court. The play is conceived in the form of a family roundelay, with different voices chiming in with suggestions as to the best way to bring up, protect, inform, and ultimately inflame into animality an unseen child in each of the chosen seven periods of contemporary Jewish history. It begins with the Holocaust, partly to establish the playwright's sympathetic bona fides ("Tell her not to come out even if she hears shouting"), partly to explain what has befallen Palestine, because no sooner are the Jews out of the hell of Hitler's Europe than they are constructing a parallel hell for Palestinians.

---The staccato form of the piece - every line beginning "Tell her" or "Don't tell her" - is skilfully contrived to suggest a people not just forever fraught and frightened but forever covert and deceitful. Nothing is true. Boasts are denials and denials are boasts. Everything is mediated through the desire to put the best face, first on fear, then on devious appropriation, and finally on evil. . . . .. The overall impression, nonetheless, is of a narrative slavishly in line with the familiar rhetoric, making little or nothing of the Jews' unbroken connection with the country going back to the Arab conquest more than a thousand years before, the piety felt for the land, the respect for its non-Jewish inhabitants (their rights must "be guarded and honoured punctiliously," Ben Gurion wrote in 1918), the waves of idealistic immigration which long predated the post-Holocaust influx with its twisted psychology, and the hopes of peaceful co-existence, for the tragic dashing of which Arab countries in their own obduracy and intolerance bear no less responsibility.

----- in this wantonly inflammatory piece, the Jews drop in on somewhere they have no right to be, despise, conquer, and at last revel in the spilling of Palestinian blood. There is a one-line equivocal mention of a suicide bomber, and ditto of rockets, both compromised by the "Tell her" device, otherwise no Arab lifts a finger against a Jew. "Tell her about Jerusalem," but no one tells her, for example, that the Jewish population of East Jersusalem was expelled at about the time our survivors turn up, that it was cleansed from the city and its sacred places desecrated or destroyed. Only in the crazed brains of Israelis can the motives for any of their subsequent actions be found.
Thus lie follows lie, omission follows omission, until, in the tenth and final minute, we have a stage populated by monsters who kill babies by design - "Tell her we killed the babies by mistake," one says, meaning don't tell her what we really did - who laugh when they see a dead Palestinian policeman ("Tell her they're animals... Tell her I wouldn't care if we wiped them out"), who consider themselves the "chosen people", and who admit to feeling happy when they see Palestinian "children covered in blood".
Anti-Semitic? No, no. Just criticism of Israel.

----Only imagine this as Seven Muslim Children and we know that the Royal Court would never have had the courage or the foolhardiness to stage it. Babies and laugh at murdered policemen ("Tell her we're the iron fist now") we will squeak no louder than a mouse when we are abused.
Caryl Churchill will argue that her play is about Israelis not Jews, but once you venture on to "chosen people" territory - feeding all the ancient prejudice against that miscomprehended phrase - once you repeat in another form the medieval blood-libel of Jews rejoicing in the murder of little children, you have crossed over. . . No, you don't have to be an anti-Semite to criticise Israel. It just so happens that you are.

. . . Michael Billington's somnolent review of the play in the Guardian. "Churchill shows us," he writes, "how Jewish children are bred to believe in the ‘otherness' of Palestinians..."
It is not just the adopted elision of Israeli children into Jewish children that is alarming, or the unquestioning acceptance of Caryl Churchill's offered insider knowledge of Israeli child-rearing, what's most chilling is that lazy use of the word "bred", so rich in eugenic and bestial connotations, but inadvertently slipped back into the conversation now, as truth. Fact: Jews breed children in order to deny Palestinians their humanity. Watching another play in the same week, Billington complains about its manipulation of racial stereotypes. He doesn't, you see, even notice the inconsistency.