Our Gaza dialogue
Last week, JC theatre critic John Nathan called the use of Shoah imagery in a play about Gaza antisemitic. Palestinian writer Raja Shehadeh disagreed, prompting an exchange of emails.
Raja Shehadeh is a prominent Palestinian lawyer and writer who lives in Ramallah. Winner of the Orwell prize for his book Palestinian Walks, he is a founder of the human rights organisation Al-Haq, and an affiliate of the International Commission of Jurists
Dear John Nathan
Death Begins with the shoes…” Primo Levi wrote in If This Is A Man. Even though he wrote this about the Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz, this truth is not confined to Jewish death. The worn shoes of the dead anywhere always make one pause, for they were markers of life and movement. In your review of the play Go to Gaza, Drink the Sea, you write: “The reference to the Holocaust is unmistakable and the implication that Gazans are the victims of a Holocaust-like atrocity pretty obvious.” You conclude by writing: “The message is not true and is not right. And it is, I believe, antisemitic.”
There is no doubt that the striking and moving image of a mountain of shoes that constitutes the main element in the set for the play, designed by Jane Frere, is reminiscent of the concentration camp, and following its use in many Holocaust museums it has become a metaphor for the death camps themselves. But is this reason enough not to use it in a play that involves Palestinian suffering brought about by Israeli military action?
Many have made the analogy between Gaza and the Warsaw Ghetto. When asked to comment on this for Radio 4’s World At One, I was of the contrary opinion. Gaza is not a ghetto, I argued. It is a large prison. I found the insistence on resorting to terms usually associated with the Jewish experience of suffering disturbing. It sounded to me as though only by appropriating nomenclature related to the Jewish experience could we validate Palestinian suffering. As though our suffering cannot stand on its own.
But still, when I saw the brilliant set of the play, I found it compelling and moving, and inspiring many layers of associations. Your claim that the play appropriates the Holocaust seems to me to stand against the play’s assertion of universal humanity of associations. You write that you believe that the playwright is antisemitic. Describing anyone challenging Israel’s violations of Palestinian human rights, whether through literature or plays, as antisemitic is intellectually dishonest and censorious of legitimate criticism.
But it is worse. It is self-defeating. It is often carried out by those who believe they are expressing loyalty to Israel. It is curious how they are unable to appreciate that by silencing its critics they are doing the country they believe they’re supporting the greatest disservice. For all those willing to look, Israel is moving quickly along a path towards self-destruction. If it is not stopped it promises to bring about the destruction of the Palestinians as a people and, in the course of this, its own destruction as well.
Before I agree with you, I have to correct you. While you accurately quote that part of my review which describes the set design for Go To Gaza, Drink the Sea, I am afraid you wrongly report that I described Ahmed Masoud’s and Justin Butcher’s writing as antisemitic.
To be clear, I detected no antisemitism in the text. Bias, yes. But as I said in the review, I have no problem with bias in a play. And I would never argue that to challenge Israeli violations of Palestinian human rights is in itself antisemitic. Merely that the intellectual dishonesty to which you refer lies, at least in part, in the implication that Israel is committing a Nazi-like Holocaust.
In recent weeks I have encountered what I think may be a new kind of contradiction — that of admiring the art of artists whose message I find deeply offensive. It’s a little like admiring the elegance of a well-made shoe as it kicks you in the teeth. Caryl Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children brilliantly distils parental anxiety into a repeated, hypnotic refrain. But it also evokes the Holocaust and establishes a narrative arc that equates the suffering meted out by Nazis with that brought about by Jews (not Israelis) today.
In Go to Gaza, Drink the Sea, Jane Frere’s set design is also impressively constructed. And we agree that it evokes the Holocaust. But my objection to the use of such imagery in depicting — to use your phrase — Palestinian suffering brought about by Israeli military action is primarily unconnected to the identity of those involved in the conflict. What worries me is the inaccuracy — the calumny, if you will — of the message. I would be just as offended by the use of an Auschwitz shoe-mountain to depict Israeli suffering brought about by Palestinian militants. If such a play, with such a design, existed it would also amount to a lie.
And although plays are entitled to poetic licence, I would argue that political plays have a duty of integrity. In the wider world the Holocaust has become a weapon hurled at Jews and, I have to say, by Jews without much regard for that thing you accuse me of lacking — intellectual honesty.
Yet I don’t argue for Holocaust imagery to be used only for the depiction of Jewish suffering. And I am utterly persuaded by your notion of a play’s ability to assert what you call “the universal humanity of associations”. But it depends on the play.
The Young Vic’s 2007 production of Peter Weiss’s The Investigation used transcripts from the Auschwitz war-crimes trials to examine the Rwandan genocide. And if Frere had been the set designer and opted to build a mountain of shoes, I cannot think of a more appropriate image. The link is clear. In Gaza, where the suffering of its people is terrible, which I would in no way attempt to diminish and which, as you say, does not require Jewish experience to validate it, the link to the Holocaust is false.
On top of this there is that particular complication of using the Holocaust to attack Jews. It’s one thing to accuse those who happen to be Jewish of murder and of violating human rights. But to accuse Jews of being Nazis — as Frere’s design implies — is to attack the memory and experience of all Jews. And if that isn’t antisemitic, I don’t what is.
Had it been the case that Jane Frere’s design implied that Jews are accused of being Nazis, I too would have been offended by it. I sincerely don’t believe it does.
What was inflicted on Gaza is not in any way a Holocaust, even though much of the actions the Israeli army carried out constitute war crimes, for which I hope they will be prosecuted. Whatever happened in Gaza, it was carried out by Israel and its army. I do not blame the Jews for it. Nor is the play about what the Jews have done. It is strictly about what the Israeli army did in carrying out atrocities in the Gaza Strip.
I am aware that Israel tries to implicate Jews of every nationality in its actions. If I were a Jew I would strongly resent this. The truth is that many Jews around the world took to the streets to protest against Israeli actions.
It is because I have always been aware of the distinction between Israeli Jews and Jews elsewhere that when the set evoked the Holocaust this did not make me feel worried about it suggesting connections I would take offence at.
Nor did it make me worried that by depicting the wrongdoings of the Israeli army using the universal image of shoes, there is the danger of implying that Jews acted like Nazis.
You write about the “complication of using the Holocaust to attack Jews”. I would take strong objection to such attempts. The only use which can legitimately be made of the Holocaust is to warn present and future generations against the ever-present possibility that humanity might descend again to the depths it did at the time of the Nazis.
It is distressing to me, therefore, when after describing to Israelis the suffering of Palestinians at the hands of Israel’s army, this is dismissed because “we Jews suffered more”.
I don’t know who you are quoting, but any Israeli — or Jew — who dismisses Palestinian suffering because “Jews suffered more” has lost his argument with you. As for war crimes, where there is evidence, I too would hope for prosecutions, whether against Israelis or any other nationality. But if we agree that what happened in Gaza is not a Holocaust, then let us agree that to appropriate Holocaust imagery in a play about Gaza might be wrong. Shoes may be universal. A pile this size is particular. The suggestion that it refers to deaths on a Holocaust scale in Gaza, and that Jews who were once victims on this scale are now the perpetrators, is irresistible.
That you do not hold Jews responsible for Gaza is a relief to me. But in the UK, where antisemitic attacks rose sharply in the wake of Israel’s attack on Gaza, it is a view that cannot be assumed to be held by everybody. And in this widely reported context, surely someone connected to the production should have asked whether an Auschwitz-style pile of shoes transmitted a message that was directed, not at Israelis, but at the Jewishness of Israelis? It appears that no one did ask that question, and that, for me, is profoundly troubling.