Review: The Myths of Liberal Zionism

By Jonathan Beckman, April 1, 2010

By Yitzhak Laor
Verso, £14.99

Somewhere inside this tendentious rant are the seeds of much better book. It would be about the strangeness of Israel's attitude towards Europe: how does it psychologically accommodate its close relationship to countries that connived in the destruction of so many Jews? And why does it so vigorously aspire to envisage itself as Western?

Yitzhak Laor, the Israeli novelist and poet, sees the compact as mutually beneficial. Europe embraces the Israeli Other (to use Laor's terminology), which retains a Western identity while being geographically distinct, to provide cover for the demonisation of Islam. Israel makes use of European oriental stereotypes to justify to the world its treatment of the Palestinians.

Laor contends that it is liberal intellectuals, such as Claude Lanzmann and Alain Finkielkraut in France, and Amos Oz and David Grossman in Israel, who are the most egregious perpetuators of these views.

It would be implausible to expect from a man of the hard Left any sympathy for moderation. Even so, his arguments are comically inept. His sweeping generalisations about national - even continental - character are based on the flimsiest of foundations. Apparently, German identity is mediated through identification with Israel, because an Israeli flag was once "prominently displayed" at an Evangelical Christian rally and there are some streets named after Rabin and Ben-Gurion.

Laor's arguments are comically inept

A single Finkielkraut essay leads Laor to conclude that the memory of the Shoah is deployed by "the majority of the West's contemporary political leaders and opinion makers" to label as antisemitic anyone criticising Israel. Of course, no one would ever invoke the Holocaust when attacking Israel, would they? Even a cursory glance at a selection of European newspapers would show the contested and fluid nature of the West's attitude to itself - and to Israel.

Laor also contradicts himself when portraying members of the Peace Now camp. In his reductively Marxist conception, writers do not think. Through some sociological voodoo, they instinctively spout the ideological line. After Camp David, David Grossman "obeyed the call for pro-Israeli writing abroad". Perhaps he simply wrote what he believed. But Laor despises Amos Oz and AB Yehoshua so intensely (he devotes a chapter to each) that he is prepared to grant them agency. The former is a craven sentimentalist, manipulating with guilt and pity for the Jewish plight to wangle a Nobel Prize. The latter is a racist wanting to bleach himself of his Sephardi roots. There is no appreciation of how wider social forces might influence the way they engage with their own heritage.

The inveterate Israel-hater José Saramago contributes a foreword in which he shows no indication of actually having read the book. For such readers, Laor serves merely as a shield of David with which to defend themselves while lambasting Israel. It is ironic that a writer who condemns Israel as colonial should find himself so easily appropriated.

Jonathan Beckman is the assistant editor of the Literary Review

Last updated: 3:16pm, February 18 2011