A Rose is a Rose is a Rose is etc
A 'London Review of Books' article promising the unexpected will, to its readers, deliver quite the opposite
On the second leg of a train trip to Kiev, I began to think on the proposition that where you say something matters as much, if not more than, what you say.
The provocateuse was Professor Jacqueline Rose, whose very, very long article in the London Review of Books I was reading. Her piece - "J'accuse. Dreyfus in our times" - purports to examine what might be learned from the late 19th-century case of the Jewish officer in the French army, falsely convicted of treason and transported, and the subsequent scandal.
Rose identified the Dreyfus affair as involving the struggle for justice, the corruption of state and army, the "outpouring of antisemitism" and the fate of the Jews. And then tantalised her readers by promising that "the lessons I draw… may not --- by the end --- be those most obviously expected." Expected by the LRB reader, presumably.
What, then, might so surprise the person who has leafed through a dozen round-robins from Jews for Justice for Palestinians; Tariq Ali reiterating his "visceral hatred" for Tony Blair; others defending the Sudanese government from the charge of genocide; and a gazillion words marking the USA and Israel as rogue nations?
Nothing whatsoever. Jacqueline Rose's lessons from the Dreyfus Affair are just about exactly what I expected. She warns those who might think otherwise that the passage from French antisemitism of the late 19th century to that of the mid 20th century, "is not the only story and those who tell it risk blinding themselves to what Israel as a nation of Jewish people did to the Palestinians in order to become a nation, and no less to what Israel has become." In other words, the lesson of Dreyfus is Israel's bad behaviour over Gaza. No proposition - I mean none - could disconcert an LRB reader less.
So, then, the Dreyfus lesson is about Israel's behaviour over Gaza
Well, let's say she's not totally wrong, as far as that goes. But would her thesis not apply to any nation founded partly on the displacement of others (ie almost all of them), or any situation, from colonial India to Cuba, where people are falsely charged, demonised and imprisoned?
Now suppose for a moment that Professor Rose had discerned, as she might well have been able to, the didactic elements of Dreyfus in the way that Hamas rules Gaza? Imagine how not obviously expected by her readers that would have been! Though the question arises whether her words would have been printed there.
And would the LRB, on the very next page, have carried a supportive critique of Anthony Julius's Trials of the Diaspora? Instead, that is, of the largely negative one written by the historian Diarmaid MacCulloch?
Almost entirely neutral on the amazing scale of Julius's achievement and the bulk of his analysis, MacCulloch allows that Julius here, "analyses the type effectively", or there, "writes with perceptiveness and nuance", but not that Julius's book is, for all that it may have flaws, the gold standard work on the subject of English antisemitism.
And why, in the end, can MacCulloch not recommend the book to those who doubt Christianity's behaviour to the Jews? Because of the final section on modern antisemitism, in which Julius includes some anti-Zionism. Does MacCulloch have his own analysis of any crossover between the two? Not a single word.
Beware of people telling you what you want to hear. Beware of Jewish journals in which Rose and MacCulloch are never heard (it was excellent that Moeen Elhelou had a column from Gaza in last week's JC).
Beware of mags like the LRB where a different voice is never heard, beware of the Mail, the Telegraph and the Guardian. Read the people and opinions that make you uncomfortable, not the ones that try to surprise you with the utterly predictable.