Hate bubbles under cosy England

In this country, antisemitism is hidden and wrapped up in rhetoric, protests and plays like ‘Seven Jewish Children’

By Howard Jacobson, February 19, 2009

How to understand the over-and-above hatred expressed for Israel during and after the fighting in Gaza — the hysteria of the condemnation, the unreasoning loathing, the poisons we can taste on our tongues? However we try we must remember the mantra: “It is not antisemitism. It is just ‘criticism’ of Israel.”

I say “the fighting in Gaza”, because that more justly describes the event than the “massacre” and “slaughter” in universal favour with anti-Israel demonstrators. This is not a linguistic ploy on my part to play down the horror of Gaza. In an article in the Independent last week, Robert Fisk argued that “a Palestinian woman and her child are as worthy of life as a Jewish woman and her child on the back of a lorry in Auschwitz”. I am not sure who he was arguing with, but it certainly isn’t me. I no more wish to harm or see harmed the hair of a single Palestinian than do those who make cause, here in safe, cosy-old, easy-come easy-go England, with Hamas. Indeed, given Hamas’s record of violence against its own people it’s possible I wish to harm the hair of a single Palestinian less. But that might be rhetoric, in which case I apologise for it.

Rhetoric is precisely what has warped report and analysis these past months, making life fraught for most English Jews who, like me, do not differentiate between the worth of Jewish and Palestinian lives, though the imputation — loud and clear in a new hate-fuelled little chamber-piece by Caryl Churchill — is that Jews do.

“Massacre” and “slaughter” are rhetorical terms. They determine the issue before it can begin to be discussed. Are you for massacre or are you not? When did you stop slaughtering your wife? I watched demonstrators approach members of the public with their petitions. “Do you want an end to the slaughter in Gaza?” What is one expected to reply? “No, I want it to continue unabated.”

If “massacre” presumes indiscriminate, “slaughter” presumes innocence. In Gaza the innocent have suffered unbearably. But it is in the nature of modern war, where soldiers no longer toss grenades at one another from their trenches, that the innocent pay. Live television pictures of civilian fatalities rightly distress and anger us. Similar pictures of the damage this country did to the innocent of Berlin would have distressed and angered us no less. The outrage we feel does credit to our humanity, but says nothing about the justice of a particular war. As for ‘indiscriminate’, it is hard to imagine any action more indiscriminate than Hamas’s rocket attacks on Israel. Their inefficiency is often cited to minimise the offence. As though murderous intention can be mitigated by the obsolescence of the weaponry. If anything, the inefficiency only exacerbates the crime.

When it comes to Hamas we hear no evil; when it comes to Israel we hear no good. We accept every rumour, every body count from the one side, we turn our backs on whatever doesn’t suit us in relation to the other — whether it’s Amnesty’s condemnation of Hamas’ executions and use of human shields, or the UN’s revising of the “clerical error” that caused it to mis-describe the bombing of that UN school which at the time proved beyond all doubt Israel’s savagery. It now turns out that Israel did not bomb the school at all, but the libel sticks, the retraction goes unnoticed.

But I am not allowed to ascribe any of this to antisemitism. It is criticism of Israel, pure and simple.

A laughably benign locution, “criticism”, 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 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. Writing in the Independent, Bruce Anderson 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. That’s a high expectation, but I am in sympathy with it, and it is an expectation in line with what Israel’s greatest writers and peace campaigners — Amos Oz, AB Yehoshua, David Grossman — have been saying for years. Though it is interesting that not one of those believed such magnanimity included allowing Hamas’s rockets to go on falling unhindered into Israel.

Magnanimity is by definition unilateral, but it takes two for it to be more than a suicidal gesture. And the question has to be asked whether a Jewish state, however magnanimous, will ever be accepted in the Middle East.

But my argument is not with the Palestinians or even with Hamas. People in the thick of it pursue their own agenda as best they can. But what’s our agenda? 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. Don’t mistake me: every Palestinian killed in Gaza is a Palestinian too many, but there is not the remotest similarity, either in intention or in deed — even in the most grossly mis-reported deed — between Gaza and Warsaw.

So why is Warsaw invoked? The answer’s plain: to wound Jews in their recent and most anguished history; to punish them with their own grief. Its aim is a sort of retrospective retribution, cancelling out all debts of guilt and sorrow, 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 — is pity forfeitable? — is the latest species of Holocaust denial, infinitely more subtle than the David Irving version with its quibbles over 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 Jews of trying to profit from it, or to claim, in pseudo scientific language, that it has deranged them — Jews needing to visit upon others the traumas suffered by themselves, with Israel figuring as the torture room in which they do it. This is pretty well the thesis of Caryl Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children, an audacious ten-minute encapsulation of Israel’s moral collapse — audacious for the amount of malice it squeezes into the time .

The play is conceived in the form of a family roundelay, with different voices chiming in to suggest the best way to bring up, protect, inform, and 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, 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.

Anyone with scant knowledge of the history of Israeli-Palestinian relations — that is to say, judging from what they chant, the majority of anti-Israel demonstrators — would assume from this that Jews descended as from a clear blue sky, with no prior association with the land other than in religious fantasy and through some scarce remembered genealogical affiliation: “Tell her it’s the land God gave us/... Tell her her great great great great lots of greats grandad lived there”. As though we are as vague about our history as that.

The staccato form of the piece — every line beginning “Tell her” or “Don’t tell her” — suggests a people not just forever fraught and frightened but forever covert and deceitful. Nothing is true. Everything is mediated through the desire to put the best face, first on fear, then on devious appropriation, and finally on evil. Quite simply, 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 brief mention of suicide bombers and 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, about the cleansing of the Jewish population of East Jersusalem at about the time our Holocaust-crazed survivors turn up with murder in their hearts.

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 feeling happy when they see Palestinian “children covered in blood”.

Antisemitic? No, no. Just criticism of Israel.

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. This is Jew-hating pure and simple — Jew-hating which the haters don’t even recognise in themselves, so acculturated is it — the Jew-hating which many of us have always suspected was the only explanation for the disgust that contorts and disfigures faces when the mere word Israel crops up in conversation. So for that we are grateful. At last that mystery is solved and that lie finally nailed. No, you don’t have to be an antisemite to criticise Israel. It just so happens that you are.

If one could simply leave them to it, one would. It’s a hell of its own making, hating Jews for a living. Only think of the company you must keep. But these things are catching. Take Michael Billington’s somnolent review of the play in the Guardian. I would imagine that any accusation of antisemitism would horrify Michael Billington. And I certainly don’t make it. But if you wanted an example of how language itself can sleepwalk the most innocent towards racism, then here it is. “Churchill shows us,” he writes, “how Jewish children are bred to believe in the ‘otherness’ of Palestinians...”

It is not just the elision of Israeli children into Jewish children that is alarming, or the unquestioning acceptance of Caryl Churchill’s 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 as truth. Fact: Jews breed children to deny Palestinians their humanity. Watching another play in the same week, Billington complains about its manipulation of racial stereotypes. He doesn’t even notice the inconsistency.

And so it happens. A gradual habituation to the language of loathing. And soon, before you know it…

Not here, though. Not in easy-come easy-go England.

This is an edited version of a piece that first appeared in the Independent

Last updated: 10:33am, February 19 2009