Will new president Hassan Rouhani give the people of Iran a genuine sniff of freedom? Will its writers be able to publish without fear for their personal safety? Will its readers now be able to obtain Joyce’s Ulysses?
It always pays to keep in mind the distinction between a nation’s leaders and its people. Last year, Germany’s most distinguished writer, Gunter Grass, published a poem, What Must be Said, in which he stated that he’d “had enough of the hypocrisy of the West” as exhibited by its turning a blind eye to Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons while condemning Iran’s pursuit of them.
If this is hypocrisy, then it is of a most benign variety, favouring a state whose inhabitants are free over one that oppresses its population. But, for Grass, “Israel” seems to mean its (wicked) government and “Iran” its (innocent) people, notwithstanding that it is Iran’s government that threatens to “erase” Israel’s population.
In Israel, such leading practitioners of Gunter Grass’s trade as Amos Oz, A B Yehoshua and David Grossman are frequently and fervently at odds with the government. In Iran, too, many of its subjects despise the clerical regime that extends its writ of punitive censorship — or worse — to writers of other nationalities, most famously Salman Rushdie, upon whose head fell the Koranic wrath of the late Ayatollah Khomeini in response to Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses.
And what slice of society constitutes Gunter Grass’s hypocritical “West”? For, while democratic governments are forced to confront realities, it is their constituents who enjoy the luxury of expressing opinions, be they wise or ill-considered. Look no further for the latter than today’s bien pensants in Western media, trade unions and what were once called “seats of learning” — and not just on Israel and Iran.
In his book The Tyranny of Guilt, French philosopher Pascal Bruckner diagnoses a pathology causing “the eternally guilty” Judeo-Christian West to avoid criticising Third World or Islamic countries or their citizens, however horrific their actions. Instead, secular Western philosophy of the past half-century, “in the guise of atheism”, enjoins us to heap blame upon ourselves because of our “original sin”. And while there are mosques in Jerusalem, Canterbury and Rome, you won’t find synagogues or churches in Mecca, Jeddah or Riyadh.
In this climate, the Middle East’s “Western interloper”, Israel, is an obvious target for self-flagellation. Not that it hurts, because of course there is a handy proxy available, one already possessed of centuries of scapegoat experience — the Jew. Bruckner cites the comment of an earlier French philosopher, Vladimir Jankelevitch, who calls anti-Zionism “a rare Godsend, because it gives us permission… to be antisemitic in the name of democracy”. Bruckner himself argues that supporters of the Palestinians “are not hoping to aid flesh-and-blood human beings but pure ideas”.
Writers like Bruckner and Jankelevitch demonstrate the importance of combating antisemitism by exposing it in print. Of course, there is plenty of antisemitic literature too — so much of it in the modern Middle East that Bernard Lewis, the eminent historian of the region, has suggested that “classical antisemitism is an essential part of Arab intellectual life at the present time, almost as much as… in Nazi Germany”. This only serves to increase the value of such analytical works on antisemitism as Robert Wistrich’s The Longest Hatred, and Trials of the Diaspora by Anthony Julius, which is particularly interesting on the pervasiveness of antisemitism in English literature.
Essays, too, contribute to this vital task, like those by David Hirst, Norman Geras and Eve Garrard in the current issue of Bicom’s Fathom magazine.
The more that serious, humane fiction and non-fiction flourish, the more the perverse and idiotic nature of the antisemitic mind will become apparent. Even when it appears in such elevated scribblings as the newly discovered, 400-page diaries of Hitler’s ideologue Alfred Rosenberg, whose Nazi best-seller, The Myth of the Twentieth Century, was described by historian William Shirer as “a ludicrous concoction of half-baked ideas”.