Checkmate! Why I conceded to JC editor in our Israel debate

The only sensible response to someone coming up with an idea that challenges a settled, considered position you hold is to rethink it, not to get angry or try and change the subject

September 14, 2023 15:38

I like to think I’m good at arguing (others might say: you mean argumentative). I particularly like to think, having done a lot of it since I wrote a book about it, that I’m good at arguing about antisemitism. I’m going to suggest, in fact, that you can look back at most of the interviews and debates I’ve done about Jews not counting and struggle to find a bit where I, to use the modern internet jargon, take the L.

But, of course, as Sun Tzu says in The Art of War, “Even for a great General, the danger of continued victory is complacency.” OK, Sun Tzu doesn’t say this, but its long been my contention that you can make up almost any quote from The Art of War and no one will know, unless, like now, you tell them. He did, however, say that the best time to strike is when your enemy is not expecting it — not really that much of an strategic insight but hey — and this was my key error when going into battle, without realising I was going into battle, with Jake Wallis Simons.

In case you don’t know, dear reader, JWS, as I’m now going to refer to him, partly because it makes him sound like something between a rapper and a Jewish school, is the editor of this very newspaper, who interviewed me recently for the JC podcast. Which is why I didn’t realise I was going into battle. I write for this bloody paper, for Hashem’s sake.

Either way, I’m going to take my Kippah off to JWS. Because, at one point in the podcast, he played a Knight’s Move of Bobby Fischer quality over my position on Israel (JWS is heavily equipped on this subject, having just written a book called Israelophobia). As many of you are no doubt aware, that position is: it’s a foreign country. Jews who don’t live there are not responsible for it, and the assumption by progressives that they are, is antisemitic. This position pisses off progressives, and I’ve noticed, also pisses off some Jews, including some progressive Jews, who feel deeply connected to Israel. I don’t.

It’s here that JWS burrowed in, like a mole into my arguments, by using not just Jews Don’t Count but my new book, The God Desire. In The God Desire, I say that it’s impossible for me, even as an atheist, not to have an emotional response to Judaism, because the religion, or at least the continuance of it over so many centuries, is emblematic of Jewish survival, and I will always be moved by Jewish survival. JWS said: “So why don’t you feel an emotional connection to Israel — surely it’s a great example of Jewish survival?”

I felt a twinge of something here, of a different attack strategy than I’m used to. But I had a defence: “The Jewish survival I’m talking about is the one my family, on both sides, are examples of: survival against the odds, of small communities clinging on to their culture whilst fleeing away from much more powerful regimes. Israel is not an example of that.” Sorted, I thought. Another W for me. 

But no. JWS had another well-researched comeback: “Yes, but you are a big fan of Dara Horn’s book People Love Dead Jews. And in that, she speaks of the fetishization of the vulnerable Jew — of the dysfunctional tendency for people to revere Jews but only as long as they are weak and fleeing, never when powerful or strong… haven’t you fallen into that trap?”

I opened my mouth for the response. And realised the only true one was: yeah, maybe. Which is what I said. Because this was a really good point that I hadn’t considered before. I’m still thinking about it. It hasn’t changed my basic argument about non-Israeli Jews and the Middle East — because I just don’t feel the kind of reflex emotional (and political) connection that many Jews do — but it has given me pause to consider why that might be.

Beyond the endless conversation about Israel, though, I’m making another point here. It’s important, in avoidance of the idiotic performative binaries of today, that, even if you have an apparently settled position on a big issue, if someone else comes up with an idea that means you must rethink that position, you do so. You don’t, as social media insists, get angry or insulting or change the subject, anything to avoid the appearance of losing in public.

Otherwise there is no hope for conversation and therefore for humanity. And please, don’t resort to snide hidden references after the event to undermine the other’s argument. Like for example, comparing their clever intellectual move to that of a chess player who was an avowed antisemite. 

September 14, 2023 15:38

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