Jews in their own words… so long as they don’t say ‘Israel’

For all their differences, Jonathan Freedland and David Baddiel's views on Israel converge in the old discomfort: Israel just won’t give them the Jew they want

February 09, 2023 09:39

Show me a Jew who doesn’t have a Jew-related secret, who isn’t made uncomfortable by this or that aspect of Jewishness and I will show you a Jew who isn’t getting full value out of being one.

The best Jews have always been the most ambivalent. I’m not talking about Hebrews-in-Hiding who hate the whole caboodle, stick another barrel in their names and join polo clubs; but those who just wish Woody Allen hadn’t made every Jew in his films neurotic, resent the assumption that all Jews love bagels, and loudly proclaim their reservations about Israel.

Ah yes, Israel. As our standing in the civilized world improves and there are fewer and fewer things for us to be self-conscious about, Israel picks up the slack. Israel keeps us honest. Israel allows us to sneak some of the old self-loathing back.

I didn’t have a fanatically pro-Israeli boyhood. My parents were positive but not passionate. I didn’t dance the hora in Habonim, didn’t visit the country till I was in my late forties, and never gave Zionism a great deal of thought. The fact that the novelist George Eliot was a Zionist settled it.

What was good enough for a woman of such capacious intelligence was good enough for me. And anyway, what better idea for saving the lives of tens of thousands of Jews in 19th century Europe had anyone come up with?

The peril in which those Jews lived is enough of an argument for Zionism, before we get into what else it aspired to do. Whatever doubts we might entertain about the way Zionism has turned out must accommodate its original necessity. The job of any thinking Jew, then, is to find a way of articulating that accommodation.

Which means, to begin with, rejecting outright the leftist assertion, Corbynite or not, that Zionism was a racist, colonial project from the outset. That so uninformed a view has grown to be so widely held, even among otherwise educated Jews, is enough to make the angels weep.

We who are not angels, however, don’t have that luxury and need to set about refuting the falsehood.

So when Jonathan Freedland asked me to be one of the Jews played by an actor in his Jews. In Their Own Words at the Royal Court last year, and David Baddiel invited me to contribute my twopennorth to his Jews Don’t Count documentary on Channel 4, I saw two important opportunities to talk primarily about Israel — Israel not as a place where the taxi drivers are sometimes rude, but Israel as an idea, Israel whose vicissitudes matter to every Jew, Israel whose failure, if it does fail, is profoundly tragic.

I will sound foolish if I complain that having been given so much stage and air space to say my say, I couldn’t get a word in edgeways.

But that was what it felt like. Zoe Strimpel was right to argue in this paper last year that Jonathan Freedland’s Jews. In Their Own Words fell into the “anti-Zionist trap” by giving no voice — I would prefer to say inadequate voice — to Jews for whom Israel is not a cause for embarrassment and regret.

Precisely because I was one of the Jewish voices, I felt this criticism keenly. I can’t be sure that the argument she thought lacking was the argument I made. But I can say that few of my thoughts on the subject made it into the play.

To be clear, there is nothing sinister about this; I was not being silenced. Editing is a tough job and I am said to be hard to edit. I have been on the other side of this process and know how often one has to ditch material one would like to keep.

My arguments didn’t fit the play’s narrative, that was all. And yes, maybe someone else would have expressed them better. But without anyone expressing them, Zoe Strimpel was right: the play capitulated to the usual negative view of Israel and felt pusillanimous in the very area it needed to be brave.

The same, I think, can be said of David Baddiel’s documentary for Channel 4, where my argument for the centrality of anti-Zionism to any consideration of why Jews do or do not count ended up on the cutting-room floor.

Baddiel and Freedland think differently when it comes to Israel. “Israel shmisrael” is not something we can imagine Freedland ever saying. Baddiel’s affinitylessness with Israel — which is pretty much how he puts it — is so well known as to make one wonder why he wants it to be.

What, no affinity with Aharon Appelfeld or David Grossman or Amos Oz? No affinity with Shtisel or Fauda? No affinity with the blue synagogues of Safed? Well, it’s his business. But it severely weakens his analysis of antisemitism, which in our time finds a welcoming home in anti-Zionism, not to engage with what anti-Zionists are saying.

Intellectually, one cannot claim to grasp the nettle of Jew-hating — especially among the progressive left, which is Baddiel’s target — if the psychology of its most potent contemporary expression, even more potent than football fans calling Spurs supporters “Yids”, doesn’t interest you.

In the stage play and the television documentary, Freedland and Baddiel allowed themselves to be distracted by the question of whether or not an English Jew bears responsibility for Israel’s heinous misdeeds.

There’s a right and a wrong way of answering that. “We are not our brother’s keeper” is the wrong way. “He is not even our brother” is worse still. Insist your innocence of someone else’s heinous misdeeds and all you do is concede the heinousness.

To deny affinity with Israel is to deny affinity with Jewish history. The marauding, child-murdering colonialists of anti-Zionist propaganda (see Caryl Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children) are the same hated Jews of 2,000 years ago: separatists, thieves and blood-suckers, long before there was an Israeli soldier patrolling the West Bank.

The same calumnies and caricatures proliferate, only this time the Z-word stands in for the J-word.

Whoever would engage with the double-think of antisemitism today cannot be indifferent to the creeping menace of this shape-shifting. Israel is where antisemitism has migrated. But heigh-ho, “Israel-Shmisrael”. Israeli Jews don’t count.

One cannot accuse Jonathan Freedland of indifference to Israel. For years now, his Guardian column has extolled the country’s achievements while scrupulously criticising “the occupation”.

But is his scrupulousness — as, for example, in the matter of just what words Jews. In Their Own Words speak — too one-sided? Does it lack the tragic dimension of Amos Oz’s vision of Israel’s relations with Palestinians as a catastrophic collision of two rights (latterly two wrongs), and does it leave too much of the old calumny standing?

For all their differences — Freedland the formidably acute and considered thinker, Baddiel the no less formidable polemicist — their views on Israel converge in the old discomfort. Israel just won’t give them the Jew they want.

Israel’s disobligingness, when it comes to the feelings of the diaspora Jew, is long-standing. We have all lost friends to Zionism. But to take the fight to antisemitism means confronting it where it thinks it has the strongest case. There’s no point running a good race only to fall in sight of the finishing line.

February 09, 2023 09:39

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