What we talk about when we talk about Netanyahu

In hostile circles, condemning Bibi is a ventriloquist’s dummy for the oldest hatred


Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives to attend the weekly cabinet meeting in the prime minister's office in Jerusalem on July 30, 2023. (Photo by ABIR SULTAN / POOL / AFP) (Photo by ABIR SULTAN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

April 10, 2024 14:27

What do we talk about when we talk about Israel? These days, the debate is rarely about the country itself. Rather, the Jewish homeland is used as a proxy for talking about the talker: their politics, their morality, how they want to be seen.

Occasionally, tribal conservatives hold the right side of the argument without the right reasons. Their support is better than their opprobrium, I suppose, but I couldn’t help but roll my eyes at the Tory politician who, after learning that I edited the JC, placed his hand over his heart and intoned a performative “Shalom”. That wasn’t about me. It certainly wasn’t about Israel. It was about him.

More commonly, however, you find this attitude on the Left. How many British trade unionists, students, NHS staff and lecturers without the slightest personal connection to the region display a Palestinian flag in their X/Twitter bio? How many of them have ever visited the place? How many base their views on anything other than the social media echo chamber?

Why do they do it? As the saying goes, for reasons of their own. Some of those marching on Saturdays, I suspect, are young people disenfranchised by the commercialisation of higher education, the collapse of the housing ladder, rampant inflation, soaring taxes, the incompetence of our political classes and the eye-watering cost of rent. They may know next to nothing about Israel, let alone Gaza. (What river? What sea?) As they vandalise the statue of Winston Churchill and jostle with the police, the Jewish state has become a cipher for the establishment.

Others, steeped in Hamas propaganda, truly believe that the Jews are wilfully killing babies. If that was the case, why would anybody not protest?

It’s even deeper than that. One of the most regrettable shifts in the narrative around Israel is the way in which it has become a badge of personal politics. The further you tack to the right, the more committed you become to Team Blue-and-White; steer into the depths of the hard-left and you’d better own a keffiyeh.

As shallow as it sounds, this is what drives many activists onto the streets today. The top way to be a bona fide progressive is to accuse the Jews of genocide. No thinking required.

Few Queers for Palestine, I suspect, have actually met a Palestinian (or considered how they might handle such an awkward encounter). Few of the self-regarding MPs campaigning for a “permanent ceasefire” have a realistic plan for what might happen next. What is their proposal for a secure two-state solution, given the fact that the Palestinian leadership is corrupt, authoritarian and inept, Israeli politics are dysfunctional, almost three-quarters of the Palestinians supported October 7, and most of Israel’s citizens and infrastructure are found within the Hadera-Gadera rectangle, a nine-mile-wide strip of land that would end up sandwiched between two flanks of a hostile Palestinian state ripe for Iranian infiltration? Answers on a postcard, please. In the meantime, accuse the Jews of genocide. Simples.

I think sometimes of the “art workers for Palestine” who staged a sit-in at the Tate Modern to demand a ceasefire. Did they imagine Benjamin Netanyahu barking into his telephone, “What, now the art workers are staging a sit-in? Get the troops out now?” Or were they displaying their colours to their mates?

It has been this way forever. In his 1976 book about the Yom Kippur War, To Jerusalem and Back, Saul Bellow spoke of two Israels. The first, he wrote, the Israel of reality, was almost “insignificant”, accounting for less than a quarter of a per cent of the Middle East, with a population that at the time numbered three million in a region that was home to 75 times that number.

The second, however, the Israel of the imagination, was “immense, a country inestimably important, playing a major role in the world, as broad as all history and perhaps as deep as sleep.” That is what we talk about when we talk about disproportionality. It is the Jerusalem of William Blake, with added Jew-hatred.

Which brings me to my final question: What do we talk about when we talk about Netanyahu? So far, of course, I’ve been circling Raymond Carver’s famous 1981 short story, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. In it, a woman called Terri insists that her violent ex-boyfriend loved her. Carver writes: “Terri said the man… loved her so much he tried to kill her. Then Terri said, ‘He beat me up one night. He dragged me around the living room by my ankles. He kept saying, I love you, I love you, you bitch. He went on dragging me around the living room. My head kept knocking on things.’ Terri looked around the table. ‘What do you do with love like that?’” If the Prime Minister is cast as the boyfriend and Israel as Terri, perhaps the answer to our question lies within the story itself.

But only when talking among friends. In hostile circles, condemning Bibi is a ventriloquist’s dummy for the oldest hatred. If replacing “Jew” with “Zionist” gives antisemitism a fresh disguise, exchanging “Israel” for “Netanyahu” can camouflage it further. Call it a “far-right government” and you can even get away with accusing Jews of relishing the blood of babies. (After all, Passover is approaching.)

It goes without saying, of course, that Israel’s far-right is contemptible. But that is not the reason for this war. That is not the reason that Israel is risking the lives of its sons for the death of Hamas. The majority of the population is in favour of an invasion of Rafah, not because they believe in Netanyahu’s love as he drags them around the living room, but because they want their children to live. That’s what we should talk about when we talk about the war.

April 10, 2024 14:27

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive