February 25, 2009

Criticism of Jacobson spills over to the Guardian

Jacobson's ludicrous hasbara effort appeared, as is usually the case, in the Independent. There were several letters criticising what he had written and there were some letters ignoring what he had actually written in order to support him. Well you couldn't support what he actually wrote now, could you? They seem to have stopped the, ahem, "debate" now.

Well here's Jacqueline Rose in Comment is free in the Guardian. Sadly Israel's critics are getting thinner on the ground since Matt Seaton took over and decided to look to David T from Harrys Place as an adviser on what's antisemitic and what's not. So let's make the most of these hasbara antidotes when they appear:
In his critique of Caryl Churchill's Seven Jewish Children in the Independent last week, Howard Jabobson laments what he describes as the "unreasoning", "deranged", "hysteria" and "virulence" he sees as currently directed against Israel. It is indeed a time to be sober, but his piece offers no such antidote to unreason. In fact, quite the opposite.

First of all, Jacobson and other critics of the play seem to me to have misread its fundamental nature. Seven Jewish Children is not a diatribe. Instead, it offers a set of voices in pained dialogue with each other about how to tell a child an unbearable history. Its central refrain is "Tell her", "Don't tell her". It therefore stages for its audience the vexed question of how adults, in the very words they use, can best fulfil their responsibilities towards the next generation at a time of historical crisis. What story should be told? War hardens language as well as hearts. In this context, to allow the speakers such anguished uncertainty is a gift. In its final scene – which is shocking, as Churchill herself describes it – the crude rhetoric of war has won. This is a tragedy.

The question then becomes: how did a people who can fairly claim to be among the most persecuted, if not the most persecuted, in history come to be the violent oppressors of another people? Hence the journey of the play from the Holocaust to Gaza – three of its seven scenes are set in Europe – as well as the title, Seven Jewish, as opposed to Seven Israeli, Children, to which critics have also objected. The point is to make us think about how trauma transmutes itself into ruthless self-defence. To suggest that this is what has happened to the Israeli people is not antisemitic. It was Primo Levi who described, in his novel The Truce, the Palestinians as the "Jews of the Jews". Jacobson is out of tune with some of Israel's most revered writers who do not hesitate to make the link between the founding of Israel and past persecution of the Jews. Thus S Yizhar, in his famous 1948 short story, Khirbet Khizeh, depicts an Israeli soldier in the process of evacuating an Arab village, suddenly struck with the analogy between the Palestinian predicament and the exile of his forefathers: "Our nation's protest to the world: exile! … What had we perpetrated here today?" Yizhar is hardly, to use Jabobson's words, "punishing Jews with their own grief", or "cancelling out all debts of guilt and sorrow". He is warning the new nation of the perils of what it is doing to the Palestinians, a reality of which Gaza is merely the most recent, devastating instance.

Repeatedly, Jacobson selects lines from the play as if they self-evidently supported his case. But how can a line like this one – "Tell her it's the land God gave us" – be antisemitic, when David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, stated more than once, "The Bible is our Mandate"? Or, to take another example: "Tell her we're the iron fist now," when it was early Zionist Vladimir Jabotinsky who coined the concept of the "iron wall" to convey the idea that the new Jewish nation should be invincible in order to force the Arabs into submission. Unusual for acknowledging the inherent violence of Zionism, Jabotinsky has been the inspiration for Begin, Netanyahu, Sharon and Olmert. Even some of the most provocative statements in the last scene: "Tell her they don't understand anything but violence," or "Tell her you can't believe what you see on television" are routinely made by Israeli politicians – the last by Mark Regev, Olmert's spokesman, during the Gaza offensive when questioned about Palestinian casualties by Jon Snow.

Jacobson asks for balance. First of all, despite his insistence to the contrary, critics of Israel's actions in Gaza, among whom I count myself, have clearly condemned the Hamas rocket attacks on the civilian population of Israel. Nor have critics of Israel, Jewish and non-Jewish, hesitated to criticise Palestinian politics, as he also implies they have, or indeed hesitated to call for understanding between the two peoples. The late Edward Said would be the most obvious example. Nevertheless, Jacobson seems to be living in an unreal political world. How balanced, for example, is this comment: "Was not the original withdrawal from Gaza and the dismantling of the rightly despised settlements a sufficient signal of peaceful intent, and a sufficient opportunity for it to be reciprocated?' The answer to this rhetorical question must surely be no. Here, a few facts might be in order. In the year following the pull-out of 8,000 settlers from Gaza, 12,000 new settlers were moved into the West Bank. In August 2004, Sharon's senior adviser, Dov Weisglass, stated unequivocally that the objective was to "freeze the political process" and "prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state".

At moments, it is hard to know what Jacobson knows and what he doesn't know (to rephrase one of his objections to Churchill). He cites Ben-Gurion's declaration that Arab rights "must be guarded and honoured punctiliously" with no allusion whatsoever to the discrimination towards its own Arab citizens that has characterised Israel since its birth. Nor when he refers to the expulsion of Jews from East Jerusalem, does he mention the expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians in 1948 (half of whom had left before a single shot was fired in the 1948 war), not to speak of the occupation, which has now lasted more than twice as long as the period between 1967 and the founding of the state.
If you've got a strong stomach you can listen to Jacqueline Rose debating some of these issues with Geoffrey Alderman on BBC Radio 4.


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