Gaza, criticising Israel and Howard Jacobson

The three-week offensive Israel launched on Gaza on 27 December has predictably led to a re-airing of the argument about whether and to what degree it is possible to criticise Israel without being anti-Semitic. This is the conflict that receives more coverage and more passion than any other in today’s world and how the arguments about it are handled is important in the evolution of our political culture. This post goes into this treacherous subject at some length.

Charge and counter-charge

The dispute was re-opened by Howard Jacobson in The Independent on 18 February, arguing, under the heading of “Let’s see ‘criticism’ of Israel for what it really is,” that the attacks on Israel he had seen revealed an underlying viciousness and hatred that he could only explain as reflecting anti-Semitism, a criticism of criticism he repeatedly and exasperatedly stated that he was ‘not allowed’ to use. Among the targets of his criticism is a playlet by Caryl Churchill at the Royal Court Theatre – a ten-minute ‘history’ of Israel, ‘”Seven Jewish Children” – and the playwright inevitably replied in the Independent’s correspondence column that the charge of anti-Semitism was the usual response of Israel’s supporters to well-founded criticism.

This is extremely well-trod territory, through which nobody ever makes any forward progress, and in fact what was expressed in the newspaper’s letters page was calm and reasoned while in the blogosphere the response to Jacobson, as he must have foreseen, included much that was neither.

But overall I think Caryl Churchill is wrong and unhelpful to dismiss Howard Jacobson’s article as more of the same old conflation repeatedly made by Israel’s supporters of anti-Israel opinion with anti-Semitic sentiment. So far as I could tell what he was objecting to was not the argument but the refusal to argue, to debate, to listen and disagree. As a result, while his article often comes close to the standard conflation, it is actually a much more subtle and reasoned polemic, and as such it is more worth engaging with.

Lack of proportion

The first thing I think it is worth saying is that it is undoubtedly true that the issue of Israel and, most recently, its assault on Gaza – and before that many other general and specific instances around which the polemical temperature rises – can generate extraordinary diatribes of hatred and non-reason. Contemplating the events in January, I wrote a very short post that simply advised people to  look at a couple of web-sites of Israeli NGOs that I thought made particularly admirable and valid attempts to collate the facts about what was happening. The one response it elicited was a statement that Israel should be destroyed. Given the comments Israel’s critics make about the lack of proportionality in its attack on Gaza, it might sometimes be worth taking a look at some of the critics’ mind-set.

But nor should someone be allowed to get away with claiming that unreason, diatribe and hatred are to be found only among Israel’s critics. A man is about to become prime minister of Israel who once used such violent rhetoric in denouncing a rival politician that, when the rival was assassinated, there were some who believed Binyamin Netnyahu bore some part of the moral responsibility for contributing to a political atmosphere within which the murder of Yitzhak Rabin could occur. In the US, vocal critics of Israel’s policies and actions have been harried and harrassed by Israel’s supporters.

So, yes, the debate is characterised not only by high stakes, deep partisanship, passionate concern and anger, but also by emotions for which hatred is not too strong a word, as well as a large amount of exaggeration and hyperbole – but not only from one side.

Trying for a better tone

All that said, where do we do go from here? First of all, I think everybody should accept that more heat, more charge and counter-charge is not going to do anything to help the situation of Palestinians in Gaza, Palestinians in the West Bank, or Palestinians and Israelis in Israel. More heat and more indignation at the profound injustices will not help movement toward peace. The politics of violence and confrontation from any side feeds on the violence and confrontation it generates. In the Israel-Palestine conflict and, first of all, therefore, in discussing it, we need to get away from supporting and opposing. It is not only the content of the argument that needs to improve but, before that, its tone. 

In that spirit, there are three points on which I want to contest Howard Jacobson specifically, and then an open question. If people like Howard Jacobson who care about justice and are, by his own account, equally moved by the deaths of Palestinians and Israelis, but who cannot feel comfortable with anti-Israel diatribes – if such people could acknowledge the validity of the following points, perhaps some progress might be made.

1: Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza & Occupation

In a pained voice, Jacobson asks, “Was not the original withdrawal from Gaza and the dismantling of the rightly detested settlements a sufficient signal of peaceful intent?”

It’s a straightforward question about the Gaza withdrawal, announced in August 2004 and accomplished in 2005, and there is a straightforward answer with a solid empirical basis.

The answer is no. And the empirical basis is that during the withdrawal, 19 square miles of settlement were evacuated and 8,500 settlers made to leave; at the same time 23 square miles of settlements were established in the West Bank and 14,000 settlers moved in. The signal, in short, was not about peaceful intentions or ending the occupation of Palestinian land, but rather about how Israel would henceforth organise its continued occupation.

Well, Jacobson might reasonably ask us to accept that surely there was good intent as far as Gaza specifically was concerned. But the form of occupation that Israel introduced in Gaza with its withdrawal is imprisonment. “A sufficient signal of peaceful intent” might include recognising Palestinians’ right to travel and trade freely; while Israel does not permit that, it is specious to wave the word “withdrawal” and bemoan Palestinians’ lack of peaceful response. Howard Jacobson is a novelist so he has the emotional imagination to understand how people will interpret that lack of freedom, rights and respect.

Now it is, to begin with, a shortcoming if he either does not know those facts or knows but does not care. But the bigger question is the O word – Occupation. That is what the issue is about. It is not any more about whether Israel has the right to exist. It does exist, it has legal status and when asked Hamas reluctantly produced an acknowledgement of that, as the Palestine Liberation Organisation did long ago. But occupation of the West Bank remains the big oppression and injustice. Until Jacobson has something to say on that score, he will not understand why Qassem rockets are fired, and he will not understand why Israel’s response takes the form it does and not another that is either softer or harder. In short, he will not understand the politics of the conflict until he confronts the reality of occupation.

2: Rights and dignity

Jacobson’s article is at its most provocative when refering to David Ben Gurion’s comment in 1918 that the rights of Arabs in the area must “be guarded and honoured punctiliously.” Excellent – it’s also what the British Balfour Declaration said when giving a guarded and actually pretty vague endorsement of the idea of establishing a Jewish homeland in Palestine. It’s the sort of thing a politician would say. Jacobson calls Ben Gurion in aid when contesting with Caryl Churchill over what she does and doesn’t know but it suggests an embarrassingly narrow view of Zionism. It remains worth exploring the history of Revisionist Zionism (ref: Avi Shlaim, The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World, Penguin, 2001) and seeing how some of its key views and orientations became embedded in the mainstream Zionist movement and, more to the point, the policy of Israel at and since its foundation.

The truth is that once the Zionist movement wanted not simply a place for Jews to live but a country to call their own – i.e., their own state – then wherever that state was to be, it would be for the Jews and, much less if at all, for anybody else who happened to be there then or in the future. This is a legal dilemma that Israel has been grappling with since its foundation – what rights to permit to Arabs who live in Israel proper. The state and the courts vary in their approach and especially within the judicial system there have been some moments with something quite close to even-handedness. But overall, it is hard to look at what Israeli human rights groups report and see it as evidence of a punctilious honouring of Arabs’ rights.

And this, in my view, throws up a second key issue for supporters of Israel to consider, alongside and perhaps even as a sub-set of the occupation question. Apart from the big questions about rights, freedom and independence, the daily experience of occupation is one of restriction, humiliation and indignity, sometimes relatively minor, sometimes aggressively oppressive. This is the face Israel shows Palestinians. Unless Howard Jacobson understands that – and as a novelist, I repeat, he is well placed to – he will not understand what the current phase of the conflict is about and why there is so much bitterness among Palestinians or why those who support Palestinian rights may also find cause for so much bitterness.

3: Holocaust and a perilous conflation

In a passionate passage of his article, referring to the Warsaw Ghetto and the Nazi death camps, Jacobson argues that the overblown parallel that equates Israeli actions with those of the German state in World War II is deliberately aimed “to wound Jews in their recent and most anguished history and to punish them with their own grief.” And then he moves on to assert that, “Its aim is a sort of retrospective retribution, cancelling out all debts of guilt and sorrow. It is as though, by a reversal of the usual laws of cause and effect, Jewish actions of today prove that Jews had it coming to them yesterday.”

There is a lot tangled up here and Jacobson gets onto some very dangerous territory. Firstly, I think plenty of critics of Israel do indeed want to use that “most anguished history” in their polemic – not to punish, as Jacobson charges, but to provoke, to get a reaction. It is a perfectly standard part of many discussions about Israel to ponder how it is that a state born on the back of such a grotesque injustice as the Holocaust and, before that, centuries of pogrom and discrimination, could systematically inflict injustice on other people that is of a smaller scale but even so does include discrimination and eviction from their villages and homes . Where Jacobson finds the parallel hurtful, and its discrepancies of scale wounding, others hope the parallel is educational and that the discrepancies of scale tell Israel the problem can still be fixed.

Secondly, though that’s the intention of critics who use the Holocaust parallel, I think Jacobson has a point here: it is does not seem to be a particularly effective mode of communication, precisely because it goes so close to the core of anguish. His attack in the next paragraph of his article about the cancellation of ceremonies for Holocaust Day because of Gaza is to the point: dead Jews are not guilty for what is happening now and the Israeli government’s brutality towards Palestinians does not make it less important to acknowledge the Holocaust.

Thirdly, however, when we move onto the next bit of Jacobson’s argument, the idea that reference to the Holocaust is meant to offer reverse justification of anti-Semitism is not only logically perverse and insulting, it also misses its target completely. The people who are most likely to imply that Israeli actions today prove that previous prejudice and violence against Jews were justified are those who are also most likely to deny that the Holocaust took place. And it is, by the way, no good to argue as Jacobson does that “the modern sophisticated (holocaust) denier” plays a trick by acknowledging the event in all its enormity “only to accuse the Jews of trying to profit from it.” First of all, the person who accepts the holocaust happened is, by definition, not a denier. Secondly, whether Jews profit from the holocaust is not the point: the issue is a political one, and it would be interesting to hear a denial of the truth that the pro-Israel lobby and the state of Israel have used Holocaust memory and imagery to justify policy, though probably not as often as their critics allege.

Lastly, therefore, like many people who in the past decade have spoken out to support Israel, Howard Jacobson needs to be terribly careful at this point in his argument. He needs to take much more care not to encourage attitudes he despises. For some critics of Israel, if they hear often enough from Israeli, pro-Israeli and Jewish religious and cultural leaders that criticism of Israel and anti-Semitisim are the same thing, the most likely reaction will be a shrug, and a marginal increase in tolerance for anti-Semitism. Similarly, calling the Holocaust in aid of actions that are deplorable, however indirectly it is done, risks cheapening the Holocaust itself. I think that unless Howard Jacobson can acknowledge this problem, he may simply exacerbate the problem of unreasoned argument that he laudably wants to resolve.

And an open question

And because of that, I want to finish with a question. It grows from my sense as I re-read the article that here is a writer whom I admire and will continue to enjoy reading, who on this occasion has somewhat lost control of his arguments. He makes points but they are undermined by easily available evidence. He challenges on the historical record but the challenge is narrow and has little grounding. He slashes at people who draw false parallels but his polemical blade is itself alive with conflation.

So what I wonder is, What has really got you angry?

Could it be that it is not only the hatred you see beneath the polemics and the slogans, but also the recognition that the failure of Israel to be a moral state has laid you open to political pain you did not expect? And are you therefore resentful not only of those who offer random, exaggerated criticisms, and not only of those who offer precise, rational and evidence-based criticisms, but also of the target of all this criticism – the state of Israel? If so, it would be refreshing if you came straight out and said so.

3 thoughts on “Gaza, criticising Israel and Howard Jacobson

  1. Interesting post, Dan. The point that really stands out for me is the one you make about the great dangers inherent in approaches that conflate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism.
    Jonathan Freedland had a thoughtful piece in the Guardian a couple of weeks ago making a similar point –

    It’s a tricky conundrum, though, because the more I think about it the more I suspect there’s actually a lot to Israeli officials’ constant refrain that they get singled out for criticism in the media.

    Example: the Sri Lankan army has also been shelling hospitals of late (, but the op-ed pages have been completely devoid of the outrage that accompanied Israel’s Gaza incursion; I just searched on ‘Sri Lanka hospital’ on Comment is Free, and couldn’t find a single piece (not counting reporting in the main paper).

    Don’t get me wrong; I think Israel and Sri Lanka are both guilty of war crimes (though perhaps there’s a debate to be had about proportionality here; I don’t know how many people the LTTE have killed in the last few years, though, so I’m not qualified on that front).

    But the basic fact remains: Israel does seem to get singled out more, and doubtless a lot of the criticism of Israel IS motivated by anti-Semitism.

    The real question then seems to me to be this: if some, but not all, criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic, then should those of us who aren’t anti-Semitic – by which I include Israelis, the Jewish community internationally, and gentiles who oppose bigotry – respond to that criticism by (a) denouncing it as anti-Semitism – which it often will be, or (b) taking it on its merits, and engaging in a debate?

    I think the answer has to be (b). If anti-Semites think there’s advantage to their cause in conflating their prejudice with criticism of Israel, why should the rest of us play ball?

  2. An excellent and very thoughtful post. Personally I feel Howard Jacobson is so emotionally tangled up in Israel he feels obliged to defend the indefensible.

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