Why Jacqueline Rose is not right – Howard Jacobson

Howard Jacobson

Howard Jacobson

Jacqueline Rose

Jacqueline Rose

Here is Howard Jacobson’s major piece in The Indpendent on contemporary antisemitism.

Here are a number of responses published in the Independent.

Here is Caryl Churchill’s defence of her play against Howard Jacobson’s criticism.

Here is Jacqueline Rose’s defence of Churchill.

Here is Saul’s response to Rose.

Here is Howard Jacobson’s response, from Comment is Free:

Jacqueline Rose takes me to task for misreading Caryl Churchill‘s play Seven Jewish Children. Jacqueline Rose teaches English literature; I once did the same. So the issue is bound to be about the way we read a text – whether that text is a piece of political propaganda purporting to be a play, or a selective anthology of quotations wrenched out of context purporting to be history.

I have described Seven Jewish Children as an antisemitic work. This is not an accusation I routinely level. It is a joke among Jews that we find antisemitism anywhere – think Woody Allen in Annie Hall, hearing “D’you eat?” as “D’Jew eat?” So I make a practice of finding it in as few places as possible, and of not minding it too much when I do. A person can hate Jews if he or she pleases. Many Jews hate Jews: we can’t keep everything to ourselves. And as for works of art, they march to a different tune, the marvellous thing about art being that whatever its intention, it usually subverts it. That’s drama, for you.

The problem with Seven Jewish Children is that it isn’t drama. Jacqueline Rose praises it for being “precised and focused in its criticisms of Israeli policy”. I agree. And that’s what makes it not art. Art would be imprecise and free-flowing, open to the corrections of what will not stay still, attentive to voices that unsettle certainty. The difference between art and propaganda is that the latter closes its mind to the appeals and surprises of otherness. Seven Jewish Children is imaginatively starved; no orchestration of voices vexes or otherwise complicates its depiction of a Jewish people fulfilling the logic of its own intolerant theology, boastful and separatist, deaf to reason and humanity, knee-high in blood and revelling in it. A theatrical as well as a racial crudity, which any number of critics, by no means all Jewish, have remarked on.

Jacqueline Rose omits to mention in her defence of this indefensible work that she is in some way – actual or spiritual – affiliated to it. The castlist expresses gratitude to her, though it is not clear whether that’s for mothering the play intellectually, or for acting as Caryl Churchill’s Jewish midwife in its delivery – advising her in such arcane Jewish matters, say, as the pleasure we take in the murder of non-Jewish babies.

But the play owes her a debt all right, particular in its unquestioning espousal of her theory that the Holocaust traumatised the Jews into visiting back upon the Palestinians what the Nazis had visited on them – a theory of dazzling psychological simplicity that turns Zionism (and never mind that Zionism long predates the Holocaust) into a nervous breakdown, and all subsequent events into the playing out of the Jews’ psychic instability. By this reasoning, neither the Palestinians nor the Arab countries who have helped or hindered them are relevant. Jacqueline Rose spirits them away from the scene of the crime. They are redundant to the working of her theory, of no significance (whatever they have done), since the narrative of the Middle East is nothing but the narrative of the Jewish mind disintegrating.

What Jacqueline Rose seems not to have noticed is that this theory is a perfect illustration of the very Jewish arrogance she decries, assuming to itself responsibility for every deed.

In an attempt to normalise her position, she cites Primo Levi’s calling the Palestinians the Jews of the Jews – “Everybody is somebody’s Jew, and today the Palestinians are the Jews of the Israelis.” This is the polemic equivalent to arming a nuclear warhead. Whoever Primo Levi sides with must be right. But this is a dishonest misappropriation of his words. Primo Levi inveighed against Israeli militarism, right enough, but he was a long way from saying that there is an ineluctable progress of Jewish mental collapse linking what the Nazis did to the Jews to what the Jews are doing to the Palestinians – a progress which turns the Jews into Nazis themselves. When La Repubblica tried to get Primo Levi to say precisely that, he made a distinction of the profoundest importance, and he made it sharply: “There is no policy to exterminate the Palestinians.”

I don’t expect Jacqueline Rose to learn from me. But since she values his word, I would wish her to learn from Primo Levi. Cruelty is one thing, but “There is no policy to exterminate the Palestinians.” And there’s an end of the trauma-for-trauma, Nazi analogy.

Jacqueline Rose accuses me of fuelling antisemitism – as though antisemitism has ever run low on gas – by not acknowledging the “flagrant violations” of another people’s rights. I acknowledge them. I always have acknowledged them. I would tear the settlements down with my own hands had I power enough in them. Short of pursuing means bound to end in Israel‘s dissolution – which could be a proviso we stumble over – there might be very little that Jacqueline Rose would do that I wouldn’t. And there is no reason for her to suppose that the dead of Gaza distress her any more than they distress me. Not being a Jew in a Caryl Churchill play, I do not laugh at the destruction of the lives of Palestinian children. The expression of violently anti-Israel sentiments does not give anyone a monopoly on outrage or compassion. Or indeed, on everyday unpitying respect. In my narrative, I honour Palestinians with an influential presence.

Most English Jews of my acquaintance would welcome the opportunity to take issue with some, if not with all, Israeli policies, to express their own unease, and sometimes their own rage and horror, if only it were possible to do so in an atmosphere of even-handedness, without having to ally oneself with historians who think Israel began with Hitler, with supporters of Hamas and Hezbollah who call for an end to Israel and death to Jews, or with theoreticians of Jewish malignancy – where there is at least a glimmer of comprehension, in short, of the complex existential threats Israel has faced and goes on facing.

Jacqueline Rose tells me I am out of step with Israel’s “most revered writers”. Who? Yehoshua, the great novelist, peace campaigner and Zionist – yes, such complexities are possible – who believes all Jews belong in Israel, not out of it? Amos Oz, who spoke in London the other day of the necessity for sharp criticism of his country’s policies – as sharp as we dare “without finger-wagging” – but for fellow feeling and “solidarity” with Israel as well, if we want it to survive? What sort of solidarity is it that paints Israeli Jews as Nazified race-supremacists and child murderers, glorying in destruction?

Of the disorders that she believes to be the consequence of the Holocaust – and I use her language, not mine – here is one that Jacqueline Rose might not have considered: an irresistible, traumatised compulsion to speak ill of your own.

Howard Jacobson, posted on Comment is Free
Ben Gidley’s review of Jacqueline Rose’s The Last resistance

Shalom Lappin’s review of Jacqueline Rose’s The Question of Zion

Jacqueline rose’s resposne to Shalom Lappin’s Review

Shalom Lappin’s response to her response


16 Responses to “Why Jacqueline Rose is not right – Howard Jacobson”

  1. Karl Pfeifer Says:

    It is a brilliant answer. Thank you Engage.

  2. Gil Says:

    Karl, says it all (nearly). Howard Jacobson is simply outstanding. It gives me so much pleasure to see Jacobson showing CIF, especially CIF, how it is done.

  3. James Mendelsohn Says:

    Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant response. Well done Howard Jacobson.

  4. Jacob Says:

    “In an attempt to normalise her position, she cites Primo Levi’s calling the Palestinians the Jews of the Jews – “Everybody is somebody’s Jew, and today the Palestinians are the Jews of the Israelis.” This is the polemic equivalent to arming a nuclear warhead. Whoever Primo Levi sides with must be right. But this is a dishonest misappropriation of his words. Primo Levi inveighed against Israeli militarism, right enough, but he was a long way from saying that there is an ineluctable progress of Jewish mental collapse linking what the Nazis did to the Jews to what the Jews are doing to the Palestinians – a progress which turns the Jews into Nazis themselves. When La Repubblica tried to get Primo Levi to say precisely that, he made a distinction of the profoundest importance, and he made it sharply: “There is no policy to exterminate the Palestinians.””

    Great article by a terrific writer.

    The above caught my eye.

    Jacqueline Rose contradicts herself, not the first time of course when she cites Primo Levin who lived through the Shoah and who is critical of Israeli actions. If Levi a Holocaust survivor can side with the Palestinians then that is in direct contradiction that Jews most of whom were born after the Holocaust act as they do because they were traumatized by the Holocaust.

    Rose needs to stop being so simple minded in her approach to the Arab Israeli conflict. Her simple mindedness actually harms the cause she espouses.

  5. Jonathan Romer Says:

    I’ll have to give up saying how much I like Howard Jacobson: He’s so consistently brilliant, it’s getting repetitious for me to go “Wow!” each time he gets another article published.

    If you say something unpleasant to a black person and he tells you it’s racist, you might shrug him off as misunderstanding, or deliberately twisting what you said to avoid dealing with its truth. You might be right: Black people are as capable of responding like that as anyone else. But if you get the same response over and over again, at some point you have to give serious thought to what you think and how you express it — at least you do if you’re not actually a racist. Substitute “Jewish” for “black”, and this basic truism no longer applies in a huge swath of contemporary discourse.

    When the subject is Israel, much of the left — so concerned, educated and thoughtful — has simply disconnected all the usual alarms and warning systems that are supposed to lie at it’s core. The idea that Zionists cry “Antisemitism!” to stifle debate takes a hatchet to the circuitry that guards it against its own prejudice. Perhaps that’s why it’s so appealing, or maybe comforting. Effort that should, in anti-racists, go into self-examination is spent instead on denial and on turning the charge back against the victim.

    What a disappointment the left has turned out to be for so many of us post-war hopefuls.

  6. Susan Says:

    I didn’t realize until I read Howard Jacobson that what Caryl Churchill has done is take class Western Christian anti-Judaism and secularized and modernized it. Notice, that I said “anti-Judaism”, It asks the question what kind of people would be willing to follow such an awful religion. Of course Churchill has replaced Judaism with Zionism, but that doesn’t really change the message.

    Rose seems to lack basic reading comprehension. That is odd for an English literature teacher. Jacobson calls Israel’s invasion of Gaza “brutal”. Rose just skips right past that sentence. I doesn’t agree with her theory.

  7. Bialik Says:

    I see the formula. It goes like this, for anyone who would like to write a play.

    1. You are seeing antisemitism where there is only criticism of Israel

    2. What I am saying has been said by a survivor of the holocaust (or relative of survivors).

    3. An Israeli politician said something outrageous once.

    4. Israeli politicians claim to speak for all Jews.

    Number (1) is supposed to remove all the objections made by critics at a stroke. I imagine some readers stop there – case made. Number (2) permits one to use the language of atrocity. Number (3) says, look, I really do know what’s going on in Israel. Number (4) enables the writer to say that Jews as a whole can be criticized unless they distance themselves from said Israeli politicians.

    Is there anything I’ve missed?

  8. James Mendelsohn Says:

    Spot on Bialik. In fact, the formula probably goes not only for playwrights but for any number of other enlightened “critics of Israel”. Number 1 is of course the ‘Livingstone Formulation’ and I believe its increasing popularity is an extremely dangerous development. When even the pieces by Jonathan Freedland and Howard Jacobson meet this objection, we know (if we didn’t know already) that important sections of the left in particular are burying their heads in the sand about antisemitism. What will it take for this trend to be reversed?

  9. Frank Adam Says:

    I have always considered Jaqueline Rose suspect since her Observer autobiographical 18th Aug 2002 delighting in how she sabotaged her parents’ intentions in sending her on a holiday in Israel by her spending it in Arab communities. Although past the bolshy teens in 2002, she all the same rejoiced in rebelliousness without letting on whether she did get round to seeing anything of Israel’s Jewish community.
    Further as a lit don, she of all people should be aware of the streamlined animated cartoon draughtsmanship of scripts and novels – and poetic licence – being at least as suspect as any big wig’s memoirs. The French are at least honest enough to use the same word for: history, a story, or an anecdote.
    It will be an interesting challenge to see whether either JR or HJ can write a mirror image of the Caryl Churchill piece in which from plain observation there will have to be a parent telling a Palestinian Arab child that the only purpose of life is to make a brilliant public death taking enemies with them but dropping them off in hell as he ascends to paradise, ” A loaf of bread and jug of wine, the wilderness were paradise enow…”

  10. zkharya Says:

    Howard Jacobson’s reply to my critique of his piece on Caryl Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children is riddled with innuendo and misrepresentations in need of correction.

    First, let me clarify my link to the play. I was invited by the associate director to talk to the cast about the history of the conflict during the rehearsal period, which I was very happy to do. I played no part in its writing.

    Second, Jacobson argues that the play has adopted what he describes as my thesis: that “the Holocaust traumatised the Jews into visiting back upon the Palestinians what the Nazis had visited on them”, a thesis which, he argues, ignores the fact that Zionism pre-dates the Holocaust and further encourages an equation between Nazism and Israel. He cites Primo Levi’s statement – “There is no policy to exterminate the Palestinians” – to refute any such equation. Does Jacobson make it a habit to represent the views of authors whom he has not read? In The Question of Zion, my analysis of modern political Zionism starts with Theodor Herzl. Like Levi, the identification of Nazism and Israel today is one I specifically refute (emphasis added):

    In May 2003, I was asked to chair the opening of an exhibition at the Photographer’s Gallery in London […] In the discussion afterwards a member of the audience made an equation between Nazism and Ariel Sharon. I reject the analogy as I did when a student from the organisation Friends of Palestine at my university college, Queen Mary […] arrived in my office with a poster of Sharon with a swastika over his face. There is a difference, I insisted on both occasions, between industrial genocide and ethnic transfer. Such historical distinctions are vital.

    That the trauma of the Holocaust has had a profound effect on the psyche of the Jewish people is not, presumably, something Jacobson would wish to deny. My argument is that this has affected Israel’s view of itself as a victim and as an eternally vulnerable people even in the face of the reality of Israel’s modern day state power and its violence. I am hardly alone in this view. The esteemed Israeli writer, Shulamith Hareven, not to speak of more recent Israeli commentators such as Idith Zertal and former Knesset member, Avrum Burg, have made this point far more effectively than me. As has Tony Lerman, former director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, in the Independent this last Saturday. But nowhere do I suggest “an ineluctable process of Jewish mental collapse”. Such language is not part of my vocabulary.

    Jacobson’s final mock-Freudian analysis of the possible motives for my position is beneath contempt. He should have the honesty to admit that the differences between us are political. The giveaway comes near the end, when he describes himself as part of that group of English Jews who would “welcome the opportunity” to protest against Israeli actions “if only” the atmosphere would permit. I see this as an apology for silence, which serves neither Israel nor Jews the world over – a silence that has played, and is today playing, a key part in ensuring that the catastrophic situation in the Middle East will continue.

  11. The Ozi Zion Blog » Blog Archive » A good speaker in action - Howard Jacobson Says:

    [...] down to the youtube speech “Engage says no to boycott” at a meeting by Howard Jacobson see here. posted under Category 1, [...]

  12. Commentary » Blog Archive » Countering J Street’s Lies Says:

    [...] the prominent British Jewish writer Howard Jacobson, it is “wantonly inflammatory” and unquestionably anti-Semitic. In my op-ed, I questioned the propriety of a purportedly “pro-Israel” organization [...]

  13. Susan Says:

    The Palestinians are indeed the Jews OF THE ARAB WORLD. For all their talk about the poor Palestinians, they do nothing.

    The Palestinian population is continually growing. Palestinians say that they will beat the Jews with their population growth and then they turn around and accuse Jews of genoicide. Well, both cannot be true at the same time

  14. Jacobson’s demolition of the ‘Ashamed Jews’ wins Man Booker « Engage – the anti-racist campaign against antisemitism Says:

    [...] Read also Jacqueline Rose’s attack on Jacobson, as well as his further defence, here.  It is charmingly entitled ‘Why Jacqueline Rose is not [...]

  15. Sydney Kaye Says:

    Rose finds that Jacobson’s comment that “Jews would welcome the opportunity to critisise Israel if only the atmosphere would permit ” a giveaway. Not at all. It is a perceptive comment.
    Many Jews take every to defend Israel not becuase they agree with every action but as a counter weight to the prevailing hysteria. There are enough people attacking Israel without the ashamed Jew giving comfort to the enemy; the enemy being the anti-Semites clothed as human rights activists


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