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

In the Name of “the Jews” – Saul

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.

This is a guest post by Saul:

In her recent post on the Guardian’s Comment is Free – “Why Jacobson is wrong” – Jacqueline Rose offers (perhaps unwittingly) an important concession to those who, like Engage, have been noting for some time the presence of antisemitism within much (but, by no means all) “criticism” of Israel., but which has more often than not been denied by others.

In this post, she writes,

In 2006, Olmert said of the 2006 Lebanese war: “This is a war fought for all the Jews.” For those of us who reject this claim, it is imperative for Jews to speak out against Israel‘s actions towards the Palestinians. Not to do so is to allow the belief to go unchallenged that Israel‘s worst actions are being conducted in the name of all Jews. It is this belief, rather than criticism of Israel, that fuels antisemitism today and, in fact, weakens the fight against it.

Antisemitism, she tells us is “fuelled” not so much by Israel’s acts and actions, but by its claim to speak in the name of “all Jews”. For Rose, therefore, antisemitism is not only present but, by implication, cannot but attach to “criticism” of Israel. On this point I believe she is 100% right.

Where I part company, however, is her view that Israel’s claim to act in the name of “all Jews” should be taken at face-value and, following from this, her further belief that it is incumbent of Jews to “speak out” against Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.

All nation-states claim to speak for all their “nationals”. The USA speaks in the name of “Americans everywhere”; Britain in the name of all those who share “British values”; Iran in the name of “all Muslims”, and Israel in the name of “all Jews”. This phenomenon is an accepted, if clichéd, part of the rhetoric of national identity and national unity. In most cases, of course, no one takes it at all seriously. Everyone knows that when Bush or Obama speaks in the name of “all Americans” it does not reflect reality; when Thatcher, Blair or Brown spoke in the name of all “Britains”, it only takes a moment’s self-reflection to realise that that is not the case, never has been the case and never will be the case. When it comes to Israel, however, this rhetorical trope comes to be taken literally. When the Prime Minister of Israel (and leader of a particular political party) says that Israel speaks in the name of “all Jews” it is to be taken so seriously that empirical and verifiable evidence be demanded that this is not the case. For Rose, this evidence is to be provided by Jews “speaking out”.

Leaving aside her mistaken belief that Jews are the cause of antisemitism – Jews are never responsible for antisemitism, antisemites are – a paradox lurks at the core of her comments. Her argument appears to identify an unmediated and natural link between Jewish “bad behaviour” (in this case, the Jewish state’s maltreatment of the Palestinians in the name of “all Jews”) and antisemitism (hostility to Jews elsewhere, for example the UK). It is as if she believes that unless Jews behave themselves or conduct themselves to the requisite level of “acceptable behaviour”, then those non-Jews with whom they live will suddenly “turn” on the Jews, will suddenly become, instinctively, “antisemitic”. It is inevitable as night follows day.

The paradox, of course, is that this idea of a natural hatred of Jews by non-Jews, a hatred that can be triggered merely Jewish “bad behaviour” was precisely one of the leading beliefs of early Zionism and which appeared to some (and not only Zionists and Jews) to be proved beyond doubt by the reality of the Shoah.

It is ironic that at the same time that Rose calls upon Israel to “trust” its neighbours Rose herself seems to be unwilling or unable to trust those amongst whom she lives in the Diaspora. The reality is, of course, that non-Jews are not all “latent” antisemites, their hatred buried in a shallow-grave just beneath the surface merely awaiting some Jewish act to bring forth their “natural” aggressive and hostile selves.

It is true that antisemites claim to speak in the name of “all gentiles”, but, who In their right mind actually believes it?


Dave Rich looks at the Israel/Nazis analogy

On Harry’s Place and on FairPlay.org.uk. Well worth a read.

“Once the central argument of anti-Israel campaigning in this country is that Israel is Nazi Germany, then this is no longer an anti-Zionist movement: it is an antisemitic one, with an antisemitic politics as its driving force.”

See also Mira Vogel’s description of an event held at Goldsmiths to make propaganda for the view that contemporary Gaza should rightly be compared to the Warsaw Ghetto.

See also David Hirsh on the Nazi/Zionist analogy: “But it is more than false. It is vile. Why can’t you see that the designation of ‘Zionists’ as Nazis is vile? Why don’t you feel it in your political bones? Why doesn’t it set your internal racism alarms ringing”

See also David Hirsh on the right to remember the Holocaust without being told that Israelis are comitting a new Holocaust: “A person who thinks that Nazi Germany is like Israel (or today’s Britain or EU or America, for that matter) appears not to understand what was particular about Nazism. It is actually a form of Holocaust denial: ‘Oh the Holocaust is not really such a big deal – it was rather like contemporary British immigration policy; it is nothing unique, it is rather like the struggle over land between Israel and Palestine.”