By Mark Gardner.
Contemplation of the high (or low) points of contemporary British antisemitic discourse in recent years brings four episodes to mind, all of which are emblematic of the collapse in left-liberal elite sensitivities to antisemitism:
1. January 2002. The New Statesman cover reading “A Kosher Conspiracy?” and showing a golden Star of David piercing a supine Union Jack. This has been widely quoted (by CST and others) as evidence that the left intelligentsia no longer recognised or cared about modern day antisemitism, even when it hit them in the face. The New Statesman belatedly – sort of – apologised.
2. May 2003. The assertion by (then) ‘Father of the House’, Tam Dalyell MP, that “a cabal of Jewish advisors” surounded Prime Minister Tony Blair. Dalyell was criticised for this, but the criticism was by no means universal and he and his supporters denied that the outburst was antisemitic.
3. January 2009. The explosion of Israel equals Nazi Germany comparisons at the time of the Gaza conflict. For many Jews and others, this confirmed that the demonisation of Israel had become both limitless and detached from reality. The fear was concretised by the unprecedented outbursts of antisemitic race hate crimes at this time.
4. February 2009. The first performance of Seven Jewish Children, by esteemed playwright Caryl Churchill and carried on the Guardian website.
(Of course, there are hundreds of other examples that one can alight upon, but these stick in the forefront of my mind.)
Reflecting upon these four events, I cannot recall or see where either the New Satesman or Tam Dalyell suffered any serious reputational damage within their own circles: and this is surely not unconnected to the enthusiastic and urgent reception subsequently afforded to Walt and Mearsheimer’s book, The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy (2006). Basically, so long as you stuck to Israel, pro-Israel or Zionist, rather than Jew, you were (and remain) bang on trend.
The malaise and the conceit burrrowed so deep, that the Guardian could run aneditorial (24 July 2008) stating
When a presumptive US presidential candidate arrives in Jerusalem, he willingly dons a jacket designed by Israeli tailors.
Similarly, the profusion of Israel equals Nazi Germany comparisons never really impacted upon those who had made the equation, nor upon those who silently stood by. Besides, similar things had been said with depressing regularity by politicians and journalists since at least 2002, and none of them had really suffered for it either.
When Conservative Party-linked East European politicians try to relativise the Holocaust by comparing it to the suffering of their non-Jewish populations under Communism, then of course the intelligentsia hits top gear…but properly and consistently criticise people here in Britain for comparing Israeli Jews with Nazis, no way! Besides, this is Israel that’s being condemned and that’s not the same as Jews murdered in the Holocaust.
Seven Jewish Children, however, does not fit these patterns. It is not about a Jewish conspiracy that can be entirely kosherised so long as you remember to call it a pro-Israeli conspiracy. Neither is it about granting permission to relatavise the Holocaust, so long as you do it with Israel as the target. Instead, Caryl Churchill completes the circle, by writing a play about Israel and Israelis that is entirely referenced to Jews, Jewish history and Jewish emotions.
There is at least a certain honesty in this. The play, far more than most anti-Israel propaganda, at least acknowledges (both implicitly and explicitly) the centrality of Jews, Jewish history and Jewish emotions to everything concerning Israel. Nevertheless, the antisemitic resonance of the play (primarily the extent and meaning of its concentration upon the blood of the children who are the Jews’ victims) has seen it become a celebrated fault-line in the superheated arguments regarding what is and is not antisemitic in regard to Israel.
The fault-line has been spewing once more this week, in the Guardian letters page with Caryl Churchill taking exception to Jonathan Freedland’s citation (in the Guardian) of Anthony Julius’s deconstruction of the play. (Extracted from Julius’s brilliant analysis of British literary antisemitism, contained in his book, Trials of the Diaspora. Of course, the book itself has become another fault-line in the battle.)
Jonathan Freedland (G2, March 3) denies that criticism of Israel is often wrongly called antisemitism. His point isn’t helped by quoting Anthony Julius’s allegation that my play Seven Jewish Children “tap[s] into the ‘blood libel’”. The line he is referring to is “tell her there’s dead babies, did she see babies?” It refers to babies killed in the attack on Gaza in 2009 and shown on TV. When people hear of babies killed in a war, they don’t usually think of medieval accusations of Jews consuming Christian children’s blood, but of babies killed in a war…
This prompted Julius to reply (in part)
…In this play, Jews confess to lying to their own children and killing Palestinian children. They also confess to something close to a project of genocide. And they freely acknowledge the source of their misanthropy to be Judaism itself.
None of this seems to bother Churchill – nor, indeed, the Guardian. As she correctly notes, the play is available on your website.
Next, Churchill replied to Julius
…What he doesn’t seem to realise is that these lines are not spoken as he suggests by “Jews” in general but by individual Israelis, desperate to protect their own child, during an attack of disproportionate violence on Gaza…It should be possible to pillory the defensive self-righteousness and racism of some – not all – Israelis without being called antisemitic.
For now (at any rate) the Guardian Letters page appears to have called time on its hosting of this particular debate. The arguments will, of course, continue, but there are two things that need saying right now.
Firstly, Normblog has this to say on Churchill’s “individual Israelis” argument
Her play wasn’t anti-Semitic because it featured individuals, rather than Jews as a category…
…And this is a playwright, with some knowledge of cultural matters! One is bound to wonder why anyone ever had a worry about Shylock in The Merchant of Venice…
Secondly, there is the point that my colleague Dave Rich and I made in our Comment is Free article, at the time of the Guardian’s own production of Seven Jewish Children
It is Jewish thought and behaviour that links the play together, not Israel. The words Israel, Israelis, Zionism and Zionist are not mentioned once in the play, while Jews are mentioned in the title and in the text itself. We are often told that when people talk about Israel or Zionists, it is mischievous to accuse them of meaning Jews. Now, we are expected to imagine that a play that talks only of Jews, in fact, means Israelis.
The play is only eight minutes long. We wrote the above almost two years ago. One does not need to be an anti-racist theoretician, a leading playwright, nor a literary critic to get the absurdity of saying
When I say Israelis I don’t mean Jews; and when I say Jews I mean Israelis
Then again, isn’t that the same absurdity that lay, back in the day, behind the New Statesman and Tam Dalyell getting let off the anti-racist hook?