Howard Jacobson: Ludicrous, brainwashed prejudice

This piece, by Howard Jacobson, is from The Independent

So that’s Passover almost done with for another year.

Except that Passover is never done with. To me it’s the greatest Jewish festival because the story is so good. We sit around the Seder table and relate, over and over, as though we still can’t believe it, our escape from Egypt. Every depiction of the Last Supper shows Jesus relating the same story.

There’s a song Jews sing at Passover – “Dayenu”. The word means “it would have been sufficient”, or “enough already”. It would have been sufficient had God only done this for us, and stopped there. Each verse records what he did next, insisting that that, too, would have been enough. It is written in the hypothetic-preconditional tense, imagining a lesser deliverance which we would have settled for, while at the same time acknowledging that we aren’t out of the woods yet. As a boy I felt fraught during the Passover service because it seemed that even as we celebrated a narrow escape from one disaster, we were preparing for the next. A Jew has either to be ignorant of his history or mad to suppose that what has happened before won’t happen again.

Myself, I wouldn’t bet heavily on there being good times ahead for Jews. Anti-Zionists can assure me all they like that their position entails no harm to Jews – only witness how many Jews are themselves anti-Zionist, they say – I no longer believe them. Individually, it is of course possible to care little for Israel and to care a great deal for Jews. But in the movement of events individuals lose their voice. What carries the day is consensus, and consensus is of necessity unsubtle. By brute consensus, now, Israel is the proof that Jews did not adequately learn the lesson of the Holocaust.

Forget Holocaust denial. Holocaust denial is old hat. The new strategy – it showed its hand in Caryl Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children, and surfaced again in Channel 4’s recent series The Promise – is to depict the Holocaust in all its horror in order that Jews can be charged (“You, of all people”) with failing to live up to it. By this logic the Holocaust becomes an educational experience from which Jews were ethically obliged to graduate summa cum laude, Israel being the proof that they didn’t. “Jews know more than anyone that killing civilians is wrong,” resounds an unmistakably authorial voice in The Promise. Thus are Jews doubly damned: to the Holocaust itself and to the moral wasteland of having found no humanising redemption in its horrors.

It matters not a jot to me that the writer/director of The Promise is a Jew. Jews succumbing to the age-old view of them and reviling what’s Jewish in themselves has a long history. Peter Kosminsky would have it that his series is about Israel, not Jews, but in The Promise Israel becomes paradigmatic of the Jews’ refusal to be improved by affliction.

In a morally intelligent world – that’s to say one in which, for starters, Jews are not judged more harshly than their fellows for having been despatched to concentration camps – The Promise would be seen for the ludicrous piece of brainwashed prejudice it is. Ofcom’s rejection of complaints about the drama’s partiality and inaccuracy was to be expected. You can’t expect a body as intellectually unsophisticated as Ofcom to adjudicate between claims of dramatic truth and truth of any other sort. And for that reason it should never have been appealed to. That said, its finding that The Promise was “serious television drama, not presented as a historical and faithful re-creation”, is a poor shot at making sense of anything. You can’t brush aside historical re-creation in a work of historical re-creation, nor can you assert a thing is “serious television” when its seriousness is what’s in question. A work isn’t serious by virtue of its thinking it is. Wherein lies the seriousness, one is entitled to ask, when the drama creaks with the bad faith of a made-up mind.

I’m an art man, myself. Aesthetics trump the lot. And “seriousness” is an aesthetic quality or it’s nothing. But you will usually find that bad intentions makes bad art, and bad art, while it might be solemn and self-righteous, forfeits the right to be called serious. From start to finish, The Promise was art with its trousers round its ankles. Yes, it looked expensive, took its time, was beautifully shot and well acted. But these are merely the superficies of art, and the more dangerously seductive for that. “Gosh, I never knew such and such had happened,” I heard people say after one or other simplifying episode, as though high production values guarantee veracity.

One-sidedness is a failure of imagination; aesthetically, The Promise failed because it couldn’t conceal the dramatic monotony of its bias. Just about every Palestinian was sympathetic to look at, just about every Jew was not. While most Palestinians might fairly be depicted as living in poor circumstances, most Israeli Jews might not be fairly depicted as living in great wealth. The family life of Palestinians, when it was not rent with fear, was loving and considerate; family life among the Jews consisted of spitting words of violence against Arabs and callous socialising around a pool built on appropriated land. Juxtaposition counts for much in art, and when every juxtaposition – of beauty, wealth, humanity, kindliness, suffering – favours one party to the conflict at the expense of another, the simplicity of view begins to show itself in uninventiveness and repetition. Though I, too, have found Palestinians to be people of immense charm, I could only laugh in derision at The Promise every time another shot of soft-eyed Palestinians followed another shot of hard-faced Jews.

As for the politics, they were as transparently simple-minded as the casting. An act of violence carried out by a Palestinian was shown to be no different in motive and ambition from an act of violence carried out by a Jew, but the same understanding was not extended in the other direction, though if A resembles B, then B must resemble A.

But then of moral equivalence of any sort, except when anti-Jewish propaganda required it, The Promise was bare. Therefore, I say to Ofcom, no, the drama was not serious. It only looked serious because it said what the consensus says. The truth is now nailed to the floor. Jews went through hell only to build a hell for others. Trying arguing otherwise and you are an apologist for that hell.

We have been here before. Dayenu: it would have been enough had God done no more than help us out the last time. But it won’t ever be enough.

This piece, by Howard Jacobson, is from The Independent

For more from Howard Jacobson click here.

13 Responses to “Howard Jacobson: Ludicrous, brainwashed prejudice”

  1. Isca Stieglitz Says:

    Here’s something I posted along similar lines some time ago; I had accumulated things I’d heard bandied around and some of it leveled at me, into one list. Hope it’s ok to share here:

    Posted August 2010.
    “A little ‘aside’ [to the person who posted that jews should know better being a ‘light unto the other nations]: I thought ‘light unto the nations’ referred to the fact that an Abrahamic tribe were the first to take up monotheism and that monotheism was thus the ‘new standard’ the ‘light’ amongst nations of idolators. I’m not particularly religious, but that’s what I thought it meant.

    In any event, there are countless democracies, groups, organisations etc. across the globe who have ‘declarations’ of aspirations, intent, promises and probably all countries and many groups/ organisations fall woefully short of those ‘declarations’. Israel is not the only democracy to fall short.

    As such, I believe that if you point your camera and focus close up on a given country, group etc. you could make it look poverty stricken, riddled with crime, full of fanatics, war mongering, fascist, racist and so on. Pull your camera back and other aspects come into focus and hopefully more positive aspects come into view.

    I watched the result of an exercise like this done to the UK, Belgium and Switzerland, as an experiment, and the deliberately selective film made for tough viewing…guns, gangs, riots, anarchy, racists, poverty, malnutrition, torture and neglect of children, and so on.

    I believe, that Israel is focussed on in ‘close-up’ by too many people, groups, organisations etc.
    Everything is ‘monstrous’, ‘nazi’, ‘murderous’, ‘disgusting’, ‘war mongers’, ‘dirty’, ‘zios’, ‘bankster’, ‘prison camp’, ‘ghettoes’, ‘callous’, ‘wicked’, ‘cruel f*ckers’, ‘controlled, ‘neo-con’, ‘holocaust’, ‘lobbyist’, ‘conspiratorial’, ‘power hungry’, ‘apartheid’, ‘South African’, ‘boycotted’, ‘divested’, ‘illegal’, ‘anti-‘, ‘in human’, ‘in humane’, ‘concentration camp’, ‘ethnic cleansing’, ‘genocide’, ‘organ snatchers’, ‘poverty’, ‘child killers’, ‘women beaters’, ‘rapists’, ‘torturers’, ‘vindictive’, ‘psychopathic’, ‘sociopathic’, ‘deliberate targetting of…’, ‘should be squashed, smashed, ended, annihilated, pushed to the sea’, ‘shameful’, ‘nasty’, ‘vicious’, ‘Hitler’, ‘9/11’, ‘terrorist’…the lists are endless, but can be found anywhere and everywhere and yet even if there are incidents of truth in any of this, just read this list again and this is a taster of what is levelled in one direction only, by a lot of so called peace makers, intelligensia and the like.

    Can you think of any country that is so systematically undermined maligned in a complex, tragic and multi-faceted conflict by SOME – legal systems, groups, NGOs, charities, churches, mosques, meeting houses, unions, politcians, teachers, exibitions, journalists, comedians, actors, musicians, academics etc. when there is clear evidence staring them in the face that if the camera was pointed in the other direction with the same ‘close-up’, then we would see a more balanced view of the whole picture.

    And G-d forbid we should pull the camera right back and see something beautiful, kind, compassionate on either side.

    The culprits on any side of conflict hog the limelight.
    In Israel’s particular political case, (which is what is up for discussion here), ‘wide angle’ simply isn’t possible, nobody wants to ‘pull back’, because to pull back in wide focus would re-humanise the ‘in human’.

    Quite plainly, Israel is not all of these things and certainly not in the way that racist and anti-semitic vocabulary as become acceptable and casually levelled at ‘her’ , Israelis and jews.

    This close-up focus is not fair criticism, it is racist and in a lot of cases irrational, unfettered, uneducated, biased hatred and in most cases anti-semitic.

    And so we return to the ‘accepted close-up’: The ‘demon’ Israel remains, the only ‘hate ridden country’ with no redeeming features in the Middle East which is singularly responsible for all Islamist terrorist activities throughout the globe, to blame for all the internal and external conflicts in the Middle East. Really?
    Pull back that camera”.

    • Mira Vogel Says:

      I remember being impressed with that the first time I read it, Isca. This kind of blanket opprobrium is very infectious – becomes a common sense. I think the best antidote (and it’s hard to do) is not to allow these people to divert your attention from the rest of the world.

      • Gary Says:

        Isca you are right to point out that Israel “is not the only democracy to fall short”. But it is, more or less, the only functioning democracy in the region and it falls a great deal less short than its neighbours. Who is criticising Libya, Somalia, Yemen, Syria, Bahrain etc as we speak? Thise radical leftist voices who denounce Israel, where are they now as the tanks roll through the streets of Damascus? Now I know I am missing the point and somewhere along the way this is all Israel’s doing.

        Remaining staunch is the only option. Every attack on Israel as a nation-state is an assualt on the liberty of thought, speech, worship, association and existence of every Jew.

        This may be uncomfortable for some who want to rend their clothes, beat their breasts and self-denounce at every opportunity. But the cold reality is, Israel exists not in the imaginery purist world of Christian (turn the other cheek) submissive ethics, but in the real politics of nation-states and the primary objectives are survival and defence of the nation.

        David Ben Gurion insightfully noted that Israel would be a normal country when a” Jewish Policeman arrests a Jewish prostitute and incarcerates her in a Jewish Jail”

        So there we are: an imperfect democracy in an imperfect world. Pretty average at one level. But then judged against OUR neighbours, rather exceptional too.

  2. A Reverent Thought Says:

    If Jews had accepted Jesus, they would have been redeemed – Diyanu.
    If Jews had learnt the lesson of the Holocaust, they would have been redeemed – Diyanu

    They’ve had two chances at redemption and they have refused both. So, again, it is down to “us” to remind them that until they redeem themselves from their latest Refusal, it is for others to remind others that the Jews continue to carry the marks of deicide and the tattoos of the camps upon their bodies and their psyches.

    Did Jesus and the Jews die for nothing??

    • Brian Goldfarb Says:

      This is too serious to be irony, so, in the same spirit as “A Reverent Thought”, I offer the following:

      If Christians had accepted that others are entitled not to believe what _they_ believe – Dayenu;

      f Christians had accepted that others also had freedom of thought – Dayenu;

If Christians had actually practised ‘peace on earth, goodwill to all men’ – Dayenu;

      If Christians had actually _believed_ in ‘peace on earth, goodwill to all men’ – Dayenu;

      If Christians had not decided that those who didn’t believe what they believed deserved to be tortured until they _did_ believe – Dayenu.

      Christians have have had 2000 years tom practice what they tell us Jesus preached – and they have failed, consistently, over those 2 millenia.

      You think they’d have cottoned by now: not everyone thinks that Christians (or Moslems, or Bhuddists, or Hindus, or…) have the _only_ answer.

  3. Matt Says:

    This is a great piece in so many places. The notion of seriousness as aesthetic is challenging for me, but I’ll be thinking about that for a while. Except I do take exception with the notion of a “brainwashed prejudice.” To refer to someone with different political views, no matter how ugly, as brainwashed is wrong on two counts. First, it’s ad hominem and circular in that it asserts that you’re right because you’re the one more capable of being right. Second, it lets people off the hook too easily.

    There’s another aspect of the Passover story, tied in with “Dayenu,” that I’ve thought was relevant. If we had waited for the bread to rise, we’d have never left slavery. We could wait for an anarchist utopia where Zionism was a moot question – as some really would have us do! – but that would be foolish. So we have an imperfect solution, but it’s better than merely dreaming about a perfect one for another 5,000 years. Let’s keep working on that anarchist utopia while also working to make this solution better rather than tearing down the imperfect solution we have.

  4. Lev Bronstein Says:

    No doubt that Peter Kosminsky would himself reject this criticism of The Promise with something akin to the Livingstone Formulation. In fact he did use something similar to this on the Channel 4 website when he stated:
    “The real credit should go to the rather wonderful folk at Channel 4 who took a real risk – and almost mortgaged the entire store! – to see this show made against the odds. I’m sad that some have reacted so intemperately – and particularly saddened by the attempt, once again, to equate any commentary on the situation in Israel with anti-sematism (sic) – but the vast majority of the comment and feedback has been very positive.”

  5. Paul M Says:

    If the Holocaust was a lesson we were all, Jews and non-Jews, Israelis and Europeans, taught together. Our classmates want to lecture us about what we should have learned? We have the right to measure them against the same standard and judge them for their own failing grade. What did Europe learn, if it thinks duty is satisfied by pious, empty declarations of Never again and fails to prevent Rwanda, Srebrenica and Darfur? What right has the West to demand Israeli purity if it can’t itself get by without appeasing or doing business with the world’s dirtiest regimes? What right has it to preach the lessons of the Holocaust to Jews, when 65 years later Austria has still not come to terms with its role in the war, antisemitism is embedded in Hungarian and Polish politics, and in every other western country the places where Jews gather have to be secured and guarded? Why should any Jew or any Israeli accept the verdict of a European of any stripe, in the matter of morality?

    How dare anyone who would create a boycott, divestment and sanctions ghetto for Israel, stage show-trials for Zionism and Zionists, or demand that Jews reject Israel as the price of acceptance by their peers — how dare they accuse Jews of “failing to learn the lesson of the Holocaust”?

    • David D. Says:

      Very well put, Paul. Of all the slurs on contemporary Jews vis-à-vis Israel, the Holocaust “lesson” is the most outrageous. Because of my vocal defence of Israel, I have been its target on numerous occasions. When I explain that I am an atheist ex-Catholic and that Christians (ex or otherwise) ought first to clean their own hands before lecturing Jews about moral hygiene, they are often shocked. I am pleased to note, however, that there have been a few occasions when my response was met, as well, with acknowledgement and apology.

      • Paul M Says:


        Thanks for the compliment; greater thanks also for the necessary reminder that there are people whose minds can be opened.

  6. Bialik Says:

    Paul M – There’s a lot in what you say.

    • Paul M Says:

      Thanks Bialik. There’s always a lot in what I say — most often a lot of words, and hot air, and far too many commas. However, I think it’s useful and fair to turn around the accusation that “the Jews haven’t learned the lesson of the Holocaust” and hand it back to the accuser. If the victims of the slaughter should have learned something, how much more important that the perpetrators and those who failed to stop them should have too?

  7. James Mendelsohn Says:

    I’ve always had plenty of time for Howard Jacobson.

    David Hirsh makes similar observations about the argument that “the Jews should have learnt the lessons from the Holocaust” at p. 93 of his “Cosmopolitan Reflections” paper

    Click to access David%20Hirsh%20YIISA%20Working%20Paper1.pdf

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