Triangulating Nigel Kennedy

A bit of an update on Israel-boycotting violinist Nigel Kennedy. These days he plays with one of Gilad Atzmon’s musical associates Yaron Stavi and has earned himself the support of Paul Eisen*. So when Robert Wyatt mentions Stavi and Kennedy approvingly in the Morning Star directly after a reference to ‘zionazis’, it’s not so much surprising as shameful.

Because it suits Paul Eisen’s politics to cheer for holocaust denial**. Because Gilad Atzmon denies the Holocaust even while nodding along with  The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Because Wyatt’s ‘zionazi’ isn’t criticism, it’s just a good way to hurt a bunch of people who lost loved ones, homes, futures to the Nazis. Because Yaron Stavi is chummy with all of them. And because the Morning Star hasn’t resembled a genuine communist paper for years.

How is any of this pro-Palestine? Palestine supporters who think that picking on Jews is activism – they always damage their cause. They always end up sending a message that Jews and Israelis should be scared and defensive. Their work is a mockery.

HT Jim

*http://pauleisen.blogspot.co.uk/2013/08/for-your-enjoyment-and-amazement.html
**http://pauleisen.blogspot.co.uk/2012/12/how-i-became-holocaust-denier-by-paul.html

Portia, Shylock and the exclusion of Israeli actors from the global cultural community – David Hirsh

David Hirsh

Is the Merchant of Venice an antisemitic play or is it a play which intimately depicts the anatomy of persecution, exclusion and bullying?

A classic speaks differently to each individual and in each new context.  On Monday I saw The Merchant of Venice performed by Habima, the Israeli National Theatre.  The venue was the replica of Shakespeare’s wooden, roofless, Globe Theatre.  It was a hot London night and the noise of flying machines occasionally confronted our fantasies of authenticity, if the fact that the performance was in Hebrew didn’t.

But first more context.  London is, after having been the hub of the British Empire, now a multicultural world city.  The Globe is hosting companies from all over the world to perform Shakespeare in their own languages; Shakespeare from Pakistan, South Africa, Georgia, Palestine, Turkey, China and everywhere else.

Since some rather nasty medieval stuff, London and Jews have got on fairly well.  London stood firm against Hitler, and the local Blackshirts too; it didn’t mind much whether Jews stayed separate or whether they immersed themselves in its vibrancy; it didn’t feel threatened, it didn’t worry, it just let Jews live engaged lives.  But London’s very post-nationalism, and its post-colonialism, has functioned as the medium for a rather odd new kind of intolerance.

Sometimes, we define our own identities in relation to some ‘other’.  Early Christianity defined itself in relation to the Jews who refused to accept its gospel, and it portrayed them as Christ-killers.  If people wanted to embrace modernity, then they sometimes constructed themselves as being different from the traditional Jew with his beard and coat, standing against progress.  Yet if they were afraid of the new then they could define themselves against the modernist Jew.  Nineteenth Century nationalists often defined the Jew as the foreigner.  Twentieth Century totalitarianisms, which had universal ambition, found their ‘other’ in the cosmopolitan Jew.

These processes created an invented image of ‘The Jew’ and the antisemites portrayed themselves as victims of ‘The Jew’.  Antisemitism has only ever portrayed itself as defensive.

Some people who love London’s relaxed, diverse, antiracism look for an ‘other’ against which to define themselves.  They find Israel.  They make it symbolise everything against which they define themselves: ethnic nationalism, racism, apartheid, colonialism.  London’s shameful past, not to mention in some ways its present, is cast out and thrust upon Israel.  London was within a few thousand votes last month of re-electing a mayor, Ken Livingstone, who embraced this kind of scapegoating.  [For more on post-national Europe's use of Israel as its nationalist 'other', see Robert Fine.]

We can tell that this hostility to Israel is as artificially constructed as any antisemitism by looking at the list of theatre groups against which the enlightened ones organized no boycott.  Antizionists have created a whole new ‘-ism’, a worldview, around their campaign against Israel.  Within it, a caricature of Israel is endowed with huge symbolic significance which relates only here and there to the actual state, to the complex conflict and to the diversity of existing Israelis.  If the Palestinians stand, in the antizionist imagination, as symbolic of all the victims of ‘the west’ or ‘imperialism’ then Israel is thrust into the centre of the world as being symbolic of oppression everywhere.  Like antisemitism, antizionism imagines Jews as being central to all that is bad in the world.

One of the sources of energy for this special focus on Israel comes from Jewish antizionists.  For them, as for many other Jews, Israel is of special importance.  For them, Israel’s human rights abuses, real, exaggerated or imagined, are sources of particular pain, sometimes even shame.  Some of them take their private preoccupation with Israel and try to export it into the cultural and political sphere in general, and into non-Jewish civil society spaces where a special focus on the evils of Israel takes on a new symbolic power.  But the ‘as a Jew’ antizionists are so centred on Israel that they often fail to understand the significance of the symbolism which they so confidently implant into the antiracist spaces of old London.

When I see a production of the Merchant of Venice, it is always the audience which unsettles me.  The play tells two stories which relate to each other.  One is the story of Shylock, a Jewish money lender who is spat on, excluded, beaten up, and in the end mercilessly defeated and humiliated.  The other is an apparently light-hearted story about an arrogant, rich, self-absorbed young woman, clever but not wise, pretty but not beautiful, and her antisemitic friends.  Shakespeare inter-cuts the grueling detailed scenes of the bullying of Shylock, with the comedic story of Portia’s love-match with a loser who has already frittered away his large inheritance.

Shakespeare offers us an intimately observed depiction of antisemitic abuse, and each time the story reaches a new climax of horribleness, he then offers hackneyed and clichéd gags, to see if he can make us laugh.  It is as if he is interested in finding out how quickly the audience forgets Shylock, off stage, and his tragedy.  And the answer, in every production I’ve ever seen, is that the audience is happy and laughing at second rate clowning, within seconds.  And I suspect that Shakespeare means the clowning and the love story to be second rate.  He is doing something more interesting than entertaining us.  He is playing with our emotions in order to show us something, to make us feel something.

Now, the audience at this particular performance was a strange one in any case.  It felt to me like London’s Jewish community out to demonstrate its solidarity with Israel and to protect the Israeli cousins from the vulgarities which their city was about to offer.  The audience was uneasy because it did not know in advance what form the disruption was going to take.    In the end, the atmosphere was a rather positive and happy one, like an easy home win at football against an away team which had threatened a humiliating victory.  Solidarity with Israel meant something different to each person.  One man ostentatiously showed off a silky Israeli flag tie.  Others were Hebrew speakers, taking the rare opportunity in London to see a play in their own language.  Some in the audience would have been profoundly uncomfortable with Israeli government policies but keen to show their oneness with those parts of their families which had been expelled from Europe two or three generations ago and who were now living in a few small cities on the Eastern Mediterranean.

The audience may not have been expert either in Shakespeare or in antisemitism.  Most people think that the Merchant of Venice is an antisemitic play.  Shylock is thought to be an antisemitic stereotype, created by Shakespeare for audiences to hate.  Are we supposed to enjoy the victory of the antisemites and the humiliation of the Jew?  But what was this audience thinking?  If it is simply an antisemitic play, why would we be watching it, why is the Israeli National Theatre performing it?  And if it is a comedy, why aren’t the jokes funny, and why does Shakespeare offer us a puerile game show rather than some of his usual genius?

I don’t think this audience really cared much.  It was there to face down those who said that Israeli actors should be excluded from the global community of culture, while actors from all the other states which had been invited to the Globe were celebrated in a festival of the Olympic city’s multiculturalism.  So, the audience was happy to laugh loudly and to enjoy itself.  We saw on stage how Shylock’s daughter was desperate to escape from the Jewish Ghetto, the darkness and fear of her father’s house, the loneliness of being a Jew.  We saw how she agreed to convert to Christianity because some little antisemitic boy said he loved her, we saw how she stole her father’s money so that her new friends could spend it on drunken nights out.   And we saw Shylock’s despair at the loss and at the betrayal and at the intrusion.  Perhaps his unbearable pain was also fueled by guilt for having failed his daughter since her mother had died.

And then the audience laughed at silly caricatures of Moroccan and Spanish Princes, and at Portia’s haughty and superior rejection of them.  And now, not representations of antisemites but actual antisemites, hiding amongst the audience, unfurl their banners about “Israeli apartheid”, and their Palestinian flags, and they stage a performance of their own.  How embarrassing for Palestinian people, to be represented by those whose sympathy and friendship for them had become hatred of Israel; to be represented by a movement for the silencing of Israeli actors; to be represented by those who show contempt for Jewish Londoners in the audience, who de-humanize them by refusing to refer to them as people but instead simply as ‘Zionists’.  And a ‘Zionist’ does not merit the ordinary civility with which people in a great city normally, without thinking, accord to one another.

The artistic director of the Globe had already predicted that there might be disruption.  There often was, he said, at this unique theatre.  Pigeons flutter onto the stage but we ignore them.  And today, people should not get upset, they should not confront the protestors, they should allow the security guards to do their job.

One protestor shouted: ‘no violence’, as the security guys made to take her away.   They took a few away, the actors didn’t miss a word and the audience, largely Jewish but also English, showed their stiff upper lips and pretended nothing had happened.  Some time later another small group of protestors, who had wanted to exclude Israelis from this festival because of their nationality, stood up and put plasters over their own mouths to dramatize their own victimhood.  Antisemites always pose as victims of the Jews, or of ‘Zionism’ or of the ‘Israel lobby’.  And the claim that Jews try to silence criticism of Israel by mobilizing a dishonest accusation against them is now recognizable as one of the defining tropes of contemporary antisemitism.

Meanwhile, on stage, the antisemitic Christians are positioning themselves as the victims of Shylock.  They have spat on him, stolen from him, corrupted his only daughter, libeled him, persecuted him and excluded him.  Now he’s angry.  He’s a Jew, so he can be bought off, no?  They try to buy him off.  But for Shylock, this is no longer about the money.  It is about the desperate anger of a man whose very identity has been trampled upon throughout his life.  And at that moment, I could sympathise with him more than ever.  I imagined my own revenge against the articulate poseurs who were standing there pretending to have been silenced.  Shylock is a flawed character.  But how much more telling is a play which shows the destruction of a man who is powerless to resist it?  Racism does not only hurt good people, it also hurts flawed and ordinary people and it also has the power to transform good people into angry, vengeful people.  Obviously these truths can be followed around circles of violence in these contexts, from the blood libel, christ-killing and conspiracy theory, to Nazism, to Zionism and into Palestinian nationalism and Islamism.  Only the righteous ones imagine it all comes out in the end into a morality tale of good against evil.

What are they thinking, the protestors?  Do they understand the play at all?  Are they moved by the sensitivity of the portrayal of the anatomy of antisemitic persecution?  Perhaps they are, and they think that Shylock, in our day, is a Palestinian, and Jews are the new Christian antisemites.  One man exclaimed, full of pompous English diction: ‘Hath not a Palestinians eyes?’  He was referring to the wonderful universalistic speech with which Shylock dismantles the racism of his persecutors.  This protestor mobilized the words given by Shakespeare to the Jew, against actually existing Jews.  The experience of antisemitism was totally universalized, as though the play was only about ‘racism in general’ and not at all about antisemitism in particular.  And the point, that a longing for vengeance is destructive and self-destructive, no matter how justified it may feel, was of course, totally missed.

Somebody replied with comedic timing: “Piss off”.  Everybody cheered.  There was an understanding that the boycotters had shot off all their ammunition now, but the target was left untouched.

Or do the protestors think that this is an antisemitic play?  Perhaps they felt that this was the ‘Zionists’ rubbing the history of antisemitism in the faces of London and then by proxy, the Palestinians.  Isn’t that the source of Zionist power today?  Their ability to mobilize Jewish victimhood and their ownership of the Holocaust.  This, again, is an old libel, that the Jews are so clever and so morally lacking, that they are able to benefit from their own persecution.  When will the world forgive the Jews for antisemitism and the Holocaust?

The climax of the play sees Antonio, the smooth-tongued antisemitic merchant who has borrowed money which he now cannot pay back, tied up in the centre of the stage like Christ on the cross.  And the antisemites demand that the Jew displays Christian forgiveness.  But the Jew, who has been driven half mad by antisemitic persecution, does not forgive: he wants his revenge.

Naturally, the antisemites, who have state power in Venice, are never going to allow him his revenge.  Portia, the clever, erudite, plausible, antisemite offers a wordy justification, and before you know it, Antonio is free, and Shylock is trussed up ready for crucifixion.  And the Christians do not forgive either, they show no mercy.  They humiliate Shylock, they take his money, and they force him to convert to Christianity.  He ends up on his knees, bareheaded, without his daughter, without his money, without his livelihood and he says: ‘I am content’.

And what do I see?  I see another Jew, in the 21st Century, preparing a court case in which he too may be humiliated by a clever form of words.  Ronnie Fraser, a member of the University and College Union (UCU), the trade union which represents university workers in Britain, is taking a case to court later this year and he may well end up being portrayed as the wicked, powerful Zionist looking for revenge, in a British courtroom.    Represented by Anthony Julius, he is taking a case to court later this year in which he argues that the campaign which wanted to silence the Habima theatre company is, in effect if not intent, antisemitic, and it has created a situation inside his trade union where antisemitic ways of thinking and antisemitic norms of institutional governance have become ordinary.  This case will be huge and the stakes are high.

The antizionist elite, with all its access to the media and with all its Jewish, political, celebrity and intellectual support, will portray itself as being silenced by Ronnie the ‘Zionist’ and it will ask the court to set aside all the evidence of antisemitism in favour of a smart but ambiguous form of words.

Portia said that Shylock could have his pound of flesh but only if he could extract it without spilling a drop of blood.  The form of words in Fraser v UCU which would humiliate the plaintiff would be that while he is protected from antisemitism by the Equality Act of 2010, hostility to Israel is not antisemitic.

The day after the performance, one of the leading boycotters, Ben White, tweeted a picture of the beautiful Jewish face of Howard Jacobson, an opponent of the exclusion of Israeli actors from London.  White added the text: “If you need another reason to support a boycott of Habima, I present a massive picture of Howard Jacobson’s face”.

Faced with this, it is hardly controversial to insist that ‘criticism of Israel’ can sometimes be antisemitic.  Let’s hope Ronnie’s judge does not take advice from a contemporary Portia.

David Hirsh

Sociology Lecturer, Goldsmiths, University of London

note: my reading of The Merchant of Venice is largely indebted to David Seymour’s Law and Antisemitism.

Zizek: “antisemitism alive and kicking in Europe”

Mairav Zonszein:

“On Friday evening, Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek gave a lecture in a bookstore in Central Tel Aviv teeming with familiar faces of leftwing activists. It was hosted by Udi Aloni, an Israeli-American artist and BDS activist, who just completed a book entitled What Does a Jew Want, which is edited by Zizek.

Many seem to have come with the expectation to hear Zizek rip into Israel and use his wry wit and charisma in such a bourgeoises Tel Aviv setting to endorse the BDS Movement. Indeed when Udi Aloni introduced Zizek, he identified himself as an activist on behalf of BDS and said he chose the bookstore as a venue in order to not cooperate with any formal Israeli institution.

However, Zizek did not officially endorse or even talk much about BDS – and when he did it was because he was prompted to during Q&A. His two clear statements about BDS were that a) he is not 100% behind it and b)he supports a movement that is initiated jointly by Palestinians and Israeli here in the region.

Rather, Zizek spent almost two hours with the crowd’s undivided attention talking about antisemitism, capitalism and the place of the Jew in the world. He warned that antisemitism is “alive and kicking” in Europe and America and asserted that the State of Israel should worry more about Christian right antisemitism  rather than wasting its energy on self-proclaimed Jewish anti-Zionists. He said that the Christian Zionists in America are inherently antisemitic and that Israel’s willingness to embrace their support is baffling.

After establishing the deep-rooted vitality of antisemitism, he mentioned that he has no patience for those who excuse Arab antisemitism; that even the most oppressed and poor Palestinian should not be tolerated for being antisemitic. He also spoke about his well-known argument regarding Zionist antisemitism, whereby Zionists use antisemitic language towards fellows Jews in accusing them of not being Zionist enough. This was his main critique of Israel – its witch hunt against those Jews it finds not “Zionist enough.”

Read the rest.

Raincoat Optimist comments:

“What to some might appear like Zizek withholding sympathy for Palestinians, is in actual fact highlighting the paternalism and snobbery of some pro-Palestinians, who believe those who are lesser off than them should be pitied, left to their own devices, and if they express antisemitic views, well, who can blame them, ‘eh, after all they don’t know any better do they, they’re poor – and as all people know poor people are stupid and don’t deserve to be told they’re wrong to blame the Jews for their plight.”

HT Shiraz Socialist

Westminster University Cancels Gilad Atzomon’s discussion of “Jewishness”

Gahda Karmi had already said she was pulling out.  She’s the one who thought that “Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s UN speech on 21 April struck many as obnoxious, but in terms of understanding the 1948 roots of the Middle East conflict he was spot on.”  She also thought that after  ‘the Holocaust and all this business’, as she put it, masses of ‘alien’ Jews started to pour in to Palestine. These Jews were nothing like the Jews they were used to: these new Jews were pale and blue-eyed, but most of all they were ‘complicated’, ‘very difficult to deal with’, and they were bringing ‘their miserable lives’ with them.

John Rose had also said he was pulling out.  Remember John Rose, brought up in a “Zionist home”?

Alan (“some of my best friends are Jewish“) Hart was also billed to speak.

The star of the show was to be the antisemitic saxophonist, Gilad Atzmon.

The event had been promoted by groups including the Stop the War Coalition, the white nationalist Stormfront movement, and the Real IRA, according to the Jewish Chronicle report here.

Stormfront and Stop the War Coalition members promote same campus event

Campaign by antizionists to have top Jewish surgeon struck off

Professor Michael Baum

This piece, by Leon Symons, is from the Jewish Chronicle

One of Britain’s leading cancer surgeons has told a conference how his support for the Israel Medical Association sparked a campaign to have him struck off by the General Medical Council (GMC).

Professor Michael Baum told a packed session at the annual Limmud conference at Warwick University that colleagues — including Jews — in the medical profession had turned on him after he challenged the accusation made by some that the Israel Medical Association (IMA) was complicit in the torture of Palestinian prisoners.

His session was called “The academic boycott of Israel: are the Jews among the worst antisemites?”

Professor Baum said he had first become involved “as an innocent” in June 2007 when the British Medical Journal invited him to write an article for an online poll arguing against an academic boycott of Israel. “You’re lucky if 2,000 get to vote on any issue. They had 23,000 votes online,” said Prof Baum, 72, who is emeritus professor of surgery and visiting professor of medical humanities at University College London.

“There were also rapid online responses. The views I got were extremely hurtful and extremely abusive, not to mention the hate mail I got both electronically and by post. It was also the first time I had experienced antisemitism in my life.”

Then Professor Baum encountered Dr Derek Summerfield, who led a lengthy campaign to unseat former IMA chair Dr Yoram Blachar after he was elected president of the World Medical Association in 2008.

Dr Summerfield set up a meeting at the Royal Society of Medicine attended by Jews for Justice for Palestinians and Physicians for Human Rights Israel, which reiterated the accusations against the IMA, and against Dr Blachar personally.

Professor Baum said the personal attacks culminated in a letter sent to everyone on the BMJ website — invoking the name of the Nazi doctor Josef Mengele, who carried out hideous experiments on Jews during the Holocaust — which accused him of covering for Israeli doctors.

It also said he should be ashamed of himself and that the GMC should revoke his licence to practice medicine. “This was written by a Jew,” he said.

“That’s when the campaign to get me struck off started — the worst ignominy any doctor can suffer. They collected signatures and tried to accuse me of complicity with IMA practices. Any attempt to defend myself provoked more anti-Israel and antisemitic rhetoric.”

The surgeon went to the Community Security Trust for advice because he was worried about his and his family’s safety. He admitted to his audience that he broke down in tears during a private meeting with Israeli ambassador Ron Prosor.

He and a colleague, Professor David Katz, decided to try to find out why Israelis were fighting Israelis and set up a meeting between the IMA and Physicians for Human Rights Israel. During the meeting in Israel in December 2008, Dr Blachar pleaded with PHRI to cease its attacks through both the BMJ and The Lancet, the other leading medical journal.

The two Britons thought they had a deal that would have stopped the accusations against the IMA but only five days later, Professor Baum claimed, PHRI launched another attack.

Both the BMJ and The Lancet ran special editions critical of Israel during what was called “Israel apartheid week” last February.

Professor Baum said he had now taken himself out of the firing line and instead was helping both Palestinians and Israelis through a charitable trust set up in the name of his late brother David.

This piece, by Leon Symons, is from the Jewish Chronicle

Michael Cushman and the Jew-free UCU Congress

Michael Cushman

Michael Cushman

Mike Cushman is one of the leaders of the boycott campaign in UCU.  In the past he has pushed antisemitic conspiracy theory.   He has defended union members who passed material from David Duke’s website around the union.  He has rhetorically employed antisemitic stereotypes.   He has been feted by the Iranian state propaganda machine.  He has fawned over Hamas.

Now Cushman has provided the following breathless commentary of events at yesterday’s UCU Congress debate:

“It was brilliant. The Zionists bareley showed up. John Pike was totally isolated. On the first vote about invetigsting institutional anti-semitism in UCU he got about 6 votes out of 350.”

“On the key motion there were only two speakers against Pike and a woman from Workers Liberty, when the president asked for other speakers against no-one put their hand up. The vote was on my estimate about 300-30 (we should have asked for a count to rub salt into the wound).”

“What we must remember this was a victory built not just on hard work but even more on 1400 murders in Gaza.”

“Mike, in haste from Bournemouth”

This commentary requires a little bit of unpacking.  Two years ago, at the first Congress of the newly merged UCU, there was a big, very tense, very nasty debate about the boycott.  Cushman kicked off the ‘debate’ that day by declaring that he was “not going to be intimidated” – and received a huge cheer for it.  What he meant, and what Congress understood, was that he was not going to be intimidated by Jewish power.  And Congress followed his lead and voted for a boycott, many delegates showing clear signs that they were collectively excited at the feeling that they were standing up to the Jews.  Sorry.  To the Zionists.  This 2007 Congress was a horrible Jew-baiting Congress and it voted for a boycott motion.  When somebody stood up and mentioned antisemitism that day he was howled down by the delegates.

The Jew-baiters in UCU had a de facto deal with the union leadership – which was to allow them their fun at Congress but on the condition that the union would not actually do anything at all to implement any boycott.

Two years later, yesterday, the atmosphere was different.  There was not much cheering and there was not much howling.

Why?  Because there were no Jews left to bait.  As Michael Cushman says above, “the Zionists barely showed up”.

The Chair of the Open University Branch showed up to make a case for debating whether to have a ballot.  Congress voted him down.

Jon Pike showed up to argue that Congress should ask the union leadership to find out why Jews are resigning from the union.  Congress said it didn’t want to find out why Jews are resigning from the union.

Camila Bassi showed up, a member of a small Trotskyist group, she made a brave Trotskyist speech against the boycott.  Congress voted her down.

But there were speeches against the boycott available for anyone who wanted them.  But there was nobody left to make them.

There were no Jews there to speak against the boycott.  “The Zionists barely showed up”.

The soft left faction of union activists, the “reasonablists”,  the people who had always said they were against the boycott, remained silent, except for Mary Davis’ procedural question.  Perhaps some of them had gone soft on the boycott.  Perhaps some of them were frightened of being made into pariahs in the union if they stood up against antisemitism.  Not one of them spoke.  Not one of them insisted on making their argument.

Michael Cushman is excited by his victory.  He hasn’t noticed the significance of the fact that Congress is now free of Jews.  Except for Jews like him, the Jews who speak “as a Jew” but  who are quite unable to recognize antisemitism.  Haim Bresheeth.  John Rose.  Michael Cushman.  These are the Jews now, at UCU Congress.

David Hirsh

Shalom Lappin: “Therapists to the Jews: Psychologizing the ‘Jewish Question’”

In the past few years an interesting mode of discourse has gained currency among some critics of Israel. It consists in characterizing most Israelis, and the Jews who are concerned about Israel’s continued existence, as suffering from a deep collective psycho-pathology that conditions them to commit or to endorse systematic brutalization of the Palestinians. It takes Israel and its supporters to be acting out the effects of a long term historical trauma that reached its climax in the Holocaust. They are deflecting the intense anger, helplessness and shame accumulated over centuries of persecution in Europe on to innocent Arab victims in Israel/Palestine. These victims are surrogates for the real but no longer accessible oppressors of the Jews. The analogy driving this discourse is that of the abused child who grows into an abusive adult, imposing his childhood experiences of violence on members of his family and his adult environment.

Three clear examples of this psychologized view of the Israel-Palestine conflict are Jacqueline Rose’s book The Question of Zion (Princeton University Press, 2005), Caryl Churchill’s play Seven Jewish Children, recently staged at the Royal Court Theatre, and Anthony Lerman’s article ‘Must Jews always see themselves as victims’ (The Independent, March 7, 2009). Rose argues that Zionism, and the country that it created, derive from the the same psychological disorder that generated the false messianism of Shabbtai Zvi and his followers. She regards it as a form of mass hysteria generated by the inability of Jews to respond rationally to prolonged suffering. Churchill adapts this diagnosis of Zionism to Israel’s recent offensive in Gaza. She portrays Jewish children as obsessively raised with the collective memory of historical trauma as the pervasive background against which Israeli acts of murder and expulsion are justified or denied. Lerman invokes the work of Israeli political psychologist Daniel Bar Tal to claim that the inability of Israelis and Jews to deal adequately with the experience of the Holocaust has given rise to a persecution complex that is responsible for Israel’s perverse behaviour towards the Palestinians, as well as the willingness of Jews abroad to support this behaviour.

There are at least five features of the psychologizing discourse worth noting.

Find out what they are on normblog.

Antony Lerman defends “Seven Jewish Children”

Antony Lerman defends Churchill’s play against this CST criticism,  here.

Petra Marquardt-Bigman’s critique of Lerman’s recent work is here.

Saul comments:

“What has gone wrong with the Jewish journey from genocide in Europe to what Israel is today?”

Let us not forget, that the same question was asked by liberals and non-liberals in the nineteenth century to explain how it could be that a people who had been emancipated and brought into the bosom of civilization could still exhibit “negative” Jewish traits. More often than not, the question and the answer provided took the form of,

“a psychological link between past trauma and present brutality.”

It was this “psychological link” that sought to explain the idea that it was because of their prior exclusion in the ghetto that “the Jew could not be but  “immoral”, “unethical”,  “liars”, “cheats”, “dirty”., etc. etc.. Leaving the anti-Jewish tropes in place, these alleged negative images, fixed them all the more firmly under the label of a “psychological” condition of Jewishness. Immoralty, etc. now became the inherent trait of “the Jew”. It was only a short step for the problem of the Jewish “head” to be inscribed in the problem of Jewish “blood”.

Equally interesting was the fact that this notion of  a psychological “Jewishness” as the (“empirical”) foundation for the composite of negative traits that was said to make up the reality and actuality of “the Jew” was a line pushed most ardently by the established and assilimated Jews in the face of the embarassment brought about by the presence of the Ostjuden. The problem for the assimilated Jew, of course, was that people no longer compared them to their liberal (non-Jewish) brethren, but against the “mass” of their “backward” and “superstious” brethren from the East. The fear of loss of social status was palpable.

Needless to say, those assimilated Jews thought themselves adjusted and “healthy” and that the problem of “Jewishness” belonged to others.

The truth of the matter, as many historians of Jewish social and political history have noted, is that it was not the “backward and superstitious” who suffered from the tics of a psychological condition of “Jewishness” – they knew and relished their place as pariah – but those obsessed with differentiation (from the mass of Jews) and the acceptance which they craved – those thrown into the position of parvenu. It is, of course, true that they were forced into this role against their will (but which do not stop them they readily accepting it). Indeed, they were put into the position of playing an impossible game of showing to themselves and to others that they were both the  “same” and “different” at one and the same time. In that situation it is hardly surprising that such a game which implied the constant fear of being associated with the Jewish mass, of being “like them” should not take its psychological toll, and, in its wake, bring forth an alternative, but more socially grounded, more individual, more persistent concept of “Jewishness” that came to determine their every action, both in relation to Jews and non-Jews.

And, in this context, is it not  pertinent to note that, at a time when many a good liberal is seeking to make the Jew and the Jewish state a pariah, the parvenu’s voice joins the chorus and strives to sing the loudest?

In many schools of psychology and psychotherapy, it is encumbent for the therapist himself or herself to undergo the process themselves. If Lerman is going to continue in the present vein, maybe it is a piece of advice that he should take on board. After all, as he so often states, “denial” is a terrible thing.

Saul

When the CST say “Seven Jewish Children” is antisemitic, it is time to take the charge seriously

The Community Security Trust (CST) is a serious organisation.  It organises security for the Jewish community.  When you see security people standing outside synagogues or outside other Jewish events, they are CST volunteers.  They are well trained and they do a good job.  Only the most convinced antisemitism-denying antizionists would claim that there is no need for security outside Jewish communal events.   The CST keeps an eye on antisemitic behaviour and discourse in Britain and it collates information on antisemitic incidents.  The CST works closely with the police and it trains law-enforcement and communal agencies around the world in best practice.

The CST is an official, sober, experienced and serious organization, with roots in all parts of the Jewish community in Britain.  It is not a politically motivated organization – it is at the forefront of British Jews’ collective response to antisemitism.

When Dave Rich and Mark Gardner of the CST say that Caryl Churchill’s play “Seven Jewish Children” is antisemitic, and when they carefully explain why, people should take them seriously.   They don’t have to agree.  But to dismiss such criticism as dishonest pro-Israeli propaganda will not do.  Such a response exacerbates the antisemitism of which they are accused, it does not address it.

This piece, by Dave Rich and Mark Gardner, is from Comment is Free.

The Jewish festival of Passover celebrates the Jewish exodus from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the land of Israel. The festival begins with the seder, when Jewish families gather around the dining table and the story is retold by the adults to the children, who are encouraged to ask questions throughout.

There is a moment in the seder when the whole family recount the names of the ten plagues visited upon Pharaoh and the Egyptians. As each plague is named, all present dip their finger into red wine – unmistakably reminiscent of blood – and spill a drop onto their plate. The Guardian chose a photograph of this scene to illustrate its online production of Caryl Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children.

The association of blood with Jews is a well-established antisemitic tradition. It is embodied in the blood libel charge, which first appeared in 12th-century England and quickly spread. The accusation was that Jews murder non-Jewish children to use their blood in religious rituals, especially at Passover. Ironically, when Jews spill their wine at the seder, it is to remember with sadness the pain of the Egyptians, not to celebrate their loss. Nevertheless, so many Jews died in blood libel massacres at Passover, that a rabbi in 17th-century Poland ruled that Jews could use white wine, not red, during the seder, lest antisemites mistake the red wine for Christian blood.

Seven Jewish Children is not a play about Israel. It was written by Churchill as a “response to the situation in Gaza in January 2009″, but it is a play explicitly about Jews. Her response to Gaza is to accuse Jews of having undergone a pathological transformation from victims to oppressors. The play comprises seven brief scenes, of which the first two are generally taken to represent the Holocaust, or perhaps pogroms during an earlier period of antisemitic agitation; in other words, they take place in Europe, before Israel even existed. 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.

In the first two scenes, it is Jewish “uncles” and “grandmother” who are killed, despite approximately one and a half million Jewish children having perished in the Holocaust. Whereas it is elderly Jews who are killed, the Jews’ victims are overwhelmingly depicted as children: there are two mentions of dead adults, namely “Hamas fighters” and “policemen”, but seven of dead children: “the boy”, “the family of dead girls”, “babies” and “their children covered in blood”. The play lands its blows in the final two scenes, culminating in a monologue of genocidal racist hatred: “they’re animals … I wouldn’t care if we wiped them out … we’re chosen people.”

A spokesman for the Royal Court Theatre, where the play was first performed, defended it with the formulaic argument that:

“While Seven Jewish Children is undoubtedly critical of the policies of the state of Israel, there is no suggestion that this should be read as a criticism of Jewish people. It is possible to criticise the actions of Israel without being antisemitic.”

The anti-Zionist conceit that, as long as you are talking about Israel, you can say whatever you want about Jews, is laid bare here. It is not even possible to discuss whether or where this play crosses a line from criticism of Israel into antisemitism, because the play does not present us with a specific criticism of an Israeli policy or action. The Guardian’s illustration of a Jewish family seder table is far more appropriate than a photograph of the Israeli cabinet table would ever have been.

The dishonesty and amorality of the adult voices in Seven Jewish Children is striking. Nowhere are right and wrong considered, when deciding how to answer their children’s questions. Never does an adult in the play consider whether their suggested answer is true or not, nor whether this should have any bearing on which answer is given. Their only thought is which answers will best shield Jewish children from difficult moral questions. It is as if Jewish children are brought up in a moral vacuum, with Jewish power and vulnerability the only things that matter.

Michael Billington, the Guardian’s theatre critic, noted that the play “shows us how Jewish children are bred to believe in the ‘otherness’ of Palestinians”. Howard Jacobson described this as an example of “how easily language can sleepwalk us into bigotry.”

Billington’s use of the word “bred” should have shaken Guardian readers and editors from their slumber. After all, if used in connection with black or Muslim children, then the racism alarms would sound loud and clear. In fact, wittingly or not, Billington used exactly the right language to describe the message of Seven Jewish Children.

The original text of the play (pdf) does not specify the actual number of actors, nor who speaks which lines. There are no distinct characters: any Jew can speak any of the lines, in combination with any of the other lines, without distorting the narrative. This homogenising is bad enough, but the Guardian’s production goes a step further. By presenting the play with just a single performer, speaking every Jewish voice in each time and place, the Guardian distils the play into an internal conversation inside the head of every Jew – the increasingly manic neuroses of a screwed-up people.

Howard Jacobson identified this as “a fine piece of fashionable psychobabble that understands Zionism as the collective nervous breakdown of the Jewish people”. All the “tell her/don’t tell her” answers in the play are really attempts to answer one simple question: what do those Jews learn as children that they behave like this as adults? The end result of this “psychobabble” is to slander Jews as being psychologically compelled to become the new Nazis. Not so much a blood libel perhaps, but certainly a deadly new libel for a new millennium.

In the play’s concluding monologue, presumably set during the Gaza conflict, the Jewish speaker declares: “… tell her I look at one of their children covered in blood and what do I feel? Tell her all I feel is happy it’s not her.” What are we to make of the “all” in that sentence? This nameless Jew, seemingly representing any and every Jew, who cannot escape the pain of the Holocaust and the shame of Gaza, can now feel nothing for the other, dead, non-Jewish child, covered in its own blood.

Jews, children, blood and, for the Guardian at least, the Passover seder: this mixture has a murderous antisemitic past. The virus of antisemitism is easily transmitted by those who are not aware they are carrying it. Churchill almost certainly does not intend it, but her play culminates in powerful antisemitic resonances. The Guardian’s online production further amplifies them. People sometimes ask when does anti-Zionism become antisemitism. Here is a rule of thumb: when people describe Israel with the same language and imagery that antisemites use to talk about Jews, the difference between the two disappears.

Dave Rich and Mark Gardner work for Community Security Trust, a charity that monitors antisemitism and provides security for the UK Jewish community

This piece, by Dave Rich and Mark Gardner, is from Comment is Free.

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