Heard the one about the four Jewish writers sitting on a stage in a royal palace at the Jaipur Literary Festival discussing the condition of the Jewish novel? The Jewish novel in Jaipur? Circumcision, shiksehs, Yiddish gags? Yes, hard to credit. As one of the writers, I found it hard to credit even as it was happening. But here’s the punchline: there wasn’t a single Jewish joke or reference the 500 attentively listening Indians didn’t get! I’ve encountered more bemusement at a reading in St John’s Wood.
It hadn’t occurred to me what a singular experience it would be, discussing Jewishry in a non-Christian country and not having to apologise for killing Christ. I don’t say I’m charged with deicide every time I speak at Edinburgh or Hay-on-Wye, but the topic of Israeli culpability does frequently come up in one form or another, and it’s hard sometimes not to feel you’ve got blood on your hands again.
You might say this drama exists only in my head. Drop the “only” and I’ll meet you halfway. What measure of objective truth is there, after all, when it comes to colloquy? The hearer interprets what he hears. The speaker means more than he knows he means. But there was nothing for a visiting Jew with supersonic hearing to twitch his ears to in Jaipur, no history of theological charge and countercharge, no 2,000-year-old suspicion. Here was a festival of literature that was truly both festive and literary. Readers turned up in vast numbers, listened, smiled, asked intelligent questions, bought books, got jokes, told jokes, and made every writer feel his occupation mattered. What is more, many of them were young.
I mean no ingratitude or disrespect to those good enough to come and hear me on the stump in Dartington or Cheltenham, but youth is not what distinguishes them. In Jaipur, I saw a future for the book. The young who turned up with shining eyes were not ashamed of being interested in writing. There was none of that swaggering ignorance we allow our children to parade, as though the fewer words they’ve read the cooler they are. If you want to punish teenagers in India you tell them they won’t be able to take their exams. Think on that and weep.
Only a fool would suppose a literature festival is a microcosm of a country. A literature festival self-selects. But it tells you something about the culture and what it told me I admired. Still high on the enthusiasm, the cleverness, the open-mindeness and an unaccustomed freedom from the imputation (real or imaginary) of belonging to an accursed race, I arrived back to find the Liberal Democrat MP David Ward and the cartoonist Gerald Scarfe being accused of anti-Semitism. Home sweet home.
David Ward barely merits one’s contempt. Only a moral nincompoop or a scoundrel would align the Holocaust and the “atrocities” visited by Jews on Palestinians. You know the argument: where was the point in sending Jews to Holocaust University if they came away only with numbers tattooed on their arms and no degree in human kindness? Clegg should dump Ward in that circle of Liberal Democrat hell presided over by Baroness Tonge. Their conversation would be monotonous but they’d get along.
Gerald Scarfe’s now infamous cartoon is a different matter. I don’t find it anti-Semitic. Yes, the wall is cemented with blood, but I don’t agree it thereby invokes the Blood Libel. If it’s the Blood Libel resurrected in our time you want, go to Caryl Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children where the blood of innocent Palestinian babies dribbles out of the ravening mouths of Jews. Blood cement might be melodrama but it’s not libel.
Scarfe denies the charge of anti-Semitism and he has never looked or sounded remotely like an anti-Semite to me when I have met him. Not that what an artist avows can ever be the last word about his art. Intention is only half the story. Associations swirl around language and depiction; echoes are heard; the infections of other times never disappear entirely, and a work might end where it never meant or wanted to go. But Scarfe, unlike many whose work has caused comparable distress, has offered his regrets. He has apologised for the timing, and while he has otherwise stuck to his guns, as he has every right to, he hasn’t gloried obdurately in the offence.
For all Scarfe’s graphic genius, I can’t say I care for this cartoon. I can’t say I care for political cartoons generally. Though they claim kinship to the comedy family, they rarely play with the ambiguities on which comedy thrives. They are more often expressions of indignation, and indignation is comedy’s poor relation – as unsubtle as the spluttering anger it arouses.
And here’s the problem with this cartoon. Not that it’s grotesque – grotesquerie is the cartoonist’s business – not that it intends offence to Jews, or even that it intends offence to Netanyahu – who could be said to invite it, anyway – but that the offence it itself takes to a vexed political situation (the cartoonist, too, being an offended party) is single-voiced and sentimental. I don’t lay specific blame on Scarfe. This is the routine discourse of the times – a discourse which, if we dig deep enough, is indeed, in its sentimental, vilifying form, anti-Semitic in origin. Perhaps those Jews who are crying foul detect that. But distinctions are essential. We can accuse someone of a commonplace political indignation without having to accuse him of anti-Semitism, too.
The fear is never far away, though: they told us we killed Christ and here they are again, though no longer Christianly inclined, still telling us we’re butchers. The youngsters in Jaipur would have understood the black comedy of that.