Howard Jacobson: Do we come into the world as babies genetically programmed to hate?

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I've been recalling, over the past few days, the character of Mrs Joe in Great Expectations, and what Dickens, if I may put it like this, allows us to do to her. Mrs Joe, you will remember, is a domestic tyrant, a pathological bully whose state of mind we moderns are particularly well placed to understand, so many witnesses to the brutalising of women having come forward to tell their story.

Quite suddenly, out of that clear blue sky which is no longer merely a metaphor to any of us, she is attacked, "knocked down by a tremendous blow on the back of the head, dealt by some unknown hand when her face was turned towards the fire – destined never to be on the Rampage again, while she was the wife of Joe."

Only a master of the cadences of pathos would be able to turn the tables on us and make us feel sorry for a woman we have until now loathed. Dickens achieves this partly by reminding us of her rampaging vitality at the moment of robbing her of it forever, and partly by orchestrating the assault so that it comes when she is at her most domestically vulnerable and quiescent, her face turned towards the fire, no matter that she might have been tormenting the coals.

But he also calls out something from us which lies deeper than sympathy or fellow feeling, by making us, in a sense, responsible for the attack. Pip is plagued by guilt the moment the weapon is found – the leg-iron which he had long ago helped the convict Magwitch to escape from. And we, who are privy to Pip's prevarications – "wavering between right and wrong" – are troubled by our part in the violence, too, by virtue of having wished it.

Dickens turns the screws on Mrs Joe, reducing her to a condition of masochistic dependency – the sexual connotations are not inappropriate in this instance – on Orlick, the person who has hammered her insensible. We are not spared the humiliation of her will and the complete dismantlement of her energies. This is what it is to deny someone their very principle of life. How do we like it now?

Of the horrors of the past however many days – or is it years – the sight of that homely, bespectacled Palestinian woman ululating her glee enjoys a special pride of place. She could have been a cousin of mine, for we are related, we Jews and Palestinians. All ululations were driven out of the Jews, at least from the Ashkenazim, by that long sojourn in eastern Europe, but otherwise we still appear to have much in common.

So I'm wondering what it would take to make one of my actual cousins celebrate 6,000 people burnt alive in an act of destruction so diabolically conceived it is hard to believe it originated in the hearts of men. Let's say the victims had all been Nazis, would that have done it? I am not arguing, you see, that such vindictiveness is utterly incomprehensible to a Jew. We are cousins. If they could, surely we could. So maybe a flaming tower of SS men, I don't know.

Certainly not any damage done to innocent Palestinians, of that I am certain. I am capable, at times like this, of brewing up a fanatic storm in my heart. For a day or two there isn't anything I do not wish upon whoever I have elected to be my enemy. But only let a single thimbleful of blood be spilt and I am as jelly. Reader, it even pained me to see Yasser Arafat at the doctor's, with a needle in his arm, spilling his.

How to understand it, then? In a general way I am not persuaded by the argument that whoever hates must have right on his side, else he would not hate so implacably. There is hate without reason, just as there is jealousy without cause and envy that cannot be sheeted back to the envied. Some people may be born with it. Motiveless malignity, as we used to say of Iago. I have been looked at by babies, sometimes, with what I can only describe as abhorrence. Babies who haven't even had the chance to get to know me. Come into the world with a hate gene, clearly.

Many of those who have been promulgating the no smoke without fire theory of hatred would not entertain it in other circumstances. Too short a skirt is not considered a justification for rape, and it would be a brave man who would dare tell a feminist that misogyny is rooted in the essential detestableness of women. We perfectly understand, when we need to, that hatred can be its own engine, running on fuel of its own manufacture.

Which is not an adequate explanation, I accept, of the ululations of the Palestinian woman. I cannot know to what degree in her own person she has suffered wrongs, but that she belongs to a wronged people I do not doubt. That wrongs are also perpetrated in the name of her people I again do not doubt – though you would not deduce as much from most commentators in recent years. Could this, then, partially account for the joyous dancing of my estranged cousins in the streets of Palestine: a conviction, encouraged at every turn, that there is only good and evil in this conflict, and that they are, without any question, the good?

You don't get these simplicities in literature. Literature lays no flattering unction to the soul; you see the reflection of your bloodthirst in the mirror, and turn from it in shame.