I was once in Melbourne when bush fires were raging 20 or 30 miles north of the city. Even from that distance you could smell the burning. Fine fragments of ash, like slivers of charcoal confetti, covered the pavements. The very air was charred. It has been the same here these past couple of months with the fighting in Gaza. Only the air has been charred not with devastation but with hatred. And I don’t mean the hatred of the warring parties for each other. I mean the hatred of Israel expressed in our streets, on our campuses, in our newspapers, on our radios and televisions, and now in our theatres.
A discriminatory, over-and-above hatred, inexplicable in its hysteria and virulence whatever justification is adduced for it; an unreasoning, deranged and as far as I can see irreversible revulsion that is poisoning everything we are supposed to believe in here – the free exchange of opinions, the clear-headedness of thinkers and teachers, the fine tracery of social interdependence we call community relations, modernity of outlook, tolerance, truth. You can taste the toxins on your tongue.
But I am not allowed to ascribe any of this to anti-Semitism. It is, I am assured, “criticism” of Israel, pure and simple. In the matter of Israel and the Palestinians this country has been heading towards a dictatorship of the one-minded for a long time; we seem now to have attained it. Deviate a fraction of a moral millimetre from the prevailing othodoxy and you are either not listened to or you are jeered at and abused, your reading of history trashed, your humanity itself called into question. I don’t say that self-pityingly. As always with dictatorships of the mind, the worst harmed are not the ones not listened to, but the ones not listening. So leave them to it, has essentially been my philosophy. A life spent singing anti-Zionist carols in the company of Ken Livingstone and George Galloway is its own punishment.
But responses to the fighting in Gaza have been such as to drive even the most quiescent of English Jews – whether quiescent because we have learnt to expect nothing else, or because we are desperate to avoid trouble, or because we have our own frustrations with Israel to deal with – out of our usual stoical reserve. Some things cannot any longer go unchallenged.
My first challenge is implicit in the phrase “the fighting in Gaza”, which more justly describes the event than the words “Massacre” and “Slaughter” which anti-Israel demonstrators carry on their placards. This is not a linguistic ploy on my part to play down the horror of Gaza or to minimise the loss of life. In an article in this newspaper last week, Robert Fisk argued that “a Palestinian woman and her child are as worthy of life as a Jewish woman and her child on the back of a lorry in Auschwitz”. I am not sure who he was arguing with, but it certainly isn’t me.
I do not differentiate between the worth of lives and no more wish to harm or see harmed the hair of a single Palestinian than do those who make cause, here in safe cosy old easy-come easy-go England, with Hamas. Indeed, given Hamas’s record of violence to its own people – read the latest report from Amnesty if you doubt it – it’s possible I wish to harm the hair of a single Palestinian less. But that might be rhetoric in which case I apologise for it.
In pictures: Israel launches further air strikes on Gaza
In pictures: Israel launches further air strikes on Gaza
1/104 Israeli border with Gaza
Israeli soldiers rest next to artillery shells from an artillery unit near the Israeli border with Gaza
2/104 Tensions Remain High At Israeli Gaza Border
Palestinian mourners pray in a mosque during the funeral for those killed in a three-storey house belonging to the Abu Jamaa family the day before, in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip
3/104 Tensions Remain High At Israeli Gaza Border
Palestinian mourners pray over five bodies, all from the Halaq family, during their funeral in the Jabalia refugee camp, in the Gaza Strip
MAHMUD HAMS/AFP/Getty Images
4/104 Tensions Remain High At Israeli Gaza Border
The aunt of Palestinian boy Mohammed Ayad, who medics said was killed during heavy Israeli shelling, mourns as she looks at his body during his funeral in Gaza City
5/104 Tensions Remain High At Israeli Gaza Border
Two Palestinian men flee their homes during a temporary ceasefire in the heavily-hit Shuja’iya neighbourhood in Gaza City
6/104 Tensions Remain High At Israeli Gaza Border
Palestinian women react next to the rubble of their relatives' house, which police said was destroyed in an Israeli air strike, in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip
7/104 Tensions Remain High At Israeli Gaza Border
Palestinians gather as a bulldozer searches for victims amongst the rubble of a house, which police said was destroyed in an Israeli air strike, in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip
8/104 Tensions Remain High At Israeli Gaza Border
Palestinians paramedics lift the body of a man from the Al Shejaeiya neighbourhood, during a brief period of ceasefire requested by local rescue forces to retrieve dead and wounded from the Shuja'iyya neighbourhood in east Gaza City
9/104 Tensions Remain High At Israeli Gaza Border
An Israeli soldier gestures on a Merkava tank, as part of the Israeli army deployment near Israel's border with the Gaza Strip
10/104 Tensions Remain High At Israeli Gaza Border
Palestinian Beisan Dhahir (7) sleeps at Shifa hospital in Gaza City. Beisan's home was shelled and collapsed by Israel's military operation in Shijaiyah in the Gaza Strip. She survived the ordeal with her aunt and uncle. Beisan's mother, father, brother, sister and baby sister all died in the attack
11/104 Tensions Remain High At Israeli Gaza Border
A picture taken from Israel at the southern border with the Gaza strip shows smoke billowing from behind a hill following an Israeli air strike on Gaza City
12/104 Palestinians clashes with Israeli
Palestinians clashes with Israeli troops following the protest against the Israeli operations in Gaza at the al-Jalazone Camp in Ramallah, West Bank
13/104 Tensions Remain High At Israeli Gaza Border
An Israeli soldier sleeps on a tank near the Israeli border with the Gaza Strip. Israeli strikes killed at least 20 people in Gaza on Saturday 19 July, taking the death toll from a 12-day bombardment to 324
Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images
14/104 Tensions Remain High At Israeli Gaza Border
Sderot, Israel: Soldiers are seen advancing towards the Israeli-Gaza border during an operation near Sderot, Israel. As operation 'Protective Edge' enters its 12th day, over 300 Gazans have been killed along with three Israeli soldiers
Andrew Burton/Getty Images
15/104 Southern Gaza Strip
Palestinian men help a local journalist who got injured during an Israeli airstrike on an office building hosting several media outlets in Gaza City
16/104 Southern Gaza Strip
Palestinians help an injured colleague to leave a building hit by an Israeli air strike on Gaza City
17/104 Southern Gaza Strip
Palestinians leave their neighborhood to a safer location after Israel's army stared its ground offensive in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip
18/104 Israeli Gaza border
Israeli soldiers seen along the border with Gaza before the attack
19/104 Southern Gaza Strip
An Israeli missile strikes in Gaza City
20/104 Southern Gaza Strip
Palestinians run for shelter as they hear bombing in the distance while they flee their homes in the Shajaiyeh neighborhood of Gaza City, after Israel had airdropped leaflets warning people to leave the area
21/104 Southern Gaza Strip
Relatives of 4 Palestinian children killed in Israeli airstrike while they were playing on the beach, mourn in Gaza City
22/104 Southern Gaza Strip
A Palestinian man cries as he holds the dead body of his young brother shortly after he got killed by an Israeli naval bombardment in the port of Gaza City in the morgue of the Shifa hospital in Gaza
23/104 Southern Gaza Strip
Young relatives of four boys, all from the Bakr family, killed during Israeli shelling, cry during their funeral in Gaza City
AFP PHOTO / MOHAMMED ABEDMOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images
24/104 Southern Gaza Strip
Palestinian employees of Gaza City's al-Deira hotel carry a wounded boy following an Israeli military strike nearby on the beach
THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images
25/104 Southern Gaza Strip
A Palestinian man reads a leaflet dropped by Israeli Defense Forces over the Shuja'iyya neighbourhood in east Gaza. The paper says residents of the area are supposed to leave the area immediately and seek shelter in the center of Gaza City before the Israeli airforce will commence airstrikes. According to Israeli sources 100,000 people were notified to flee, only a few did
26/104 Southern Gaza Strip
Palestinian children run to collect leaflets dropped by Israeli Defense Forces over the Shuja'iyya neighbourhood in east Gaza City
27/104 Southern Gaza Strip
Palestinians salvage what they can of their belongings from the rubble of their destroyed house following an early morning Israeli missile strike in Gaza City
28/104 Southern Gaza Strip
A Palestinian man looks at a house destroyed by Israeli Defense Forces during an overnight air strike in Gaza City
29/104 Southern Gaza Strip
A Palestinian man stands amidst the debris of the house of senior Hamas official Mahmud al-Zahar which was destroyed by Israeli Defense Forces in an air strike in Gaza City
30/104 Israeli Gaza border
Palestinians search a destroyed house following an Israeli missile strike in Rafah
31/104 Israeli Gaza border
A man walks near the Israeli Gaza border
32/104 Southern Gaza Strip
Smoke rises from a Palestinian house during an attack by Israeli missiles in Jabaliya in the northern Gaza Strip. Israel bombed 40 more targets in the Gaza Strip and Palestinian militants launched at least 20 rockets across the border, despite a call by UN Secretary-General for a truce. The death toll rose to over 170 on the seventh day of the Israeli offensive, with more than 1,200 wounded, a Gaza Health Ministry spokesman said
33/104 Israeli Gaza border
A photo taken from the southern Israeli Gaza border shows Israeli army flares falling into the Palestinian enclave. Israel's security cabinet was to meet early on July 15 to discuss Egyptian proposals for a truce in Gaza, a senior official said, as an aerial campaign against Hamas entered its eighth day
34/104 Southern Gaza Strip
A Palestinian elderly walks past a destroyed house in the north of Beit Lahiya town in the northern Gaza Strip
35/104 Southern Gaza Strip
A Palestinian baby Abdullah Abu Halib, wounded during an Israeli airstrike, is treated at Nasser Hospital in Khan Yunis
36/104 Southern Gaza Strip
The funeral ceremony of three members of El-Muammer family, killed in Israeli airstrikes on Gaza, is held in Khan Yunis
37/104 Southern Gaza Strip
Relatives carry the body of 3-year-old Palestinian boy Moayad al-Araj, who hospital officials said were killed in an Israeli air strike, during his funeral in Khan Younis
38/104 Southern Gaza Strip
Palestinian relatives mourn during the funeral of four members of the Moamer family, including a 26-year-old militant of the Hamas movement, during their funeral in southern Gaza Strip city of Rafah
39/104 Southern Gaza Strip
A young Palestinian boy walks over debris from a house that was destroyed in an airstrike in Deir Al Balah
40/104 Southern Gaza Strip
Palestinian boys inspect the damage in a mosque that was destroyed overnight by an Israeli airstrike in Deir Al Balah
41/104 Southern Gaza Strip
Palestinian firefighters extinguish a fire that broke out after an Israeli air strike hit a car in Gaza City
42/104 Southern Gaza Strip
Palestinians gather around a firing car following an Israeli air strike in Gaza City
43/104 Southern Gaza Strip
A Palestinian man walks next to a destroyed house following Israeli missile strike in Gaza City
44/104 Southern Gaza Strip
Palestinians gather around the remains of a house, which police said was destroyed in an Israeli air strike in Rafah
45/104 Southern Gaza Strip
Palestinians carry the body of three-year-old Mohammed Mnassrah who was killed along with his parents and brother in an airstrike, during his funeral in Al Maghazi refugee camp in the eastern Gaza Strip
46/104 Southern Gaza Strip
Relatives and friends of al-Hajj family mourn as they gather in a mosque to pray over the bodies of the eight family members during their funeral in Khan Yunis
A smoke and fire billowing from an Israeli gas station after it was hit by a rocket fired from the Palestinian Gaza Strip
48/104 Southern Gaza Strip
A Palestinian firefighter hoses a boat hit in an missile strike at the port in Gaza City
49/104 Southern Gaza Strip
A Palestinian firefighter hoses a boat damaged by an missile strike at the port in Gaza City
50/104 Southern Gaza Strip
The destroyed house of the Palestinian Abu Lealla family following an Israeli airstrike north of Gaza City
51/104 Southern Gaza Strip
Palestinians inspect the rubble of a house after it was hit by an Israeli missile strike in Gaza City
Israeli fire-fighters extinguish a fire that broke out after a rocket hit a petrol station in the southern Israeli city of Ashdod
Israeli fire fighters extinguish vehicles destroyed by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip that hit a gas station in the city of Ashdod
Israeli fire fighters extinguish vehicles destroyed by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip in the city of Ashdod
Israeli firefighters try to extinguish the fire from several cars that were damaged by a missile fired from the Gaza Strip that hit a gas station in the southern city of Ashdod
Firefighters try to douse a fire from a rocket that hit a Petrol station in Ashdod
57/104 Southern Gaza Strip
A ball of fire is seen following an air strike on Rafah in the southern of Gaza strip
58/104 Southern Gaza Strip
Palestinian firefighters extinguish fire from a building following an Israeli air strike in Gaza City
59/104 Southern Gaza Strip
A Palestinian man walks on the rubble of a destroyed building following an Israeli air strike in Gaza City
60/104 Southern Gaza Strip
Palestinians carry bodies of seven people killed in a strike during their funeral in Khan Younis refugee camp
61/104 Southern Gaza Strip
Israel launched the military operation 'Protective Edge', which came in response to a renewed wave of rockets out of the Gaza Strip, for some of which Palestinian group Hamas has claimed responsibility. There have been more than 120 Israeli airstrikes in the coastal enclave, according to Palestinian sources, while hundreds of rockets and mortar shells have landed in southern Israel. Israeli military spokesman Peter Lerner said the offensive, named Protective Edge, could grow into a 'ground mission if required'
62/104 Southern Gaza Strip
Flames engulf a building hit by an Israeli air strike
63/104 Southern Gaza Strip
Palestinians inspect damages following an Israeli air strike
64/104 Southern Gaza Strip
Palestinian rescuers check a car hit by an Israeli air strike killing the driver in Gaza City
65/104 Southern Gaza Strip
A Palestinian woman runs carrying a girl following what police said was an Israeli air strike on a house in Gaza city
66/104 Southern Gaza Strip
Palestinians sitting on a street react after a deadly Israeli air strike that targeted their house in the town of Khan Yunis in the Gaza Strip
67/104 Southern Gaza Strip
Palestinian relatives mourn during the funeral of members of Hamad family in the town of Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza Strip
68/104 Southern Gaza Strip
A Palestinian man carries his wounded daughter into the al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City following an Israeli air strike
69/104 Southern Gaza Strip
Palestinians stand on the edge of a crater as others look for people under the rubble of a house that was destroyed in an Israeli air strike in Gaza City
70/104 Southern Gaza Strip
A Palestinian removes rubble near a damaged building belonging to a senior Hamas official following an Israeli missile strike in the Jabaliya refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip
71/104 Southern Gaza Strip
Palestinians collect their belongings from the rubble of their house which police said was destroyed in an Israeli air strike in Rafah
72/104 Southern Gaza Strip
Beit Hanoun, a city on the northeast edge of the Gaza Strip, hit by Israeli airstrike, West Bank
73/104 Southern Gaza Strip
A Palestinian man removes blooded cushions from an outdoors sitting area following an Israeli air strike in Beit Hanun
74/104 Southern Gaza Strip
Relatives and friends of the al-Kaware family carry one of the 7 members of the family to the mosque during their funeral in Khan Yunis
75/104 Southern Gaza Strip
A Palestinian boy who was injured in an Israeli airstrike, sits next to his mother after receiving treatment at a hospital in Khan Younis
76/104 Southern Gaza Strip
A picture taken from the southern Israeli border with the Gaza Strip shows smoke billowing after an Israeli air strike in the Palestinian coastal enclave
77/104 Southern Gaza Strip
Wounded Palestinians are taken to hospitals after Israel airstrikes targeted different points of Gaza city
78/104 Southern Gaza Strip
A Palestinian boy cries as he receives treatment at a hospital after he was injured in an Israeli airstrike in Khan Younis
79/104 Southern Gaza Strip
Two Palestinian girls inspect the ruble of a destroyed house following an Israeli airstrike in Rafah refugee camp
80/104 Southern Gaza Strip
A Palestinian woman makes her way through debris as people inspect the remains of a house belonging to a member of the Islamist Hamas movement following an Israeli air strike in the Gaza strip town of Khan Yunis
81/104 Southern Gaza Strip
A Palestinian man searches for belongings under the rubble of a house which police said was destroyed in an Israeli air strike in Gaza City
82/104 Southern Gaza Strip
Palestinian men carry a pumpkin and watermelon as they walk across the rubble
83/104 Southern Gaza Strip
Palestinians stand atop the rubble of a house which police said was destroyed in an Israeli air strike
84/104 Southern Gaza Strip
Smoke rises after an attack of Israeli aircraft in the South of Gaza City
85/104 Southern Gaza Strip
The father of killed Hamas militant Rashad Yassin (28) arrives at the morgue of the al-Aqsa hospital in Deir al-Balah, in the central Gaza strip
86/104 Southern Gaza Strip
Smoke and flames are seen following what police said was an Israeli air strike in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip
87/104 Southern Gaza Strip
Fire fighters extinguish a vehicle targeted in an Israeli airstrike on Gaza City
88/104 Southern Gaza Strip
Wounded people are taken to the hospital in Gaza city
89/104 Southern Gaza Strip
A smoke rises after an Israeli air strike in the Palestinian coastal enclave
90/104 Southern Gaza Strip
A Palestinian girls in the rubble of the destroyed home of the Al Abadlla family following an Israeli airstrike in Khanyounis, southern Gaza Strip
91/104 Southern Gaza Strip
Palestinians inspect the rubble of a house after it was hit by an Israeli missile strike in Khan Younis, southern Gaza Strip
92/104 Southern Gaza Strip
Palestinians inspect destroyed area as smoke rises from the ruins in Khan Yunis after the Israeli airstrikes aiming Gaza
The Iron Dome air-defense system fires to intercept a rocket over the city of Ashdod. Due to recent escalation in the region, the Israeli army started new deployments at the border with the Gaza Strip
An Israeli soldier performs a morning prayer in an army deployment area near Israel's border with the Gaza Strip
95/104 Southern Gaza Strip
A woman stands inside her destroyed house in Khan Yunis
96/104 Southern Gaza Strip
Palestinians inspect destroyed area in Khan Yunis after the Israeli airstrikes aiming Gaza
97/104 Southern Gaza Strip
Palestinian men carry an injured person into Gaza City's al-Shifa hospital following an Israeli air strike
98/104 Southern Gaza Strip
Smoke rises following what witnesses said was an Israeli air strike in Gaza City
99/104 Southern Gaza Strip
Palestinians collect their belongings from damaged houses after an Israeli missile strike hit Gaza City
100/104 Southern Gaza Strip
The Israeli air force launched dozens of raids on the Gaza Strip after massive rocket fire from the enclave pounded southern Israel, leaving many people injured
101/104 Southern Gaza Strip
A Palestinian girl stands in a destroyed building following an Israeli military strike in Gaza City
102/104 Southern Gaza Strip
A destroyed building in seen following an Israeli military strike in in Khan Yunis, in the soutehrn Gaza Strip
103/104 Southern Gaza Strip
Palestinians march during funeral of Palestinian Marwan Sleem in the central Gaza Strip
104/104 Southern Gaza Strip
Israeli soldiers ride atop a tank outside the southern Gaza Strip. Israel launched a series of air strikes on Gaza to quell Hamas rocket fire, and the Islamist group's armed wing said seven of its gunmen were killed, making it the deadliest day for Hamas since a 2012 cross-border war with the Jewish state
Rhetoric is precisely what has warped report and analysis these past months, and in the process made life fraught for most English Jews who, like me, do not differentiate between the worth of Jewish and Palestinian lives, though the imputation – loud and clear in a new hate-fuelled little chamber-piece by Caryl Churchill – is that Jews do. “Massacre” and “Slaughter” are rhetorical terms. They determine the issue before it can begin to be discussed. Are you for massacre or are you not? When did you stop slaughtering your wife?
I watched demonstrators approach members of the public with their petitions. “Do you want an end to the slaughter in Gaza?” What were those approached expected to reply? – “No, I want it to continue unabated.” If “Massacre” presumes indiscriminate, “Slaughter” presumes innocence. There is no dodging the second of those. In Gaza the innocent have suffered unbearably. But it is in the nature of modern war, where soldiers no longer toss grenades at one another from their trenches, that the innocent pay.
Live television pictures of civilian fatalities rightly distress and anger us. Similar pictures of the damage this country did to the innocent of Berlin would have distressed and angered us no less. The outrage we feel does credit to our humanity, but says nothing about the justice of a particular war. Insist that all wars are too cruel ever to be called just, argue that any discharge of weapons in the vicinity of the innocent is murderous, and you will meet no resistance from me; but you will have in the same breath to implicate Hamas who make a virtue of endangering their own civilian population, and who, as everyone knows but many choose to discount, have been firing rockets into Israeli towns for years.
The inefficiency of those rockets, landing God knows where and upon God knows whom, is often cited to minimise the offence. As though murderous intention can be mitigated by the obsolescence of the weaponry. In fact the inefficiency only exacerbates the crime. How much more indiscriminate can you be than to lob unstable rockets into civilian areas and hope for a hit? Massacre manqué, we might call it – slaughter in all but a good aim. And this not from some disaffected group we might liken to the IRA, but the legitimately elected government of Gaza.
If it is a war crime for one government to fire on civilians, it is a war crime for another. But when a protester joined a demonstration at Sheffield University recently, calling on both sides to desist, her placard was seized and trampled underfoot, while the young in their liberation scarves and embryo compassion looked on and said not one word.
And Israel? Well, speaking on BBC television at the height of the fighting, Richard Kemp, former commander of British Troops in Afghanistan and a senior military adviser to the British government, said the following: “I don’t think there has ever been a time in the history of warfare where any army has made more efforts to reduce civilian casualties and deaths of civilians than the IDF (Israeli Defence Forces) is doing today in Gaza.” A judgement I can no more corroborate than those who think very differently can disprove.
Right or wrong, it was a contribution to the argument from someone who is more informed on military matters than most of us, but did it make a blind bit of difference to the tone of popular execration? It did not. When it comes to Israel we hear no good, see no good, speak no good. We turn our backsides to what we do not want to know about and bury it in distaste, like our own ordure. We did it and go on doing it with all official contestation of the mortality figures provided by Hamas. We do it with Hamas’s own private executions and their policy of deploying human shields. We do it with the sotto voce admission by the UN that “a clerical error” caused it to mis-describe the bombing of that UN school which at the time was all the proof we needed of Israel’s savagery. It now turns out that Israel did not bomb the school at all. But there’s no emotional mileage in a correction. The libel sticks, the retraction goes unnoticed.
But I am not allowed to ascribe any of this to anti-Semitism. It is criticism of Israel, pure and simple.
A laughably benign locution, “criticism”, for what is in fact – what has in recent years become – a desire to word a country not just out of the commonwealth of nations but out of physical existence altogether. Richard Ingrams daydreams of the time when Israel will no longer be, an after-dinner sleep which is more than an old man’s idle prophesying. It is for him a consummation devoutly to be wished. This week Bruce Anderson also looked to such a time, but in his case with profound regret. Israel has missed and goes on missing chances to be magnanimous, he argued, as no victor has ever been before. That’s a high expectation, but I am in sympathy with it, and it is an expectation in line with what Israel’s greatest writers and peace campaigners – Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua, David Grossman – have been saying for years. Though it is interesting that not a one of those believed such magnanimity included allowing Hamas’s rockets to go on falling unhindered into Israel.
Was not the original withdrawal from Gaza and the dismantling of the rightly detested settlements a sufficient signal of peaceful intent, and a sufficient opportunity for it to be reciprocated? Magnanimity is by definition unilateral, but it takes two for it to be more than a suicidal gesture. And the question has to be asked whether a Jewish state, however magnanimous and conciliatory, will ever be accepted in the Middle East.
But my argument is not with the Palestinians or even with Hamas. People in the thick of it pursue their own agenda as best they can. But what’s our agenda? What do we, in the cosy safety of tolerant old England, think we are doing when we call the Israelis Nazis and liken Gaza to the Warsaw Ghetto? Do those who blithely make these comparisons know anything whereof they speak?
In the early 1940s some 100,000 Jews and Romanis died of engineered starvation and disease in the Warsaw Ghetto, another quarter of a million were transported to the death camps, and when the Ghetto rose up it was liquidated, the last 50,000 residents being either shot on the spot or sent to be murdered more hygienically in Treblinka. Don’t mistake me: every Palestinian killed in Gaza is a Palestinian too many, but there is not the remotest similarity, either in intention or in deed – even in the most grossly mis-reported deed – between Gaza and Warsaw.
Given the number of besieged and battered cities there have been in however many thousands of years of pitiless warfare there is only one explanation for this invocation of Warsaw before any of those – it is to wound Jews in their recent and most anguished history and to punish them with their own grief. Its aim is a sort of retrospective retribution, cancelling out all debts of guilt and sorrow. It is as though, by a reversal of the usual laws of cause and effect, Jewish actions of today prove that Jews had it coming to them yesterday.
Berating Jews with their own history, disinheriting them of pity, as though pity is negotiable or has a sell-by date, is the latest species of Holocaust denial, infinitely more subtle than the David Irving version with its clunking body counts and quibbles over gas-chamber capability and chimney sizes. Instead of saying the Holocaust didn’t happen, the modern sophisticated denier accepts the event in all its terrible enormity, only to accuse the Jews of trying to profit from it, either in the form of moral blackmail or downright territorial theft. According to this thinking, the Jews have betrayed the Holocaust and become unworthy of it, the true heirs to their suffering being the Palestinians. Thus, here and there throughout the world this year, Holocaust day was temporarily annulled or boycotted on account of Gaza, dead Jews being found guilty of the sins of live ones.
Anti-Semitism? Absolutely not. It is “criticism” of Israel, pure and simple. A number of variations on the above sophistical nastiness have been fermenting in the more febrile of our campuses for some time. One particularly popular version, pseudo-scientific in tone, understands Zionism as a political form given to a psychological condition – Jews visiting upon others the traumas suffered by themselves, with Israel figuring as the torture room in which they do it. This is is pretty well the thesis of Caryl Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children, an audacious 10-minute encapsulation of Israel’s moral collapse – the audacity residing in its ignorance or its dishonesty – currently playing at the Royal Court. The play is conceived in the form of a family roundelay, with different voices chiming in with suggestions as to the best way to bring up, protect, inform, and ultimately inflame into animality an unseen child in each of the chosen seven periods of contemporary Jewish history. It begins with the Holocaust, partly to establish the playwright’s sympathetic bona fides (“Tell her not to come out even if she hears shouting”), partly to explain what has befallen Palestine, because no sooner are the Jews out of the hell of Hitler’s Europe than they are constructing a parallel hell for Palestinians.
Anyone with scant knowledge of the history of Israeli-Palestinian relations – that is to say, judging from what they chant, the majority of anti-Israel demonstrators – would assume from this that Jews descended on the country as from a clear blue sky; that they had no prior association with the land other than in religious fantasy and through some scarce remembered genealogical affiliation: “Tell her it’s the land God gave us/... Tell her her great great great great lots of greats grandad lived there” – the latter line garnering much knowing laughter in the theatre the night I was there, by virtue of the predatiousness lurking behind the childlike vagueness.
You cannot of course tell the whole story of anywhere in 10 minutes, but then why would you want to unless you conceive it to be simple and one-sided? The staccato form of the piece – every line beginning “Tell her” or “Don’t tell her” – is skilfully contrived to suggest a people not just forever fraught and frightened but forever covert and deceitful. Nothing is true. Boasts are denials and denials are boasts. Everything is mediated through the desire to put the best face, first on fear, then on devious appropriation, and finally on evil.
That being the case, it is hard to be certain what the playwright knows and what she doesn’t, what she, in her turn, means deliberately to twist or just unthinkingly helps herself to from the poor box of leftist propaganda. The overall impression, nonetheless, is of a narrative slavishly in line with the familiar rhetoric, making little or nothing of the Jews’ unbroken connection with the country going back to the Arab conquest more than a thousand years before, the piety felt for the land, the respect for its non-Jewish inhabitants (their rights must “be guarded and honoured punctiliously,” Ben Gurion wrote in 1918), the waves of idealistic immigration which long predated the post-Holocaust influx with its twisted psychology, and the hopes of peaceful co-existence, for the tragic dashing of which Arab countries in their own obduracy and intolerance bear no less responsibility.
Quite simply, in this wantonly inflammatory piece, the Jews drop in on somewhere they have no right to be, despise, conquer, and at last revel in the spilling of Palestinian blood. There is a one-line equivocal mention of a suicide bomber, and ditto of rockets, both compromised by the “Tell her” device, otherwise no Arab lifts a finger against a Jew. “Tell her about Jerusalem,” but no one tells her, for example, that the Jewish population of East Jersusalem was expelled at about the time our survivors turn up, that it was cleansed from the city and its sacred places desecrated or destroyed. Only in the crazed brains of Israelis can the motives for any of their subsequent actions be found.
Thus lie follows lie, omission follows omission, until, in the tenth and final minute, we have a stage populated by monsters who kill babies by design – “Tell her we killed the babies by mistake,” one says, meaning don’t tell her what we really did – who laugh when they see a dead Palestinian policeman (“Tell her they’re animals... Tell her I wouldn’t care if we wiped them out”), who consider themselves the “chosen people”, and who admit to feeling happy when they see Palestinian “children covered in blood”.
Anti-Semitic? No, no. Just criticism of Israel.
Only imagine this as Seven Muslim Children and we know that the Royal Court would never have had the courage or the foolhardiness to stage it. I say that with no malice towards Muslims. I do not approve of censorship but I admire their unwillingness to be traduced. It would seem that we Jews, however, for all our ingrained brutality – we English Jews at least – are considered a soft touch. You can say what you like about us, safe in the knowledge that while we slaughter babies and laugh at murdered policemen (“Tell her we’re the iron fist now”) we will squeak no louder than a mouse when we are abused.
Caryl Churchill will argue that her play is about Israelis not Jews, but once you venture on to “chosen people” territory – feeding all the ancient prejudice against that miscomprehended phrase – once you repeat in another form the medieval blood-libel of Jews rejoicing in the murder of little children, you have crossed over. This is the old stuff. Jew-hating pure and simple – Jew-hating which the haters don’t even recognise in themselves, so acculturated is it – the Jew-hating which many of us have always suspected was the only explanation for the disgust that contorts and disfigures faces when the mere word Israel crops up in conversation. So for that we are grateful. At last that mystery is solved and that lie finally nailed. No, you don’t have to be an anti-Semite to criticise Israel. It just so happens that you are.
If one could simply leave them to it one would. It’s a hell of its own making, hating Jews for a living. Only think of the company you must keep. But these things are catching. Take Michael Billington’s somnolent review of the play in the Guardian. I would imagine that any accusation of anti-Semitism would horrify Michael Billington. And I certainly don’t make it. But if you wanted an example of how language itself can sleepwalk the most innocent towards racism, then here it is. “Churchill shows us,” he writes, “how Jewish children are bred to believe in the ‘otherness’ of Palestinians...”
It is not just the adopted elision of Israeli children into Jewish children that is alarming, or the unquestioning acceptance of Caryl Churchill’s offered insider knowledge of Israeli child-rearing, what’s most chilling is that lazy use of the word “bred”, so rich in eugenic and bestial connotations, but inadvertently slipped back into the conversation now, as truth. Fact: Jews breed children in order to deny Palestinians their humanity. Watching another play in the same week, Billington complains about its manipulation of racial stereotypes. He doesn’t, you see, even notice the inconsistency.
And so it happens. Without one’s being aware of it, it happens. A gradual habituation to the language of loathing. Passed from the culpable to the unwary and back again. And soon, before you know it...
Not here, though. Not in cosy old lazy old easy-come easy-go England.