Howard Jacobson: Zion is all around if you look hard enough

What we are seeing now proves how opportunistic Arab anti-Zionism has been, a crowd-pleasing loathing
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The Independent Online

Colonel Gaddafi is delusional and unfit to lead his country, according to the US ambassador to the United Nations.

Odd that we never noticed that before. But then one man's delusions are another man's acuity. Take the threat issued by Iran, this week, that it will not participate in next year's London Olympics unless we dismantle the offensive logo. "It is definitely spawned out of some people's racist spirit," wrote Mohammad Aliabadi, head of the National Olympic Committee of the Islamic Republic in a letter to Jacques Rogge, head of the International Olympic Committee. And wherein lies its racism? It spells out the word Zion. Odd that we never noticed that before.

Given that the logo has been kicking around for several years, it's odd that Mohammad Aliabadi himself didn't note its "racist spirit" earlier. Others certainly saw things they didn't like in it, not least its having cost the best part of half a million smackers in brand consultancy fees. "Brand consultancy" – there's something else that divides the wise from the delusional. But let's not get sidetracked. As far as the logo itself is concerned, while Lord Coe called it "edgy" – a BBC word for not edgy in the slightest – and Tony Blair reckoned that it would inspire people to make "a positive change in their life" – and there aren't many logos of which you can say that – others of a no less fanciful turn of mind read it as an illustration of Lisa Simpson performing fellatio on an unidentified person, a reference to the children's television programme Tiswas, and a swastika (which is itself very nearly an anagram of Tiswas). Whatever else there is to say, a logo that can simultaneously suggest the word Zion and a swastika while actually spelling out the year 2012 has earned its fee. And goes to show that while you can please only some of the people some of the time, it doesn't take much to offend all of the people all of the time.

Myself, I am not going to say there is neither a swastika nor the word Zion in the 2012 Olympics logo. As a Freudian, I believe the unconscious goes its own way for its own reasons. Who's to say what was troubling the brand consultants who dreamed up the logo? How can we know for sure that in thinking about the Olympics of 2012 they were not, in the rumbling basement of their personalities, reminded of Hitler's Olympics of 1936, with its fluttering swastikas, in the shadows of which the Jews of Berlin began to think about the consolations offered by the immemorial aspiration of the Jewish people – "Next year in Jerusalem", for which the Hebrew name is Zion.

"Read what you like into anything" is my motto; reading is a two-way business. In which spirit allow me to express surprise that the Iranians have not looked harder at the prototype for Anish Kapoor's commemorative tower, soon to be constructed in the Olympic Park where it will remain long after the Olympics are over, inspiring people to make a positive change in their life.

Made of great loops and coils of red steel and soaring to 120m, this Tower of Babel – the allusion is Kapoor's – will be interactive in the sense that you can climb it and enjoy the view; but now that we are reading what we like into a logo why should we not read with similar inventiveness the words concealed in those blood-red loops? For my part, anyway, mindful as I am of Anish Kapoor's half-Jewish origins – his maternal grandfather was a cantor in a synagogue in Baghdad, and as a boy Kapoor spent time on a kibbutz – I detect the opening sentences of Genesis around the base of the tower, and the continuing story of God's plan for humanity weaving its way up to the viewing platform where we might imagine Moses looking out upon the Promised Land (Dalston and Hackney, if you want to be literal about it), which he was never to enter himself. "Zion Lost" is my own title for the tower.

That such a pro-Zionist narrative will make it even harder for the Iranians to come along in 2012, I accept. And that would be a shame. The last time the Iranians competed in an Olympic tournament one of their athletes refused to shake hands with the Israeli wrestler who beat him to the gold. We need a bit of this to save us from the sentimentality that bedevils sport. Yes, the Olympic ideal holds that athletes compete in a spirit unclouded by politics, religion and racism, but who's fooling whom here?

It's not my intention to make light of Iranian fears. If they think we British are incorrigible Zionists who cannot wait to dedicate the 2012 Olympic Games to an all-Jewish Jerusalem, and will be dropping "God Save the Queen" in favour of "By the Waters of Babylon" or the "Hatikvah" every time we win a medal, I am not going to be the one to disillusion them. And the Iranians are, when all is said and done, very far from being the only ones who see the word Zion everywhere.

Consider the convulsions in the Arab right world now: the violence which some Arab leaders are prepared to loose upon their people, the evidence of cruelty and corruption, the longing for a fairer society, the fears of what might yet destabilise these countries still further – and ask yourself what is largely missing from the spectacle and the debate. Israel. Only yesterday, Israel was the source of everything that was rotten in the Arab world, a blight on every hope, the ruination of every scheme. Remove Israel and all would be well.

No one can deny that the very existence of Israel has been a goad to Arab countries for decades, but what we are seeing now proves how opportunistic Arab anti-Zionism has been, a fetishised, crowd-pleasing loathing, a facile hand-me-down explanation of why things weren't better. Call this worldly-wisdom on the part of Arab leaders – laying blame anywhere but where blame belongs – but what's our excuse?

Oil, of course, explains the friends we made and the crimes we chose to look away from. But our obsession with Israel – an unreasoning, ill-informed and inflammatory hatred in which some of our most prestigious universities and best known journalists continue to collude – has also been a determining factor. Whoever rants against Israel can't be all bad, even if he is all delusional. And we have delusions of our own to cherish. Behind every dissatisfaction, at the heart of every wrong, we have only to screw up our eyes to see the word Zion.

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