Howard Jacobson: There seems to be a pecking order among the dispossessed, and Jews come last

Saturday 01 September 2007 00:00 BST

Interesting how the world always seems to be thinking what you're thinking, unless it's the other way round. There I was, anyway, coming back from a visit to the Jewish Museum in Berlin, musing about exile and return, and there at the airport newsagents was an article by John Pilger, musing on something similar. Well, not musing exactly. Pilger doesn't muse. But hidden among the noisy disingenuities of his usual drum-beating were assumptions about exile and return that made me wonder. Not wonder as in marvel, but wonder as in mistrust.

Why the rhetoric of sympathy for Palestinian homelessness – "When we lost our country, we lost respect," Pilger has a Palestinian refugee lament – but no answering sympathy for the lost respect and homelessness that found expression in Zionism? I am one of those who believe that Jewish experience of exile obliges Israel actively to comprehend the sorrows of Palestinian exile. But I also believe this must cut both ways. If it is terrible to lose your home today, then it was terrible to lose your home yesterday, whoever you are. For Pilger, there are no such competing claims on his understanding. There are the forgotten, disrespected Palestinians on the one hand, and the "fanatics of Zion" on the other.

This use of the trope "Zion" is now routine in that narrative of victims and oppressors which is the Middle East. An odious letter appeared in this paper not long ago that spoke of Zionist boat-people flooding into Palestine before 1947. That a Jew fleeing Nazi Germany for Israel was hardly an alien or opportunistic "boat person", and very probably not even a Zionist, needs no arguing here. And "flooding" belongs unapologetically to the lexicon of ethnic hate. But by what transmutation of meaning has it become possible to speak with loathing of one people's aspiration to a homeland, even as one supports another people's aspiration to theirs?

How has such a bias embedded itself in language? How do words first create and then support a prejudice so unobtrusively that we barely notice we are expressing it?

A recent article by Robert Fisk seems to me to show this process at work. The piece was specifically about Mount Ararat and its symbolic significance to the Armenian people from whom it was taken after the Alexandropol Treaty of 1920, but in a more general way it asks us to think about the tragedy of dispossession. Indeed the first paragraph is nothing less than a hymn to yearning, touching on other people denied the land to which they belong, including Palestinians. It's because Robert Fisk's remarks about the Israel-Palestinian conflict are peripheral to his subject on this occasion that I consider them susceptible to the sort of reading we reserve for slips of the tongue, jokes, stutters, even dreams. Here is the paragraph in question.

There is nothing so infinitely sad – so pitiful and yet so courageous – as a people who yearn to return to a land for ever denied them; the Poles to Brest Litovsk, the Germans to Silesia, the Palestinians to that part of Palestine that is now Israel. When a people claim to have settled again in their ancestral lands – the Israelis, for example, at the cost of "cleansing" 750,000 Arabs who had perfectly legitimate rights to their homes – the world becomes misty eyed.

Jews are not included in Robert Fisk's examples of the sad, the pitiful and the courageous. Poles, Germans, Palestinians, but not Jews. I don't say the omission is deliberate. Language has a will of its own. But the description of diasporic longing approximates so closely to Jewish longing that we anticipate a Jewish mention, and when it doesn't come we ask: is that because Jews are now held to be dispossessors themselves and are therefore, so to speak, disqualified?

Gradually, as these sentences unpleat, one notices that two laws of rhetoric are in operation, one for Jews, one for everyone else. The land 'for ever denied' the Palestinians is 'now Israel'. Note the force, in the context of immemorial denials, of that "now". Had Robert Fisk written that the land for ever denied Palestinians is the same land that was for ever denied Jews, he would, I think, have done more justice to the emotional intractability of the situation. As it is, he has actually reversed the roles of the participants, conferring upon the Palestinians, whose grievance however great is only recent, the ancient sorrows of the Jews.

Is the silent and unexamined implication, then, that the moment you transform your yearning into deed and succeed in returning to the "land for ever denied" you, you must pay a moral forfeit? Is there a retrospective annulment of yearning once an act of reclamation has taken place? If that is the case, then our sorrowing over the dispossessed has a built-in clause that they remain for ever dispossessed, and in that case is so much pie in the sky.

When people do "claim to have settled again in their ancestral lands", Robert Fisk says – citing Israel as an "example" – the "world becomes misty eyed". Though this is meant to illustrate all that's been said so far about the universal sadness of exile, it actually does the opposite. "Misty eyed" is a derisive term. When we see through misty eyes we see as through a blur of sentimentality. In fact the world is not misty eyed about Israel, but that isn't the point. In the course of a mere dozen lines of apparently innocuous fellow feeling, yearning has given way, via Israel, to mockery, and "infinite sadness" has declined into "misty eyed".

Whether Robert Fisk absolutely and incontrovertibly means to exclude Jews from the family of exiled nations is impossible to tell, so abruptly does the language of bias ambush him. Barely have we stopped grieving for the Brest Litovsk Poles and the Silesian Germans than the word "claim" sneaks in to define Israel's assertion of its right to return – "claim" with its sudden implication of chicanery, though there has been no suggestion of cooking the books in the Poles yearning to return to Brest Litovsk, or the Germans to Silesia. A "claim" that looks shakier still when the "750,000 Arabs who had perfectly legitimate rights" are invoked. Thus, without its actually being stated, are the rights of one people to return discredited, while another's are upheld.

Thus is a Pilger able to conceal his bigotry from himself, for how can one be bigoted against a people with no rights, and thus are Jews who fled the extermination camps turned into "boat-people", appropriating what wasn't theirs. This is how the rhetoric of bias each day exempts the site of Jewish yearning which is Israel a little more from common sympathy.

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