Howard Jacobson: When I argue on the side of Zionism, it is because it seems intellectually right to do so

I take exception, ofcourse, to the idea that a Jew can think and feel only one way about Israe

Saturday 17 September 2011 12:44
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"As a Jew," a reader from London W6 writes to tell me, "you can't be expected to take a dispassionate view of the State of Israel." Nice of him to be so understanding of my predicament. "But the fact is," he goes on to explain, "that Palestine was stolen from the Arabs." Thereby showing me what a dispassionate view looks like.

I take exception, of course, to the idea that a Jew can think and feel only one way about Israel. There are examples in plenty of Jews who think and feel differently from me, as indeed I often think and feel differently from myself. I also take exception to the assumption that a Jew holds the view he does only because he is a Jew. For one thing, it predetermines the argument, making anything a Jew says on the subject suspect. For another, it discounts the possibility, all round, of arguing disinterestedly.

We are not great believers in disinterestedness these days. Following a column in which I said what needed saying about that fanatic of religious disbelief, Richard Dawkins, the musician Brian Eno wrote to this paper to point out that the "venom of my attack" proved that "religion sometimes brings out the worst in people".

But what had religion to do with it? I am not remotely religious. What brought out the venom of my attack – in so far as that's a fair description, which it isn't – was the complacency of Dawkins' prose, his inability, which he mistakes for a virtue, to imagine how another living soul imagines the universe. All of which I could have said exactly as I said it and still been more of an atheist than he is.

In the same way I had neither to be a Jew nor a Zionist to have written the article which upset the person from London W6. That it's Zionism that fires me is a common assumption of people who write in to castigate me. "A good Zionist," was how a reader from Sao Paulo, Brazil, piteously dismissed me in the aftermath of my offending article. In which case, God help Zionism. For I have never actively supported any Zionist body, never given money to Zionism, never wanted to settle in Israel myself, never liked Israeli music, and generally feel uncomfortable in the company of people fired by zeal, whatever their zealotry is about.

When I argue, sometimes, on the side of Zionism it is because it seems to me intellectually right to do so. To dismiss any defence I might make of Zionism as Zionist is to be guilty of arguing circularly. Whatever I say in favour of Zionism must be biased because I am Zionist, the proof of it being that I have said something in favour of Zionism – quod erat demonstrandum.

The other side of such daisy-chaining – this time assuming that people must agree with you on one issue because they agree with you on another – is neatly exemplified by a small but delightful altercation that has broken out regarding a piece John Pilger wrote for the New Statesman recently. Rejoicing in the gathering boycott against Israeli goods and ideas, Pilger co-opted to his argument (it wasn't an argument, but let that go) those dissenting English Jews who call themselves Independent Jewish Voices.

Since they dissent, in their own words, from "those institutions which claim authority to represent the Jewish community," Pilger took it as read that they must dissent from any support for Israel and were bound, as a consequence, to back the boycott. But they don't. "The fact is," they declare on their website, "that IJV takes no position on the boycott ... our signatories include those who support it and those who oppose it." So say you're sorry, John.

Anathema to Pilger – dissent within dissent.

The truth is, we do nothing to ameliorate any situation unless we understand it, and we don't understand it if we refuse to see its contradictions and intractabilities. Where there are competing claims, you don't bring peace by pretending that there aren't.

This, in fact, was the gist of my article which drew such a feverish response in the letters pages of this newspaper. For writers to speak feelingly of the yearning of exiled peoples to return, I argued, while making light of that same yearning when it happens to be Jewish, prejudices a complex situation in favour of one of the combatants, makes the intractable appear simple, and, as is often the way with sentimentality in politics, merely perpetuates suspicion.

Mine was an argument about language, how that prejudice I speak of embeds itself in the words we use and over time changes the way we see not only the present but the past. What I was not looking for was a fight about the conduct of the occupation. What I said was simply this: we cannot, logically, express sorrow for a people's exile and then deny it the moment they return; there can be no retrospective annulment of their yearning in the light of their return, no matter how brutal you believe the consequences of that return to be.

If that is to be the way of it then we might as well start denying the Palestinians in advance of their act of repossession, because that won't be pretty, should it happen, either. In which case it's all a waste of breath, for we are saying nothing except that we feel pity for the loser.

A lady from Milton Keynes missed my point and proved it all at once, explaining that the difference between dispossessed Jews and dispossessed Palestinians is that the former have become the dispossessors of the latter. But that is not a moral difference, it is a tragic political consequence. If we insist on making it a moral difference we not only compromise our good faith, we fail to find a solution to the consequence.

As for the Reverend Macpherson, who conceded the right of a Jewish homeland but not "at the expense of others" – an argument that takes away far more than it gives – I am of the view that churchmen would do well to stay out of this. If Palestinians are the innocent victims of Zionist ideology, they have, in no small part, the Church to thank. For it was the systematic anti-Jewishness of the Church, fuelling centuries of Christian hate-speak and persecution, that taught Jews there could be no safety for them where they were not masters of their fate.

And yes, if the likes of Rev Macpherson get their way, there is to be no safety for them still.

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