Letters: Jacobson on Gaza

Jacobson and Gaza: the debate continues

Saturday 21 February 2009 01:00

Like beauty, or so it seems, anti-Semitism lies in the eye of the beholder, and Howard Jacobson is determined to see it everywhere. His attempt to associate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism and the shades of Nazism is misplaced. The distinguished Jewish scholar, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, introduced the term “Judeo-Nazism” after the Six-Day War, an event he described as having destroyed the “moral infra-structure” of the Jewish state, predicting that, “continued occupation and oppression of the Palestinians must eventually lead to a fully fledged fascist regime inside Israel”, a prediction we are perilously close to witnessing.

Despite what Jacobson may claim, criticism of Israel is essential, for, as the social critic Isaac Deutscher said, “The ‘friends of Israel’ have in fact abetted Israel in a ruinous course”. For such apologists and religious zealots there is never a case to answer, however intolerable the actions; rather, as Avigdor Liebermann recently put it, they should despise the “weakness of the Gentiles”. Israel’s Jews have become, in Deutscher’s memorable phrase, “the Prussians of the Middle East”.

Though Jacobson makes much of the betrayal of the Holocaust, it was Israel’s Premier, Menachem Begin, who showed willing to manipulate its memory in using the analogy of the Warsaw ghetto to justify the bombing of Beirut, that the Jews would be victims no longer. And therein lies the problem: Jews were expurgating their victimhood, but against the wrong people, a people who (at first) were not their enemies, but were driven to be.

It is time for Israel and Zionists to show moral maturity and less incendiary defensiveness, to respond to justified criticism honestly rather than by continuously invoking monsters of the past or, as does Jacobson, with tawdry canards of evasive exculpation.

Dominic Kirkham


Howard Jacobson is extremely, and may I suggest wilfully, confused. He accuses those of us who have protested about the Israeli slaughter of Palestinians of anti-Semitism. Our protest has always been aimed at the state of Israel and the Zionist ideology it rests on.

On our side, there is no confusion about Israel being a “Jewish state”. We do not see the vast wall separating Palestinians from their families and land as Jewish. Nor did we blame the dropping of thousands of cluster bombs on Lebanon as Jewish. Nor do we see the illegal occupation of the West Bank as Jewish. Nor did we decry the recent massacre of Gazans as Jewish. Nor do we see the blockading and starving of Gaza as being inherently Jewish.

All these atrocities belong to the Israeli state, and our protests are aimed at the perpetrators and their supporters here, of which the current government is the most culpable.

Howard Jacobson insists on saying that Israel is a “Jewish state”. If he was right, anti-Semitism would be highly logical and difficult to deny. If war, terror and illegal occupation occur because the perpetrators are Jews rather than Zionists, then the victims would be perfectly correct in hating their tormentors for being Jews.

Thankfully, the victims see things a little more clearly than Howard Jacobson, who, perversely, sees Israel as the victim. So here is another reason to hate Israel: they cause anti-Semitism and then blame it on us.

John Westmoreland

Doncaster, South Yorkshire

Here we go again; criticise Israel and we are immediately accused of anti-Semitism. Presumably, the only way in which we could not be accused of it would be to remain silent. But why should Israel be subject to preferential treatment among the countries of the world ?

Mr Jacobson should grow up (or stop being disingenuous). Israel’s attack on Gaza was extreme so it elicited an extreme response.

James Stevenson

Godalming, Surrey

Most of the responses to Howard Jacobson’s article serve to demonstrate how right he is. He is “accused” of supporting Israel and therefore being “one-sided”. People are not accused of being one-sided for supporting Palestinians, I think?

Those of us familar with the good old Soviet Union recognise the Left’s aversion to “incorrect thinking”, as only one opinion can possibly be right. This all does remind even a non-Zionist such as myself why Israel exists.

It is because, even in the late 19th century, it was made clear to many Jews that the people among whom they lived in Europe could not be trusted. We know what happened 50 years later. Still, it was encouraging that the people at the gym did not ignore the outburst of the distinguished Foreign Office civil servant (report, 8 February). But they probably were not enlightened Independent readers.

M Schachter

London NW6

Re: Howard Jacobson’s article. Thank you. You have articulated all that I feel as an English Jew. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Mic Austen

Brentwood, Essex

Caryl Churchill: My play is not anti-Semitic

Howard Jacobson (Opinion, 18 February) writes as if there’s something new about describing critics of Israel as anti-Semitic. But it’s the usual tactic. We are not going to agree about politics. Where he sees the benevolent withdrawal of Israel from Gaza, I see more than 1,000 Palestinians killed by Israel since the withdrawal, before the recent attacks. But we should be able to disagree without accusations of anti-Semitism, which lead to a pantomime of, “Oh yes you are”, “Oh no I’m not”, to distract attention from Israel.

My play, Seven Jewish Children, to which Howard Jacobson referred, shows the difficulty of explaining violence to children. In the early scenes, it is violence against Jewish people; by the end, it is the violence in Gaza.

It covers many years in 10 minutes and is, of course, an incomplete history. It leaves out a great deal that is favourable to Israel and a great deal that is unfavourable. It shows people being persecuted, some of them going to a homeland (where others have been displaced) and the defensiveness of their threatened position, leading to further violence.

Howard Jacobson seems to see the play from a very particular perspective so that everything is twisted. The characters are “covert and deceitful”, they are constructing a “parallel hell” to Hitler’s Europe, they are “monsters who kill babies by design”. I don’t recognise the play from that description.

Throughout the play, families try to protect children. Finally, one of the parents explodes, saying, “No, stop preventing her from knowing what’s on the TV news”. His outburst is meant, in a small way, to shock during a shocking situation. Is it worse than a picture of Israelis dancing for joy as smoke rises over Gaza? Or the text of Rabbi Shloyo Aviner’s booklet distributed to soldiers saying cruelty is sometimes a good attribute?

Then we have “chosen people”. Some people are now uncomfortable with a phrase that can seem to suggest racial superiority. But George W Bush, speaking to the Knesset on the 60th anniversary of the founding of Israel, talked about “the homeland of the chosen people” without anyone suggesting he was accusing Israelis of racism or was anti-Semitic. Some supporters of Israel still use it with enthusiasm.

Finally, the blood libel. I find it extraordinary that, because the play talks about the killing of children in Gaza, I am accused of reviving the medieval blood libel that Jews killed Christian children and consumed their blood. The character is not “rejoicing in the murder of little children”. He sees dead children on television and feels numb and defiant in his relief that his own child is safe. He believes that what has happened is justified as self-defence. Howard Jacobson may agree. I don’t, but it doesn’t make either of them a monster, or me anti-Semitic.

If one of the main pieces of evidence for the rise of anti-Semitism is this play, I don’t think there’s much to worry about. If it’s really on the increase, then we should all stand up against it. But calling political opponents anti-Semitic just confuses the issue.

When people attack English Jews in the street saying, “This is for Gaza”, they are making a terrible mistake, confusing the people who bombed Gaza with Jews in general. When Howard Jacobson confuses those who criticise Israel with anti-Semites, he is making the same mistake. Unless he’s doing it on purpose.

Caryl Churchill

Royal Court Theatre, London SW1

Faith may not move mountains, but it can inspire

Johann Hari’s courageous stance in support of secular values and against the threats of religious bigots is exemplary (13 February). If ever an argument proved its point by the nature of the response it provoked, this is it.

But perhaps it is also important to recognise that just because religious beliefs cannot, by definition, be scientifically proven, it does not mean they may not contain important metaphorical and moral truths.

Faith may not move mountains, but it does inspire people to do amazing, as well as sometimes awful things. To dismiss all religion as superstitious nonsense, as militant atheists are wont to do, serves only to strengthen the position of fundamentalists.

There is a tradition of rational theology that welcomes doubt as a test of faith. It is to be found in Islam, as well as in Judaism and Christianity, and it needs a space to speak in the secular world.

Hari’s civil libertarianism shows admirable restraint. Unfortunately, the distinction he tries to make between showing respect for people but not for their ideas or behaviour, is not one fundamentalists recognise. He does not like speech being policed for possible offence, but there are laws against using threatening language, as there are against preaching racial hatred and homophobia. In situations where people are too intimidated to speak up in their own defence, they should be used .

Phil Cohen

London N19


Cold-call warning

Having filled in my details for a couple of the largest internet comparison sites, I was irritated to suddenly start receiving computerised cold-calls to my phone number. I thought I would warn people before they start to use these services; do not give your real phone number, because it seems that it will just be sold on to cold-callers.

Martin Cooper


No secret

Those campaigning for a memorial to the Bethnal Green Underground Station disaster in March 1943 claim it was “kept secret for years” (report, 19 February). In fact, the report of the official inquiry was published in January 1945, less than two years later, and was covered by newspapers then. Hardly the long-lasting cover-up implied.

M R Stallion

Braintree, Essex

Good old advice

More than 40 years ago, our English teacher, explaining the importance of good punctuation, showed us a book in which abbreviation was indicated by a caret ('), and possession was indicated by a single inverted comma (’), saying, “It makes the meaning clearer, doesn’t it?”. It did.

Christopher Jessop

Marloes, Pembrokeshire

Same answer

Like Alan Gilchrist (letters, 17 February), I, too, when in the oil industry, once asked for a bonus of a mere one quarter of 1 per cent for each of four engineers after we brought in a multimillion-dollar contract. My boss’s answer consisted of two words with a total of seven letters, three of which were “f”. Can we please give a similar response to bankers?

Andrew Bristow

Chorley, Lancashire

Idle thought

A job description sent to me sounds too good to be true: Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust is looking for an Idle Valley Reserve Officer.

Hugh Clearhill

Elsdon, Northumberland

Own goal

I was wondering if any of those who demonstrate in support of “British jobs for British workers” are supporters of Premiership football teams?

Grant Serpell

Maidenhead, Berkshire

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