Friday, 28 September 2007

Shame and the semantics of soft Zionism

I recently watched BBC 4's moving production of Primo Levi, with Anthony Sher in the one man title role. It's an astonishing performance, drawing out Levi's attempts to relate this almost unrelatable set of inhuman experiences in Auschwitz concentration camp, while grappling with the darkest of questions: how was it possible for the Nazis to exercise this cruelty in so casual a manner?Levi also talks of the “shame” that the Russian liberators seemed to feel on discovering him and his few surviving inmates at Auschwitz. It wasn't, of course, the shame of what these young soldiers, personally, or as an army, had done. Rather, it was the more reflective shame of actually realising that one man could do this to another.

It got me thinking about Levi’s use of the word “shame” in this context. And it occurs that his profound observation holds in similar principle to the shame one feels when standing in front of Israel’s ‘separation wall’, or when watching the ritual humiliation of Palestinians at checkpoints, or in staring at the pictures of broken bodies being pulled from homes demolished by Israeli Apache helicopters. How, one asks, can they do these things in such a cold and wilful manner? And if they have no shame in their actions, is there a sense in which we, in ways similar to Levi’s use of the term, should feel shameful about their very absence of shame?

This feeling of 'humanitarian shame' - the shame we might feel for what oppressors do in the name of freedom and democracy – can, and should, of course, apply to many other inhuman situations around the world. But, another thought arises: what kind of compounded shame must a Jew with sincere consideration of the Palestinians’ plight feel when witnessing such brutality? How, they, might ask, did it come to this? A people themselves murdered in their millions, their suffering seared into Jewish consciousness. How could fellow Jews, in turn, use the memory of that suffering to inflict and justify this suffering on the Palestinian people?

In a recent Guardian article, the acclaimed author Howard Jacobson argued that the Holocaust, in itself, is, effectively, all that needs to be said in defence of the Zionist cause. It’s not a particulary original argument, flowing from the same use and abuse of what Chomsky and others have called the “Holocaust industry”. But Jacobson has managed to clothe this attempt in some new semantic adornments. The title piece, “There seems to be a pecking order among the dispossessed, and the Jews come last ”, gives notice of the sleight of hand to come.

One is immediately struck here, or should be if it were not secreted in such an emotive sentence, by the word "dispossessed". In what immediate sense can we call the Jews a dispossessed people? Yes, we may reasonably use that term to describe, at least, the terror and dispossession of the Jews by the Nazis. But, Jacobson is stretching the word from its historical context to convey "dispossession" in its more current idiom. While entitled to remind us of the appalling persecution of the Jews, Jacobson abuses that truth in seeking to equate the contemporary standing of Jews in general with the gross dispossession of the Palestinians in particular.

Indeed, with perverse irony, he has actually managed to violate the memory even of those Holocaust Jews. Jacobson has appropriated a particular term of oppression and sought to include within that category a state founded on the dispossession of another people.

The author Ben White captures the deceit very ably in his article Shoot and cry: Liberal Zionism's dilemma:

But Jacobson is a liberal Zionist, not a Likudnik, a Sharon or a Netanyahu. He thus finds himself in a fix -- how to render the horrors of colonialism more palatable? This is done in two ways (aside from appealing to the standard Zionist frameworks already discussed): firstly, Jacobson sows a seed of doubt that all this talk of "ethnic cleansing" is even true -- "Jews are now held to be dispossessors themselves" (my emphasis). At the risk of repetition, it is worth noting that once again, Jacobson talks of "Jews," a mirror-claim of the anti-Semites who see world Jewry as one and the same as the Zionist colonizers.

In his follow-up column, he positively layers on the ambiguities, diverting the reader's gaze from the columns of Palestinians forced from their homes in 1948, or the farmers robbed of their land in 2007, to a less queasy exchange of claim and counter-claim. It is impossible to "understand" a situation, Jacobson urges, if you "refuse to see its contradictions and intractabilities." Apparently, you don't aid peace by denying the "competing claims" of a "complex situation." It is the naggingly familiar liberal lullaby of the "circle of violence" and "two sides," which sends us to sleep while Palestine shrinks.

The second approach, and one beloved by Zionist liberals from Tel Aviv to London, is to move from the material horror of Palestine's colonization to the vaporous world of existential rumination and "feelings." Jacobson states for the record that he is "one of those who believe that Jewish experience of exile obliges Israel actively to comprehend the sorrows of Palestinian exile." That, of course, is as far as it goes. It's similar to one of the correspondents who wrote to the paper in Jacobson's defense, who acknowledges that the Palestinians might "feel" badly treated, as if all that was needed was a good dose of navel-gazing therapy. Jacobson was even more categorical in the second column. The dispossession of the Palestinians is not a "moral" issue, he wrote, but rather an unfortunate afterthought, a "tragic political consequence" of the Jews' "return."

With billions of dollars in guaranteed aid coming from the US every year, in what economic sense can Jacobson speak of Jewish dispossession? With America continuing to back Olmert's plans for expanding settlements in the West Bank, in what political sense does he witness Jewish dispossession? And, in a land where Palestinians are even marked-out by their very car registration plates, in what humanitarian sense can he talk of Jewish dispossession?

What Jacobson refuses to acknowledge is the apartheid dispossesson of the Palestinians and the massive gulf separating them from Israeli Jews. It's a shameful state of affairs when such supposed people of conscience and high intellect seek to hide behind the pain and language of the truly dispossessed.


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