THINK! Israel! THINK! - detach! SOLVE PROBLEM!
An Interview with Jacqueline Rose
By Jon Bailes & Cihan Aksan
Jacqueline Rose is Professor of English at Queen Mary University, London. Her books include The Question of Zion (2007), On Not Being Able to Sleep (2003) and Albertine: A Novel (2001). State of Nature editors, Jon Bailes & Cihan Aksan, met up with her to discuss her latest book, The Last Resistance
State of Nature: You clearly value literature as a form of resistance; for its ability to give shape and an audience to realities often excluded from our vision of the world and to force both the reader and the writer into the minds of others, to attempt to connect with them. What do you think is the current state of Western literature, in terms of its critical content and social influence?
Jacqueline Rose: I would never make a comment on the general state of Western literature. I’m interested in specific writers who I feel have something to say about post 9/11 culture on the one hand, and on other writers who I feel have had a particular value in exposing the underside of political realities which were sedimenting from the ‘30s onwards. Into that first category would fall people like Nadine Gordimer and David Grossman, and into the second category would fall writers like Arnold Zweig and Ze’ev Jabotinsky. So rather than make a broad statement about Western literature, I can say that I think these writers, especially in the case of someone like Ze’ev Jabotinsky, are speaking about things that are intolerable for a certain kind of political discourse to hear, and in his case intolerable for his own political persona to hear -- that’s what makes him such a fascinating test case.
My argument has been for some time that Zionist rhetoric and indeed any fixed political rhetoric is always inherently unstable, even if it spends an awful lot of its time, rhetorically speaking, denying that inherent instability in the name of a certain kind of political logos or certainty. The reason why Jabotinsky is so fascinating is because he was a founder of the most right wing revisionist Zionism there is, but in his fictional writing it’s as if he’s exploring the path not taken or the unlived life of his own political fanaticism. Therefore he becomes an internal critic of himself, and I’m very interested in how that happens in his case. For someone like Arnold Zweig however, it’s much more that he is exploring with his fiction a refusal of emergent nationalist identifications, both in Germany for a Jew and in Palestine for a Jew, which will become the terms through which Jewish history is going to be played out; tragically in Europe and redemptively but also ultimately tragically, certainly for the Palestinians, in the Middle East as well. So that’s what interests me about those writers. And Grossman and Gordimer are critical thinkers for whom fiction is a way of challenging orthodoxy. So that’s about as general as I feel I can get.
SoN: So you wouldn’t make any sort of general evaluation as to whether there has been a decline in critical literature when compared to past generations?
JR: I don’t think I’d want to say that because it would depend on whom we’re talking about. I mean if we take someone like Coetzee, who I also discuss in my book, I think in his early writing he was one of the most brilliant exponents of the underside and the unconscious of apartheid. But I think he’s lost his way now, although he remains of course the most gifted explorer of what that means. This is to do with the end of Apartheid and the failure of a certain kind of possible identity, or counter identity. But that’s very specific to post-Apartheid South Africa.
SoN: One of the key themes of The Last Resistance is a psychoanalytic definition of resistance, as opposed to a political definition. This is essentially a resistance in the mind to change -- a blockage of outer influences. You analyse David Grossman’s idea that an Israeli consciousness which accepts the status quo is more a result of this kind of denial than a hegemonic cultural illusion, which has by now disintegrated. To what extent do you think that in Israel there is a psychological denial of the horrors of real world events rather than control of consciousness by a ruling ideology?
JR: It’s interesting you should raise this because of course in Israel there is a wider disparity of views and a stronger set of dissident voices about Israel than there is, say, in America. Or rather in Israel it is more easily spoken. It is actually a very articulate culture about its malaise, and Ha’aretz is more critical of Israel than any newspaper in America is and so forth. So there is surely a culture of dissent in Israel. The sad thing is that it is, certainly at the moment, politically ineffective. In The Iron Wall, Avi Shlaim argues that this is in fact grounded in the founding ethos of one dominant strand of Zionism that precisely starts with Jabotinsky’s articles on the iron wall of 1923 which argued that the Jews in Palestine must be invincible in order to survive, and the Arabs, as they were then known, must bang against the wall of that invincibility as a first stage to any sort of solution to the conflict. It is also, paradoxically, to his credit that he acknowledged, unlike so many of the early Zionist leaders, that the conflict would necessarily entail violence. Shlaim argues that this is the mindset that has triumphed against dissident voices over and over again. The classic example he gives is the silencing or the failure of Moshe Sharett in relationship to Ben-Gurion, and the triumph of Ben-Gurion’s vision of what Zionism and Israel should be. So it’s important to say that on the one hand there is a strong dissident culture but on the other hand it has been politically ineffective and that seems to be more and more to be the case.
However, Grossman is talking, as far as I understand him, about something rather different. This is not outside censorship or coercion by the state, but is to do with some forms of internal constitutive blindness in a certain Israeli mindset, which means that it cannot see what is happening to it and it cannot see that it has become -- and here I’m quoting him -- a more ‘militant, nationalist and racist’ country than ever before (he was talking in 2002). He reiterated that sentiment in his speech at the Rabin Memorial in 2006. After his son had died he gave this incredible speech in Olmert’s presence about the missed opportunities and the failure of what is still for him a miraculous vision. But he has used expressions like scotomisation and sleepwalking and marching towards the abyss, as if the nation blinds itself.
Now my way of understanding this is that the Zionist mythology of making the desert bloom and a land without people for a people without a land was so powerful in terms of the imaginative conditions under which Zionism could justify to itself its own ruthlessness, that to challenge that would provoke a kind of generalised melancholia. It really is a matter of a survival, not of the state in terms of external threats, but the internal survival of the nation to go on imagining itself in a certain way. And that’s why there’s been such terrible fights about the New Historians and whether they should be taught or not, because what’s at stake there is a damage to the internal self image of the nation, for example in acknowledging the violence of the army towards the Palestinians in 1948. There are many Israelis, as I understand it, who are happy to say, "Things went wrong in ’67 but don’t touch ’48 -- we mustn’t go there, we mustn’t talk about it." Or else you have someone like Benny Morris who was one of the first historians to expose the awfulness of what happened in ’48. People made the mistake of thinking he therefore believed it shouldn’t have happened, but in fact what he believes is it should have happened more -- that there should have been complete ethnic transfer of peoples in 1948.
So I am using psychoanalysis to talk about the way in which a nation constitutes a collective vision of itself, which becomes intractable because the psychic price to be paid for damaging or fragmenting it would be too high. I’ll give you an example: one of the people to whom the book is dedicated, Ronit Tlalim, an important scholar of Tibetan Buddhism, appears in Asher Tlalim’s film Galoot -- Asher Tlalim is a very distinguished Israeli filmmaker and this is a documentary about exile. In the film Ronit Tlalim is interviewed at length and she says something along these lines, "If I went back I would have to put myself in a state of denial to live there." For her it is almost impossible to live there and take on full accountability for the birthing of the state in a moment of constitutive violence against another people. This is of course true of many nation states let it be said, not only Israel, but nonetheless she says there is a real impasse there. And I think psychoanalysis can help us think about things which are not just state censorship or a refusal to acknowledge reality imposed from the outside, but things that are too psychically painful to deal with, which involve a different kind of clampdown in the mind.
SoN: You describe Freud’s notion of the "misdirected piety" of Zionism -- that the symbolic value of the land of Palestine was magical, ‘omnipotent’ in quality to the point where the Jewish settlers could ignore the Palestinian people who stood on it -- again the idea of psychological resistance. How has it managed to survive the constant reminder that the Palestinians have always been in truth very much a presence?
JR: Well they didn’t ignore them of course. That formula ‘a land without a people for a people without a land’, nobody ever really believed it. If you read Weizmann and Ben-Gurion and so on they were fully aware of the presence of the Palestinians, as indeed was Balfour. So I don’t think it was blindness. But the question of the land and the investment in the land is a very complex one. There is a biblical investment in the land, which I think can help explain the reluctance to relinquish the settlements, because actually the lands which constituted the original nation state of Israel in 1948 were relatively thin in biblical connotations. It was the land occupied in ’67 that really fulfilled the biblical destiny of the Jewish people, which is why certain right wing Zionists will refer to the occupied territories as Judea and Samaria, wrapped as they are in invoking their biblical investment.
Having said that, even the secular Zionists saw the biblical history as constitutive of Zionist identity. Ben-Gurion said "The Bible is our mandate", and a number of early Zionists said they would not get the Jews to go to any land other than Palestine -- this was when the debate was about the Uganda option, which in fact Theodor Herzl supported, pragmatically -- because this was their ancestral home, this was the site of some form of early nationhood, this was where the temple was destroyed, this is where they could reconstitute themselves therefore as a people rather than as a minority inside other nation states. So this is a people constituting its own imaginative history and there’s no nation that doesn’t do that. The peculiarity is that for someone decisive like Ben-Gurion, history consists of 2,000 years ago and the Shoah and there’s nothing in between. What needs explaining therefore is not blindness, but the complete dismissal, despite that lack of blindness, of the Palestinian presence on the land, which was justified, not just in terms of this Biblical history, but also on the ground that they were not adequately working or transforming the land. It became an argument about labour as entitlement on the one hand, and a fully colonialist vision of the indigenous peoples as primitives on the other (the two supporting each other), that is, a barren, undeveloped, land with an undeveloped backward people. Weizmann repeatedly said that he believed you possess something by building it with your own hands. This is pragmatic, labour Zionism -- the slow incremental working and transformation of the land gives you your entitlement to it. So the Zionists weren’t blind, they knew there were Palestinians there, but they believed that what they were doing to the land gave them a right to it. If you sanction that with biblical tradition, then that is pretty forceful when you think about it -- quite hard to budge.
SoN: So has this biblical tradition always retained the same strength?
JR: It got much stronger after 1967 of course, because, as Daniel Barenboim said in a conference on dissent on Edward Said in the European University of Budapest a few years ago, ‘67 changed everything because the miraculous nature of the victory was such that the religious parties, many of whom had been very hostile to Zionism up to that point, came on board. The orthodox had been very hostile to Zionism because it meant the hastening of the advent of the Messiah, for which one should only ever prepare and whose arrival one should absolutely not force. Naturei Karta, many of whom are based here in the East End of London, see it as sacrilege and are very anti-Zionist. So one reason why it became so hard to budge after ’67 was because it felt like this miraculous victory. I think the biblical tradition has always been there, but it’s intensified since ’67 and the religious discourse of the settlers has increased.
In their new book, Lords of the Land, Idith Zertal and Akiva Elder point out there has not been a government since ’67 which hasn’t been completely complicit with the process of settlement, even when the discourse of the settlement went against the secular rhetoric of statehood. There’s a strange complicity, if not a vocabulary of intent, which has meant that the settlements have gone on expanding with this biblical underpinning. Even if the governments haven’t necessarily bought into that language, they’ve bought into the process, which you could argue means they’ve effectively bought into the language as well. Of course, when Gaza was evacuated two years ago that biblical rhetoric was defeated in some sense. I remember people writing in Ha’aretz and so on saying, "This is the beginning of the end for a certain biblical conception of the land and a beginning of a new pragmatism." I’m not sure, however, that that’s what’s happened. After all, the evacuation from Gaza has simply created a prison, and the claim to the land is still being evoked in ancient terms.
SoN: The goal of nationhood for Israel has been a paradoxical one -- it was a separation, an escape from assimilation with other peoples, but at the same time a desire to become like other peoples by having a home nation. Is it this psychology which problematises Israel’s position in the international community -- as a country which, to be a real nation, must assimilate itself with other nations, but which also, perhaps understandably, wanted to distance itself from the dictates of the rest of the world?
JR: Well the assimilation issue is a very difficult one. I think the person who writes about this issue most interestingly is Hannah Arendt, who says in fact Zionism was a form of assimilationism, because it wanted Jews to be like other nations, and the anti-Zionists were in fact the anti-assimilationists, because they wanted to remain as Jews inside these other nation states. And Martin Buber of course argued that Zionism should not be assimilationism because Israel was to be a nation unlike other nations. Neither wanted Israel to be a normal nation -- Buber wanted Israel to be a model of nationhood, if that was the right word, but not statehood, which would precisely differ from the nation states of Europe. So this is very complex because it was the failure of assimilation, in a way, that provoked the desire for a national self determination for the Jewish people. I don’t think Israel can be judged for that, I think it’s wrong to judge it for that desire.
The paradox was always that it transposed into the Middle East a notion of nationhood based on religion, ethnicity, land and descent, which was of course the very concept of nationhood the Jews were fleeing from in Europe. This is not to say that Zionism is the same as National Socialism at all, but to say that there is a certain concept of romantic nationalism which it lifted from out of Europe and transposed into the Middle East. And that’s been a tragedy and a huge problem. So, for example, in Israel today Sharon can say at the commemoration of the liberation of Auschwitz that the Jewish people can only rely on themselves (forgetting the occasion one might say) and anybody who criticises Israel is criticising the right of the Jews to defend themselves. This isolationism is then coupled with another, the peculiar isolationism of Israel wanting to be a European nation in the Middle East. The writer and critic Yitzhak Laor has said that it’s because the Jews could not be Europeans in Europe -- they were the Semitic other in Europe -- that they came to the Middle East where they could be the Europeans, in relation to another Semitic element called the Palestinians.
SoN: To return to the theme of psychoanalytical resistance; to what extent could it be said that the support of the international community for Israel’s policies has helped prolong this condition? Clearly there are economic and military gains, but what about the psychological influence of such encouragement?
JR: Well, I think the outside support is terrible, and playing a key, if not the decisive role, in perpetuating the conflict. Israel is the fourth most powerful military nation in the world and it gets more money from America than any other country bar Egypt. And that money is completely unconditional. As Chomsky pointed out after the outbreak of the second Intifada, there had been a certain amount of stone throwing by Palestinians to which Israel responded with an attack on civilian structures, and Clinton then responded by making the biggest deal of helicopter parts for a decade with Israel. There is something profoundly disturbing about this. Also Israel benefits from favoured European trading status with the European Community and so on. I think these things allow it to go on thinking it can do what it wants, and the belief that it can do what it wants is a very complex belief to do with feeling it is the nation of a uniquely persecuted people who are still uniquely persecuted, which allows the state to ignore the fact that it is the agent of violence. This is a point that Mark Ellis has been making for a long time -- he’s an American theologian who Sara Roy discusses in her wonderful new book, Failing Peace -- that it is very hard for Israel to think about itself as the agent of violence; it always thinks of itself as the potential victim of violence, despite the fact that it enjoys such strong, more or less unconditional, Western support, such a huge influx of funds and military backing. It becomes a cycle -- we need the support because we are threatened, and the more support we get the more it shows that we are threatened and the more it justifies the amount of hardware and power that we are being given. This links to the Zionist idea that the Israeli Jew was to be the opposite of the Diaspora Jew; that he or she must be a new non-passive Jew.
I think that it is massively over determined, to use a psychoanalytic word, but it does mean that Israel can go on doing what it wants. Also, just to make a very simple point, it was only when Bush senior threatened to withhold some of the money for the settlements that the Madrid peace conference took place. That’s what sparked it off and then led eventually to Oslo. But the current administration has not done this, and it looks as though the likely next President -- which could well be Hillary Clinton, but I don’t want to presuppose that -- is going to be no different on this issue.
SoN: One of the other main themes of the book is that of pride and conversely, of course, shame. Through your analysis of Freud’s work Moses the Man comes the idea that the Jews’ proudest possession is in fact their pride. Then in the chapter examining Vladimir Jabotinsky we see Zionism as a reaction to the historical humiliation of the Jews -- a reaction of pride more than injustice. Clearly some level of pride is necessary as a motivation for political resistance, but when it is at the core of one’s identity, is there any hope of overcoming its more destructive tendencies?
JR: It’s very difficult because of the example you pick out. It’s interesting that Freud on the one hand comes proffering a version or vision of nationhood which will be fragmented, precarious, grounded -- or even founded - as Edward Said points out, by the stranger. In doing this, he really does take away a certain consistency from collective Jewish identity, in a move which is very radical. But he is not consistent on this, because -- I think -- such a position was too difficult. By the end of the essay he’s taking away with one hand what he’s giving back with the other. The Jewish people are the people who created monotheism and the advance into spirituality and they have a particular propensity for survival -- none of which I necessarily disagree with -- but it’s as if what he can’t bear to do in the end is complete the narcissistic blow that he’s carried out against his own people. It illustrates a real conceptual difficulty. Virginia Woolf touches on something similar for feminism in Three Guineas, where she’s talking about how women can help to break the cycle of a certain kind of national chauvinism, by drawing on "poverty, chastity, derision" and "freedom from unreal loyalties." On the other hand, as an analyst pointed out to me when I discussed Woolf on another occasion in relation to war, derision provokes retaliation; the idea that that lack of pride provokes a freer identity is a delusion. Lack of pride provokes rage because it is humiliation. So there’s a real problem: to ask for a world that existed without shame would be to ask for a world that exists without narcissism, and therefore would be to ask for one that exists without the ego. Towards the end of his seminar on the ego, Lacan says: ‘If analysts are trained, it is so that there will be subjects in whom the ego is absent.’ But he knows that’s not possible. After all, he’s written more powerfully about the genesis of the ego in the constitution of the subject than almost anybody after Freud.
So I think it’s a bind and I don’t have a clear answer to this question. I am just struck over and over again by how much humiliation and denigration seems to be at the heart of what constitutes political identity and a certain kind of political violence. Eyad El-Sarraj, the organiser of the Gaza Mental Health Centre, suggests that it was the sight of their fathers’ humiliation by the Israeli army during the first Intifada that provoked in their children the violence of the second Intifada. You can take another instance from Israeli fiction in the famous short by Yizhar Smilansky, The Prisoner, written in November 1948. An Israeli soldier is arguing with himself about whether he should release a prisoner who’s a shepherd and who is being sent off to torture. He has an argument with himself and the voice that’s telling him to release the prisoner says, "It’s your duty to free him, even if he himself laughs at you, even if he (or someone else) sees it as a sign of weakness on your part, even if your friends make fun of you." As if the issue is: will I look like a fool if I do the ethical thing? Is ethics a form of passivity and humiliation?
SoN: Your discussion of the concept of evil shows how the word is used by various leaders to describe their opponents. Despite being used with utmost conviction, what meaning of ‘evil’ remains when it is used simply to denote that something is harmful to my interests? For example, you suggest its use reflects back on the user -- it is a sign that we cannot "tolerate what is most disorienting [...] about our own unconscious" and so "strike out in a desperate attempt to assign the horrors of the world to someone [else]". Is an assignation of evil actually an admission to it?
JR: Well I’m thinking here of Christopher Bollas’ fine article ‘Violent Innocence’ in his book Being a Character about a very specific psychic mechanism: because you can’t tolerate anything negative in yourself, in order to purify yourself you project the violent bits of your own unconscious onto the Other, which then justifies a permanent retaliatory mechanism. This is doubly emboldening firstly because they are bad in your view (and you are not), and secondly because your vision of yourself as not bad depends on you endlessly projecting onto them and destroying in them what it is you can’t bear to see about yourself.
Psychoanalysis would insist that we are civilly and ethically complicated creatures. We are all capable of violence and aggression and anybody who says they’re not is on a very slippery slope. As the Kleinian analyst and writer Hannah Segal puts it, it’s not the death drive that’s dangerous, but our defences against the death drive when we start splitting, precisely saying this bit of the world is good and this bit of the world is evil. Only once you’ve done that do you have a license to kill because you then dehumanise the other, which means divesting them of the exact forms of psychic complexity you cannot bear to acknowledge in yourself. If on the other hand you think to yourself, "Well actually this person is a bit like me really, good some days bad the others," you stop and think for a second, and, I like to think, you won’t be able to do it. I really believe that there are certain mental states you have to get into in order to enact violence.
I remember during the first Gulf War an American soldier being interviewed and asked what it felt like to be dropping bombs on villages, and he said first he didn’t think about what he was doing and then "I just thank goodness that I come from a God-fearing country and that I’m on the right side." It was the two things together that were so weird; the double denial -- one, I don’t think about them as people, and two, if I do think about them as people I think I am good, I am the one who’s sponsored by God. (Freud of course would call this ‘kettle logic’ or the logic of the unconscious, i.e. the statement defeats itself as both propositions cannot be true). I think psychoanalysis has a lot to say about this basic mechanism. Really the question should be "Under what condition do I license myself to kill?" I license myself to kill by ejecting from myself anything self critical, and projecting it completely onto the other person. We’ve seen a lot of that since 9/11, like the phrase ‘axis of evil’. I just can’t believe the crassness of thought which is dominating the world view of the 21st century.
SoN: There’s almost no meaning to it when it’s used like that.
JR: Yes, it’s utterly vacuous, and terrifying at the same time. What we have to demand in response is a certain kind of educational thought, and for a space for the complexity of thought, because it’s that ability to stop and think which is being denied to people. So again to refer to Christopher Bollas -- I Have Heard the Mermaids Singing, the second in his recent novella trilogy, in which he talks about the way in which culture is trying to deny the capacity for thought. Not just the instrumentalisation and bureaucratisation of the culture, but also more specifically we could add what’s happening in the health service, everything becoming measurable and being calculable, and even to some degree in the Universities. I think it is part of a pattern.
SoN: You quote Edward Said saying, "We cannot coexist as two communities of detached and uncommunicatingly separate suffering." You point out the word ‘we’ here and for me it seems that everything crucial hangs on it. How much does the hope for positive change in your book fall on the kind of empathy exemplified by Said here -- managing to unify both sides of a bitter conflict under a ‘we’?
JR: I agree. There is a very good instance of this in Freud’s ‘A Comment on Anti-Semitism’ published in 1938, in which he quotes extensively from an unidentified source, who defines himself as a non-Jew. People think maybe he made it up and he’s actually quoting himself, but it doesn’t matter because either way the non-Jew and Freud have become merged on the page. I think the ability to identify across impenetrable boundaries is absolutely crucial.
I teach a course called ‘Palestine-Israel, Israel-Palestine: Politics and the Literary Imagination’ where the only demand is that we enter into every piece of writing we read with good faith and a suspension of a certain kind of immediate reaction. We read Weizman and Ben-Gurion to see what it is they thought they were doing, because they didn’t think they were evil people and they thought what they were doing was justified. You need to understand what it is that propels the vision. And then of course you read the Palestinian writing, in order to understand the reality and trauma of exile for a people whose land was taken away from them and whose story has not been allowed to happen. In his essay ‘Arabic Prose and Prose Fiction after 1948’, Edward Said argues that the Palestinians are in danger of having never been constituted as a people; the challenge of the writing is therefore to bring them into being. It is another kind of existential fear from the one expressed by Israel, a fear that the Palestinians have been erased from history, and might never be allowed to come into existence as a nation, as opposed to the Israeli fear of whether they will be allowed to subsist as a nation. But it is crucial to stress that these are dramatically asymmetrical fears because of the difference of power.
The brief of the course is that, in order to try and understand it, at each stage you give yourself a little time to think, "What is this person doing with themselves? How do they see themselves?" You do not in any way weaken or qualify your political judgement about the conflict, whatever that might be, but it does force you to move across the boundary, to move across the green and indeed the red line, and to enter into each side’s vision of itself.
There’s another wonderful quote from Said, where he says, "There is suffering and injustice enough for everyone." We need to ask, what is this competition over forms of suffering, and what is this competition over forms of blame? To say this is not to deny real historical injustice, persecution of the Jewish people, the expulsion of the Palestinians, nor indeed to weaken the demand that the latter, for example, be historically acknowledged, nor indeed to equate the histories, but it is to ask what psychic logic is involved, and what is its political price. Both peoples need to see the lines of force of, what is internally as well as politically compelling about, the other story. And then I’d like to think that certain things could shift, but it’s not easy, for all the reasons we’ve been discussing.
SoN: In the chapter on Nadine Gordimer you raise the question of how the privileged can empathise with the oppressed when they are the beneficiary, even the cause, of suffering. Claims of understanding often end up more like a kind of patronising representation. Where do you think true empathy lies -- is it perhaps a case of first understanding oneself in order to understand how one is perceived?
JR: It’s difficult because there’s a real asymmetry here. I remember Hanan Ashrawi saying that the Palestinians really know the Israelis, more profoundly than they know themselves. In The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist, Emile Habiby has some wonderful moments when the Palestinians can see things about the Israelis that they can’t see about themselves. But if you invert that statement it becomes an oppressive statement. If you say the oppressing power can see the oppressed better than they can see themselves, it doesn’t work -- they’re not symmetrical statements.
So what does the beneficiary of privilege do to generate real forms of understanding? Well, often they have to be quiet. They just have to educate themselves as much as possible and be very careful, as Nadine Gordimer was about the forms of available engagement at different stages of political struggle. There were moments when she thought it was very appropriate for her to be engaged in cross-racial dialogue and moments where she was not required; and I think she was extremely sensitive about it. The oppressor has to know when they are dispensable. In a way that brings us back to Coetzee, whose more recent writing could be seen perhaps as an acknowledgement of that reality. So if one demand is that the story of the other side is understood, even if hated, there would also be another demand: to know when simply repeating your own story is stopping anything changing in the world.
Boycotting Israel: a reply to Linda Grant
Jacqueline Rose, 4 September 2005
* middle east
* israel & palestine - old roads, new maps
Those opposing a cultural and academic boycott of Israel should examine the South African precedent, says Jacqueline Rose.
Linda Grant takes issue with my call for a cultural and academic boycott of Israel -- a small part of a long interview addressing a wide range of important intellectual and political issues surrounding the nature of Zionism and the condition of Israel.
The personalised nature of her reply includes remarks which do not merit a response: her imputing to me a desire for "cultural gagging" or "instrumentalising" or "controlling" writers for my own political ends; her suggestion that I might be, or even wish to be, in charge of such a policy; that I admire a writer like David Grossman only when he agrees with me, as if engaged disagreement could not be part of admiration; and that I would support dialogue with writers selected on the basis of their ethnicity or race. I also note the dismissive reference to the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign.
The context for this debate is two earlier openDemocracy articles:
Jacqueline Rose, "Nation as trauma, Zionism as question"
Linda Grant, "Boycotting Israel: a reply to Jacqueline Rose"
If you find this material valuable please consider supporting openDemocracy by sending us a donation so that we can continue our work and keep it free for all
Leaving these remarks aside, I would make four points.
First, Israel receives no international sanction for the illegal occupation of Palestine and the violation of international law in the territories. Indeed the nation receives huge amounts of international aid, benefiting from a larger amount of financial support from the United States than any nation in the world, with the possible exception of Egypt. On 3 October 2000 -- after the outbreak of the second intifada on September 30, when Israel responded to stone-throwing Palestinians by attacking civilian targets with US helicopters -- President Clinton made the biggest deal for a decade to send military helicopters and spare parts to Israel.
Second, no effective critique of these Israeli violations or of US support for them can be expected from the British government. Indeed, Tony Blair endorsed George W Bush’s letter to Ariel Sharon in March 2004 which supported the annexation of key West Bank settlements to Israel -- thus reversing thirty-seven years of US policy. Despite the pullout from Gaza, there is no realistic prospect of viable Palestinian statehood without international pressure being exerted on Israel.
Third, in focusing on the issues surrounding a cultural boycott Linda Grant does not refer to the wholesale destruction of the civilian and cultural infrastructure of the Palestinians by the Israeli army (for example, of the Khalil Sakakini cultural centre in Ramallah in April 2002, since rebuilt), nor of the dire effects of the occupation on Palestinian educational and academic freedom at all levels.
In this context to call for a boycott -- academic, cultural, or both -- is indeed (on this much we agree) a mark of despair. I should have stated in my openDemocracy interview, as I have elsewhere, that I was a reluctant supporter of the Association of University Teachers’ boycott in Britain, for two reasons: because it seemed inconsistently and somewhat randomly applied, and because I too have the desire to keep open paths to dialogue wherever possible. But imperfect as it was, I welcomed the attempt by academics to do something on the grounds that, at the level of international politics, nothing is being done.
Fourth, although I think we should be cautious about any unqualified equation of Israel’s policies with apartheid South Africa, the experience of the boycott in the latter case has some lessons. It is worth remembering that the supporters of United Nations general assembly resolution 2396 (passed in December 1968) calling for a cultural boycott of South Africa were similarly accused of supporting censorship, of endangering academic freedom, cutting off the black population from much-needed contacts with the west, and alienating the whites.
None of these objections were completely wrong, anymore than are the objections to boycott in relation to Israel. But the boycott against the apartheid regime endured, and it is also worth remembering that -- together with the dialogue which flourished with the country’s artists and writers at the same time -- it helped bring the regime to its end and lay the foundations for an inclusive democracy.