Gvirotai ve’rabotai… balagan

NB: This post was scribbled out by your humble writer at 3am on election night and relies on the early exit polls for seat numbers. I wanted to retain the raw reaction to unfolding events so the piece hasn’t been updated to reflect final seat tallies. 

On election night 1977, as the votes poured in and it became clear that Menachem Begin’s Likud had brought to an end 29 years of left-wing government in Israel, the television anchor Haim Yavin proclaimed to his viewers “Gvirotai ve’rabotai – mahapach!” (Ladies and gentlemen – a revolution!)

Flashforward to election night 2013 and the Right and Left have drawn each other to a dead heat.

Ladies and gentlemen… a mess!

The biggest winner is Yair Lapid, a newcomer who leads the centre-left Yesh Atid (There is a Future) and until now was best known as the playboy TV presenter son of Tommy Lapid, a late, much missed giant of the secular centre, who chaired the liberal Shinui (Change) party. Most polls had slated Lapid fils for 11 or 12 seats. It looks like he’ll take 18 or 19, making him the de facto kingmaker of the next coalition. Lapid ran a fuzzy campaign, focussed on little other than including the Haredim in national service, and his views on security and economics will now come in for more scrutiny. What he is not, however, is a left-winger of the Meretz/Haaretz/Ben Gurion poli-sci department stripe. He is pro-peace but is no pushover, supporting a united Jerusalem and placing Israel’s security at the heart of any deal with the Palestinians. It’s inconceivable that he won’t be in the next government and this fresh, centrist voice could save the Israeli centre-left from the cul-de-sac of relativism and irrelevance into which it has retreated in recent years.

The biggest loser is Bibi. As things stand, he is going to remain Prime Minister but his Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu bloc has shrunk from 42 seats to around 33. The right of his party is already blaming his alliance with Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu (Our Home Israel) and his failure to articulate a more nationalist position. (The former, given Lieberman’s legal woes, is reasonable; the latter, divorced from the fundamental centrism of Israeli voters.) Netanyahu’s reduced status is largely his own doing, the result of a series of unforced tactical errors, including his borderline hysterical attacks on Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home) leader Naftali Bennett and his failure to identify Yair Lapid as the biggest threat to his party. “Bibi speaks American” has always been the Prime Minister’s unique selling point and if his vaunted US-style political and strategic nous has failed him, he is no longer unassailable within his party. Netanyahu will probably face a leadership challenge before the end of the 19th Knesset and this time it could be someone more substantial than Moshe Feiglin.

Naftali Bennett, the California-born hi-tech mogul, has taken the tired old Mafdal, renamed Bayit Yehudi, and boosted its numbers and appeal to young voters. Far from the caricature of a right-wing fanatic, Bennett is a bright, passionate leader committed to Jewish education and Zionist values. If Likud, Yisrael Beiteinu, and Bayit Yehudi merged into a super-party, Bennett would be a prime candidate to lead it, though such a party would have to articulate a Zionism relevant to the young without alienating traditionalists.

Elsewhere, the ultra-Orthodox parties have held up their vote but Bibi could feasibly form a coalition without them. Frozen out, unable to buy votes with welfare subsidies and housing, Shas and UTJ would find themselves much weakened. This could be the start of something interesting in the relationship between the Haredi parties and the Israeli political system.

Shelly Yachimovich has taken the Labor Party from 8 seats to 15/16, an impressive feat for a party that looked near extinction in recent years and for a leader constantly under fire from the unreconstructed leftists in her ranks. Her campaign focused exclusively, almost obsessively, on socio-economic issues to the exclusion of security and the peace process. This was a canny calculation on her part; Labor had become tainted by the failures of Oslo and more so by its failure to recognise these failures. She has taken Labor back to its socialist roots — too far for economically centrist voters, hence Lapid’s success — but her gains, like Lapid’s, put paid to the counter-evidential superstition that a winning left must place peace with the Palestinians at the apex of its policy platform.

That is the other story of this election: The Left as represented by the op-ed pages of Haaretz is a minority of a minority of a minority now. The far-left Meretz is poised to take 6 seats and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua 7, an unlucky contingent of 13 MKs who have not absorbed the lessons of Oslo, the disengagement, and Palestinian diplomatic belligerence. Peace with the Palestinians is essential, to say nothing of a moral imperative, but the stale prescriptions of the land-for-no-peace crowd have been thoroughly discredited. Kadima, which won the 2009 elections with 28 seats, came to this realisation too late and now finds itself with 2 mandates. Shaul Mofaz is a good and brave man and the Knesset is better for having him in it. If Bibi is smart, he’ll try to lure Mofaz into Likud to act as a balance for MKs like Tzipi Hotovely and Danny Danon.

The Arab parties have done more or less as well as last time but their uniform anti-Zionism, and the dominance of extremist demagogues like Ahmed Tibi, Hanin Zoabi, and Jamal Zahalka, means that the presence of an Arab party in government continues to be unlikely. An Arab Zionist party, one that champions equality and human rights while identifying unequivocally as Israeli rather than Palestinian, is desperately needed.

The media, particularly international outlets, beclowned themselves with their dark intonations of a “lurch to the right” which never happened. This is a product of the caricature journalism that defines the coverage of Israel in the New York Times, Guardian, and BBC. Obsessing over fringe parties and figures might appeal to the anti-Israel prejudices of journalists and their readers but it gives a wildly skewed perspective on Israel and how its politics works.

A dead heat between the left and right-wing blocs highlights the vibrancy of Israel’s democracy. It also shows that the electoral system is fakakta. Israel is not Finland. It lives in a tough neighbourhood. It needs strong, democratic governments and that means decisive election results. Bigger parties and a higher threshold for entry to the Knesset would make Israel stronger and safer while still representing the spectrum of viewpoints in a diverse and disputatious country.

The 19th Knesset, and whatever government dominates it, is going to be interesting to say the least, and what it will mean for the moribund peace process and the booming economy remains to be seen. But there’s a sadness also tonight. The Palestinians, whose national elections have been suspended by Mahmoud Abbas since 2009, should be enjoying this coffee-driven, exit-poll-crunching, coalition-arithmetic-guestimating insomniac madness. They deserve a healthy democracy and a state in which to conduct it. They just have to choose it.

Feature image © צילום: איציק אדרי by Creative Commons 2.5.

Israel, the Will and Promise

Israel: The Will to Prevail
By Danny Danon
Palgrave Macmillan, 240 pages

The Promise of Israel: Why Its Seemingly Greatest Weakness Is Actually Its Greatest Strength
By Daniel Gordis
Wiley, 256 pages

If you do not recognize Danny Danon’s name, you would probably recognize his face.

You will have seen him talking on Fox News or at a pro-Israel rally in New York, or giving a speech to a conservative group in Washington, D.C. Danon is a deputy speaker of the Israeli Knesset, a member of Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party, and a rising star of the Israeli right. Danon locates himself within a new generation disenchanted with “land for peace” and the grand promises of the left. He has written Israel: The Will to Prevail to set out his vision of a new Israeli nationalism based on national self-interest, territorial expansion, and renewed political confidence.

Danon’s three-part book offers a thesis that will offend liberals, another that will offend conservatives, and a third that will cause people of all ideological persuasions to arch an eyebrow. First, he contends that the Arab Spring is not the dawn of an Islamic Zeitalter der Aufklärung but a Zeitalter der Finsternis, the eclipse of the forces of liberalism, already beleaguered by the specter of Islamist reaction. This is no longer a marginal viewpoint after the events in Benghazi and Cairo, but Danon espoused it even in the early days when the uprisings were heralded by liberal opinion as the birth of modern Arab democracy.

Before the right-leaning reader settles in, Danon throws a curveball: The U.S.-Israel alliance, although a beneficial relationship in his view, has fallen off-kilter and must be recalibrated. “Throughout its history, Israel has conducted its affairs with the aim of pleasing—or at least not offending—its strongest partner and closest ally,” he writes. Danon contends that tension has always permeated the alliance, and he gives us a long, detailed (too long and too detailed) exegesis on the prevarications of Truman, the apathy of Eisenhower, and the bitter fallout from the bombing of the Osirak nuclear reactor. He dedicates very little time to the strengths of the alliance, such as the United States’s financial and diplomatic backing of the Jewish state or the thread of civilization that stretches from Jerusalem to Washington through the hostile terrain of a world rising against the West. So when Danon asserts that “history shows that when we act on our own, according to our own best interests, the results are better not only for Israel, but for world peace as a whole,” his analysis is not wrong, but it is incomplete.

In the final third of the book, Danon sets out his stall as a future leader of the Likud in the form of a radical alternative to the two-state solution. Surveying the sclerotic peace process, and drawing on biblical, historical, and legal claims, Danon advocates the “three-state solution,” which would see Israel apply sovereignty to the Jewish communities of Judea and Samaria and sign accords with Egypt to annex Gaza and Jordan to take responsibility for the remaining West Bank Palestinians. There would be, in short, no Palestinian state. This is an outrage to supporters of the two-state solution but also a heavy concession from a politician who models himself ideologically on Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the Revisionist Zionist leader who proclaimed the credo of Greater Israel: Shtei gadot la’Yarden—zo shelanu, zo gam ken (“Two banks has the Jordan—this is ours, that is too”). Quite why Israel’s Arab neighbors would agree to this plan or what would happen if the Palestinians insisted on statehood or how Danon plans to overcome the Israeli public’s support for the two-state solution are among the many details he never addresses. There are a number of cogent and developed proposals offered by those Israeli right-wingers opposed to a Palestinian state. Danon’s notion—and that is all it appears to be—is not one of them.

Danon is a canny politician who has forged ties with American evangelical leaders and set himself up as the figurehead-in-waiting of Israel’s notoriously fractious national camp. He is, to adapt a phrase, a “compassionate Likudnik,” emerging as an unlikely champion of Ethiopian Jews and addressing with sensitivity the endemic social problems facing that community. It is regrettable, then, that many Americans will have their first encounter with this thoughtful leader through a starchily written book that disappoints with its lack of nuance and insight. Danon may one day lead his party and even his country, but only if he grasps the centrality of the U.S.-Israel alliance to Israel’s well-being and to the physical and moral defense of Western civilization. Without this alliance, Israel would be alone in a much starker way than Danon envisions.

Israel alone, in another sense, is the theme of The Promise of Israel, the latest from Daniel Gordis, a scholar and theologian who writes about Judaism and Israel with rare fluidity and keen analysis. Occasionally, a book comes along that uproots our entrenched assumptions and causes us to look at something in a new way. This year, that book was supposed to be The Crisis of Zionism, by the self-conceived dauphin of Jewish not-in-my-nameism, Peter Beinart. Beinart’s effort, however, seethed with resentment and juvenile self-righteousness, an attempt to universalize his own growing detachment from Israel as a Diaspora-wide rift.

Gordis’s book is everything Beinart’s was meant to be. It hands us a new frame through which to view Israel, but instead of a despairing tome, Gordis offers a reinterpretation of Israel’s situation, one in which the Jewish state’s purported flaws become essential elements of its “differentness.” The contempt for Israel among international elites may speak the language of humanitarianism, pro-Palestinianism, or even anti-Semitism, but the roots lie in a liberal universalism that cannot explain and so seeks to demonize Israeli exceptionalism. Israel is an affront to the received wisdom of postmodern political theory, an ethnic nation-state that flourishes in an era when ethnicity and nationalism were supposed to have made way for globalized multiculturalism. Some readers will already be shifting uncomfortably at the invocation of the dreaded e-word (ethnicity), and Gordis shares his own ambivalence toward the concept. “The idea of a state for a particular ethnicity strikes many people as problematic, immoral, and contrary to the progress that humanity has made in recent decades,” he admits. “It sounds racist, bigoted, or oppressive of minorities.”

However, instead of retreating to the familiar liberal-Zionist comfort zone of Israel’s stellar record on women’s equality, gay rights, freedom of the press—all true, all laudable—Gordis touts Israel’s ethnic particularism as fundamental to Jewish identity. “From the very outset, Jews saw part of their purpose as being different, as having something to say that the rest of the world ought to hear,” he reminds the reader. “In a world without difference, the very point of Jewishness would be lost.” Moreover, a nation-state organized around the history, culture, and political symbology of a specific ethno-religious group is a guarantor of a particular brand of freedom, “the opportunity to take the culture that our ancestors nurtured and then bequeathed and to cultivate it further in order to pass it on again, to our own children.”

The promise of Israel, then, is the redemption of the ethnic nation-state as a liberation from the universalist dream of borderless cultural conformity promised by the United Nations, the European Union, and their partisans. “What Europe’s elites seek to do is deny who we are,” Gordis maintains. “What Zionism seeks to do is recover who we are.” And pointing to the (imperfect) equality enjoyed by Israel’s 1.5 million Arabs, he contends that the Israeli model offers real diversity rather than the plastic pluralism of crumbling post-national European societies:

The particularism at the heart of Israel, the belief in the importance of preserving distinct ethnicities as a means of preserving human dignity and freedom, is so central to Israel that it extends to the other peoples who live there as well.

Thus Zionism becomes not just a movement for Jewish national rights but a rear-guard action against cultural relativism and the self-immolation of the West.

He argues, contentiously, that the Palestinians, once in possession of a state, could adopt the Israeli model and forge a polity that blends Islamic traditions with liberalism, pluralism, and tolerance—a light unto the Arab nations. But here he overreaches, declaring that a complete embrace of Zionism demands that Jews support the founding of a Palestinian state:

We will know that Zionism has succeeded in shaping Jewish identity and intellectual commitment when Israel’s most passionate defenders also understand that if Jews deserve a chance at the self-expression that sovereignty affords, so too do other peoples, including the Palestinians.

There are good reasons for supporting the establishment of a Palestinian state, but to number among them the fulfillment of Zionist ideals is not to expand that concept but to strip it of all sensible meaning.

“There is a cost to ‘making it’ in America, and it is often a painful one,” Gordis asserts, grabbing unapologetically at the third rail of Jewish-American identity: the dichotomy of two promised lands, captured simply but evocatively in Uzi Hitman’s pop lyric Eretz Yisrael hi Amerikah sheli (“The Land of Israel Is My America”). He is talking about the cultural compromises Jews must make to live in a secular, multi-ethnic melting pot, but, as Gordis knows, there are also costs to making aliyah—a religious “stepping up” often mirrored by a financial step down, but also a cost in losing the link to one’s country of birth. When Gordis claims that even the United States cannot provide the “sense of belonging” offered by “one’s ancestral homeland,” he fails to note that moving to the land of one’s forefathers and foremothers means leaving behind the land of one’s biological father and mother. Heritage matters, but there are other forms of heritage than just ethnicity, and, to many American Jews at least, “to be a free people in our land” need not refer only to the land of Israel.

Gordis’s work is a small book with a big idea, and he should be commended for that. The public discourse is wanting for big ideas, particularly on Israel and Jewish identity, so much so that we’ve come to settle for gimmicky contrarianism and those flashy covers and snappy titles by up-and-coming tenure-seekers with a funny anecdote for Charlie Rose and little else. The Promise of Israel tells us that we need not settle; that moral and political debate can engage while aiming for something higher; that a popular philosophy is still possible. The challenge for Zionists has always been to interweave the three strands of Zionism: Am Israel, Eretz Israel, Medinat Israel—the people, the land, and the state. Daniel Gordis, in his challenging and compelling, frustrating and inspiring book, comes closer to achieving this union than has any writer in recent times.

Originally published in CommentaryFeature image © Sasson Tiram by Creative Commons 2.5.

Who’s afraid of the big bad Likud?

Hysteria is the default mode of Israeli politics, the timbre of discourse a panicked shriek, but this week things went full-on meshuggah.

Ehud Barak resigned as Defense Minister, figuring he had little chance of retaining the job after the election, while former prime minister Ehud Olmert hinted at a grudge-match comeback to take down his hated arch-rival Bibi Netanyahu. Tzipi Livni returned to politics with a new party and poached former Labor leader Amram Mitzna to be her deputy, while another previous Labor leader, Amir Peretz, threatened to split the party if chairwoman Shelly Yachimovich joined a Likud-led coalition after the election. The United Nations General Assembly voted to upgrade the Palestinian Authority’s status to “non-member observer state”, a unilateral move that prompted Prime Minister Netanyahu to announce the building of 3,000 new units in Judea and Samaria.

The Left has reserved its shrieking, however, for the Likud primaries and the list of candidates drawn up to fight the January election. The list saw centrist candidates fare poorly while more right-wing names took top positions. This proved problematic for Left-Zionist types who have always portrayed Likud as The Most Crazypants Right-Wing Gang In The History of Everything Ever and yet had to convey how much more crazypants right-wing this slate of candidates was. Thus the 2013 candidates were “the craziest, most radical list ever” for +972 Magazine and Likud was “the party of annexation” for Peter Beinart’s Open Zion.

Haaretz, the ever-fainting maiden aunt of Israeli journalism, worried: “Has Likud gone too far right for Netanyahu?” and warned that the list heralded a “hawkish earthquake” and “a tectonic shift to the right” that was “sure to worry foreign capitals and Diaspora Jews” while “creat[ing] new long-term challenges for Israel’s hasbara efforts and for the country’s PR campaign abroad”. Reports that it would also cause Hanukkah sufganiyot to spontaneously combust and spark a mass epidemic of Jewish sons not calling their mothers remain unconfirmed.

Far from a lurch to the right, or the emergence of “an extreme right-wing party with strong racist undertones” as the completely sane Carlo Strenger puts it, the list represents the coming up of the next generation of the Likud. Of the top 20 names – those most likely to be elected – around half are under the age of 50. Further, as Jeremy Saltan points out, the list includes at least six supporters of the 2005 disengagement from Gaza, hardly an indicator of pro-settler fanaticism, and where moderates were overlooked it was often because of their establishment connections rather than their centrism. So it was more of a Tea Party-style rebellion against Jerusalem insiders.

Moreover, the caricaturing of some of the candidates, particularly MKs Danny Danon and Tzipi Hotovely, distorts these energetic and intelligent – if not always to my taste – leaders and offers them up as moon-baying militants desperate to detonate Israel’s democracy. The truth, as ever, is slightly more nuanced.

Danny Danon is a passionate campaigner for Ethiopian Jews, fighting against discrimination, and forcing a national conversation on the little-discussed issue of domestic abuse against Ethiopian-Israeli women by their husbands. Inspired by his ideological hero Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the Revisionist Zionist leader who asserted “the woman’s place over that of men in every fundamental aspect of public and private life” and in the 1920s refused to pay dues to the Jerusalem Municipal Committee until it allowed women to sit on its executive board, Danon was active in the protests against the ill-treatment of women by some ultra-Orthodox men in Beit Shemesh and was co-author of the legislation that bans modelling agencies and advertisers from using “Size Zero” models.

Tzipi Hotovely is a young and brilliant political mind; a writer, legal scholar, PhD candidate at Tel Aviv University, and one of the most outspoken advocates for women’s rights in Israel. As chairperson of the Knesset’s Committee on the Status of Women and a member of the parliamentary Lobby for Single Parent Families, the 34-year-old Hotovely has done more to advance gender equality than politicians many years her senior. She personally broke the (voluntary) gender segregation on “mehadrin” busses in Beit Shemesh and initiated legislation to strip any organisation which participates in discrimination against women of all public funding. She has passed legislation extending maternity leave, banning the photographing of sexual assault victims, and toughening the law on the employment of sex offenders. When the committee that appoints rabbinical judges lost its only female member, Hotovely authored a bill making female representation on the panel a legal requirement. While some of her legislation has been kiboshed in committee or on the floor – bills to increase public funding to political parties that run more female candidates, to extend the statute of limitations for sex offences, and to maintain the earlier retirement age for women – she fights on like a happy warrior.

Both Danon and Hotovely have made statements and advocated policies with which I strongly disagree, and I certainly hold no brief for either of them, but to pretend they are far-right insurgents gunning for Israeli liberalism is a satisfying but dishonest fiction for self-indulgent leftists.

There’s much that could be said about others on the list – Silvan Shalom’s career as an education reformer, Gilad Erdan’s work on drug dependency, or Yariv Levin’s championing of grandparents’ rights – and the demonisation of these bright and capable politicians is a function of malice and political calculation. But there is one name that I too consider worrying and counterproductive to a Likud party that should be aiming to represent all of Israel. Moshe Feiglin, leader of the Manhigut Yehudit faction, and someone whose reactionary policies and ultranationalist pronouncements make even some Likudniks – and this Likud sympathiser – blanch in horror, has no place on the Likud list. Bibi has bumped the extreme Feiglin down the list on a technicality before and with any luck he’ll do so again.

Unfortunately for the op-ed writers and academic brow-furrowers, the voters get to decide the outcome of elections and the polls show Likud-Beiteinu holding a healthy lead over Labor. Of course, as this week has shown, anything can happen in Israeli politics but the numbers and the public mood point to a Netanyahu win. And that’s where the hysteria over the list comes in. The Left and its boosters in the media know they can’t beat Bibi. Even when he loses his Defense Minister. Even when he loses control of his party’s list. Even when he oversees a diplomatic catastrophe at the UN. The voters don’t necessarily like Bibi – he’s a tough guy, rough guy, not a group-hugger – but they know he’ll cut their taxes and protect them from rockets and won’t risk another wave of suicide bombings from a failed peace plan. The Left fears Likud because it fears the voters, fears their demands, and fears that they have stopped listening.

Home Alone: Licence to Kill

Daniel Craig looks rougher, grislier, and altogether more jumpable in Skyfall, his third outing as the spiffing secret agent 007 – and that’s all to the good because this movie, like its sculpted leading man, is sex on legs.

Bond had grown darker in recent years, matching the Bourne series torture scene for torture scene, and the last entry, Quantum of Solace, was a misfire because the suave MI6 operative had lost the quippy irreverence that helped leaven his camp pomposity and patriotic derring-do.

Skyfall is all about big shiny mindless fun: gun battles against the backdrop of a Shanghai advertising light show, exploding helicopters, trains crashing through ceilings, and a motorbike chase across the rooftops of Istanbul.

The villain this time around is Tiago Rodriguez, who goes by the secret agent name of Raoul Silva, and is camped up to the nines as a monstrous-queer psychopath by Javier Bardem. Silva is an MI6 agent turned over to the Chinese by M (Judi Dench) in exchange for six captive agents and a peaceful handover of Hong Kong. Silva’s not too happy about this, particularly the horrific tortures he suffered, and returns for revenge on his former boss, stealing a hard drive with the identity of every secret agent in the field and drip-leaking their names online.

He hounds M via bombs and a spectacular shoot-out in a House of Commons committee room all the way to a remote manor in the Scottish Highlands. (The retreat north of the Border is referred to as “going back in time”, a quip that’s sure to turn a few of my more sour compatriots even sourer.) The best Bond villains have always been camp – Dr No, Blofeld, and Scaramanga – but Bardem’s Silva is too mincing, too purring, and, given his obsession with killing “mommy” M, more than a little distasteful on the stereotyping front.

The Bond movies and the Ian Fleming novels that inspired them were originally a rah-rah Boys’ Own adventure for a Britain in decline, an injection of post-imperial pride that said: We might not rule the waves any more but we can still jolly well get the job done and be home in time for tea and crumpets. While Britons long ago stopped agonising over their place in the world, the plucky-but-proper spy hasn’t lost his appeal to the home crowd.

Bond tells us there will always be an England and the franchise subtly negotiates pride-in-suffering nostalgia and a more modern patriotism, one that finds contentment in goodness rather than greatness. It’s a Love, Actually version of Britain – Cool Britannia! Modernity! Cancel the Debt! – but we need to tell ourselves a story and this is at least an optimistic one.

Skyfall is at its most entertaining in the final act, when Bond retreats to his childhood home in Scotland and lays a series of booby-traps to fend off Silva’s goons. Shotgun cartridges are stuffed under floorboards, shards of glass exploded from chandeliers, and sticks of dynamite thrust into gas canisters to defend the rural abode. The action is unrelenting and the tone moody-farce, Home Alone with the faintest hint of Straw Dogs.

Skyfall marks the 23rd Bond movie, unless you count the non-canonical Never Say Never Again, and if you do I will come round your house and beat you about the head with my limited edition On Her Majesty’s Secret Service George Lazenby action figure, still in the box. It is one of the most enjoyable movies in the franchise, possibly the best since the days of Roger Moore. Craig, who is signed on to make two more films, has now comprehensively answered his remaining critics. Not only was he the best choice for Bond, it’s difficult to imagine another contemporary actor in the role.

Sam Mendes directs tightly but lightly and that’s why his movie is so smooth and digestible. I confess I thought he was wrong for Skyfall – too cerebral, too burdened by dark thoughts about the human condition – but it works. Mendes has put the fun back into Bond.

Feature image © www.GlynLowe.com, from Hamburg, Germany, by Creative Commons 2.0

The Obama-era movie

The cult of youth that arrived in the early 1950s with overhyped pop art such as The Catcher in the Rye and Rebel without a Cause has so successfully embedded itself in American life that even the most cutting attacks on its roots have failed to shift it.

This valorization of immaturity—what Norman Podhoretz called “the poisonous glorification of the adolescent in American popular culture”—holds the ideas and opinions of the young to be purer in spirit and therefore superior in logic and morality than the encrusted ethics of their corrupt elders. No branch of the arts has been so vividly seized by this superstition as the movies, a young person’s game to begin with. Movies about young people—especially those made by young people—are mined for sociological data on the thoughts, passions, and aspirations of the upcoming generation.

The 2008 recession and subsequent sluggish economy have pried open a gap between college and adulthood, enshrining an already extant second adolescence of dependency on parents and soul-searching for twentysomethings with liberal-arts degrees and limited employment opportunities. This interregnum has become the subject of a mini-wave of movies that coincided with or post-dated the election of Barack Obama. This new cinema of graduate ennui is embodied by Lynn Shelton’s Your Sister’s Sister, which received a limited release this summer, and was found as well in Shelton’s 2009 Humpday, this spring’s Jeff, Who Lives at Home (Jay and Mark Duplass, 2012), and others. These films are loosely connected by their shared themes of alienation, unemployment, and debt, and the style of moviemaking—almost deliberately amateurish, made on the very cheap—replicates the economic constraints under which the characters live. Your Sister’s Sister, in which a jilted lesbian (Rosemarie DeWitt) tricks her sister’s best friend (Mark Duplass, the co-director of Jeff, Who Lives at Home) into impregnating her with the aid of a surreptitiously pierced condom, is more fanciful than most, but the leads are caught in the same aimless drift that permeates all these movies.

Characters are at loose ends, stuck in bill-paying jobs unrelated to their aspirations or university education. Darius, the female protagonist of Safety Not Guaranteed, is a depressed unpaid intern at a Seattle weekly living with her father. Tom, an architecture graduate, writes greeting cards for a living in (500) Days of Summer from 2009. Aura’s film-studies degree lands her a job as a club hostess in Tiny Furniture (Lena Dunham’s 2010 debut film), while Doug (Cris Lankenau), of Cold Weather from 2010, lugs ice around even though he trained as a forensic scientist.

There is a shared language to these movies, the stunted, slangy style of people who have nothing to say but insist on trying to say it. Characters speak the nonjudgmental patois of contemporary America, in which it’s all cool that you’re dealing with your shit and doing your thing. Anything else would be f—ed up. They account for themselves and their sybaritic relationships in the self-serving psychobabble of a generation raised on Dawson’s Creek and Friends. No one objects to anything and everyone is studiously inoffensive, issuing the vapid, air-filling word salads of a culture whose language has been stultified into mush by the twin tyrannies of political correctness and “progressive” teaching methods.

These graduate-ennui movies are like group therapy sessions for first-time voters coping with all the disappointments of the Age of Obama, an epoch that could only be a letdown after the breathless thrill-up-the-leg hype of hope and change. Four years on from the Great Feel-Good Hysteria of 2008, Obama’s young guard is learning that presidential coolness does not index well against job creation. The students who skipped entire semesters of gender-studies lectures to register voters are now out of college and on the unemployment line. These movies offer no explicit critique of Obama, but they hint at a psychic rupture, an emerging sense of betrayal and alienation. There is, for the first time since the 1970s, a suspicion among what should be the most idealistic age group that their lives will not get better. They have not known a confident America, save for those raw-defiant months after 9/11, and their notion of prosperity comes from the spend-now-earn-later head rush of the credit bubble. America is the world’s first inherited meritocracy, where opportunity is a birthright passed down through the generations, and yet those who make up the Obama generation do not share the optimism enjoyed by their parents and grandparents. They live in the present tense because they know nothing about the past and don’t believe in the future. Tiny Furniture’s Charlotte nonchalantly observes, “No one’s financially independent until they’re at least 25—maybe 30.”

And yet there is no righteous anger in these movies, no backlash against the false hopes and airy promises of a political salesman who, having failed to deliver hope and change, seeks to buy off young Americans with the chance to be freeloaders on their parents’ health insurance.

American youth’s being at loose ends is nothing new, and directors on the make can easily turn in 90 minutes of alienation and expect appreciative nods at Tribeca. But when the only theme is the Self and exploration of that self the sole plot, movies slide into a solipsistic sludge. Such characters offer us no insight, no impassioned apologia, no scathing critique of economics or culture or social arrangements. They just stand around, like cattle. The graduate-ennui film is a curious cultural artifact, the telltale heart under the floorboards of Obamaism, but until it can articulate an emotional maturity and a political intelligence, it will remain, like its protagonists, frozen in aimless adolescence.

Originally published in CommentaryFeature image © Greg Hernandez (Greg in Hollywood) by Creative Commons 2.0.

Innocence of Muslims: A Review

“Don’t you blame the movies,” protests Skeet Ulrich’s horror-fanboy serial killer in Scream (Wes Craven, 1996). “Movies don’t create psychos. Movies make psychos more creative!”

The Obama administration falls into the former camp, blaming the past week of anti-American rioting and the murder of US officials on a dreadful YouTube film assailing the Prophet Mohammed. To be sure, some of the rioters are citing Innocence of Muslims as a pretext for their destructive behaviour but, refreshingly, others are more honest about their motives: Movie or no movie, you can’t beat a good rampage against the Great Satan.

The White House thinks the rioters were provoked to violence by a crappy low-budget movie no one’s seen, as if the Muslim Brotherhood were a more militant version of the New York Film Critics Circle. Liberals used to mock conservatives for worrying that violent and sexually explicit movies could have an impact on audiences. Now, they don’t stop to question the notion that an obscure online video has somehow seized the minds of otherwise rational people and sent them out into the streets baying for blood.

(Allow me to digress for a moment with a thought: The American flag, torn and trampled and devoured by flames, must be one of the most common images to emanate from the Arab world. It should be mundane, pedestrian by now. And yet it still tears at the heart of patriotic Americans and their supporters around the world. This is not a bad thing. It means America still stands for something.)

The director Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, an Egyptian Coptic fundamentalist, initially tried to pass himself off as “Sam Bacile”, a California-based “Israeli Jew” real estate agent with a sideline in Muslim-baiting movie production, the latest of which was made on a $5,000,000 budget financed by one hundred wealthy Jews. The media ran with the rich-Hollywood-Jews-demonising-Muslims line, initially without question, and some prominent outlets have been forced to issue retractions after The Atlantic‘s Jeffrey Goldberg, amongst others, did a little digging and revealed Nakoula’s true identity. (Needless to say, in much of the Islamist press he’s still a Jew.)

In the olden days, when directors wanted to disavow bad movies, they took the pseudonym Alan Smithee. Now, you just claim you’re part of the international Zionist conspiracy and trust reporters won’t do their homework.

I watched a ten-minute clip of the movie because a) I wanted to know what all the fuss was about and b) I write film criticism professionally and have an interest in movies that cause a stir. It is the worst film I have ever seen that didn’t star Adrian Grenier. The acting is terrible, the plotting non-existent, the cinematography amateur, and the tone vicious and bigoted. It’s like The Birth of a Nation as directed by Ed Wood.

The film offers a Mohammed who is a homosexual and a pederast. While Mohammed did take the nine-year-old Aisha as his bride, a common, if repugnant, practice in Bedouin societies of the time, the charge of homosexuality is a new one on me. Mr Nakoula may be the first person to attempt a queer reading of the Qur’an.

The Prophet’s polygamy is turned into a soap opera in a scene in which his many brides chase him, Benny Hill-style, for seemingly favouring one over the others. The Ummahāt ul-Muʾminīn become a seventh-century Alexis Colby and Krystle Carrington, clawing at each other in the lily pond.

Mr Nakoula has no obligation to “respect” the Prophet of a religion to which he doesn’t subscribe. But his movie is trash, and not because it is anti-Islamic but because it is foul lumpen horse manure. Monty Python’s Life of Brian (Terry Jones, 1979) is easily as anti-Christian but it is a product of great writing, fine acting, and laser-sharp satire. Mr Nakoula has no talent, no aesthetic, no ideas. In place of an argument he offers a caricature. Innocence of Muslims is an almost proudly stupid film.

None of this, however, should obscure the thuggery of fanatics who maim and murder in the name of religion or ideology or pure, blind hatred of America. The freedoms to speak and to worship as one pleases are the roots of liberal democracy. We should never surrender them and we should never apologise for them for they are Milton’s supreme liberty: to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience.

Free peoples can be silenced by arms or by laws. There is no other way, or at least none as effective. Those who seek to censor, to create a right to have their religion “respected” or their beliefs shielded from “offence”, are our enemies as assuredly as those who would put us to the sword. Americans should guard their First Amendment and citizens of the other democracies their more modest speech rights. We should make common cause with liberal, secular, and reform-minded Muslims, our strongest allies in the fight against Islamism.

And we have to recognise that there is a fight. That a battle unacknowledged is a battle all the same. That appeasement and isolationism do not prevent wars but rather ensure those wars will be one-sided events.

Patrick Henry: “Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”

That is what America is about. That’s what America has always been about.

Feature image © Jamie Kennedy by Creative Commons 2.0.

On Libya and Egypt

I got caught up, I admit it, in the fire and flyting, the exchange of insults, the contempt that boils right up into your heart until you feel bitter and spiteful and mean as a snake.

The anger, for that big agglomerated punching bag the mainstream media, has largely subsided. It was fuelled by some shocking, shoddy reporting by journalists who saw their job today as shielding the President they helped into office from any criticism for what happened in Libya and Egypt. The determination to make the timing and tone of Mitt Romney’s statement The Issue, rather than the attacks themselves and the President’s foreign policy failings, was unprofessional if by now unsurprising.

But amidst the heat and rage, I forgot the solemn facts of what happened on 9/11/2012, the new 9/11. People died. Good people. People who served their country with honour, who put themselves in harm’s way to help build up a fledgling democracy in a dry and unforgiving desert.

Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three fellow Americans, two of whom are reported to be US Marines, lost their lives when an Islamist mob attacked the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Whether they were killed by the mob – roused, we are told, unconvincingly, by a crude low-budget internet movie demeaning the Prophet Mohammed – or, as has been reported, were murdered by terrorists who used the mob as a diversion tactic, the loss of life here aches the heart of every decent person in Libya and around the world. The date of the attacks, as Americans mourned their dead from another dreadful September 11th, makes the ache a little keener.

God bless these four brave souls and may He be with their families tonight.

If we must talk about politics, and we must, the picture is much more prosaic than the one painted by Twitter-warriors. The US Embassy in Cairo sent a series of bizarre tweets and statements prior to the attack there – which it then retweeted and stood by afterwards – that impugned the First Amendment and blamed a trashy film while absolving the mobs who rioted outside, and later, inside their walls.

The White House disavowed these pronouncements. The mindset that “offence” should be met with apology – or, worse, censorship – is the outlook of the appeaser and a cowardly escape route for those who would betray the liberties that underpin Western democracy. There have been calls for those responsible for the embassy’s ham-handed public diplomacy to be fired. I think they should be given a copy of Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man and suspended until they understand it.

The President got it wrong in not addressing the attacks sooner. We are told he was taping an episode of the David Letterman Show. He needs to sort his priorities. He can be President or a pop star; he can’t be both, or at least not well. But when he did speak, he got this right: The United States will continue to support the new democracy in Libya; the blood-stained Islamists will not destroy democracy as easily as they destroy human life. It was important that the President said this.

Mitt Romney, whatever his antagonists in the media say, was right to speak when he did. No one else was. There was a vacuum in American leadership, always a dangerous situation. It was proper that he slammed those initial statements and the President for failing to speak sooner. At times like these, we need a daddy to talk tough, even if just to keep us calm and level-headed. He sounded like the President that he ought to be and, I hope, will be.

Hillary Clinton, however, spoke better than anyone. She was resolute, firm, and reassured Americans that the country would not genuflect to terrorism. She is a much better politician than she was even four years ago. If today’s Hillary had run for President then, she’d have taken the 3am call today and, I’m betting, handled it a lot better than Mr Obama. She’s going to run for President again. She will be a formidable opponent.

And then there are the forgotten victims, the Libyan people; the moms and dads, raising families, and the builders and leaders, constructing homes and constitutions. They are not responsible for this. (Nor are the Egyptian people for the attack in Cairo, though the Muslim Brotherhood government has been less fulsome in its condemnations than its counterpart in Libya.) Libyans have been rallying today against the attacks, denouncing the terrorists and apologising to the United States. These people did nothing to apologise for but they know it’s expected and, in a deeper sense, the right thing to do. Now is not the time to abandon them.

There is a Hebrew song that kept floating in and out of my head today. “Ein Li Eretz Acheret”, “I have no other country”, a folk record that burns with a pure, committed love of country — the patriotism of the under-fire.

“Ein li eretz acheret / Gam im admati bo’eret… Lo eshtok / ki artzi shinta et paneha / Lo avater lehazkir la / Ve’ashir kan be’ozneha / Ad shetiftach et eineha.”

“I have no other country / even if my land is in flames… I will not stay silent / because my country has changed her face / I will not stop reminding her / And singing in her ears / until she opens her eyes.”

I don’t fully know why but these words seem to apply to the Libyan people today. They are working and praying for a better Libya. We should work with them and pray with them and overcome the darkness together.

New sheriffs of the old west

The Western and the superhero movie—the two most American genres in cinema—come from the same literary tradition: the great American mythos.

In that tradition, America is history told as legend. This is not to say that the nation’s history is fabricated, but that it is attuned to the rhythms and themes of storytelling: the taciturn hero, the clash between Good and Evil, the triumph of idealism over cynicism, the blessings of God, and the fortunes of opportunity. “The western,” wrote André Bazin, a French critic who understood the genre better than did his American contemporaries, “was born of an encounter between a mythology and a means of expression.” The superhero movie, now wildly popular, replicates that encounter in an urban setting colored by decay and the betrayal of the principles the hero of the western had stood for. The superhuman savior is the pioneer town sheriff returned to restore order and drive out the modern-day cattle rustlers.

This summer’s superhero offerings, which revive or reinvent old favorites, resurrect the familiar western tropes. The Dark Knight Rises joins Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008) to complete Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, and The Amazing Spider-Man reboots the Marvel Comics hero barely five years after Sam Raimi rebooted it in his own troika. Nolan gives us a Batman as morally complex as Gary Cooper’s drifter in The Westerner (William Wyler, 1940) or John Wayne’s gunslinger in El Dorado (Howard Hawks, 1966). Eight years after being wrongly suspected of the murder of a crooked politician, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is forced to assume his alter ego one final time to stop Bane, a nuke-wielding nihilist who has fomented revolution on the streets of Gotham. The movie retains the murky tone of its predecessors but lacks their nuance, partly because the assaultive soundtrack punctuates every meaningful beat with a cymbal-crash exclamation point and renders whole exchanges of dialogue inaudible.

The Amazing Spider-Man is directed by Marc Webb, who was behind the indie relationship comedy (500) Days of Summer (2009), but it is the sense of visual grandeur learned in his earlier career as a music-video director that is on display here. Webb tells the story of how Peter Parker went from being an introspective teenager to a supernatural crimefighter. After the death of his parents, Peter (played by relative newcomer Andrew Garfield) goes to live with his aunt and uncle (those archetypal 60s radicals, Sally Field and Martin Sheen, turned fluffy and commercial and dishing out bromides about personal responsibility). Bitten by a radioactive spider during a visit to the laboratory of cutting-edge, and inevitably sinister, Big Pharma company Oscorp, Peter develops supernatural arachnid abilities. At first, he resists his new powers, but after his uncle is shot and killed trying to stop a robber, Peter dons a costume and takes to swinging balletically across the nocturnal skyline of New York City, swooping down on criminals and roughing them up until the cops arrive. Soon, a mad scientist—a comic book staple—from Oscorp decides he wants in on the superhuman action and, after injecting himself with lizard DNA, hatches a plan to make everyone in the city reptilian.

Although these movies are tonally distinct—The Amazing Spider-Man is closer to the primary-color pop-action of The Avengers (Joss Whedon, 2012) than the shadowy hues of The Dark Knight Rises—they share a debt to the western genre. For Bazin, the western was the original superhero movie, an adventure yarn made epic “because of the superhuman level of its heroes and the legendary magnitude of their feats of valor.” But while the golden era of westerns, roughly spanning from John Ford’s Stagecoach in 1939 to John Sturges’s The Magnificent Seven in 1960, was dominated by product instead of art, both the genre’s mediocrities and virtuosos operated in accordance with a common set of assumptions. The western ethic held that the settlement of America, though by no means bloodless, was a noble endeavor. To pioneer meant to pursue opportunity and self-advancement through hard work and smarts. There was Good and there was Evil, and the existence of shades of gray was no excuse for confusion between the two. The local lawman might be a gambler or a drunkard or otherwise compromised, but he believed in defending the homestead, protecting the women, and hanging the horse thieves.

The sheriff’s hands were often tied by the strictures of the law, and it is in this that the western shares its strongest bonds with the superhero flick. Spider-Man and Batman are apart from their fellow men and act outside the bounds of legality. This has led some critics to misread the superhero as a simple vigilante, cutting down muggers and rapists like a spandex-clad Bernie Goetz. But the superhero faces the same moral dilemma encountered by the frontier lawman: as Bazin puts it, the “conflict between the transcendence of social justice and the individual character of moral justice, between the categorical imperative of the law which guarantees the order of the future city, and the no less unshakable order of the individual conscience.” The pitting of the untamed but decent individual against the lousy laws of a corrupt system has always given the superhero genre a libertarian flavor that complicates straightforward readings from the left or right.

The Dark Knight Rises takes several steps beyond the boundaries of this framework and articulates a more explicit political position. Bane, the villain of the movie, raises a mob of unkempt street radicals who raid the Stock Exchange, drag wealthy guests from their hotel rooms out onto the streets, and conduct show trials of bankers in which the only sentences are death and death by exile. By the movie’s dénouement, this Occupy Gotham movement has taken complete control of the city and their rebellion must be crushed by an infantry of police officers. Critics who routinely nod along to movies that portray America as corrupt, Christians as stupid, or the South as one big humid Klan rally, are very concerned about the sourness The Dark Knight Rises expresses toward banker-baiting mobs. Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir ponders whether Christopher Nolan is “some kind of furious right-winger” because his “fascist” movie offers a world “straight out of the playbook of neocon founding father Leo Strauss.”

Any movie that has PC hysteric O’Hehir whipping up a hyperbolic conspiracy salad is safe-bet entertainment, and getting New York audiences to cheer as starch-collared cops charge billy-clubs-a-swinging at left-wing protesters is no mean feat. Nolan’s movie, like the westerns of Howard Hawks and John Ford, is actually in the old liberal tradition—not the current leftist one. Bruce Wayne may be a one-percenter, but the rich of Gotham are portrayed as lucky, not evil, and their spare time is spent raising money for orphanages and saving the environment. There is corruption in Gotham, but Gotham is not corrupt. There is poverty and injustice, but revolution offers no answers. The Dark Knight Rises, like all good superhero movies, is a love letter to American idealism.

Superhero gunslingers, be they Rooster Cogburn or Peter Parker, give us someone to root for. They also give us hope, however confected, that right can trounce wrong. A common slam is that superhero movies and westerns prize spectacle over story, with panoramic tracks of vast prairies and snaking digital tours of the New York skyline substituting for character development. But these movies are about scale, not empathy. Our intimacy is not with the characters on screen but with the myths they represent, myths that command great physical and intellectual expanses. Audiences know these myths to be their own, recognize them from childhood, and understand that, whether rendered behind a mask or a marshal’s shield, they are the pop biography of America.

Originally published in CommentaryFeature image © brian donovan, Pittsburgh, PA, United States by Creative Commons 2.0.

A Long Way From Cable Street

Professor Robert Wistrich is the world’s foremost scholar on the ideological pathology of anti-Semitism.

A former leftist, he has drifted to the Right in recent decades and in doing so has noted the growing clamour by some on the Left to reboot long-standing reactionary prejudices against Jews as “criticism” of the state of Israel and the policies of its government. This ideology, which has been variously branded “new anti-Semitism” and “Israelophobia”, is at work in campaigns to delegitimise Israel through economic and cultural boycotts, political isolation, lawfare, and the common cause forged between the radical Left and the Islamist Right to demonise and eventually dismantle the Jewish state. What is striking about this movement is its replication of the rhetoric, symbology, and tropes of classical anti-Semitism in a left-liberal milieu that prides itself on tolerance and “anti-racism”.

There is an emerging genre that examines this phenomenon, including the popular (Alan Dershowitz’s The Case against Israel’s Enemies) and the semi-academic (Paul Iganski and Barry Kosmin’s A New Antisemitism?). Professor Wistrich’s latest effort joins the more scholarly offerings of Samuel Ettinger’s authoritative Antisemitism in the Soviet Union, William Korey’s incisive Glasnost and Soviet Antisemitism, and his own The Left against Zion. From Ambivalence to Betrayal explores the historical evolution of left-wing anti-Semitism from attacks on “rootless cosmopolitans” to denunciations of “Zionist land-grabbers”.

Left-liberal conventional wisdom runs something like this: the Left was a long-time champion of Zionism as a form of collective justice for the Jewish people. Progressives fought anti-Semitism and supported the creation of the state of Israel after the horrors of the Holocaust, the ultimate symbol of reactionary politics. But Israel turned hubristic, attacking its Arab neighbours in the Six-Day War, occupying Palestinian land in violation of international law, and acting as a regional strongman of American imperialism. The Left switched its support to the “indigenous” people of Palestine who were being oppressed by a brutal state that increasingly exposed itself as a racist regime practising apartheid comparable to that of pre-1994 South Africa and ethnic cleansing which echoed the Warsaw Ghetto and even Auschwitz.

Wistrich not only explodes this mythology, but shows that left-wing anti-Semitism is of an older pedigree, tracing it to radical and populist movements of the nineteenth century that associated Jews with the industrial, financial, and cultural elites. Marx, the grandson of a rabbi, repudiated his family heritage at every opportunity, most notoriously in his essay “On The Jewish Question”, in which he labelled Judaism “huckstering” and concluded, floridly, that “the social emancipation of the Jew is the emancipation of society from Judaism”. Less well known is the role of anti-Semitism in “the rationalist, anti-clerical, and socialist traditions” of the French revolution and Wistrich explores the contempt expressed by intellectuals from Voltaire to Proudhon towards what the latter called “this race which poisons everything”.

The early Russian revolutionary Mikhail Bakunin damned Jews as “an exploiting sect, a bloodsucking people, a unique devouring parasite”, a bigotry that would gain currency in the Soviet Union after the rise of Stalin. Where Lenin had raged against “accursed Tsarism which tortured and persecuted the Jews”, by the time of the Slansky show trial in 1952 Czechoslovakia, a key phase in Stalin’s campaign to purge Jews from senior positions in the party, anti-Semitism had become for Wistrich “a quasi-official state doctrine”. While party officials denied animus towards Jews, Soviet newspapers in the 1960s and ’70s seethed with a anti-Semitism reminicent of the Völkischer Beobachter and Der Stürmer.

The Six-Day War, therefore, was not a genesis but a turning point that “freed certain ‘critics’ of the Jewish State from the unwritten taboo on openly anti-Jewish aspersions following the revelation of the Nazi death camps”. Israel became the collective Jew and the recipient of all the old hatreds and myths rebranded as “resistance”. Thus the Jewish plan for world domination became the “Israel lobby”, the blood libel the “deliberate targeting” of Palestinian children, and the thieving Jew the Israeli land-grabber. Student protestors could fetishise Israeli human rights abuses, real and imagined, while ignoring far greater crimes perpetuated by the regimes in Khartoum, Tehran, Pyongyang, and indeed Ramallah and Gaza. Wistrich locates in this a new fusionist politics that “offers a bridge between the Christian churches and the fundamentalist mosques, between left-wing radicals and conservative nationalists, between the ‘chattering classes’ in Western Europe and the more militant protestors on the streets who scream ‘Death to Israel!'”

There is a strong British flavour to the book-Wistrich studied at Cambridge and London-and the penultimate chapter takes the UK as a case study. Readers ofStandpoint will be familiar with the greatest hits of British Israelophobia, many of which get an outing in Wistrich’s book:  the Independent‘s noxious cartoon depicting Ariel Sharon eating a Palestinian baby, the New Statesman‘s revolting “Kosher conspiracy” cover, and the undisguised Jew-hatred displayed on theGuardian‘s Comment is Free website. The British Left recounts fondly the “Battle of  Cable Street” in 1936, when Communists, socialists and trade unionists stood in solidarity with the Jews of London’s East End. Today, impeccably left-wing politicians such as Paul Flynn, Jenny Tonge and Tam Dalyell issue vicious denunciations of Jews and Israel. Tom Paulin, the Oxford academic and BBC favourite, has gone so far as to support the killing of Israelis living in Judea and Samaria. “They should be shot dead,” he told an Egyptian newspaper. “I think they are Nazis, racists, I feel nothing but hatred for them.” We are a long way from Cable Street.

Israel is the repudiation of the discredited doctrines of the radical Left, or, as Wistrich puts it, “one massive slap in the face for the entire Marxist tradition of theorising on the ‘Jewish Question'” and a rebuke to the “failed Marxist prognoses” of the wider socialist critique. Israel has flourished at a time when the nation-state is supposed to be in retreat. It has balanced its Jewish character with religious pluralism and legal equality for the 20 per cent of its citizens who are Arab. It has taken a desert land and turned it into an economic powerhouse and technological miracle-worker. It has endured-one might say, as if by providence-against the most fearsome enemies. The Left may have betrayed Israel but Israel has exposed the fallacies and failures of leftism like no other country since the   United States.

Professor Wistrich has now written some 30 scholarly books on Jewish history and philosophy, but his work has been dominated by the subject of anti-Semitism. This book is his finest and most comprehensive on the subject, surpassing even the masterful Antisemitism: The Longest Hatred. It is lengthy and intensive and assumes a knowledge of Jewish history and philosophy probably not available to the general reader. But anyone willing to give this book the time it needs to be fully appreciated will be rewarded. From Ambivalence to Betrayal is a warning we can no longer afford to ignore. Anti-Semitism, driven underground by Kristallnacht and Auschwitz, has returned to the mainstream of Western politics. Our generation will be judged by the speed and mettle of our response, just as our fathers’ and grandfathers’ generations were damned by their failure to act until after the gas chambers had done their worst.

Originally published in StandpointFeature image © Yagasi by Creative Commons 3.0.


Liz Lochhead’s selective boycott

The poet Liz Lochhead, known to a generation of Scottish schoolchildren as “the one that’s not Carol Ann Duffy”, has joined calls for a boycott of Batsheva Dance Company.

Batsheva is an Israeli troupe which – unless Lochhead gets her way – will be performing at the Playhouse on Thursday as part of the Edinburgh Festival, Scotland’s biggest arts and culture extravaganza.

Lochhead joined a line-up of lefty luvvies demanding that director Jonathan Mills revoke Batsheva’s invitation to perform at the festival and send them packing. Their protest, they claim, is against “Israel’s three-tiered system of occupation, colonisation and apartheid [that] ruthlessly suffocates the livelihoods of Palestinian communities”.

The Middle East conflict, and the rights and wrongs of Israel’s presence in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank), provokes intense passions but the call for a boycott of Batsheva is wrongheaded and contemptible.

Let’s get some of the politics out of the way first. To accuse Israel of “colonisation” is risible and suggests that Lochhead and co. have drunk from a heady brew of ignorance and zealotry. Israel dragged 9,000 of its citizens out of Gaza in 2005 and handed over the territory to the Palestinians, who in turn handed it over to the genocidal Jew-killers of Hamas. Over in Judea and Samaria, 98% of Palestinians now live under the administration of the Palestinian Authority, with only 2% living under Israeli control. If this is colonisation, the Israelis aren’t very good at it.

The apartheid libel is as fatuous as it is ugly. Arabs constitute 20% of Israel’s population, 14% of the country’s electorate and 14% of its parliament, and serve in the military, on the supreme court, and at all levels of Israeli society. They enjoy full legal and political parity with Israel’s Jewish population. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an ancient dispute, wrapped in layers of religious animus and political complexity, but Lochhead reduces it to a morality play of Good and Evil, barbaric Israelis versus Palestinian victims; 3,000 years in a soundbite.

Lochhead’s gravest sin, though, is artistic rather than political. She has called for the silencing of artists simply because she doesn’t much like their country. This attempt to stifle creative expression, to abort a work of art before it can take to the stage to entertain and inspire and enlighten, is made all the worse by Lochhead’s position as Scotland’s makar, our poet laureate.

She is aware of the contradiction, and strains to justify it, saying: “Obviously in principle I am against the censorship of ideas. But having visited Palestine in June this year, and having seen how Palestinians are treated like non-humans, I believe we must use sanctions in the way they were used to bring apartheid to an end in South Africa.”

She is against censorship in principle, obviously, but she’ll make an exception for Israelis. When artists clamour for censorship while congratulating themselves on their anti-censorship credentials, it’s time for irony to start sorting out its affairs and make arrangements for a decent burial.

The Batsheva Dance Company is not a political organisation. It does not speak for the Israeli government and it is not responsible for that government’s policies. Indeed, although I’m not familiar with the company, I’d imagine the political culture of this group of Tel Aviv-based performance artists is pretty left-wing.

Batsheva is recognised around the world for its artistic accomplishments and contributions to the field of performance art. The company’s choreographer Ohad Naharin has been named Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, the highest honour an artist can receive in France, and has been awarded his own country’s highest honour, the Israel Prize, for his contributions to dance. Snuffing out Batsheva’s performance of Hora would not change a single fact on the ground in the Palestinian territories. Of course, that’s not the point of the boycott call, which is more to do with making Lochhead and her fellow Letters Page Warriors feel brave and righteous. Theirs is the petty politics of petty minds.

And their proposed boycott is a very specific one. There is no call to cancel China Red or e-Station, in protest at the Chinese dictatorship’s brutal repression of its own people, its suppression of religious minorities, or its occupation of Tibet. Lochhead is similarly silent on Zimbabwe’s offerings Africa Calling! and Zambezi Express, cultural products of a regime where, according to Amnesty International, “Human rights defenders continued to face arbitrary arrests, unlawful detention, politically motivated charges, and even torture in police custody”.

Hunger may go ahead, for Lochhead is raising no objections to the Kremlin’s stifling of opposition parties, framing of pro-democracy activists, or to the arrests and murders of journalists who write critically about Putin or his cronies. Ghana – where homosexuality is a criminal offence, where the security services round up gay men and lesbians, and where a government minister recently called on landlords to report tenants they suspected of being gay – need not worry about its Africa Arts and Crafts Exhibition being cancelled.

Why Israel alone? Lochhead must answer this question or accept that others will draw their own conclusions.

Art is how a civilisation grapples with that big fuzzy mess that is the human condition; it’s a translation of experience into ideas, a process of enlightenment and understanding. Lochhead’s call to shut down artists because of their country of origin, a demand based on outlandish claims and injudicious analogies, is an attack on the very principles upon which art is based. Cultural boycotts are the repudiation of ideas, of enlightenment, of understanding, a genteel form of book-burning for a left-liberal intelligentsia that prides itself on tolerance and broad-mindedness.

Liz Lochhead writes like an adolescent; she doesn’t have to think like one too.

The Batsheva Dance Company will perform Hora at the Edinburgh Playhouse from 30th August to 1st September. Tickets are available here and you can watch a short clip of this talented troupe in action here. The company’s website is here

Feature image © David Shankbone by Creative Commons 3.0.