Howard and I, Part II: He Should Stick to Fiction

The political acuity of Howard Jacobson is inversely proportional to his skill as a writer. The better he writes – his latest book, Live a Little, is wonderfully whimsical and delicate – the more foolish are his public remarks on current affairs, particularly as regards Jews and Israel.

That fatuousness is on stark display in a recent interview Jacobson gave to the Jewish Telegraph Agency, which was published today by The Times of Israel.

“To not see the necessity of Zionism, or to refuse to see the necessity of Zionism, and to think of it as an ideology of cruelty, you have to be an anti-Semite, you have to be uneducated and ignorant,” Jacobson says in the interview.

“Then once you’ve been shown the truth, to persist in the idea, as [UK Labour Party leader Jeremy] Corbyn does, that ‘Zionism is a racist endeavor’ — that’s the phrase that Corbyn likes — I think that’s a deeply anti-Semitic thing to say.”

Let me precis that: To question the received wisdom about Zionism, according to this learned Jewish author from the diaspora, one has to be both uneducated and ignorant. One also has to be an anti-Semite.

That might come as a bit of a surprise to professors Shlomo Sand, Ilan Pappe, Yehouda Shenhav and dozens of others who have questioned the nature of Zionism and its “necessity” (pace Jacobson) in hundreds of lectures, books and academic papers. Not to mention the universities that awarded degrees to those ignoramuses.

The ranks of those Israelis who challenge Zionism, as defined by Howard Jacobson, have always been top-heavy with academics and thinkers. That was true of the Matzpen movement of the late-Sixties and it remains true today. So much so that then-education minister Naftali Bennett attempted to impose a code of conduct on the country’s universities in 2017, due to their perceived left-wing bias. Nationalists, populists and budding fascists are wary of education.

Israeli society is complex, but the general rule is that the better people are educated, the more likely they are to vote for parties in the center and on the left. If anything, those in Israel who are “uneducated and ignorant” tend to lean to the right and to accept the obsolete Zionism of which Jacobson writes. So much for anti-Zionists and education.

Zionism has been around about 120 years, significantly longer than Howard Jacobson, who, at 77, is a pipsqueak by comparison. Nevertheless, Jacobson seems to be feeling his age. “Maybe I’ve always been a 90-year-old woman,” he says in the interview, referring to Beryl, a character in his latest novel. Beryl’s counterpart in the novel is a ninety-something man. It’s a novel about being old, a subject that Jacobson handles with tenderness and gentle irony.

It’s disappointing that he is unable to bring the same charity and understanding to the matter of Zionism, which, like Jacobson himself, has been around the block a few times. Jacobson may have aged, but Zionism, apparently, has not. For him, Zionism was, is and will always be the endeavor to establish a Jewish homeland (“under public law”) in the face of pogroms and anti-Semitic rejection. It’s an inspiring tale, but it belongs to another century.

The Jewish homeland was achieved in 1948. By rights Zionism should have been allowed to fade away peacefully at that point. The fact that it didn’t was due to the reluctance of the new country’s leaders to define its borders. They wanted more land – they were busy conquering land allocated to the Palestinians by the UN at the very moment the state was established – and Zionism was a handy banner under which to wage the battle for territory. It sounded a lot better than “land-theft.”

Since 1948, Zionism has been the standard metaphor for conquering and settling Palestinian land and disinheriting the Palestinian people. Like Howard Jacobson, it has matured; left its childhood behind and adapted to new circumstances. Today’s Zionism is a far cry from the ideology of the early, secular pioneers who were obliged to look to the bible as justification for their nation-building exercise. It is a messianic, cold-hearted and – yes – cruel – regime dedicated to ethnic Jewish rule over a territory with a large ethnic minority.

That may not square with Jacobson’s quaint world of shy yeshiva students, rabbis doing somersaults and rabid anti-Semites around every corner, but it’s the reality of Israel circa 2019. If saying so makes me an anti-Semite in Jacobson’s eyes, I suggest he rethink the “Jewish liberal” badge that he wears so proudly. Liberals don’t grow apartheid weeds in their gardens.

Zionism is not sacrosanct and it’s not immune from criticism. Disputing it is not anti-Semitism. Calling out Jewish bullies is a mitzvah – or, as Jacobson might have it, a necessary mitzvah.