‘How dare you place myself and other Jewish people in the same melting pot.’ This exclamation was one of the negative reactions to my article, ‘Gaza: The Tip of an Iceberg’ which appeared at Palestine Think Tank last month. The person who wrote it chose her words well, for it does indeed require courage to discuss such matters. In my article I had written: ‘until a majority [of Jews] turn against the supremacist culture which supports Israel’s actions I will continue to hold Jews collectively responsible for what is happening in the Middle East.’
But even those who are more sympathetic to my point of view question the wisdom of holding a whole people to account for the actions of some of them. This idea did not, however, simply arise out of some atavistic hatred of Jews. I had in mind two other societies which are often collectively held responsible for atrocities, the Germans and the British.
Like many young people in the seventies, I lived for a few months on a kibbutz in Israel. Some of my fellow volunteers were native German-speakers, all of them born since the war. Although many of the kibbutzniks shared their mother tongue, they would speak to my German colleagues in English to show their disapproval of the German culture which they associated with the Nazis. My colleagues would react by saying: ‘But I was born after the war. What has that to do with me?’ I sympathised with them, and I still think that the way they were treated was at times stupid. After all, they did not choose to be born German. But I also think there is a sense in which it is wrong to say that the Nazi period has nothing to do with post-war Germans. And the compensation paid from the taxes of post-war Germans to Jews and other dispossessed peoples indicates that I am not alone in thinking this way.
Nor do I think it is acceptable for British people (including Jews, by the way) to shrug off the slave trade because it happened a long time ago, and because we played no personal part in that dreadful history. Coming nearer to the present, when I lived in the Middle East I was constantly being reminded of our part in the plight of the Palestinians. I remember one such conversation with a family who put me up for the night in Khan Younis, in the Gaza Strip, in 1977.
Why did these Palestinians feel the need to infringe their own rules of hospitality to draw my attention to Britain’s past misdeeds? I think the answer is something like this. If I failed to own up to these misdeeds by my compatriots then they would be bound to see me as part of the problem against which they were struggling. They assumed, reasonably I believe, that I was proud to be British and that this pride might very well preclude me from being objective. In other words, they wanted to know whether I was an ally or an enemy. I am not for a moment suggesting that if I had denied all wrongdoing by Britain they would have dispatched me on the spot. No, they would have continued to be the model of courtesy. But they would not have told me anything more about their feelings towards Israel and the Jews.
I always admitted British culpability, that is I acknowledged my collective responsibility, as a Briton, for what my country did vis-à-vis Palestine. This admission has two sides to it. On the one hand it makes me aware that identifying as a Briton (which I do much more than I would sometimes like to think) has a cost – a feeling of shame about aspects of my country’s history. The other side of that coin is that it implies the need for atonement – making good. Without acknowledgement there can be no atonement, and in the case of the Palestinians, without atonement by the West in general, Israel will continue to have a free hand to oppress the Palestinians. British atonement is not enough, but it would be a good beginning.
Now Britain, as a state and as a society, shows very little inclination to atone for its terrible mistreatment of the Palestinians. On the contrary, our leadership takes every opportunity to assure the Israelis of our support, despite the self-evident atrocities of their country. A sense that we need to atone for our previous mistreatment of Jews no doubt plays its part in this. More importantly, I think, is the belief which has been inculcated in us that we Gentiles are tainted with a visceral antisemitism and must prove our credentials by loving Jews. This is, of course, a quite irrational idea, and the sooner we see it for the manipulation that it is the better. We could then get on with recognising more pressing issues.
If enough Britons were to acknowledge their collective responsibility for what we, as a state, did to the Palestinians, the situation would start to change. As a society we would come to reject the Zionist doctrine, our politicians would no longer fall over themselves to support Israel, and the BBC would stop reporting from Israel as if that state were a noble enterprise. That is why Palestinians ask me to agree that we British are collectively responsible for Balfour.
It is for precisely the same reason that I call upon all those who identify themselves as Jews to recognize their own collective complicity in the oppression of the Palestinians. It is not sufficient (though it is good) to say: ‘Not in my name!’ There is a need to acknowledge that their very Jewish identity, which they either cannot dissociate from, or choose not to, comes with a high price tag.
Now if Britons are disinclined to acknowledge their collective responsibility, it is not a patch on Jewish reluctance in this respect. For Jews have, since the Second World War, developed a self-image which almost precludes the possibility of collective wrong-doing. I believe that it is Western non-Jewish acquiescence in this view which makes it extremely difficult for our politicians to say or do anything which reflects adversely on the Jewish state. How have we allowed ourselves to be maneuvered into this disastrous position?
A key element in this is the ‘Holocaust’ narrative. Have you heard this Jewish joke? A Gentile asks: ‘How many Holocaust Centres can you fit in one country.’ A Jew answers: ‘I don’t know. But we’ll try it and see.’(i) Without our noticing it, we have allowed the story of Nazi atrocities to be hi-jacked by Jews. Again leaving aside the question as to what precisely those atrocities were – I am confident we will have a quite different picture in twenty years time – a key element in the standard narrative is the idea that the Nazi persecution of the Jews occurred in a contextual vacuum. In other words, Jews were in no way responsible for what happened to them (and the Nazis were simply unimaginably evil). They were entirely ‘innocent’, and indeed had always been entirely ‘innocent’ in their previous history of persecution.
This was not the view of Jewish historians until the rise of Zionism. Bernard Lazare, for example, was quite clear that Jews were as much responsible for their own persecution as Christians. In his view, expressed in his book Antisemitism: Its History and Causes,(ii) Christian rejection of Jews worked hand-in-hand with Jewish exclusiveness to produce the evils about which he writes. It seems to me that it was only after Herzl published The Jewish State a year later, in 1895, that the idea of an inbuilt predisposition of Gentiles to ‘antisemitism’ began to gain currency. The conclusion drawn from this idea was not only that there need be no explanation for hatred of Jews, but that there is none. After the Second World War this became the predominant view.
I have written the word ‘innocent’ above in inverted commas because I do not want to be understood to be endorsing either the reasons that Jews were hated at certain times in history, or indeed the forms that that hatred took. What I am opposing is the idea that this hatred was uncaused. This seems a wholly implausible idea. But its entrenchment in Jewish thinking is so complete that any suggestion, as in my essay, that Jews are currently collectively responsible for what is happening in Gaza, is met with a howl of rage. And that expected howl deters most non-Jews from saying anything about Jewish culpability.
Somewhere at the root of all this is a debate about the relationship between the individual and society. The modern Western ethos tends to emphasise the primacy of the individual. But post-modernism has taught us that the individual can only properly be understood in his or her cultural context. It is a severe blow to our individual pride to acknowledge that our thoughts and feeling are to a very large extent moulded by the society (or more accurately ‘cultures’ in the plural) in which we live.
People who cry: ‘Don’t hold me collectively responsible for the misdeeds of my country’ – or some other group – are, I believe, in a state of denial about the extent to which they are their country – or society, or family, or even corporation. Why, otherwise, do they say ‘my country’. Such people benefit from the sense of security and belonging their membership of the group gives them. This is the feeling I have whenever I step out of the terminal building at Heathrow. That benefit, to repeat myself, comes with a cost, and it is one which most of us cannot avoid, for most of us cannot ‘unidentify’.
Let us use the generic term ‘group’ to describe any gathering of human beings which has a sense of its own identity for this will enable me to answer a fundamental objection to my argument. I write as if there were no categorical difference between ‘the Jews’ and, for example, ‘the British state’. The latter is a clearly delineated and incorporated organisation, ‘the Jews’ are nothing of the kind. It is arguable that they have no universally recognised authority and that Jews are in no way incorporated. It would follow from this line of thinking that it is wrong to make any generalisation about Jews. Worse, that such generalisations arise from racial prejudice, or are, to use the misleading term, ‘antisemitic’.(iii)
My approach to this subject arises from my reading of sociology, history and especially psychology. It seems to me that the human instinct to combine together in groups is a fundamental phenomenon of human nature. The role model for all groups is the family. Thus humans seek to recreate in all their groupings their first experience of a group; or at least their instinctive understanding of what a group should be like. Whatever we may believe about equality, groups always tend to endorse an authority structure. In other words they always have ‘parents’ and ‘children’. The development of group culture occurs as a complex interaction between (1) elements imposed by the elite from above, (2) history and (3) elements introduced by the ordinary membership. A further characteristic of groups is that they tend to view outsiders as unreliable, at best, and enemies at worst, while one’s own group is reliable and friendly and deserves our loyalty – in other words it is psychologically the bosom of the family.
Whether a group is incorporated or not, whether it has a clear authority structure or not, its existence is confirmed once someone can say: ‘I am a ….’ with the meaning that s/he is a member. And once a group exists it has power (that is its purpose) and becomes a player, however large or small, on the world stage. Thus the fact that people can say: ‘I am a Jew’ confirms that a group called ‘the Jews’ exists. It follows that it is quite legitimate to ask questions about ‘the Jews’ and to attempt to arrive at generalised conclusions about that group.
My generalized – but tentative – conclusion about ‘the Jews’ is that they are a group who identify much more strongly around the idea of Zionism than they do around their religion – which a majority do not practise. Indeed, this is what Herzl had intended. In this sense a majority of Jews are clearly complicit in the crimes of Gaza. But there is, of course, a small minority of Jews who reject Zionism. Should I then conclude that the anti-Zionist Jews are not complicit in the crimes of Gaza? Should I revise my ‘Jews collectively’ to ‘all Zionist Jews’ when speaking of complicity?
I have already tried to explain why I think this is a mistake when talking about my own collective complicity in slavery and the Balfour Declaration. I will not repeat the argument. But I do want to comment on the degree of anger aroused when I suggest this idea which is, after all, not seriously dissimilar from the widely accepted religious idea of original sin. If I started to doubt my own ideas on this subject, the reaction to what I say would stop me in my tracks. For there is no smoke without fire.
On the subject of slavery, by the way, it is interesting that while I am quite prepared to admit my collective complicity in slavery (from which, after all, my country benefited materially), Jews in America have reacted hysterically to the revelation of Jewish involvement in the organisation of the slave trade. Tony Martin, who is black, has described the onslaught against him when he started to teach on this subject.(iv) In other words, this determination to avoid all culpability is a phenomenon which does not limit itself to the Israel-Palestine conflict but which spills over into a much wider Jewish context. Under no circumstances may Jews be represented as sinful. Put like that, it seems absurd, and yet so I believe it has become.
And so, when I say that Jews are collectively responsible for Gaza, I am crossing a red line. ‘How dare you place myself and other Jews in the same melting pot?’ I am asked. My answer is: ‘Because you put yourself in the same melting pot by reacting the way you do. You mock the idea of boycotting Israel on the grounds that many of its products are useful. So were the rockets which the Nazis developed and the Americans took over, so that argument takes us to a strange place! But since you oppose even this soft non-violent option for putting pressure on Israel, we can surely conclude that you are indeed in the same melting pot as most Jews in supporting the Jewish state.’ The lady doth protest too much, methinks.
Francis Clark-Lowes is a freelance writer and adult educator. He has been campaigning for Palestine for many years and was for two years Chair of the British Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC). He also revived, and was for some years the Chair of, the Brighton branch of PSC. His doctoral research was on the early psychoanalyst, Wihelm Stekel. Before that he did a master’s dissertation on the influence of Goethe on Freud. In his thirties and forties he lived for a period of ten years in the Middle East. He is 64 and has two adult children.
(i)Actually, I invented that joke. Now how do you feel about it? It is interesting to me that we view jokes about Jews quite differently according to whether they are Jewish or not.
(ii)Published as L’Antisémitisme, son histoire et ses causes in 1894.
(iii)That subject needs another essay, but briefly I believe the unspoken concept of ‘semitism’ is a king-pin of Zionist thinking, and should therefore be avoided like the plague.
(iv)Martin, Tony, The Jewish Onslaught: Dispatches from the Wellesley Battlefront, Dover, Mass, The Majority Press, 1993.