Saturday 4 August 2012

On milieu and refuge: a sketch, 10

The Lion's Mouth

I have been wondering how to draw together the three or four strands of this series in the hope that the drawing-together might reveal something.

It might reveal something, not exactly in the way of absolute truth, or even in the way of the self, because the self one writes is the result of a negotiation with language in which words are as likely to produces states as states are likely to produce words. It is the interaction that produces what we may think of as personality, or character, or soul, or maybe just a particular mood. Nevertheless it's what we have registered as soul and these very words confirm the act of registering.

We like quick identifications and demand the short cut. It is all but unavoidable that we should do so because life is too short to examine everything in proper detail. One might be aware, for example, that, in writing about Israel, any statement is going to be read by many as a quality of person or soul, which soul will then be consigned to the location convenience dictates.  If X thinks Y, goes the argument, s/he must be of the group Z of which we have opinion Q. The result is that we listen to a few trigger words and leap to the position required in respect of Z and Q. It certainly stops us listening to anything else.

I don't want to be hypocritical about this. I realise I do it myself, but here I am noticing it.


One of the things I noticed about attitudes to Israel is the point at which they changed. As Nicole in the comments column of an earlier post says, and as I myself knew first hand five years later, the common left view in 1967 in the west was that Israel was - in principle at least - an idealistic socialist country, and that the survivors of the Holocaust (which it did not then question, or find boring, or regard as an underhand rhetorical device) had set up a new country in the Negev Desert with only a narrow strip of coast to work on, and that this new state, just nineteen years old then, was surrounded on all sides and threatened with extinction.

After 1973 things were different.  Why?

It might be partly because Israel had not given back the territories it had occupied in the course of war. The West Bank was not annexed but was declared a special occupied area. To have immediately returned it and the Golan Heights would have seemed surprising, as if saying to Israel's enemies: These are the strategically important places from which you, who wanted to push us into the sea, attacked us; here they are, have them back, better luck next time. The settlements have gone on since, not because it was right that they should but, at least in part, for the reasons given in the earlier posting referred to above: perceived strategic vulnerability.

These things may be wrong but they certainly happen and have happened through history:  they are certainly negotiable and redressable, but I sincerely doubt many other countries would have acted very differently under the circumstances.

But it might also have been partly the case, or so it struck me at the time, that after 1973 - the year of the Yom Kippur War when Egypt and Syrian combined against Israel - circumstances changed. They changed primarily as a result of the oil embargo imposed by OPEC that compounded a stock market crash in early 1974 which impacted dramatically on the UK. Edward Heath was Prime Minister and the miners were on strike. Together with the oil embargo that led to the three-day-week, and the defeat of the Tory government. There were IRA bombings.

It may be that the change in attitude to Israel was prompted entirely by the realisation that the left was backing the wrong moral / strategic horse (under the circumstances of the Cold War, the Soviet Union was an ally of the Arab states), but I wondered whether home political conditions played a part. The Munich Olympics murders of 1972 -  that the current games, precisely forty years later, should have been commemorating if only by a simple gesture -  were less of a shock by 1975 than they had originally been.

There was, I admit, a part of me - I was still relatively uninterested in Israel, regarding it as the proverbial small faraway country that had not much to do with me - that wondered whether the oil crisis, combined with the stock market fall, the strikes, the three-day-week, and the IRA bombings, had not led many to conclude that all this was too high a price to pay for Israel and that the oil producing countries were far more important.

It might even be that the great moral outcry might, to some extent, have sprung from economic and strategic considerations. God forbid! It's certainly when the sea-change began.


Public morality is like a tide. Once it begins to roll one way it is all but impossible to stop it. There could only be one victim and only one perpetrator. Positions in such matters become so entrenched in the mind one completely forgets they are positions with a history. They become eternal heroic truths the honourable must not betray.

The Plump, in his comment on my previous post, suggested I had put my head in the lion's mouth. I agreed that it felt like that, while thinking that all I had done was to point to a set of generally recognised facts without beginning to mount an argument. Who or what was the lion that was ready to bite my head off for doing so little? I ask because with this post the lion's mouth remains open and my head is still there.


It is interesting to smell of lion's mouth. I expect I will for a while. I must now be of party Z of whom the opinion must surely be Q.  Or if not quite that, someone to be treated a little gingerly, and maybe avoided for a while until the smell wears off.

The first time I wrote anything on Israel on the blog one person wrote to me asking why I hated Muslims. I pointed out with some astonishment that I hadn't mentioned Muslims or expressed any particular opinion on either Muslims or indeed the Israel/Palestine question and asked him to point to any passage where I had done so. He soon admitted that I hadn't said what he had wanted me to have said but carried on fuming in the certainty that I must have thought it. I told him I was in favour of a two-state solution along agreed lines. He told me he was not. Only one state would do.

(To put the record straight I do not hate, or dislike Muslims. I have no firmer opinion of Muslims than I have of Christians or Jews or Hindus or Buddhists or agnostics or atheists or of any particular ethnic or religious group. They are all, as am I, members of the human race. We talk to each other.)

I know this will sound strange to some but here it is: I am not arguing for the rightness of the actions of the state of Israel in this or that specific case, and certainly not for its infallible rightness (I leave infallibility to Popes). I argue for  Israel's existence in security. I think the lion is wrong.

Some of my dearest friends - still friends - have told me they think Israel's time is up, that it has lost its right to exist. It is on that we disagree.

But that way Z and hence Q and hence the lion's mouth.


I still haven't joined the strands. Still trying. I am thinking that milieu is the complexity I have inherited and to some extent continue to live in and by and that refuge might be a rational, tolerant, liberal England; and that the last refuge might be Israel. For the conceivable future I have ruled Hungary out. Fail again then. Fail better.


havantaclu said...

George, I have found your series a revelation of what a man's spirit can achieve.

I suppose our main difference will always be Israel - but, like you I think, I wish to see a two-state solution to the problem. I have gone past wanting to deny Israel a right to exist, which would have been my position a few years ago. I am aware how the Jewish people have suffered over the ages since their expulsion by the Romans; but there is no gain from inflicting on others what you yourself have suffered. That goes for individuals as well. Perhaps I have become more aware of this by watching the differing reactions of my two sisters-in-law to the terrible sexual, physical and paychological abuse to which they were subjected by their step-father. I have seen one perpetrating, on a lower scale, the abuse; I have seen the other bring up four wonderful children, all of whom have had some problems, but who have been enabled by their mother to overcome and vanquish what to many would have seemed insuperable difficulties.

Another difference would have to be our perceptions as ourselves as members of a group. In yours, you are affiliated by blood to your Jewish heritage, and I think would probably allow that this is your default identity. I have never felt any such blood-tie with any group, although I laughingly identify myself as Welsh, if pushed. My experience of living in other countries has rather changed my identity, so that I now try to recognise the good as well as the bad in every individual whom I meet, without using (I hope!) other criteria than my (admittedly idiosyncratic) perceptions of good and evil. I have only met two people, during my life, whom I would class as evil - one did not begin that way, but inexplicably became so, and died so. The other I never knew any good of - my reaction on meeting him was that he was capable of murder without any remorse, and indeed, that turned out to be the case. I cannot allow myself to say that any individual group of people is good, or bad; all I can judge is the individual.

On what I know of you, through your work and through this blog, you would have to be given the 'good' individual diagnosis. What a cheek I have to even say such a thing, but it is so.

Admiration and respect; love and peace.


George S said...

"...but there is no gain from inflicting on others what you yourself have suffered."

You must mean the millennia of bannings, burnings, expulsions, execrations, executions, exterminations on an industrial scale - that that is what Israel has inflicted on the Palestinians?

That is where we differ, Jeni. I know this argument well but if you think Gaza is Auschwitz you must be thinking of a different Auschwitz.

I am not a good man, thank you. I am someone who thinks this.

havantaclu said...

I do not think that Gaza is Auschwitz, George - it is nowhere near. What I do remember is the medieval Jewish quarter of Pezenas, in which Jews seemed to contrive to be separate but integrated. I wish this could be the case in contemporary Israel for the Palestinians, since it seems clear that the two-state solution will not be achieved in my lifetime.

You cannot refuse to allow me to call you 'a good man' on the basis on which I know you - your poetry and your blogs. Your comment above seems to show that I have touched a sore spot. I wish you the healing of that sore spot, as you deserve. Again I wish you love and peace, and offer my respect and admiration.


George S said...

But Jeni, in that case which part of 'no gain from inflicting on others what you yourself have suffered' are you referring to? Which part of the equivalence?

If you had said something like 'the sufferings and difficulties of the Palestinians are as important as those of the Jews' I'd have taken you seriously and fully agreed. But no: you have to invoke the whole history of a people for the usual rhetorical reasons. And you know what the logical outcome of that rhetorical sleight of hand is? Do you think that through?

Because if you leave out the pogroms and the Auschwitzes and the pretty well timeless, universal intolerance, what have you got left? You have struggle over territory and the acute hardships that conflicts bring and have always brought. Think of sieges in wartime, any war, any time. You can only have peace between nations that recognise each other. I wish peace and a withdrawal to agreed secure borders for two nations that recognise each other.

You have just retweeted a comment of mine on the overuse of the term 'fascist'. Can you really see no connection? You have implied that the Jews are inflicting a Holocaust on the Palestinians. Do you ever think that Holocaust is an overused term?

"..."...but there is no gain from inflicting on others what you yourself have suffered."

I also find your desire that I should be 'healed' a little patronising. It assumes you are well and I am sick. And that assumes that the only reason I can think what I think is because I am sick and to be pitied and to be wished healing on. It's really a 'nice' version of the ad hominem. You really cant think of that as patronising?

May I say two things that will sound a little patronising now?

First: I like you and respect you but in this respect you have long stopped listening. You are hearing me as a nice man with a 'case history'. That, to me, is a form of deafness.

Second: The fact that you cannot see the significance of your own rehtoric seems to me typical of well-meaning nice people on the left who have never really understood that we are not dealing with 'wounds' and 'healing': we are dealing with something far more important: language and truth, and the fates of actually living people.

The people on the right have no such problem. You are singing sotto voce, but in chorus with them.

havantaclu said...

Touche, George - I apologise and can see the truth in what you have just said - I will try to change my outlook, and try also not to appear patronising when I did not intend to be. I certainly am in need of healing myself.


George S said...

Jeni - I very much appreciate that. Thank you. I know you didn't intend to be patronising because I know you to be a 'good' person, much as you know me. You know me from the evidence of writings, I know you from the response to both my own writings and to that of others.

Not sure about having an ultimate home, the place that when you go there they have to let you in. I am not lamenting that: I would like to argue that home is more complex, more problematic idea, and that in some way all of us are 'homeless' - that being humanity's condition. Nor is that a lament, just a tentative observation.

I am not arguing for a separation into tribes on the basis of this or that home, however we interpret the term 'home': I am arguing for a uniting of the homeless in the perception that that is what we are.

Keiron said...

George, I tried respond to this series last week but my post was too long to be published; with hindsight, probably best for all concerned! Here in essence are the points I intended to make, some of which have since cropped up in your exchange with Jeni.

1. I am very aware of that feeling of second-guessing friends’ and readers’ reactions to anything concerning Jews and in particular Israel. I’m writing a biography of an amazing character named David Litvinoff, born in Jewish Whitechapel in 1928. Necessarily I find myself writing about anti-Semitism, and in so doing I have written in a little of my own family history; and yet as I do so I cannot help but sense the twinges that this will provoke in some readers: ‘a Jew going on about anti-Semitism again... change the record... time to move on... besides you’ve nothing to complain about now, and what’s more Jews have become the oppressors...’
I am increasingly disturbed by this trite notion that “the oppressed have become the oppressors”, which suckers many well-meaning people in with its superficially beguiling neatness, its formal appeal as a story.
Anyone would think that the Holocaust were purely historical, and Jews who insist on talking about it were like Orangemen commemorating the Battle of the Boyne. But it happened within living memory for many people and its ramifications are very real for my generation. Therefore I will choose whether or not to write about it, considering in the editing process only the feelings of my family rather than those of gentiles who feel entitled to dictate the appropriate duration of Jewish grief.

2. All it takes for evil to flourish is for it to adopt the guise of morality. Rather than accept Burke’s idea that it spreads if “good men do nothing”, as a natural recourse for humanity if we don’t keep it in check, I prefer a more optimistic humanist view, believing that most people want to do the right thing. Humanity has an admirable urge to do good, and a lamentable inability to distinguish between goodness and its impostors. Anti-Semitism thus endures like no other ‘racial’ prejudice owing to its patina of morality: if certain people manipulate the world to their own ends, controlling the banks, the media and other nations’ foreign policy, then their power ought to be undermined. But anti-Semitism is rarely so overt, at least not on the contemporary left. By degrees the old ideas reassert themselves in new ways. Ideas that are anti-Semitic at root mutate into daring acts of subversion, of standing up for the underdog. I had an exasperating online exchange last winter with a few Norwich-based participants in the Occupy movement who had unthinkingly reposted on their Facebook page a subtly anti-Semitic article about Jewish financiers, thinking it only to be critical of capitalism. These crusaders for human rights could not countenance the idea that they themselves had a blind spot for a certain prejudice, and swiftly accused me of ‘playing the anti-Semitism card’. Indeed, my accusation was shot down with a haste and irritation that I couldn’t help but find suspicious in itself. But maybe I’m just paranoid, over-sensitive, harping on about it. Because after all, even after the millennium of persecution that you outlined, that’s just what we do, isn’t it?

3. My yellow room would have two walls lined with the hundreds of books – about art, Jewish history, music, folk stories of Sholem Aleichem, short stories by Israel Zangwill, everything – that once filled my Viennese Jewish maternal grandparents’ house in Surrey, two other walls covered by their paintings, and within these four walls would echo all the Central European-accented voices I remember from my childhood, and the sounds of my grandfather’s classical music records that he played on his expensive German-made stereo equipment: always German-made, despite everything. There is for me something quite exquisitely sad in that. But now perhaps I’m self-romanticising. I believe we do that as well.

Thank you, George, for such a stimulating series of posts.


George S said...

How good to welcome you here, Keiron. I don't think we disagree on anything here. I hope you continue to make visits when you have the time and inclination.

I envy your yellow room. It's a wonderful place and already contains everything I have written, simply written better and written longer. I know it is there but for me it would be like starting all over again, so I imagine it in a room behind the one I feel at my back.

Yes, we self-romanticise. It is impossible to be objective about ourselves: we tell stories that we try to keep shaping better and better so our actions and circumstances should make sense. It was the way my father told anecdotes about his life. The details kept changing as the storyline improved. But there is probably a balance to be held where the story does not quite join up and some sort of wind blows through it that reminds us of the world beyond ourselves.

And what could be more exquisitely sad than a sensate being that knows it must die?