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Iris Murdoch, the Oxford moral philosopher and novelist, thought suffering was not necessarily redemptive; it did not always improve us either morally or spiritually.
Taking her cue from Plato, she argued that while suffering might well be a constituent of the moral life, it must never be an end in itself. Moreover, evil, which she often characterized as the good degenerating into egotism, could corrupt its innocent victims.
From the late 1930s, Murdoch was involved in a number of friendships with Jewish refugees from Fascism; she was pupil, lover or muse to several, including the Nobel Laureate Elias Canetti. The moral abyss that was the Holocaust came to haunt her.
Yet, in 1970, she took the considerable risk of writing a novel, A Fairly Honourable Defeat, in which the amoral, destructive protagonist in the story, Julius King an urbane Jewish émigré, is discovered to have the numbers of a concentration camp tattooed on his arm.
In an earlier novel, The Nice and the Good, Murdoch had portrayed another, very different Holocaust survivor, Willie Kost. Although Willie is trapped by his past, he nevertheless spends his time on “small, non–grandiose exercises in love.” Julius King, on the other hand, claims to have had a “cosy war.” His period in Belsen is never acknowledged; the price he has paid in surviving the horror and the powerlessness is the loss of his humanity. A cold repressed anger turns him into a monster of egoism, a puppet–master whose raison d’etre is the exercise of power. Contempt for his fellow creatures is absolute.
Primo Levi, the Italian Jew who survived Auschwitz and wrote so unsparingly and unsentimentally about life in the camp, never doubted that the evil revealed in the Holocaust had universal meaning: it was not only a tragedy for Jews, but for all humankind. Thus he refused the temptation to enlist this catastrophe to shield the new Jewish state from criticism.
When, after the wars of 1967 and 1973, Israel held onto conquered land (in defiance of U.N. resolutions) and continued to dispossess Palestinians, Levi urged the Israelis not to use a “sacred history of suffering” as the rationale for their “tribal aggression”—-a very different position to that taken by another Auschwitz survivor, Eli Wiesel. Through his writings and his witness to that terrible moment, Wiesel has earned iconic status as the quintessential moral man. However, his embrace of the temptation that Primo Levi spurned is seldom recognized.
No matter how brutal Israeli actions become, Wiesel is silent or defensive, always reserving his sympathy for Jews. His public utterances reveal a chilling indifference to the plight of Palestinians. Last fall, even as the UN was trying to pave the way for peaceful disarmament, Wiesel was calling with pious insistence for war against Iraq.
Historical amnesia allows him to forget that before the establishment of Israel, Arabs, unlike Europeans, were, on the whole, hospitable to their Jewish minorities. It is a stance that comes perilously close to the one satirized by the Israeli novelist Amos Oz in The Slopes of Lebanon: “Our sufferings have granted us immunity papers, as it were, a moral carte blanche_We were victims and have suffered so much. Once a victim, always a victim, and victim–hood entitles its owners to a moral exemption.”
A story in the New York Times Magazine (Feb. 16) on radical young settlers engaged in a wholesale land–grab in the Occupied Territories, provides a graphic illustration of stunted moral development in a new generation of Israelis who appropriate the history and memory of the Holocaust to justify a savage nationalism. These predatory eretz Zionists intimidate Palestinians into abandoning their homes and land; they then plunder, pillage and expropriate.
Yehoshefat Tor, the founder of one of the settlements, declares “the Torah says we should kill all the Arabs.” These people seem stripped of culture and possessed by nihilistic rage. Curiously, in a bit of bourgeois bowdlerizing, the Times chose to advertise the story on the magazine’s cover under the title “Israel’s Rebellious Teen Settlers.”
This is no youthful rebellion. Rather it is an expression of the ruthless expansionism that Israel’s Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, has advocated for years. In 1998, in an address to the extreme right–wing Tsomet Party, Sharon instructed the outpost settler movement to “grab as many hilltops as (you) can to enlarge the settlements, because everything we take now will stay ours.”
Chris McGreal, reporting for the Guardian (London) on the composition of the new Sharon governrment, noted that it is made up of right-wing parties, one of which advocates the complete expulsion of the Palestinians from the Occupied Territories. Saeeb Erekat, a Palestinian minister, says “it’s a government for the settlers, from the settlers and by the settlers. Sharon has made it clear that he wants the Palestinians to surrender to him.”
Towards the end of her New York Times essay, author Samantha Shapiro writes that the young settlers “seem to the Palestinians to be embodying their nightmare fear: that the state of Israel is a lawless, boundless anarchic occupation, and not the effort of a group of refugees to establish a homeland in borders delineated by the United Nations.” However, the settlers themselves “portray outposts as a retort to the horror of living in ghettos, powerless and ashamed. The settlements are seen as a repudiation of the long Jewish history of victimization.” So we have come full circle. The descendants of the victims of the Holocaust have become victimizers. The chain of evil is unbroken.
In the late 1970s, Jonathan (Jay) Pollard, the American who spied for Israel, took a summer course on the politics of South Africa which my husband was teaching. Jay was an outstanding student and, when asked, the spouse supported his application to graduate school.
The future spy was not reticent about his Zionist commitments, but he also didn’t brandish them. After his arrest, we learned from a British journalist investigating the case, that Pollard had subsequently become fluent in Afrikaans, an accomplishment that could well have made him an ideal conduit in the mid–1980s when Israel and South Africa were in collusion. Israel, which had consistently defied the 1977 UN mandatory arms embargo against South Africa, became the major supplier of military technology to the apartheid state.
Arms were manufactured under license from Israel and the two countries cooperated in the production of nuclear weapons. There was cooperation between their military academies and a regular exchange of instructors. The Holocaust and the history of discrimination and pogroms against Jews had not nurtured in Pollard’s Israeli handlers, or Jay himself, a sense of solidarity with the world’s oppressed non–Jews. Apartheid’s Africans were betrayed without compunction and also, in a tragic irony, were those universalist South African Jews who had joined the liberation movement — people like Ruth First and her partner Joe Slovo. In 1982 Ruth was killed by a letter bomb, sent courtesy of South African state security, the same folk with whom Israel was doing business.
Manipulation of the Holocaust has had, for many years, a distorting effect on US political discourse. A majority of American Jews and their cultural and political organizations continue to regard criticism of Israel as prima facie evidence of anti–Semitism. In May last year, writing in the New York Review of Books, Professor Tony Judt confronted the myth of “the small victim community,” arguing that “since 1967 Israel has changed in ways that render its traditional self–description absurd. It is now a colonial power, by some accounts the world’s forth largest military…by comparison, Palestinians are weak.” Calling him Israel’s “dark id,” Judt warned that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has encouraged a contempt and cynicism towards Palestinians that will be “hard to shake.”
Israeli novelist and poet Yitzhak Laor paints an even bleaker picture. The “fat, old, pork–eating hedonistic General” is how he describes Ariel Sharon — seeing him as emblematic of both the corruption and the decline of democracy. Palestinians have been erased from Israeli consciousness and with the Left and the peace movement on the ropes Laor holds out little hope of the country transforming itself from within. “Does anybody think that Israel is capable of getting itself out of this mess without help?” he asks.
While the United States is the only country with the authority to rein in Sharon, it is unlikely to oblige now that powerful Zionists are shaping George Bush’s policy in the Middle East — and critics are too easily silenced when opposition to the Israeli government is equated with anti–Semitism.
In his new book, Israel and Palestine: Out of the Ashes; The Search for Jewish Identity in the 21st Century, Marc Ellis wrestles with the meaning for Jews of a Jewish state that has become an idol, pursing policies that were “in another age and in different circumstances carried out against us. Ghettoization of an entire people, collective punishment for the resistance of the few.”
Ellis expresses disappointment with American Jewish leaders who call only “for unity against an ‘uncivilized’ foe and for loving rather than criticizing the state of Israel.” Ellis wants Jews everywhere to stop taking refuge in narratives of themselves as the suffering innocent; it is hypocritical, he says, “when victims now empowered claim victim–hood.” He exhorts them to return to the prophetic tradition that was Judaism’s unique gift to history. At the core of this tradition is the requirement to act justly. Only this, he believes, could break the political impasse in Israel/Palestine: “Without the prophetic, the world collapses in upon itself.”
A greater Israel — purged of Palestinians — would be a barren achievement, a far cry from what the prophet lsaiah hoped would be “a Light unto the Nations.”
Postscript. As I was writing this, an Israeli friend (a member of Ta’ayush, an Israeli/ Palestinian peace group) phoned to say that he was detained for several hours after trying to deliver food and supplies to the Occupied Territories. (Jews are not allowed into Bethlehem, hence his arrest.) The sympathetic Israeli policeman who was taking down his details said that he had watched the light go out in Palestinian eyes; a different kind of despair was overtaking them. My friend asked whether this would mean more suicide bombing. Not necessarily, was the policeman’s response: this time the despair was more like that experienced by Jews as they went passively to their slaughter in the concentration camps.
ANN PETTIFER is a freelance writer and the publisher of Common Sense, the alternative newspaper at the Notre Dame University. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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