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The Uncivil Servant: The Sour Politics of Sour Grapes

Mitchell Abidor
July 24, 2017

Discussed in this essay: The Myths of Liberal Zionism by Yitzhak Laor. Verso Books, 2017, 162 pages.

IT'S POSSIBLE, when reading a book with which you should agree, to be so repelled by the author’s tone and mode of argument that you come to doubt your own beliefs. Such is the case with Yitzhak Laor’s The Myths of Liberal Zionism, a book that establishes a tone of anger from the first page and by the end descends to nearly unhinged ad hominem rage. The book is a furious indictment, not of the Israeli right, but of a portion of the bien pensant left, represented by the acclaimed novelists David Grossman, Amos Oz, and A.B. Yehoshua -- whom he calls the “new prophets” of “the old xenophobia” -- and its role in demonizing the Palestinians and providing intellectual cover for European anti-Muslim racism.

Whereas French writers like Bernard-Henri Lévy and Alain Finkielkraut constantly sound the alarm that anti-Semitism is on the march all over the world, Laor’s chosen title -- or at least the title of the original French edition -- was The New Philo-Semitism and the “Peace Camp” in Israel. This title hits the nail squarely on the head, for if there’s a wave sweeping white Europe, governmental Europe, intellectual Europe, it’s philo-Semitism. Whatever the antisemitic currents bubbling under the anti-Israel sentiments of the minority Muslim populations and the marginal extreme left, they constitute no threat to the existence of Jewish communities, which receive more than ample support and protection from philo-Semitic governments.

The first issue addressed by Laor, a poet and controversial leftwing activist, is the role of the Holocaust in Europe as a cover for anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant politics. The Holocaust, for Laor, plays an essential role in this regard: “In the new moral universe of the ‘end of history,’ there was one abomination --- the Jewish genocide --- that all could unite to condemn; equally important, it was now firmly in the past.” The Holocaust then played a central role in the marginalizing of the Muslims of Europe: “For the new Europe, the commemoration of the Jewish genocide would serve both to sacralize the new Europe’s liberal-humanist toleration of ‘the Other (who is like us)’ and to redefine ‘the Other (who is different from us)’ in terms of Muslim fundamentalism.”

All of Europe’s many crimes -- the slave trade, imperialism, colonialism -- evaporate in the face of the Holocaust, which alone “can provide the definition for evil,” Laor writes. “The universal dimension of the genocide is projected to overshadow the victims of colonialism and slavery, who have received no compensation remotely comparable to the sums paid to the Israeli state, nor even had the fortune of being recognized, precisely because they’re still living in devastated countries or miserable neighborhoods.”

The pastness of the Holocaust is essential to this: it serves as a rallying cry (“Never Again”) that really means, as Peter Novick pointed out, that never again will the Jews of Europe be massacred between the years 1933-1945. The Jew, far from being the object of hatred he once was, now becomes the alibi for the West, the Other converted into the Same. Not that the Other has disappeared: he has simply changed nationality.

As Laor writes: “In a large part of Western Europe, the violence directed towards the Other hides itself behind the need for an Other who is like us . . . [T]his newly constructed past -- the Jew as absolute victim -- serves as a cover for a new Islamophobia that cannot but recall attitudes that Europe once had toward the Jews.”

The sufferings of Muslims are minimized, and whenever mentioned are done so with their victims part of an anonymous mass. “Westerners remember the victims of every suicide bombing in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv as if they were nice Parisians or New Yorkers, far better than they remember all the horrors seen on TV of the rivers of blood in Palestine, in Iraq, in Lebanon.”

The reason for this is obvious: Israel is the West, “a European periphery,” as Laor calls it, “the ‘last outpost’ facing ‘barbaric non-Europe.’”

FOR LAOR, no small role in this is played by Israeli intellectuals, who, precisely because they are like us, precisely because their works are translated into our languages, speak of the same lives and personal problems as ours, and refer to the same intellectual and literary authorities within the same mental framework, cement our identification with them and, through them, with Israel.

All of this is matter for debate, but is plausibly and reasonably presented. There is no arguing that philo-Semitism rules the day politically and intellectually. Everywhere in the West, the state defends and shows solidarity with the Jew, occasionally in a risible fashion, as when Andrew Cuomo showed solidarity with the Jews of St. Louis after the vandalizing of a Jewish cemetery there by visiting . . . Israel.

That the existence and prominence of liberal Israeli writers buffs Israel’s image is unquestionable; that we are all but totally ignorant of contemporary Arab writers is incontrovertible. Laor's points about the political uses of the Holocaust stand on solid ground. However, to think seriously that the hesitations of Oz, Yehoshua, and Grossman play that crucial a role in propping up the worst of Israel is simply wrongheaded. If only writers were capable of swaying things to the extent Laor credits them!

In fact, in arguing his case against Israeli intellectuals in the second half of the book, he goes seriously off the rails.

He starts out reasonably enough, quoting Oz, Yehoshua, and Grossman. Oz takes Ehud Barak’s part against Arafat in the failure of Camp David, saying that “Mr. Arafat is a colossal tragedy for both peoples . . . [H]e has initiated this recent burst of hateful violence, in an attempt to inspire a raging fury all over the Arab and Islamic world to start a jihad, a holy war, against the Jews.”

Grossman, at the outset of the second Intifada, admitted “there is no symmetry between the concessions the two sides can make . . . Nevertheless, there is no escaping the sense that Arafat was the less bold, less creative, and more stubborn of the two leaders.”

As for Yehoshua, he writes that “We sat down with Arafat, Barak’s offer was generous and then [Arafat] smashed everything to pieces, thinking that only through violence and international pressure could he achieve more.”

These readings of the peace process having failed strictly because of Arafat and the foolishness of the Palestinian people, allowing themselves to be “incited” to violence, are all the more pernicious because they emanate from men considered to be on the left, in the camp of peace. The truth is that the Israeli government spent years doing all it could to discredit the Palestinian leadership as corrupt (fairly rich coming from Israel, hardly a paragon of virtue in this regard), ineffectual, and antisemitic. Such claims coming from the Israeli right would do little to sway liberal Westerners; such statements from men respected throughout Europe and the West have far greater weight.

After establishing all this, which might not convince everyone but is at least a valid point of view, Laor then sets out to attack Oz and Yehoshua in an alarmingly personal and vicious fashion. Their political mistakes are not, for Laor, accidents or incidental; they are, rather, part and parcel of their fundamental dishonesty and even grow out of their lack of talent.

That Laor should be unhappy with Oz’s self-assigned role as Israel’s conscience is perfectly acceptable, but his analysis of Oz’s autobiographical Tale of Love and Darkness is so venomous, its rage so boundless and bitter that at one point it all but spills off the page, as Laor extends his attack on Oz from the body of the book to its footnotes.

Oz is mocked for mentioning “dozens of writers,” including Homer, Ovid, Shakespeare, Goethe, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, etc., because none of the writers referred to are “anonymous,” because none of them are “off the beaten path,” because not a one is “marginal.” Is a taste for non-canonic writers somehow the only way to be certified as an intellectual? For Laor, the books read by Oz’s cultivated German family allow it to be protected by “the same classic canon as that of yesterday and the day before.” He derides Oz because in Tale of Love and Darkness there is “not one original, innovative reading” of the works provided: in an autobiographical account of Oz's parents’ life and marriage he is criticized for not engaging in literary analysis.

Laor writes: “The only thing that comes across is that Oz and his parents belong to the club of readers of German, and of course of Israeli readers, whose world is structured around a reciprocated love of the West.”

Such cheap, base West-bashing leaves one speechless. Is there something wrong with a writer with German origins, brought up in a German environment, partaking of a love of Western culture? Is that a sin? Does that disqualify him either as a writer or a man? For Laor it clearly does. “Oz admires Crime and Punishment but nowhere provides the polyphony in the book,” Laor complains. Polyphonic is not really the first word one would apply to a novel so wrapped inside Raskolnikov’s head, but even if what Laor says is true, who says admiring a writer requires mimicking his style? How many lovers of Louis-Ferdinand Céline use his three dots and slang-ridden style? Does a love of Proust require writing sentences that can last for a page? Oz doesn’t claim to be Dostoevsky; he admires him. Nothing obliges him to write like the Russian, and accusing him for not doing so is revelatory more of Laor’s untrammeled hatred than of any worthwhile critical point.

Nothing Oz does finds forgiveness in Laor’s eyes. His taste for certain classical sentence structure in Hebrew necessarily aligns him with “reactionary or traditional nationalists;” his expressing the truism that people’s spoken language is less rich than written language is nothing but “empathy with the ideal of the Ancient Fathers.” There is no direct line that connects sentence structure to politics, and it’s simplistic and frankly silly for Laor to claim this is the case. Following his logic, Finnegan’s Wake would apparently be considered by Laor the most politically revolutionary work ever written, and the fascist Ezra Pound one of the most revolutionary of poets. There’s almost no point in arguing such absurd notions.

There is an expression for all this in both spoken and written English: sour grapes.

IN FAIRNESS to Laor, in a 2011 article in Haaretz entitled “Get Rid of Zionism,” he credits Oz as being one of only three Israeli intellectuals to advocate complete withdrawal from the Occupied Territories. This volume is the third iteration of The Myths of Liberal Zionism, being a reprint of a 2009 edition, and it’s regrettable that Laor didn’t revise, or at least add a note to, this re-edition.

As for A.B. Yehoshua, for Laor he suffers from inauthenticity as a Sephardi. Laor’s subtlety in this matter is clear in the title of the chapter dedicated to Yehoshua: “Hatred for the East.” Hatred!

Laor, who as near as I can tell is Ashkenazi, arrogates to himself the right to lecture a Mizrakhi Jew on what true Mizrakhi-ness is. Yehoshua’s stated preference is that all Ashkenazi and Sephardi identity be subsumed in a general Israeliness, which Laor labels as the fruit of shame at his origins. That there might be a difference between wishing all Israelis to go beyond their origin and be melded into one nationhood instead of standing firm in their separate identities never occurs to Laor. Losing Mizrakhi accents (like the glottal ayin) is a culturally criminal act for Laor, for the “transition in Israel from ‘Oriental’ to ‘general’ is a transition from life in the Middle East to the Western fantasy of Israelness. This is the swamp in which Yehoshua’s self-hatred developed.”

One would think that someone like Laor, whose courageous anti-Zionist and pro-Palestinian-rights stance would necessarily have led him to being accused of Jewish self-hatred, would be chary of throwing around such charged and unprovable epithets. But, as in the case of Oz, Laor’s aim is to discredit Yehoshua absolutely, totally, and completely. He thinks he is discrediting these nemeses. Instead, he discredits himself and the cause he serves so poorly.

That he does so in defense of the Palestinian cause, one that is absolutely, totally, and completely justified, does not permit such base and degraded conduct on his part.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936 – 1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.