War is not the answer. Ever
PERHAPS IT was my choice of holiday reading. The book that dominated my summer break was Howard Jacobson’s exceptional and unsettling new novel, simply titled “J”. The word “Jew” does not appear, yet that very absence is the book’s haunting theme. He depicts a world in which a people once present appear to have been erased, though exactly “what happened, if it happened” — in the novel’s repeated phrase —is left vague, especially to those living a couple of generations later.
It is dark and disturbing and unlike anything Jacobson has written before. Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, it would not be a shock if it brought the second victory in four years for Britain’s greatest Jewish writer.
But it left me unnerved. Not least because the mood I’d left behind was already anxious. Anti-Jewish sentiment has surged in Europe, while in Britain the Community Security Trust reports that July was the second worst month for antisemitic incidents in 30 years.
For many, the apparently minor flap over the Tricycle Theatre’s hosting of the UK Jewish Film Festival felt like an ominous tipping point. The Tricycle’s insistence that the festival was only welcome if it cut all financial ties with the Israeli Embassy — a decision now, thankfully, reversed — seemed a realisation of long-held Jewish fears. Did this mean that Jewish participation in the cultural life of the country — and, remember, this was a festival of Jewish, not Israeli, cinema — would now be conditional on our first issuing a public disavowal of Israel?
I understand these anxieties and share some of them: I found the implication of the initial Tricycle move chilling. But we need to be careful not to lose our bearings. For one thing, strained though these times are, we are not the main victims here. That unwanted distinction belongs to the dead and wounded, some of them Israeli, the overwhelming majority Palestinian, with vast numbers of the latter civilians. Anxious though we are, and vigilant as we must be, about antisemitism, we should not delude ourselves that we are the main story. We are not.
Indeed, when we obsess over, say, excessive or biased media coverage of the Gaza conflict, it can look like displacement activity — as if we are
The Tricycle was a warning of looming pariah status
trying to avoid what matters most, and what is most uncomfortable. Namely, that Israel is in a strategically calamitous situation.
For the third time in five years it has attempted to solve the problem of its hostile Gaza neighbour through overwhelming force, pounding the Strip day after day. Each time it fails. The rockets resume. Judged purely in terms of effectiveness, this policy is an undeniable failure.
That’s even before you consider the morality of taking action that, as a matter of certainty, you know will kill hundreds of civilians, including children, guilty of nothing. Blame Hamas if you like for firing from populated areas, but when Israel pulls the trigger it shares in the moral responsibility. And for those who prefer self-interest to morality, just assess the damage these now-regular poundings of Gaza are having on Israel’s standing around the world. In that regard, the Tricycle was a warning of the pariah status that is looming.
All this arises from a fundamental misconception: the belief that Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians is capable of a military solution. It is not. The only answer is political, which means negotiation and compromise — even with the bloodiest adversaries.
The painful truth is that Israel is on the wrong track — and doesn’t seem to have a clue how to get off. Jonathan Freedland is executive editor, Opinion, of the Guardian