The other day I went to the mall in Chatswood to buy some coffee and after that took a wander around the shops. I had been to that mall once or twice before and had noticed a stand near the entrance where beautiful young people were selling beauty products from the Dead Sea. On previous occasions I had studiously ignored them, having no intention of buying their ‘Origin’ mud. But this time I thought I might take the trouble to tell them why.
There were two of them, a young man and a woman. I went up to them and said that I knew where they came from and that was why I wasn’t going to buy what they were selling.
‘But why?’ the beautiful dark-haired woman asked.
‘Because I don’t like what your government is doing.’
That’s when the young man jumped in. ‘All governments are bad. This one is no worse than others.’
‘I’m talking about your government. Not you, but your government,’ I said. ‘I’m talking about what they’re doing to the Palestinians.’
‘If you would come to my country you would see that I am friends with Musselmans. There are Musselmens coming to my house.’
I said that I had been to his country, that members of my family had been pioneers in Israel but I still didn’t like what his government was doing and that was why I wasn’t buying his products. I explained that there was a worldwide movement to boycott them, because of what his government is doing.
The young woman seemed hurt. She didn’t understand at all.
But her partner did. ‘You are sounding “left”. This is not good. If it wasn’t for us, things would not be good for you.’
‘On the contrary,’ I said. ‘I believe that what your government is doing is going to make things a whole lot worse.’
And there I ended it, leaving the young woman looking hurt and confused and the young man defensive and angry as I walked on.
That night I watched the first Four Corners of 2011, with Kerry O’Brien for the first time in the chair. Liz Jackson’s profile of Julia Gillard was a penetrating portrait of our first woman prime minister, but it didn’t tell us much that we didn’t know before. That she’s an excellent parliamentary performer, that she’s above all a pragmatic politician, and that her left alignment has never really meant much. That she likes to ‘get things done’.
What these things are begs a few more questions, but on one thing she was absolutely clear. She described herself as ‘a strong supporter of Israel and proud to be one’. No apologies. And indeed, her response to Jackson’s probe on this issue demonstrated why many have come to distrust her. Though she also supports ‘the peace process and a two-state solution’, her dialogue has been principally with ‘friends from Israel’. She evinced no real understanding of what is happening in Israel/Palestine, any more than the two beautiful young people I spoke with in Chatswood did. But she is cannier than them. In no way is our risk-averse, ill-informed prime minister going to antagonise the Israel lobby.
What to do about this? We could try writing letters to her, but as an ex-public servant I know that only a campaign of hundreds could make any possible difference. We could send her copies of books to enlighten her on the subject but the word from her biographer is that Gillard doesn’t read books. Canadian novelist Yann Martel has just given up trying to induce Stephen Harper, her Canadian counterpart, to read them, which doesn’t augur well for a similar strategy. Suggestions are welcome.
But speaking of books, over the summer I read two intriguing new novels, one about contemporary Israel, the other about Jewishness and the differing attitudes Jews of the Diaspora hold towards it. The first, in translation, was David Grossman’s To the End of the Land. The novel sent shock waves through Israeli society when it was published in 2008, owing in large part to the well-known fact that Grossman’s son Uri was killed two years earlier during Israel’s war in Lebanon. Its Hebrew title, Woman Flees Tidings, is more nuanced, because the novel is neither a polemic nor even, strictly speaking, political fiction. More than anything, it’s a highly complex, sensual love story, and mixed in with all the contradictory feelings Grossman has for his characters (and they for each other) is his deep and intricate passion for Israel, the land.
I found the book somewhat long and overwritten, but nonetheless agree that it’s a masterpiece. The story is simple, if its subject is complex. The mother of a soldier who has volunteered to extend his military service to participate in ‘an operation’ goes ahead with their camping trip on the Israel trail. She takes a former lover with her instead, keeping away from towns and phones, to avoid news of her son’s most probable death. Throughout the journey a history of Israel itself is told, as the two hikers talk about their lives and keep alive the presence of the soldier son.
Grossman has been a leading opponent of the occupation and, much as he loves his country, he takes his readers in one direction: that fighting a constant war to maintain this specifically Jewish state exacts far too much from its people, Jew and Arab alike.
So what about us? The Finkler Question won Howard Jacobson last year’s Man Booker and good luck to him; he’s been writing novels for a very long time and his moment has come. I found it a funny book, but it left me feeling there was something fundamentally nasty about it, even though for the most part I warmed to his characters and lively prose. There’s a long tradition of Jews being funny about ourselves but I can’t remember anything quite so mingy.
Of course, Jacobson takes pot shots at everyone – Gentiles who think Jews have all the fun, good food, good sex etc., and philandering, arriviste Jews who overachieve and neglect their wives and families. All this is made good fun of, and fair enough. But his most savage lashings are reserved for Jews who openly criticise Israel. The organisation ‘ASHamed Jews’, based on our UK counterpart, Independent Jewish Voices, is full of self-haters deluding themselves and seizing opportunities for advancement. Needless to say, it’s not surprising that I bridled at this, or his depiction of a female academic as the stereotypically steely ideologue underneath her sexy exterior.
The point being that his characters, whatever their provenance, are English, not Israelis. Jacobson has said in interviews that he sees no reason for Jews outside Israel to intervene in its affairs – it’s not our country, he says. Which is a pretty convoluted position to take when its very raison d’être is that it exists to protect all of us, wherever we may be. This is exactly what the young man in the Chatswood mall so vehemently asserted and most Jews in the Diaspora happen to still believe.
As for what Julia Gillard believes, it’s neither here nor there. Her adamant, uncritical support for the Jewish state has little to do with belief but everything, it seems, with what she mistakenly sees as politics.