'England's made a Jew of me in only eight weeks," says Nathan Zuckerman on the last page of Philip Roth's The Counterlife. It is not meant to be a compliment. What makes a Jew of Zuckerman is the "strong sense of difference" the English induce in him, a "latent and pervasive" anti-Semitism, rarely rampantly expressed except for a "peculiarly immoderate, un-English-like Israel-loathing."
At the time--The Counterlife was published in England in 1987--Zuckerman's account of Anglo-Jewish relations struck an English-born Jew like me as a mite thin-skinned. It was possible that an American Jew detected what we did not, but more likely that he detected what was not there. Whatever the truth of it, a comfortable existence was better served by assuming the latter. We all had our own tales of anti-Semitism to tell--my grandmother's headstone, for example, had just been defaced with a swastika in a skinhead raid on a Jewish cemetery in Manchester--but mainly they were isolated, low-level acts of idle vandalism or reflexes of minor intolerance, more comic than alarming, and not personal, however you viewed them. Apart, that is, from the Israel-loathing, but then that wasn't--was it?--to be confused with anti-Semitism.
Twenty years on, it is difficult to imagine Nathan Zuckerman lasting eight days in England, let alone eight weeks. There is something in the air here, something you can smell, but also, in a number of cases, something more immediately affronting to Jews. It is important not to exaggerate. Most English Jews walk safely through their streets, express themselves freely, enjoy the friendship of non-Jews, and feel no less confidently a part of English life than they ever have. Organizations monitoring anti-Jewish incidents in England have reported a dramatic increase after Gaza: the daubing of slogans such as "kill the jews" on walls and bus shelters in Jewish neighborhoods, abuse of Jewish children on school playgrounds, arson attacks on synagogues, physical assaults on Jews conspicuous by their yarmulkes or shtreimels. But, while these incidents ought not to be treated blithely, they are still exceptional occurrences.
And yet, in the tone of the debate, in the spirit of the national conversation about Israel, in the slow seepage of familiar anti-Semitic calumnies into the conversation--there, it seems to me, one can find growing reason for English Jews to be concerned. Mindless acts of vandalism come and go; but what takes root in the intellectual life of a nation is harder to identify and remove. Was it anti-Semitic of the Labour politician Tam Dalyell to talk of Jewish advisers excessively influencing Tony Blair's foreign policy? Was it anti-Semitic of the Liberal Democrat Baroness Tonge to refer to the "financial grips" that the pro-Israel lobby exerts on the world? Such allusions to a pro-Israel conspiracy of influence and wealth, usually accompanied by protestations of innocence in regard to Jews themselves--"I am sick of being accused of anti-Semitism," Baroness Tonge has said, "when what I am doing is criticizing Israel"--have become the commonplaces of anti-Israel discourse in the years since Philip Roth wrote The Counterlife. And, whatever their intention, their gradual effect has been to normalize, under cover of criticism of Israel, assumptions that 50 years ago would have been exclusively the property of overt Jew-haters. The peculiarly immoderate Israel-loathing that Roth remarked upon in 1987 is now a deranged revulsion, intemperate and unconcealed, which nothing Israel itself has done could justify or explain were it ten times the barbaric apartheid state it figures as in the English imagination.
Demonstrators against Israel's operation in Gaza carried placards demanding an end to the "massacre" and the "slaughter." There was no contesting this rhetoric of wanton destruction versus helpless innocence. Hamas rockets counted for nothing, Hamas's record of endangering its own civilian population counted for nothing, Amnesty reports were cited when they incriminated Israel but ignored when they incriminated others. Whatever was not massacre was not news, nor was it germane. The distinguished British film director Ken Loach dismissed a report on the rise of anti-Semitism across Europe as designed merely to "distract attention" from Israel's military crimes. An increase in anti-Semitism is "perfectly understandable," Loach said, "because Israel feeds feelings of anti-Semitism." Scrupulously refusing the Holocaust-Gaza analogy, Robert Fisk, writing in The Independent a few weeks ago, nonetheless argued that "a Palestinian woman and her child are as worthy of life as a Jewish woman and her child on the back of a lorry in Auschwitz"--at a stroke reinstating the analogy while implying that Jews need to be reminded that not only Jewish lives are precious. And a columnist for the populist newspaper The Daily Mirror has taken this imputation of callousness a stage further, writing of the "1,314 dead Palestinians temporarily sat[ing] Tel Aviv's bloodlust."
Coincidentally, or not, a ten-minute play by Caryl Churchill--accusing Jews of the same addiction to blood-spilling--has recently enjoyed a two-week run at the Royal Court Theatre in London and three performances at Dublin's Abbey Theatre. Seven Jewish Children declares itself to be a fund-raiser for Gazans. Anyone can produce it without paying its author a fee, so long as the seats are free and there is a collection for the beleaguered population of Gaza after the performance.
Think of it as 1960s agitprop--the buckets await you in the foyer and you make your contribution or you don't--and it is no more than the persuaded speaking to the persuaded. But propaganda turns sinister when it pretends to be art. Offering insight into how Jews have got to this murderous pass--the answer is the Holocaust: we do to others what others did to us--Seven Jewish Children finishes almost before it begins in a grotesque tableau of blood-soaked triumphalism: Jews reveling in the deaths of Palestinians, laughing at dying Palestinian policemen, rejoicing in the slaughter of Palestinian babies.
Churchill has expressed surprise that anyone should accuse her of invoking the blood libel, but, even if one takes her surprise at face value, it only demonstrates how unquestioningly integral to English leftist thinking the bloodlust of the Israeli has become. Add to this Churchill's decision to have her murder-mad Israelis justify their actions in the name of "the chosen people"--as though any Jew ever yet interpreted the burden of "chosenness" as an injunction to kill--and we are back on old and terrifying territory. And this not in the brute hinterland of English life, where swastikas are drawn the wrong way round and "Jew" is not always spelled correctly, but at the highest level of English culture.
Again it is important not to exaggerate. Seven Jewish Children has not by any means received universal acclaim. Parodies of it seem to turn up on the Internet almost every day. But there is no postulate so far-fetched that it can't smuggle itself into even the best newspapers as truth. The eminent Guardian theater critic Michael Billington, for example, took Churchill's words in the spirit in which they were uttered, believing that she "shows us how Jewish children are bred to believe in the 'otherness' of Palestinians." Jewish children, note. But then it's Jewish children whom Caryl Churchill paints as brainwashed into barbarity. Without, I believe, any intention to speak ill of Jews, and innocently deaf to the odiousness of the word "bred" in this context, Billington demonstrates how easily language can sleepwalk us into bigotry.
The premise of Seven Jewish Children is a fine piece of fashionable psychobabble that understands Zionism as the collective nervous breakdown of the Jewish people; instead of learning the humanizing lesson of the Holocaust--whatever that might be, and whatever the even greater obligation on non-Jews to learn it too--Jews vent their instability on the Palestinians in imitation of what the Nazis vented on them. This is a theory that assumes what it offers to prove, namely how like Nazis Israelis have become. Furthermore, it dispossesses Jews of their own history, turning the Holocaust into a sort of retrospective retribution, Jews being made to pay the price then for what Israelis are doing now. Clearly, this exists at a more extreme end of the continuum of willed forgetting than Holocaust denial itself, its ultimate object being to break the Jew-Holocaust nexus altogether. Let us no longer deny the Holocaust, let us rather redistribute the pity. If there is a victim of the Holocaust today, it is the people of Gaza.
Given how hard it is to distinguish Jew from Israeli in all this, the mantra "It is not anti-Semitic to be critical of Israel" looks increasingly disingenuous. But there is no challenging it, not even with such eminently reasonable responses as, "That surely depends on the criticism," or "Calling into question an entire nation's right to exist is not exactly 'criticism.'" Nor is the distinction between Israeli and Jew much respected where the graffitists and the baby bullies of the schoolyard do their work. But, in the end, it is frankly immaterial how much of this is Jewhating or not. The inordinacy of English Israel-loathing--ascribing to a country the same disproportionate responsibility for the world's ills that was once ascribed to a people--is toxic enough in itself. The language of extremism has a malarious dynamic of its own, passing effortlessly from the mischievous to the unwary, and from there into the bloodstream of society. And that's what one can smell here. Infection.
Howard Jacobson is the author, most recently, of The Act of Love.