When novelist Ian McEwan finally made up his mind to travel to Israel a decade ago to accept the prestigious Jerusalem Prize – despite many urging him not to, ‘with varying degrees of civility’ – he sought out the advice of an Israeli writer he deeply admired.
Recalling the episode in his acceptance speech, McEwan said wryly: ‘He was very comforting. His opening remark was, Next time get your literary prize from Denmark.’
Indeed, Israel is difficult – to live in, to visit, to talk about, even to make up your mind about.
I came across McEwan’s thoughtful speech three years later, in 2014, while preparing for an interview with a colossal peer, Benjamin Pogrund, who was visiting Cape Town from his home in Jerusalem to promote a book he had just written.
I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect of my first in-the-flesh encounter with Pogrund. Sometimes, legend and life part ways. Would the man match the reputation? And, after all, the storied journalist and outspoken commentator – the author of, among other things, a magisterial biography of Robert Sobukwe, his friend but also a significant figure in the journalistic landscape of his unflinching apartheid-era reportage – was 81 years old.
But I was not disappointed. Pogrund was as sharp, frank, and independent-minded as I had come to know him from his writing.
I revisited these materials this week after reading Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein’s open letter to Anglican Archbishop Thabo Makgoba on the Middle East crisis. I felt instinctively that Goldstein’s letter was ill-judged – and, on reflection, was convinced it was, perhaps chiefly for illuminating exactly the problem Makgoba’s statement sought to address – and which so vividly and eloquently wells from the words of McEwan and Pogrund.
This is, in a phrase, the liberal challenge, the challenge of seeing beyond the tribal rancours, claims and enmities of nationalism, ideology and religious doctrine and perceiving the person, the fellow human being.
Conservatives often ridicule this as wishy-washy ‘bleeding heart’ idealism. I think of it instead as the vanquishing muscle of liberalism. (Not insignificantly, the Jerusalem Prize, inaugurated in 1963 and given to McEwan in 2011, is awarded to a writer whose work best expresses and promotes the idea of ‘freedom of the individual in society’.)
As an Anglican myself, I am not obliged as a matter of canonical duty or any such imperious churchly requirement to subscribe to the statements or sentiments of the leaders of the church. I am not in any event, doubtless to my shame, an especially devout parishioner. But I cherish the Anglicanism that was the oxygen of my upbringing, and an indispensable ingredient of my liberalism. And I recognise in the Archbishop’s statement the resonant humanism of a long line of Anglican leaders in southern Africa who had the courage and conviction to grapple publicly with the testing moral questions of the day.
It is worth noting that Reason is held to be a central pillar of Anglicanism, a challenging if implicit invitation to adherents to traverse regions of doubt and inquiry with a latitude that often earns ribbing from the devotees of other religions whose doctrinal certainties are absolute, yet perhaps confining. I sometimes wonder what sort of Jew, Muslim, or Buddhist I’d have made were it not for the accident of having been born and brought up otherwise. I would suggest that is a very Anglican kind of contemplation. It is also a liberal kind.
It is against this background that I think Chief Rabbi Goldstein is mistaken to believe that calling attention to the plight of Palestinians is an endorsement of Hamas and – risibly, frankly – of Ansar al-Sunna, Al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, and ISIS.
The Nationalists made similar arguments in the 1970s and 1980s, vilifying those who spoke up for the rights and interests of black people as accomplices in terror, disorder and downfall.
Quite rightly, there is understandable sensitivity about waving the term ‘apartheid’ around in the Middle East context (more on that later, from Pogrund).
But I do believe that – on the basis of the Archbishop’s reference (‘our own experiences and the way the Christian faith was manipulated in the service of apartheid meant that we could not keep silent in the face of similar developments elsewhere’) – the Chief Rabbi is mistaken to accuse Anglicans of dabbling in antisemitism, and behaving in a way that ‘brings to mind the Christian blood libels against Jews in medieval Europe’, and to charge the Archbishop of ‘moral confusion’, and being ‘on the wrong side of history and in neglect of your most basic moral duty’.
I think a wrong path looms in the mist when criticism of a country is described as ‘defamation’, and when carefully chosen words are miscast to mean something other.
Goldstein wrote of Makgoba that ‘you attack Israel in very harsh terms, casting it as evil, unjust …’.
In fact, this is what Makgoba wrote: ‘The current state of affairs is unjust and evil. We therefore call for an arms embargo to be placed on all fighting forces in the region, just as there was a United Nations arms embargo on South Africa. We also call for other pressure, including sanctions, to be imposed to bring all the parties around a conference table to negotiate a just peace.’
Personally, I have never been certain of the efficacy of punitive pressure on states. Too often – South Africa’s case in the 1980s probably bears this out – sanctions only make mad people madder, and good people usually suffer more.
But perhaps we could talk about it civilly? If the contest of ideas is important – it is, after all, the only alternative to a contest of arms – it is only worth as much as the consideration and rationality invested in it.
The wasteful alternative is aptly captured in British liberal Maajid Nawaz’s observation that, in debates on the Israel-Palestine conflict, ‘almost everyone, everywhere becomes hysterical, tribal and mutually nasty from the offset. The voices of those seeking a peaceful resolution to this conflict are not only drowned out (for that would be a luxury) but are actively hounded by all sides as insufficiently aware of “the truth”.’
And that’s the trouble with nationalism, and every kind of religious or ideological doctrine on which it rests: it demands choosing one side over another, deciding who is good, who is evil, and thus clarifying who deserves to suffer.
It is never – or ever ought to be – so obvious or so easy for a liberal.
In addition to its insightful examination of the larger strategic implications of the Middle East crisis, my senior colleague Frans Cronje’s recent penetrating analysis achieves a rare thing, taking readers to an unaccustomed place in the discussion of the conflict: a glimpse into the on-the-ground impulses and choices of individuals facing one another across the daunting, unforgiving divide.
In his Jerusalem Prize acceptance speech in 2011, McEwan dwelled on this divide, too:
‘I’d like to say something about nihilism. Hamas, whose founding charter incorporates the toxic fakery of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, has embraced the nihilism of the suicide bomber, of rockets fired blindly into towns, and embraced the nihilism of an extinctionist policy towards Israel. But (to take just one example) it was also nihilism that fired a rocket at the undefended Gazan home of the Palestinian doctor, Izzeldin Abuelaish, in 2008, killing his three daughters and his niece. It is nihilism to make a long-term prison camp of the Gaza Strip. Nihilism has unleashed the tsunami of concrete across the occupied territories. When the distinguished judges of this prize commend me for my “love of people and concern for their right to self-realisation”, they seem to be demanding that I mention, and I must oblige, the continued evictions and demolitions, and relentless purchases of Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem, the process of right of return granted to Jews but not Arabs. These so-called “facts on the ground” are a hardening concrete poured over the future, over future generations of Palestinian and Israeli children who will inherit the conflict and find it even more difficult to resolve than it is today, more difficult to assert their right to self-realisation … A great and self-evident injustice hangs in the air, people have been and are being displaced.
‘On the other hand, a valuable democracy is threatened by unfriendly neighbours, even to the point of extinction by a state that could soon possess a nuclear bomb.’
The ‘urgent question’ was, ‘what is to be done?’
‘Who has the power to act?’
‘And when we pose the question,’ McEwan said, ‘we are also asking, who is to do it, who has the power to act?’
A decade ago, McEwan perceived the dynamics like this: ‘The Palestinians are split, their democratic institutions are weak or non existent, violent jihadism has proved self-defeating. They have been unlucky in their leaders. And yet many Palestinians are ready for a solution, the spirit is there.’
He went on:
‘And Israel? Believe it or not, there is an arithmetic to measure the creative energies of a nation. Look to the editions in this book fair, the numbers translated in and out of Hebrew, or to the number of successful patent applications (astonishing for a small country), or the numbers of scientific papers cited, the breakthroughs in solar energy technologies, the sell-out concerts around the world for the Jerusalem Quartet. The creative energy index is high and so is the capability. But where is Israel’s political creativity? What do national politicians have to compete constructively with Israel’s artists and scientists? Surely not the concrete mixer? Surely not the eviction order? We have all read the documents leaked to Al Jazeera. That was surely not the best Israeli politicians could do, when they succumbed to what David Grossman has called “the temptation of strength”, and casually brushed aside remarkable concessions from the Palestinian Authority? [According to Al Jazeera, the so-called Palestine Papers contained minutes of meetings between representatives from the United States, Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA), and included findings that the PA had offered unprecedented land and security concessions to the Israelis, going further to accommodate Israel than the public had been told.]
‘In this context, the opposite of nihilism is creativity …The new situation demands bold creative political thinking, not a retreat to the sourness of the bunker mentality, or an advance behind yet more concrete.’
Could we discount the English novelist as an outsider who knows too little, or who, perhaps, doesn’t really have to care?
I am not convinced that we can. But let’s consider what Benjamin Pogrund had to say.
When I interviewed him in 2014, he was visiting South Africa to promote his book, Drawing Fire, a book that dismantles – perhaps ‘demolishes’ is a better word – the idea that Israel can sensibly be compared with apartheid.
In the interview, he made no bones about being ‘offended by the lies and unfairness’ of so many of the claims against Israel, finding the debate in South Africa incomprehensibly shallow, ‘ignorant’ and ‘malevolent’. He read ‘disbelievingly’ statements by the ruling ANC, and its partners, the SACP and Cosatu. It was ‘clear that people, eminent people, just don’t know what they’re talking about. Some people are just off their heads’.
But it became obvious to me that there was no risk of mistaking Pogrund for a propagandist.
He was, he explained, ‘in the unusual position of straddling both sides’.
‘It is a tyranny’
‘I lived apartheid, I wrote it, it was my existence,’ he said. ‘Then, in the Middle East, I spent 12 years running a dialogue centre. My work was crossing the lines. Anyone who wants to tell me horrible things that Israel does through the occupation, I can outdo them. I know this stuff. I know how bad it is. It is a tyranny, it is an occupation – those are hard words. But it is not apartheid.’
He spoke matter of factly about discrimination against the country’s 1.6 million Arabs. ‘It’s indisputable, and it’s fought over. There have been changes and I think it’s getting better. But there are right-wingers spewing racism, there are some terrible people, ugly things are said.’
[Elsewhere, Pogrund has written that it is ‘clearly unfair from the victims’ point of view for Israel to give automatic entry to Jews from anywhere while denying the “Right of Return” to Palestinians who fled or were expelled in the wars of 1948 and 1967, and their descendants. This unfairness, to put it at its mildest, is a tragic consequence of war. Again, however, it is not unique to Israel. The same has happened in recent times, often on far greater scales, in Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic, India, and Pakistan, to list but a few parallel situations.’]
Even within the Jewish community, he said, there were near unbridgeable antagonisms – ‘everyone is screaming the place down … it’s not an easy society’.
Yet, none of this convinced him that the ‘apartheid’ argument was anything but a strategy to manufacture a campaign for international sanctions.
He conceded that focused, and mainly financial, sanctions had worked in the case of Syria and Iran, but argued that boycott was chiefly ‘unhelpful’ and usually ineffective.
‘It’s not a principle, but a tactic, and must be applied according to the situation. You are dealing with people who have had centuries of persecution and violent attack, who are totally paranoic and have every reason to be, and who, when threatened with boycott, won’t crumble – they’ll say “Screw you”.’
Nevertheless, he said, ‘there has to be pressure’.
While he believed that ‘constructive engagement’ in South Africa’s case [in the 1980s] was a ‘fraud designed to preserve the status quo’, he increasingly felt this was the best long-term hope for the Middle East.
‘It’s a difficult balancing act, convincing people to make concessions when they are afraid, and the risk lies in giving support without giving them the idea that they can do what they like… because the occupation is monstrous.
‘So there has to be pressure. Of course, ending the occupation won’t bring peace, but it will be a vital step towards it, and the achievement of two states, which I think is the only answer.’
He added: ‘I think Amos Oz has it right when he says the ultimate tragedy is that you have two peoples who have equal claims on the grounds of history, tradition, settlement fighting over the same tiny piece of land. So far, we have won every time, and we are hated for it. But a way has to be found to meet the needs of both peoples.’
Acute personal dimension
For Pogrund, perhaps unlike for McEwan, there is an acute personal dimension to his insights.
‘I have two grandchildren living in Tel Aviv,’ he told me, ‘who are traumatised by the sirens and the booms (of missiles being intercepted and destroyed by Iron Dome missiles). And what about the children in Gaza? How do all these children recover? They grow up filled with fear, or filled with hatred. All they know about each other is that the other side wants to kill them.’
That was seven years ago.
I am sure much has changed since McEwan’s speech, and since my interview with Pogrund. But it seems clear that not enough has changed to take the region beyond the rockets and airstrikes, death and injury, fear, mutual enmity, and continuing vituperation.
The point is, there are good, well-informed people who grasp this.
The conflict impinges horrifically on individuals, on both sides, whose only hope of relief is their political and civil leaders steeling themselves to be more creative, to find ways to reach across the old divides, to break the all too familiar war-is-peace pattern, and to take their people into a new, different future.
It would be easier to achieve in a Denmark, but that shouldn’t be a good enough reason not to try harder to pull it off in Israel – and, even if it’s from afar, not to demonstrate the resolve and the largeness of spirit that could stand as an inspiring emblem of the will to succeed.
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