In Britain, the Jewish Literary Volcano Is Stirring

March 8 2019

English Jewry, writes Howard Jacobson, has a reputation for its lack of interest in literature or high culture. But this year’s annual Jewish Book Week, which concludes this Sunday, suggests that the reputation is undeserved:

[I]t’s with no small degree of satisfaction that Anglo-Jewry cocks a snook at its critics when London Jewish Book Week comes around at the end of February and sells out of tickets the minute it puts them on sale. It’s accepted wisdom that you can’t get an audience in London for anything literary. . . .

I’m not old enough to have gone to its first events in the early 1950s. I imagine them to have been diffident and sedate. They weren’t much bolder when I started going in the 1980s. Asked to choose their favorite Jewish book ever, an audience overwhelmingly went for The Diary of Anne Frank. Asked to choose their second they picked the diary of Anne Frank’s sister, and so on through the whole family. So what about living Jews? No interest? Yes, yes, of course. But were such books being written?

Well if they weren’t then, they are now. What James Joyce discovered a hundred years ago—that if you really want a hero for all time, he has to be a Jew—is enjoying renewed momentum. Readers who come to Jewish Book Week haven’t given up on Anne Frank, but in our troubled, not to say apocalyptic times, the experience of contemporary Jewry, life as lived by Jews or affected by Jews, life in the face of Jews, life as it wouldn’t be but for Jews, life as told in Jewish stories, life that only the Jewish spirit of bleak play can reach, life that is particularly Jewish by virtue of having no Jew in it, matters to them just as much or more.

Jewish Book Week is not a revelation to English Jews; it’s a reminder. The volcano might not have been erupting but it never was extinct. . . . Deep below the surface of things, in the germinating dark, the English Jews are stirring. We could choose to be cheered by that, or we could remember that Jews are civilization’s weather vane, and bad stuff is on the way.

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More about: Arts & Culture, British Jewry, Howard Jacobson, Jewish literature


Who Changed the Term “Nakba” into a Symbol of Arab Victimization?

April 19 2019

In contemporary Palestinian discourse, not to mention that of the Palestinians’ Western supporters, the creation of the state of Israel is known as the Nakba, or catastrophe—sometimes explicitly compared with the Holocaust. The very term has come to form a central element in a narrative of passive Palestinian suffering at Jewish hands. But when the Syrian historian Constantin Zureiq first used the term with regard to the events of 1948, he meant something quite different, and those responsible for changing its meaning were none other than Israelis. Raphael Bouchnik-Chen explains:

In his 1948 pamphlet The Meaning of the Disaster (Ma’na al-Nakba), Zureiq attributed the Palestinian/Arab flight to the stillborn pan-Arab assault on the nascent Jewish state rather than to a premeditated Zionist design to disinherit the Palestinian Arabs. “We [Arabs] must admit our mistakes,” [he wrote], “and recognize the extent of our responsibility for the disaster that is our lot.” . . . In a later book, The Meaning of the Catastrophe Anew, published after the June 1967 war, he defined that latest defeat as a “Nakba,” . . . since—just as in 1948—it was a self-inflicted disaster emanating from the Arab world’s failure to confront Zionism. . . .

It was only in the late 1980s that it began to be widely perceived as an Israeli-inflicted injustice. Ironically, it was a group of politically engaged, self-styled Israeli “new historians” who provided the Palestinian national movement with perhaps its best propaganda tool by turning the saga of Israel’s birth upside down, with aggressors turned into hapless victims, and vice-versa, on the basis of massive misrepresentation of archival evidence.

While earlier generations of Palestinian academics and intellectuals had refrained from exploring the origins of the 1948 defeat, the PLO chairman Yasir Arafat, who was brought to Gaza and the West Bank as part of the 1993 Oslo Accords and was allowed to establish his Palestinian Authority (PA) in parts of those territories, grasped the immense potential of reincarnating the Nakba as a symbol of Palestinian victimhood rather than a self-inflicted disaster. In 1998, he proclaimed May 15 a national day of remembrance of the Nakba. In subsequent years, “Nakba Day” has become an integral component of the Palestinian national narrative and the foremost event commemorating their 1948 “catastrophe.”

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More about: Arab World, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, New historians, Yasir Arafat