Both this year and last, Howard Jacobson accepted invitations to be involved in productions on the subject of anti-Semitism: the Anglo-Jewish journalist Jonathan Freedland’s play Jews. In Their Own Words and the comedian David Baddiel’s documentary Jews Don’t Count. Looking at both works, Jacobson observes that they go wrong in similar ways:
Intellectually, one cannot claim to grasp the nettle of Jew-hating—especially among the progressive left, which is Baddiel’s target—if the psychology of its most potent contemporary expression, even more potent than [soccer] fans calling Spurs supporters “Yids,” doesn’t interest you. In the stage play and the television documentary, Freedland and Baddiel allowed themselves to be distracted by the question of whether or not an English Jew bears responsibility for Israel’s heinous misdeeds.
There’s a right and a wrong way of answering that. “We are not our brother’s keeper” is the wrong way. “He is not even our brother” is worse still. Insist your innocence of someone else’s heinous misdeeds and all you do is concede the heinousness. To deny affinity with Israel is to deny affinity with Jewish history. The marauding, child-murdering colonialists of anti-Zionist propaganda . . . are the same hated Jews of 2,000 years ago: separatists, thieves, and bloodsuckers, long before there was an Israeli soldier patrolling the West Bank.
One cannot accuse Jonathan Freedland of indifference to Israel. For years now, his Guardian column has extolled the country’s achievements while scrupulously criticizing “the occupation.” But is his scrupulousness—as, for example, in the matter of just what words Jews. In Their Own Words speak—too one-sided?
For all their differences—Freedland the formidably acute and considered thinker, Baddiel the no less formidable polemicist—their views on Israel converge in the old discomfort. Israel just won’t give them the Jew they want.