Berated by colleagues in the Polytechnic car park for parking in a space not allotted to him, Sefton Goldberg—the hero of my novel Coming From Behind—experiences a sensation he would seem to have been anticipating all his adult life. He is outnumbered, his back against his car. He is Jewish. His tormentors—a handful of disgruntled academics demanding he park somewhere else—are not. Is it here at last, he wonders, “the bliss of persecution”?
Coming From Behind was my first novel. It was a surprise to me that my hero turned out be Jewish. I just blundered in, the way you do with a first novel, marveling at where all this stuff comes from. I did not foresee “the bliss of persecution” line. There Goldberg was, outfaced by colleagues, none of whom liked him much (no surprise there: He didn’t much like himself) whereupon the joke that the pogrom he’d long been expecting was finally to come about in a car park in a West Midlands polytechnic, wrote itself.
At a bar mitzvah soon after the novel’s publication, a delegation of uncles berated me for it. How does it help the Jewish people to say they look forward to being murdered, they asked. By making them laugh, I said. Ah, so I thought the Holocaust was funny? My uncles formed a menacing circle around me. “Here it is again,” I thought, “the bliss of persecution.”
The best Jewish jokes spawn multiplicities of others. “I will make your jokes as numerous as the stars in the sky,” God promised Sarah. She was the one with the sense of humor. Thereafter, the bliss of persecution jokes had no end.
Nonetheless, when I had time to think about my version again, I wondered where it had come from. I wasn’t born into an especially masochistic Jewish family. I didn’t look for trouble at every corner. I didn’t want to be beaten up by antisemitic thugs. And yet there was some truth in all this. Jews are forever waiting for something bad to happen.
If I felt warmly disposed to Sefton—the first apocalyptic Jew I wrote about—it was because he knew himself well enough to suspect he was preposterous; if I felt less kind to some of those later Jews I designated as ASHamed, it was because they didn’t. And yet I acknowledge a kinship.
I haven’t been on any of the marches for Palestine that are now a regular part of a London weekend. Every Saturday in England is now Vilify Israel Shabbes. I meet the marches half-way by not calling them Hate Marches. I’d like them to meet me half-way by not calling themselves Peace Marches.
There’s an inevitable carnivalesque quality about a march. The banners, the chanting, the optimism of numbers, the holiday from care and reality. On a march, even the lowliest become kings for a day and briefly, the overturning of the entire old order seems possible.
Exhilarating, these Shabbes-busters must be, if you are a Palestinian. But what if you are a Jew? I don’t mean a Jew watching on the news, I mean a Jew marching in solidarity with people not all of whom like Jews. In these cataclysmic times, aren’t anti-Zionist Jews, too, getting a little something of what they want? The prospect of the end of Israel, say. How many Jewish anti-Zionists were among those dancing in the streets in the immediate aftermath of the Oct. 7 massacre, I can’t pretend to know, but there were certainly a number who got high on it discursively.
Is it exhilarating, if you are a Jewish anti-Zionist, to imagine that the thing you’ve been anticipating with perverse glee is getting closer every hour? “I want to devote my energies to delegitimizing the State of Israel,” the Jewish Israeli historian Ilan Pappé stated in a lecture at the University of Amsterdam in 2014. In a leader of Hamas that ambition would be unexceptionable. In a Jewish-born Israeli one can only guess at the reasons for the peevishness. “Now vee may perhaps to begin,” says Portnoy’s shrink in the final line of Portnoy’s Complaint. Most tergiversations go back to how loved we didn’t feel in early childhood. Could the name be a clue? Pappé. What was that something the older Ilan feels the younger Ilan didn’t get?
Whatever the answer, we must assume that, with the numbers of the gullible sharing his miserabilist fixation, he’s getting it now. As are, presumably, those other Jewish anti-Zionists who are so sedulous in making the case against Israel’s existence. I don’t know how those who march comport themselves on Vilify Israel Shabbes, whether on the streets of London or elsewhere—I would hope they do so soberly, as befits the funeral cortege they want every march to be—but on the page and in interviews they commonly rejoice at the imminence of their homeland’s demise, or at least in the conclusive arguments they believe themselves to have made toward it. Each declares an epiphanous, anti-Eureka moment when, actually or figuratively, they stand on Israeli soil and come to the conclusion that it’s stolen. Considering most of them are historians, they are cavalier about the fact that history is the movement of ideas and events through time. Yet for their criticism to be as damning as they need it to be, Zionism must appear fully formed in all its cruelty, as impervious to time as it is to the imploring of the United Nations, a dead weight born of nothing but its own ill will. Proclaims Ha’aretz journalist, Gideon Levy, “A people came to a populated land and took it over. That’s the core of everything.”
The nursery language of folk tale fulfils a double purpose. It empties history of time and empties motive of complexity. Menacing in their anonymity and blind cupidity, “a people” might as well have come from an evil planet. With the simplifications of myth on his side, Gideon Levy feels empowered to speak like an apprentice prophet. “Those who wanted the Jewish state and Zionism—it’s too late, friends. If you want the Jewish state, you should have pulled out of the occupied territories a long time ago. You didn’t do it. Too bad for you.”
Here they are at last, then—the last days of Zion.
And here he is, another satisfied, disaster-seeking Jew.
Amos Oz, the Israeli novelist and founding member of Peace Now, also felt his country should have pulled out of the occupied territories, though his analysis of how the occupation came about and the difficulties of extrication was more subtle than Gideon Levy’s. Until the colonialist-settler paradigm became the one and only model for reading events, leaving Israel high and dry as the last exponent of its evils and every Zionist a collaborator, Oz enjoyed great favor with the literary left. Both sides were in the right, and then both sides were in the wrong, he reasoned, which felt like an acceptance of some responsibility at least.
But, looked at a second time, it wasn’t enough. Both sides equally at fault sounded too much like tragedy, and tragedy eschews blame. And, without being able to apportion blame to one party only, anti-Zionism is toothless. No account of Israel that doesn’t concede turpitude from the moment the first of those “people” from nowhere arrived to steal and plunder will suffice. Oz’s exquisite descriptions of his family’s life in pre-War of Independence Jerusalem in A Tale of Love and Darkness are routinely dismissed as sentimental falsifications by anti-Zionists who cannot bear a story, let alone one in which the face of Zionism was once benign. Whatever moves or changes threatens the fixity of the only truth they want to hear. And whatever evokes lives lived in ambivalence denies the absolutism of discourse.
“The answer to racism is to denounce it,” wrote Jacqueline Rose in The Last Resistance, “not to flee behind a defensive, self-isolating barrier of being—and being only—a Jew.”
If you want to know why a novel will always surpass a treatise as a guide to living, here’s the evidence. Imagine telling the Jews of Kishinev not to flee but to stay and denounce the racism of the rioters crying “Kill the Jews!”
“Gentlemen,” I hear the rabbi remonstrating with the advancing mob ... But after that I hear nothing.
Does Jacqueline Rose really consider death by lynch mob preferable to flight, or the dash for safety to be an act of narcissism? Perhaps she has an essay somewhere among her papers teaching Jews the right way of accepting martyrdom or, if they must run away, how to do so nondefensively.
So here’s a question. Does not Pappé’s ambition to “delegitimize” an entire nation of Israeli Jews, taken alongside Gideon Levy’s designation of those same Jews as a faceless, once-and-for-all predatory people and Jacqueline Rose’s unwillingness to conceive a living Jew in a situation of mortal peril, allow of a plausible presumption of genocide?
What an innocent my Sefton Goldberg appears now, thinking the threat to his existence would come from embittered gentiles. But I forgive him. This was 1983. He couldn’t have known that, only 40 years later, those hell-bent on tearing down the Temple would be Jews.