Liberal Diaspora Jewry Afraid to Talk, Afraid to Be Silent

in Britain, for the most part, ordinary people don't care about the complicated story of the Middle East. They don't buy the line that Israel stands on the front line of the war against terror.

LONDON - Last week I wrote a comment piece for the Guardian comparing the Israeli attack on the Gaza aid ships to the British assault on the Exodus in 1947. The comparison between the two events is far from exact, but both involved the running of a naval blockade as a public relations stunt, and both succeeded in dramatically winning over world opinion. In each case a more complex narrative told by the other side went unheard. Israel has failed to convince the public in Europe that those on board included terrorists smuggling arms to Hamas, and that they attacked the Israeli commandos first. As in 1947, rightly or wrongly, the sympathy was with those whose vessels were boarded, not those doing the boarding.

Pro-Palestinian students protest at Manchester University in the U.K., March 4, 2009

Here in Britain, for the most part, ordinary people don't care about the complicated story of the Middle East. They don't buy the line that Israel stands on the front line of the war against terror. They may know of the impoverished city of Sderot and the rocket fire it faced over time, but in the balance sheet of life and death - when, in a densely packed strip of earth blockaded from all directions, children are made to go without food, toys and medicines - human sympathy has little difficulty attaching itself to the victims.

Early on Friday morning I turned on my computer to see if my piece had run. It hadn't. I fired off an e-mail to my editor to ask what had happened, and settled down to read Anshel Pfeffer's June 4 column on, in which he made the case that the Diaspora had failed Israel by not being the friend it needed. The close, loyal, loving friend who can tell you bluntly when you are destroying yourself.

In 2000, I published a novel about pre-state Tel Aviv, and a few years later, a nonfiction book about the months I spent observing the people on one block of Ben Yehuda Street in that same city. I define my political orientation as being on the left - the same left as authors David Grossman, Amos Oz and Etgar Keret, though not the left of historian Ilan Pappe. So Pfeffer's piece spoke to me.

After I finished reading the column, my e-mail pinged. It was the Guardian editor. My piece had been published in the newspaper's print edition, but was being held from the online site until after 8 A.M., when a dedicated moderator to monitor readers' comments would become available. Since the beginning of the week, she told me, the site's supervisors had been dealing with "appalling levels of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia and hatred."

This is the tight place in which liberal Jews in the Diaspora find ourselves, and we can hardly breathe, let alone speak. Wanting to articulate the same critique of Israeli policy as Israeli critics, we find ourselves adding our voices to a condemnation of the Jewish state, which is turning into hate speech here. There is no evil crime of which Israel cannot be accused: It's an outlaw state, a pariah state, a demonic force. Calls for an end to the occupation are now regarded as merely propping up Zionism, an apartheid system. The right of return is sacred; the law of return is a racist abomination.

An Indian novelist I met 18 months ago said he had been warned against me. "She's a Zionist," he had been told, as if I was a carrier of bubonic plague. In Europe, public opinion is tending in one direction only: An anti-Zionist narrative is being articulated in the media, and "soft" public opinion is being dragged along in its wake - especially among people who don't know much about Israel or Palestine, but see best-selling Swedish novelists whose books are dramatized on British TV, and Irish Nobel Peace Prize winners on a mercy mission to aid a civilian population. A one-state solution, just like South Africa? Sounds lovely, they say.

Since the Spanish Civil War, the left has allied itself to a succession of progressive causes. In my lifetime these have been Czechoslovakia, Nicaragua, Northern Ireland, South Africa. They are the struggles according to which you define your politics. Today it is Palestine. In the British media, critical pro-Israel voices are drowned out by pro-Palestinian ones and the angry American Zionist right. Either you're a supporter of apartheid or a self-hating Jew.

In such a climate, it is very difficult to speak at all. To critically support Israel is to discredit your own progressive values - to be a pariah in the artistic and intellectual communities that are your natural home. To feel you can't stay shtum a moment longer and must express outrage is to contribute to an environment in which anti-Semites cherry-pick your words for their own abusive propaganda. To stay silent is the peaceful alternative, but for a writer the one that seems most shameful.


Linda Grant is the author of "When I Lived in Modern Times" (Granta Books, 2000 ) and "The People on the Street: A Writer's View of Israel" (Virago Press , 2006).