Monday, February 25, 2013

Deconstructing the blood-libel charge

For there to exist a blood libel certain key elements must concur. There must exist a reference to some gruesome practice (not necessarily involving blood, which can reasonably not be taken literally, but brutal and disgusting in any event), and it must be asserted that such a practice is carried out by individuals because they belong to a certain group.

But that alone is not enough to configure a blood libel. You can claim that a certain group does outrageous things as part of their traditions and the claim still be true. For instance, ultra-Orthodox Jews in New York have a mohel (ritual circumcisor) lick their newborn sons' blood after their foreskin is cut -- a procedure that has sometimes transmitted herpes to the babies, two of which have died, while another two were left with irreversible brain damage. If I report on this barbaric procedure, it paints the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in a very bad light, but it's not a blood libel, because while the element of blood is present, the element of libel is not.

This has not deterred Zionists and other Israel apologists from describing as blood libels what actually are uncomfortable truths about Israel or the organized Jewish community. Any suggestion that the Israeli army was complicit in the Sabra and Shatila massacres, for instance, is described as a blood libel, even when it is quite reasonable to ask how a paramilitary group could enter a camp without the regular army controlling the zone (i.e., Israel's) giving its consent. (On the other hand, the country of Poland is perpetually chastised for allowing its Jews to be murdered by the Nazis, even when they, unlike the Israelis at Sabra and Shatila, would have been themselves killed if they had tried to stop the massacres. The suggestion that the whole country is partly responsible for the Holocaust is not considered a blood libel in this case.)

In a recent article on a site called Fathom, Norman Geras again makes the blood-libel charge against British writer Caryl Churchill, whose play Seven Jewish children -- A play for Gaza purports to describe the way Israeli Jewish children are raised. In the work, written in the context of the Cast Lead operation of 2008-2009, several parents discuss what to tell their children about that unequal war. Geras:

This play puts into Jewish mouths the view that Palestinians are ‘animals’ and that ‘they want their children killed to make people sorry for them’; but that there is no need to feel sorry for them; that we – the Jews – are the chosen people and that it is our safety and our children that matter; in sum, that ‘I wouldn’t care if we wiped them out’. I will not insist here on how this echoes the blood libel; it is enough that Churchill ascribes to the Jews, seeing themselves as chosen, murderous racist attitudes bordering on the genocidal. On the face of it, one would think, this is a clear candidate for antisemitic discourse.
Churchill, however, disavowed that charge when it came from critics. She did so on the grounds of what one might call an innocent mind. No antisemitism had been intended by her. On the one hand, the blood libel analogy had not been part of her thinking when she wrote the play; on the other hand, those speaking the offending lines in it were not meant to be Jews in general, merely individual Israelis. Churchill is evidently innocent here of any memory of the figure of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, long thought of, despite his being only one character, as putting Jews in a bad light. She is innocent, too, of her own generalising tendencies in naming her play ‘Seven Jewish Children’ and then linking the broad themes of the Jews as victims of genocide and as putative perpetrators of it in their turn.

Note how casually Geras takes it as a given that Churchill's descriptions amount to a blood libel. After misrepresenting Churchill's answers to her critics, Geras compares her text to The Merchant of Venice, in which a true blood libel is made. In the Shakespeare play, the Jewish character of Shylock lends money to a man on condition that he will remove a pound of flesh from the borrower's body if the loan is not paid back. When the debt is not honored, Shylock intends to carry out his barbaric vengeance, until he is shamed in court by a young Christian lady disguised as a lawyer.

There is no historical evidence that Jewish money lenders ever did this because they were Jewish. If there was, it would not be a blood libel. But there is none.

Churchill's assertions, on the other hand, accurately reflect views widely held by Jews, including those whose writings heavily influence other Jews. Some Jewish parents in her play, in fact, want to tell their children that the Palestinians are "animals" and that ‘they want their children killed to make people sorry for them’, as Geras correctly notes. Some other of the Jewish parents in the play won't care if the Palestinians are wiped out. But are these claims outlandish? Let's see.

1) With regard to the view that Palestinians are animals, Moshe Feiglin, who became a Knesset member in the last election,  has said "You can't teach a monkey to speak and you can't teach an Arab to be democratic. You're dealing with a culture of thieves and robbers. Muhammad, their prophet, was a robber and a killer and a liar. The Arab destroys everything he touches." Here we have a direct analogy to animals, as well as other dehumanizing statements, made by a politician from Likud, the party in power in Israel. Also, Ovadia Yosef, the leader of the Sephardi party Shas, has called Arabs "vipers."

But it is not high-profile leaders alone who make such comparisons. The rank-and-file think-tank writer also chips in frequently, in op-eds as well as in position papers, stripping the Arabs of any sign of humanity. In a recent Jerusalem Post story, Martin Sherman wrote:

To employ a rather stark metaphor – and without wishing to impute canine qualities to humans of any kind, if one insists that one’s antagonists are “cuddly poodles” rather than “vicious rottweilers,” one cannot expect others to understand why “rottweiler” action is appropriate.
Clearly, however, Israeli diplomats cannot portray Palestinian society in its true light: as a cruel, brutal society where women are suppressed, gays are oppressed and political dissidents are repressed; a society where journalists are harassed, press freedom is trampled, political opponents are lynched, honor killings of women by their male relatives are endorsed or at least condoned, and homosexuals are hounded.
That must be left to civil society intellectual warriors.

After carefully distancing himself from ascribing to the Arabs the qualities of an attack dog, Sherman proceeds to recommend that Palestinians be treated like attack dogs. He then dehumanizes the Palestinians by describing their society as one of purely barbarian behavior, suppressing any possibility that parents can be caring or that the people can love each other. It's as if someone stated that Israel is a country where Arabs are lynched, civil marriage is not allowed by law, the interior minister says that gays are sick and state-paid rabbis forbid their followers from renting houses to Arabs -- all of which are true, but do not tell the whole story.

2) With regard to the view that the Palestinians ‘want their children killed to make people sorry for them’, it has long been mainstream thinking in Zionist circles. Über-Zionist Alan Dershowitz wrote:

In order to maximize their own civilian casualties, and thereby earn the sympathy of the international community and media, Hamas leaders deliberately fire their rockets from densely populated civilian areas. The Hamas fighters hide in underground bunkers but Hamas refuses to provide any shelter for its own civilians, who they use as "human shields."

Dershowitz (indisputably one of the most influential Jewish writers as regards the I/P conflict) says almost word by word what Churchill makes the Jews say in her play. Geras must be perfectly aware of this article (and of the several ones in a similar vein that Dershowitz has published over the years), yet I don't recall him (or anyone in the organized Jewish community) calling out Dershowitz for that outrageous assertion -- which means it is acceptable to mainstream Jews. How can it be a blood libel to expose it in a play?

3) As for the ‘I wouldn’t care if we wiped them out’ bit, of course this is not a majoritarian position among Jews, but the important consideration here is whether it is mainstream enough to have a Jewish parent in a play (among several ones, not all of them holding the same positions) express it. And it looks like yes. In the recent Israeli attacks on Gaza, Jews from all over Israel flocked to the place to watch the bombing of the strip live. This has attracted attention from several news corporations. The Danish television did a report on it:

Actually, Churchill's play is an understatement. It's not that the Jews in this video wouldn't care if the Palestinians were wiped out. They're clearly enjoying it, helping themselves to coffee from a machine especially brought for the occasion, as if they were on a picnic. One of the Jews, identified as Keren Levy, actually hopes for the city of Gaza to be taken off the ground.

Similar reports have been published by The Wall Street Journal and by Mondoweiss, among others. In the Mondoweiss post, again we see Jews enjoying the destruction of the city:

Scott Roth @scottroth76
2 assholes drinking beer and smoking cigarettes while they watch Gaza get bombed. Fun times!

Now of course this is not majoritarian behavior in Israel, but certain attitudes are so shocking that the mere fact that they are publicly and proudly displayed points to societal tolerance therof. When both neutral media, leftwing sites and rightwing, pro-Zionist newspapers all report on different instances of a practice, it means that it is not marginal -- or at least not enough not to be mentioned as part of the possible reactions of an Israeli parent.

So that I fail to see where exactly the blood libel lies. Churchill describes phenomena that exist and are widely reported, while a libel is basically a false statement about someone. Getting angry at her, rather than at the Jews who adopt such regrettable positions and behaviors, is clearly an instance of shooting the messenger.