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THE DEATH OF TRAGEDY
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Early in his book The Death Of Tragedy, the literary critic George Steiner throws out a challenge to monotheism which, though seemingly casual, opens doors to dark places. ‘Tragedy,’ he writes, ‘is alien to the Judaic sense of the world.’
What makes the Judaic sense of the world unresponsive to tragedy, according to Steiner - that to Jews the ways of God to man are just and rational, and so all that happens happens for a reason - must make the Muslim sense of the world equally unresponsive to tragedy, since to Muslims, too, the ways of God are reasonable and benign. Tragedy, Steiner asserts, arises out of precisely the opposite conviction. To believe in a well-meaning God is to trust that the walls of Jericho or Jerusalem fell for a reason and will rise again when people are returned to the path of virtue. The burning of Troy, on the other hand, was brought about by unfathomable destiny, the wantonness of human nature, the spitefulness not of one God but of many. As a consequence, the fall of Troy is final. All that will ever be left of it is the poem.
Allow, by this reasoning, that Jew and Muslim and Palestinian Christian subscribe alike to the positivity of a non-tragic faith, and it is hard to see how the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians can ever be resolved. As parties to the monotheistic bargain - that, however long it takes, God will reward the deserving - they are locked in an embrace of mutually exclusive optimisms. For the land one God promises his people, is the same land the other God promises his.
It’s idle to wonder whether a hint of the tragic world-view would do something to lower the temperature of expectation on both sides, since the tragic world-view is not a tap you can turn on or off when you live in the heart of God’s whirlwind. But what about the temperature of our expectations, we who are not buffeted by recurring conflict and deferred hope as the Palestinians and the Israelis are, but who seek vicarious embroilment and, yes, love the smell of blood, taking to the streets in our thousands, much like believers ourselves, chanting and waving the banners of simultaneous victimhood and victory?
‘Free Palestine!’ on one placard. ‘From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!’ on another. Are we a chorus or are we participants? Are we peacemakers or flame throwers? Does our presence persuade either party that their God cannot, in the end, deliver on all His promises - and (whisper this) might not in reality have promised anything? Or do we go on postponing that tragic realisation into a forever more fraught future?
How far Zionism represents God’s unbreakable promise to the Jews that there will be an end to their long and ruinous exile, Jews themselves are unable to agree. There is no starting date for Zionism. It was something in the imagination of the Jewish people - a yearning, a fantasy, a prayer, an ache that throbbed the harder the further from home their expulsions took them. As an ideal expressed by mystics and utopists, writers and philosophers, it long precedes the movement given tangible shape by politicians. To locate Zionism’s origins we must leave historical for spiritual time. And to describe its aims we must abandon the idea of any concerted plan brewed by any particular colonist cabal in favour of a thousand individual longings and aspirations, as multitudinous as the night sky.
But towards the end of the nineteenth century, one aspiration turned into a necessity. Sanctuary. Well before the Holocaust, Jews were being massacred in their tens of thousands in every corner of Eastern Europe. The Dreyfus Affair in France proved that even where Jews had lost the look of tinkers and passed into the higher ranks of society, they were not safe. Without their own country they would forever be regarded with suspicion and hate - their very rootlessness the proof that they were an accursed people. Of the savage libels to which Jews have been subject for centuries, one of the most preposterous, far-reaching and despicable, is that by fleeing racism they become racists themselves.
That very claim lies at the heart of the anti-Zionist mantra that Zionism is a racist endeavour, and it is why I will not accept that anti-Zionism distinguishes between a State and a people and so cannot be anti-Jewish. After the Hamas massacre of October 7 not a shred of that distinction remains. What the terrorists were applauded for was the rape, dismemberment and slaughter of Jews. Oh happy day! Now kill more of them.
‘Kill the Jews!’
We could have been in the Middle Ages. But we weren’t. We were here and now, in citadels of higher learning in modern high tech cities.
To call Zionism racist as the University Witless do is to deny the originating Zionist Jews the variety of their ambitions for a better future; it is to deny them difference; it is to deny them idealism; it is to deny them humanity; and it is to refuse their history pity. To reduce Zionism to a single definition - to call it an ‘endeavour’ with that word’s implication of one-tracked, single-minded determination, not just to build a nation but to enslave whoever stood in their way - is no better than reducing the populousness of the idea of Jewishness to the single, hated concept Jew. Sometimes the charge of racism is itself racist.
The tragic view of conflict must encompass all that doesn’t go the way the combatants intended. As well as grief and hopelessness, it encompasses accident and mislaid principle. It encompasses the arguments we make against a course of action and then forsake them for no apparent reason. ‘Let Helen go,’ pleads Hector to his fellow Trojans in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. ‘She is not worth what she doth cost the holding.’ Having said which, he throws up his hands and unaccountably gives his blessing to the war. The tragic view understands that we are impelled hither and thither by contradictory impulses - some well-intentioned, some not, some so irresolute and unformed they can’t be called intentions at all. Troy burns because Troy burns.
I cannot say what difference it would make to the outcome of the long war between Israel and the Palestinians if the idea of the Jew as eternal instigator and colonist - the enabler of all evil - were dropped in favour of something less fantastical and inflammatory. But however bloody and demeaning the conditions of your life, it must be easier to make peace with an antagonist you don’t believe has come from hell to steal what’s yours. As it must soften that antagonist’s stance to have his existential fears understood, and his motives not at every turn impugned.
Is it because they believe wickedness inheres in Jews that critics of present-day Israel cannot take the tragic view and allow that what they call Zionism is not -when it is heartless and unyielding - the fulfilment of a diabolic plan but the disappointment of a dream?
It is not inscribed on the Jewish soul that things should turn out as they have. Accept that accident and error make for catastrophe as much as ill-will and we must weep for where we are. A tragedy of two rights, the great Israeli writer Amos Oz called it. Then later, in embitterment, a tragedy of two wrongs.
I challenge those ready to sign inflammatory letters and march at a moment’s notice, who have their pens at the ready and their placards waiting in the boots of their cars - not to change sides, I don’t ask for the impossible - but to change the vocabulary of engagement. They are not, they say, Anti-Semites. That is now impossible to sustain. You can’t cry ‘Kill the Jews !’ and not be Anti-Semitic. But I am prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt and believe that they never intended to be, just fell into the Swamp of Anti-Semitism as a consequence of reading the wrong paper, visiting the wrong website, going to the wrong university. The tragic view teaches that what we intend is not necessarily what we effect. It teaches, similarly, that while we are not who we march alongside, or sign letters with, it is wise to be mindful of the company we keep.
‘Through the choruses of Euripides,’ argues Nietzsche in the Birth of Tragedy, ‘the common man found his way from the auditorium to the stage.’ Take common to mean easily swayed by simple narrative, quick to feel but slow to understand, lacking knowledge and power of imagination, ignorant despite (or do I mean as a consequence of) attending elite universities - and the description fits those choric marches that go on filing though our cities, hymning a prejudice that hasn’t changed for millennia, defaming - in the name of anti-racism - the most racially defamed people in history. This is to take nothing from the acute agonies suffered by Palestinians over the years of this cruel conflict. But tragedy teaches that you can have sorrow and affliction, without a villain.
This is an altered version of a talk I gave to BBC’s A Point of View
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