J.K. Rowling recently joined a number of British intellectuals who refused to support a cultural boycott of Israel. In her defense, she made an ethical case for continuing to share art and literature with Israel. But she also made Israelis sound like Death Eaters, the pure blood supremacist followers of the evil Lord Voldemort, and Jewish Harry Potter fans should take offense to this.
I’m about as big a Potter fan as they come. Perhaps my strongest credential is the lightning bolt tattoo on my shoulder. But Rowling broke my heart the other day when she compared Israel to Voldemort’s Death Eaters, a group of murderous dark wizards who seek to destroy all non-magical people. As a child, when I read the Potter books, I imagined an allegory of good and evil, of fascism and democracy. Like many others, I always envisioned the Death Eaters as Nazi soldiers, Voldemort as Hitler, and the Jewish people as Muggleborns.
Now, hearing Rowling compare the Israeli government to a group of murderous extremists, I can’t help but feel offended. Rowling’s work always helped me understand the violent, chaotic real world. “We’ve all got both light and dark inside us,” she writes in Order of the Phoenix. “What matters is the part we choose to act on. That’s who we really are.” The characters in Harry Potter are complex; almost all of them are capable of love, violence, hatred, loyalty – most, a combination of all these. Now, I’m afraid Rowling has let her fictional categories usurp the beautiful nuance of human motivation in her books. By alluding to Israelis as Death Eaters, she’s letting her terms get away with her instead of letting the story speak for itself.
I have the utmost sympathy for the plight of the Palestinian people, and Netanyahu’s government has undeniably made many mistakes. But I also believe the Palestinians have been made into a scapegoat by their own government, sacrificed and hidden behind for political gain. But this is not an essay about politics or victimhood. I just disagree with the “many” readers who, according to Rowling, wrote to the author comparing Israelis to Death Eaters, a comparison it seems she condones. The Nazis attempted to wipe out several ethnic groups through mass cleansing and slaughter. Jewish Israelis never sought this fate for the Palestinian people or Arab-Israelis. For this reason, it’s a truly unfair and dangerous comparison that Rowling should do everything in her power to repudiate.
There is no secret gathering of high-powered Israeli Jews, sitting around a table plotting the downfall of the Palestinian people. The enemy is not a hideous villain who murders for pleasure. The enemy is xenophobia, it is fear inspired by terrorism. The enemy is hatred for the other, stewed over generations of mutual blame. Israelis are not evil, Arabs are not evil, we gain nothing from accusing each other of acting as the villain, and it must stop.
Rowling says in her essay that the most dangerous aspect of an Israel boycott “means refusing to engage with some of the Israelis who are most pro-Palestinian.” This is quite unfair; a cultural boycott of Israel would deprive the rest of the world of invaluable art from the region, pro-Palestinian or not. She’s completely right that only understanding creates peace. But we can’t choose what we hear once we decide to listen to one another. Once we open the Pandora’s box of a country’s culture, everything surfaces. Ms. Rowling, this means we may hear some Zionist narratives that deserve to be heard as much as any pro-Palestinian view.
Cultural boycott is simply not the way to go. Silencing the voice of a people is an action historically taken by totalitarian regimes – i.e. North Korea, Cuba, and Iran. Economic boycotts are a different matter. If you’re a British citizen and you feel passionately that the Israeli government is committing an atrocity, fair enough. Put your money where your mouth is, don’t buy your girlfriend a Soda Stream this Christmas, deny the Netanyahu government your tax dollars, and thereby stick it to the man. But the poets, musicians, rappers, painters, novelists, muralists, designers, television producers of Israel – they are not to blame for the plight of the Palestinian people.
Cultural boycotts are not what free societies do. As Rowling says herself, no good comes out of limiting the exchange of information. In fact, it’s something Voldemort would do himself. Before Death Eaters took over the Hogwarts School in Book 7, young witches and wizards studied the history and culture of non-magical people in the class called “Muggle Studies.” After the dark takeover, Voldemort turned that same class into a training legion for students to target and destroy Muggles. In her typical brilliance, Rowling holds up a mirror to an eternal human fact: when you want to punish an entire people, you cut off their history, culture, art and writing. When you want to punish a government, though, you’re better off hitting them in their wallet.
Rowling draws the following metaphor in her essay on Twitter. In the final Potter book, readers learn that when Harry was an infant, Dumbledore went to a windy hilltop at nightfall to meet with Severus Snape, then a Death Eater. They struck a deal that would end up bringing about the downfall of Voldemort. Here, Rowling claims that Western nations should, like Dumbledore, meet their enemies (i.e. Netanyahu’s government) at the hilltop, maintaining that “certain channels of communication…always remain open.” I couldn’t agree more. But history complicates the simple metaphor she attempts to create. In the 70 plus years of Israel’s existence, the roles of Dumbledore and Snape have been played by Yitzak Rabin, Bill Clinton, Shimon Peres, Tony Blair, Yaaser Arafat, Netanyahu, Fatah, Hamas, Ariel Sharon. So many leaders – pure, corrupt, however you view them – have climbed the hilltop to seek peace. As much as our inner child wants a black and white version of good and evil, the shades of grey are infinite in the Middle East. We can’t draw a simple literary analogy to say who is right and who is wrong. In fact, it’s dangerous even to try.