If Only J.K. Rowling Would Read a Shabazi Poem

In October 2015, the UK’s The Guardian published a letter signed by J.K. Rowling and 150 signatories who refused to join the cultural boycott against Israel. My first instinct was to jump for joy, but then came the flood of Tweets, and articles quoting the hordes of angry fans who could not believe that their beloved author had a positive stance towards Israel. They were horrified, they went absolutely ballistic and she in turn responded to them with an appeasing explanation of her decision to do so. But there was something that disturbed me, and a certain undertone to Rowling’s words that left me feeling decidedly uncomfortable.

When I learned of the cultural boycott of Israel by British artists through Artists for Palestine UK, I immediately read the list of signatories to see what these geniuses had to say. They explained that a cultural boycott would encourage dialogue about Israel and the Palestinians in the wider cultural and creative community. However, when I delved deeper into each and every statement, I didn’t see anything encouraging, in fact, I saw much of the same finger-pointing and one-sided resentment towards Israel. The same old malevolent kernel adopted by those who identify as liberals, and their words sickened me, and as a side, this also meant that in my world there would be at least 700 fewer artists to explore. I’m just not prepared to support anyone with such outright bias against Israel, and when you read their reasons for penalizing Israel you quickly realize that you’re dealing with a bunch of hypocrites for the most part, some are complete idiots, and others are outright haters.

So when Rowling refused to join the boycott, I thought, oh wow, she understands, she knows better; she’s not one of the phonies and I like her all the more for this bold support of a very unpopular country and a view that is in complete contrast to her own countrymen’s long-standing bias against Jews and Israel. Although, they would have you believe that theirs is a history of tolerance, but, when it comes to Jews, it’s different, and always has been. All you have to do is read some of those responses by her fans; it’s unparalleled to anything else that I had seen before, even though usually anything to do with Israel is hate-filled and an aberration of a fair and objective argument.

It was the same old anti-Israel rhetoric over and over again, and there was the routine practice of fixating on words such as “Nazis” and “Apartheid” to describe Israel and its government. When the word “Israel” is replaced with “Jews” the comments have a funny way of bringing up the good old stuff from times past. It never changes.  If you’re one of those individuals who lives with their head buried in the sand, all you have to do is log onto CST’s (Community Security Trust) site to read about the statistics of anti-Semitic incidence in England to realize that there’s a crisis brewing. And whenever Israel engages in military action against the Palestinians, those numbers swell overnight.

Here’s a prime example of some of the views that you find among the list of signatories: “… dialogue is realistically possible between a largely unarmed and imprisoned people whose land is disappearing before its eyes, and the heavily weaponized (sic) state that’s in the process of taking it? Sounds a bit like the “dialogue” that the Native Americans were offered en route to being liquidated by another group of settlers. Brian Eno, composer.

“If our government insisted on Israel’s compliance with international humanitarian law, there would be no need for a boycott.” David McDowall, writer.

I know, trust me, not worth my breath when Eno, for example, thinks that Israel’s actions are comparable to America’s treatment of its Native American population. And McDowall assumes that Israel is breaking international law while he blatantly ignores Israel’s neighbors and their noncompliance with international humanitarian law. It’s apparent that Eno does not regard Jews as the native population of Israel, and like many others (at least 700 on that list) he thinks that we just planted ourselves in Israel one day, out of the blue, just as the white settlers had done in America.

Vilifying Israel is the norm in England, so when Rowling went against the grain and refused to sign the cultural boycott, she was heavily criticized. As a result of the chiding remarks against her, she explained that she too was not a fan of Israeli policy, but it wasn’t as subtle as that really. It didn’t mirror the way I would criticize a certain policy or action. And like many others before her, she found it necessary to qualify her limited support of Israel. She responded to her fans by way of Twitter and defended her position in various publications.

“The Palestinian community has suffered untold injustice and brutality. I want to see the Israeli government held to account for that injustice and brutality.”

“Boycotting Israel on every possible front has its allure. It satisfies the human urge to do something, anything, in the face of horrific human suffering.”

“Believing in Palestinian rights & deploring occupation, I fear cultural boycott targets those most critical of govt inside Israel & those views should be heard.”

Rowling explained that cultural boycotts are divisive, discriminatory, and counterproductive. She reiterated that not all Israelis had voted for Netanyahu and therefore it is not necessary to punish collectively the entire nation for all his policies and wrongdoings. She deplores the actions of Netanyahu but does not believe that a boycott of artists will remove him from power.

Again, I know, mind-boggling that she would talk about the boycott of Israel as divisive and discriminatory yet she’s gone out of her way to single out Netanyahu. She ignores the failings of Arab leaders, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. She also ignores Mahmoud Abbas’ book titled “The Other Side: The Secret Relationship Between Nazism and Zionism,” based on his doctoral dissertation. In her defense, she has taken on other causes, she’s not fixated on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict alone, but her actions after the fact, the way she responded, including her analogies to Snape — a fictional, evil character in her books who chooses to swap evil for good — invites more examination of her words.

Also, Rowling has mentioned that Mahmoud Darwish’s poetry had inspired her, she describes him as a paragon of the Palestinian community: “The true human cost of the Palestinian conflict was seared upon my consciousness, as upon others’, by the heart-splitting poetry of Manhmoud Darwish.”

The problem is that Rowling speaks of dialogue and in the same breath quotes Darwish, but Darwish’s poetry does not promote dialogue in the least and his words are divisive and counterproductive if anything. He’s regarded as Palestine’s national poet but lived most of his life abroad while using art to portray a distorted picture of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Why would Rowling present such a convoluted image of Israel? She admonishes Israel and then expects to gain support for dialogue. If I didn’t know much about Israel and then read what she had to say about its policies and treatment of Palestinians, I would harbor terrible resentment towards Israel and Israelis. Israelis had voted Netanyahu into office after all . . .

What struck me as odd after reading these artists’ views on Israel is how one never hears the British bleeding hearts refer to their own history of bias and hate towards Jews. It’s selective memory at its best, because the British were at the forefront of Jewish bating for centuries and yet they come off sounding so aloof, such righteous know-it-alls. The ones who have an inherent right to command respect for their ideas on world order.

When you know all the details, you read articles by famous British politicians and review old newspaper clippings and interviews with academics and writers you admire, only then you begin to understand the gravity of the situation.  You understand that England has a major problem with Jews and it’s nothing new. And the latest crisis in the British Labour Party is much of the same old diatribe. It always manages to resurface among the intelligentsia. These days, their racism is successfully perpetrated as a human rights crusade for the Palestinians.

There are plenty of British Jews who’ve criticized individuals with similar views to mine; they see us as a threat to their otherwise peaceful existence in England. Israelis or Jews are not allowed to feel a sense of pride towards Israel — that would be considered patriotic extremism. These Jews are the first ones to boo Israeli academics off campuses and boycott Israeli products. Anything to gain the approval of the British masses, anything to be viewed as the “good Jews.” Their views remind me of other critics of Jews who argued that we were racist and separatists and our continued resistance to assimilate with the rest of the British population had always been at the root of the problem. These types blame Zionism as a destructive political weapon at the hands of Jews. In the past, British papers had labeled anyone supporting Zionism as un-British and I fear that this still holds true today.

In case you didn’t already know this, England was the first European country to expel Jews from its soil in 1290; Jews were viewed as a threat to the Anglo-Saxon race. And the way they were treated before their expulsion was very similar to the way the Nazis, centuries later, had treated Jews. The English were the ones to come up with the infamous blood libels and prosecuted Jews as early as 1144 for their supposed ritual murder of Christian children after using their blood to prepare matzot. In medieval England, these hateful edicts were easy to carry out because the establishment had the public’s full support and cooperation and further anti-Jewish incitement from their religious leaders.

Jews were seen as subversives and secret plotters and the people who had stubbornly refused to convert and assimilate. Many in the British government believed that Jews were hostile aliens and the 1905 Aliens Act was implemented specifically to keep more Jews from entering the country. The 1917 Bolshevik Revolution was deemed a Jewish conspiracy and this meant more distrust and resentment towards British Jews of Russian descent. Anyone with a German-sounding last name was equally suspicious. My grandmother vividly recalled the atmosphere in the East End of London during World War I and the years following the war — the name-calling and the shame associated with their German name, Shragger, became entrenched in her memory. But being German and Jewish was even worse.

Do you think that the British did much to help Jews during the Holocaust? The 1939 British White Paper limited Jewish immigration to Palestine, we’re talking about Jews who had no other place to go, no one else wanted them and many returned to Europe where they found their fate in a gas chamber or a firing squad. Palestine was not chosen as a result of a lot that was drawn; it’s the place they had pined for, the land they had always called home, even after 2,000 years in the Diaspora. It was the subject matter of their prayers and literature, the context of their Bible and other religious texts. There cannot be Judaism without Israel, but Jews had spread across the Diaspora as a direct result of their expulsion from their birthplace. While other nations had slipped away from the world’s consciousness, it was impossible to get rid of us. That’s the problem really. And still, with all this ugly history, the turmoil revolving around the establishment of the Jewish State did not prevent mobs of rampaging British youths in 1947 from desecrating Jewish cemeteries, businesses, and synagogues across the country. I was shocked to learn that even then, the English were the first to compare Israel to the Nazi regime. It seems that today’s progressives are not that original; they latched onto a term that was used decades earlier.  We were accused of conveniently utilizing the term antisemitism when concocting our occupation and persecution of the Palestinians.

What upsets me most is when I read about one more famous writer, someone whose work I admire, yet they also harbor such primitive, ill-feelings towards Jews that it makes me second-guess their work and never want to pick up another one of their books again.  It’s also frustrating that they continue to be revered by everyone, and that their works are mandatory in educational institutions. I’m not talking about writers from hundreds of years ago; I’m talking about writers who were present during the Holocaust. Robert Wistrich mentions H.G. Wells in A Lethal Obsession: “The Jewish difference should be eliminated along with that of other inferior races — by total assimilation into mankind.” Furthermore, he said that he disliked Jewish traits of vulgarity and materialism and he held Jews responsible for antisemitism. The hatred was an understandable reaction to their inability to fully assimilate. Wells believed that man could only progress if he would adapt to changing circumstances through knowledge and education, but I’m not sure how much he progressed with respect to his own views on Jews, despite his knowledge and education. I could go on and on and expound on other racist writers and important thinkers, but hopefully you begin to understand how British society is inundated with antisemitism.

“A person can only be born in one place. However, he may die several times elsewhere: in exile and prisons, and in a homeland transformed by the occupation and oppression into a nightmare.” This was part of an acceptance speech made by Darwish in Holland, where he was recognized for his tremendous contribution to poetry. Was he talking about the Arab occupation of Israel and the hijacking of the Jews’ history, as well as their claim to the one and only place where their culture and religion had originally developed? Yeah right. If that were the case, he wouldn’t be such a celebrated poet.

I wonder how Rowling would react to a poem by Shalom Shabazi, known as the Shakespeare of Yemenite poetry. His poems celebrated the glory of the Jewish religion and the life they had led in the Holy Land. His beautiful words represented the hope that Yemenite Jews had clung onto during their exile in 1679 to the wilderness of the Moza region in Yemen. When my Yemenite grandfather would sing a Shabazi song, you could feel the palpability of the Jews’ suffering during their exile. It’s strange that hundreds of years after this episode in Jewish, Yemenite history and many, many other criminal edicts against Jews that led to mass murders, and expulsions, and humiliating subjugation all over the world, we still find ourselves dealing with the “Jewish question.”

I think that Rowling needs to get better acquainted with Jewish history, because if she really understood where we came from and how we ended up in the Diaspora etc., perhaps she would exercise the same sort of compassion towards us as well. Perhaps the cost of Jewish suffering would also become seared upon her consciousness. She would also realize that her magic potions and spells are not strong enough to fight the ignorance and hate that shroud our Jewish history and continue to frame and dictate the tone of this centuries-old conflict against Jews.

About the Author
Ilana was born in London, England, and currently resides in Camarillo, California. She graduated from Manchester University with an LL.B in 1991. Her writings include the play, “A Recipe for Hummus,” and her novels, "The Diary of a Wrinkle" and "East End Dreams." "Age Schmage" is a little book intended to help women in their moments of doubt; "A Cookbook for the Woman Who Hates Cooking" is an honest, yet funny approach to cooking; "What if I Had a Different Name?" is a collaboration with her son Jack and it’s a fun exploration of some of the weird and fantastical names that Jack imagines as his own. "The Cloud That Covered My Head" is a whimsical story about a boy who preferred to stay in bed and dream rather than go to school. "Diary of a Wrinkle" is her blog where she muses on the topic of aging and beauty, and @wrinklerevolution is her corresponding Instagram account. You can follow her on Instagram at @soletseat for her daily culinary creations. Her latest children's book "Rotten Tooth Ruth" will be available for purchase on Amazon first week of December 2018.
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