An Offensive Culture

  • Email
  • Print
  • Share
December 17, 2009

Jews have an unerring habit of somehow being at the centre of every modern controversy, generally on more than one side. So it is that in controversy over controversy itself, Jews figure prominently. In the last few decades, being offended has become currency, the source of claims to political rectitude, as way of asserting one’s presence in a fragmented and chaotic world. In controversies over Israel, antisemitism and much else, Jews attest to their offendedness, though never of course with one voice. As Brian Klug points out though in his latest book, Offense: The Jewish Case, the traffic isn’t all one way since: ‘giving offence is virtually a Jewish way of life’.

As an activist fighting for the right to criticise Israel within the British Jewish community – or as his detractors would put it, as someone who makes a living out of attacking fellow Jews – Klug is inclined to be indulgent towards the Jewish tradition of offensiveness. Although he is careful to note that ‘giving offence is no more self-validating than taking offence’, he spends a fair proportion of his short book (or medium-length essay if you prefer) emphasizing the awkwardness of the Jewish people in modernity.

Klug isn’t the first person to point out that Jews do not ‘fit’ easily into modernity’s rationalising tendencies. Neither exactly religion nor ethnicity nor nation, the Jewish people struggle to escape the straight-jacket of categorisation. The root of Jews offensive refusal to fit lies in the enlightenment. Klug reminds us of the antisemitism of some of the key enlightenment figures, who saw the stubborn persistence of the Jewish people as evidence of a primordial, unenlightened lack of reason.

Klug also takes issue with the mythologisation of the enlightenment that has taken hold in recent years. A mythologisation that would seek to divide the world into the enlightened and unenlightened. Here Klug tartly points out the echoes of enlightenment antisemitism in the work of Richard Dawkins. When Dawkins attacks ‘The God of the Old Testament’ as ‘probably the most unpleasant character in all fiction’ as ‘…megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully’; Klug hears echoes of enlightenment thinking that saw the Old Testament as the quintessence of unenlightenment and by extension the quintessence of the Jews.

If Klug is suspicious of external critiques of the Jews, he emphasises that critiques of Judaism from within are an integral part of Jewish history. His own internal critique stands on ‘rejection of idolatory, respect for human dignity and commitment to argument’. These principles ground a critique of unconditional Jewish support for Israel, not just for its abuses of human rights, but also the ‘idolatory’ of Israel’s supporters in, for example, their use of the star of David as a kind of holy symbol.

Knee-jerk supporters of Israel will doubtless aim their vitriol at Klug for this critique, probably seeing it as offensive as he himself sees their ‘idolatory’. Calmer minds though will notice that he also criticises the antisemitic overtones in the use, for example of Israeli flags with the star of David replaced with swastikas by some pro-Palestinian demonstrators. Indeed, Klug is deeply suspicious of the sterile posturing common to protagonists on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide:

“In the debate over Israel, there is a familiar pattern in which the antagonists appear to be locked in an embrace, a little like love. Critics, crossing an invisible line in the sand, find themselves accused of anti-Jewish hatred – or self hatred if Jewish. They react by accusing their accusers, alleging that so-called antisemitism is nothing more than a machination of ‘the Israel lobby’. At once, this is seized upon as a Zionist smear; which in turn is denounced as an antisemitic slur. Round and round they go, down and down they go, in a circle that gets ever more vicious.”

And this is where the issue of offensiveness becomes a vitally important one. In a ‘debate’ characterised by the hurt and offendedness of all sides, understanding such vicious circles of offense is vital:

“Israel is a lightening rod for many Jewish people. You can feel the electricity whenever you go near the subject. I do not say that the accusation of antisemitism is never a cynical ploy. But mostly it is an authentic visceral reaction when someone appears to have crossed that line in the sand. I am not defending this; apart from anything else, the cry ‘antisemitic’ is heard so often nowadays that it has come to sound rather like ‘wolf’. But if an authentic cry, howsoever mistaken, is dismissed as fake, this merely gives the vicious circle of offence another spin.”

Given that Klug is the target for opprobrium from many British Jews and is often accused of trivialising or making light of antisemitism, passages such as this one should demonstrate the nuances of his position and the seriousness with which he takes antisemitism. Should but probably won’t – so bitter has the controversy become that once a reputation for self-hate has been gained, it is hard to lose.

Offense: The Jewish Case is part of a series put together by Index on Censorship and the volume (frustratingly short and somewhat over-priced though it is) takes the discussion on Jews and offense in a laudably sophisticated direction, far from simple accusations, calls for censorship and complaints about being censored. Klug’s attempt to lay out a ‘Jewish case for outspokenness’ does not rest on self-righteous claims about his own views being suppressed. Indeed, the third ‘pillar’ on which his case rests – a ‘commitment to argument’ – suggests that those who critique establishment Jewry’s attitude to Israel would do well to emphasise the venerable Jewish tradition of debate in their calls for change, rather than simply attacking pro-Israel campaigners.

Of course there are dangers here. It is as wrong to accuse establishment Jews of lacking an ‘authentic’ Jewish iconoclasm as it is to accuse Jewish critics of Israel of self-hatred. It’s also true that, in certain environments (such as the university system in which both Klug and this reviewer work) being a critic of Israel is hardly anti-establishment. What Klug’s argument implies though is that, ironically enough, a willingness to embrace the Jewish tradition of offensiveness, of awkwardness of refusing to fit, safeguards the interests and dignity of those across the Jewish communal spectrum. If Jews see themselves as troublemakers, then perhaps the sterile debates about who has the right to speak for Jews can dissipate in favour of a frenetic, but ultimately empowering community of debate.

ZEEK is presented by The Jewish Daily Forward | Maintained by