Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Acceptable Racism - on Cynthia Ozick

                                                            Acceptable Racism
                                                                                    By Raymond Deane

Apparently the 84-year-old American novelist Cynthia Ozick is favourite to win the “Orange Prize for excellence in fiction written by women” for her novel Foreign Bodies.

In an article in the UK Guardian's series My Hero (20th April), Ozick chose George Eliot, the great 19th century English novelist. She singled out Eliot's final novel Daniel Deronda, something of an ugly duckling among her masterpieces not so much because of its advocacy of Zionism as because this is conveyed by means of endless speechifying - “high oratory, not novelistic art” (Ozick).

The great Palestinian intellectual Edward Said, who also profoundly admired Eliot, wrote in his seminal book The Question of Palestine (Vintage, USA, 1979/1992) that by paying no attention to the effect Zionism would have on those people already living in Palestine “Eliot is no different from other European apostles of sympathy, humanity, and understanding for whom noble sentiments were either left behind in Europe, or made programmatically inapplicable outside Europe.” In this she resembles Marx and Mill who “seemed to have believed that such ideas as liberty, representative government, and individual happiness must not be applied in the Orient for reasons that today we would call racist.” (p.65) Eliot shared the Gentile and Jewish Zionist “view of the Holy Land as essentially empty of inhabitants, not because there were no inhabitants... but because their status as sovereign and human inhabitants was systematically denied.” (p.66)

There is no echo of such a critique in Ozick's encomium to the novel; instead, Eliot is described without qualification as “morally serious, historically judicious and passionately just”.

This blinkered advocacy needs to be read in the context of earlier articles by Ozick.

In a 2006 review of the play My Name is Rachel Corrie (based on the diaries and letters of a young American activist crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer) she refers to “the culpable Palestinian origins of the current fighting” and “the brutal cynicism of Rachel Corrie's handlers, eager, for propaganda value, to bait bulldozers and tanks with the lives of their young recruits.” Corrie's engagement with the oppressed is described as “slumming” and her espousal of Gandhian ideals dismissed as “neo-Marxist paraphernalia and hate-America jargon” (for a celebrated novelist, Ozick writes execrable prose). The play itself is “a show trial. And there are Jews in the dock.”

On 30 June 2003 Ozick published an Op Ed for the Wall Street Journal entitled Where Hatred Trumps Bread: What does the Palestinian nation offer the world? This was conceived as a diatribe against the so-called Road Map for Peace drawn up by the “international quartet” (USA, EU, Russia, UN) in early 2003. Although there is some consensus nowadays that this process was inherently flawed because overly influenced by the USA (and hence by Israel) and lacking meaningful mechanisms for enforcement, for Ozick it represented “an anti-history wherein cause and effect are reversed, protection against attack is equated with the brutality of attack, existential issues are demoted or ignored--'cycle of violence' obfuscations all zealously embraced by the State Department and the European Union.” In other words, the USA and EU were ganging up on poor little Israel, which had a right to a monopoly of violence in the Middle East.

But Ozick went further, and launched a vicious attack on the Palestinian people themselves. “By replacing history with fantasy, the Palestinians have invented a society unlike any other, where hatred trumps bread. They have reared children unlike any other children, removed from ordinary norms and behaviors... What has been the genius of Palestinian originality, what has been the contribution of the evolving culture of Palestinian sectarianism? On the international scene: airplane hijackings and the murder of American diplomats in the 1970s, Olympic slaughterings and shipboard murders in the 1980s. And toward the Jews of the Holy Land, beginning in the 1920s and continuing until this morning, terror, terror, terror, terror.”

There is a word for such language: racism. And it is racism of a particularly vicious and unadorned variety.

Now, one would hardly suggest that Ozick should be excluded from consideration from the Orange or any other literary prize because of her repulsive views. What is astonishing is that (to the best of this writer's knowledge) not one single media outlet has raised the issue of Ozick's anti-Palestinian racism. What this tells us, once again, is that such vile attitudes are not deemed worthy of mention when mere Palestinians are their object. One would hardly imagine that the anti-Semitic historian David Irving would be deemed an acceptable candidate for the Wolfson History Prize, but the  vilification of Palestinians and the negation of their history that are Ozick's ideological stock-in-trade raise no critical eyebrows.

                                                            Raymond Deane is a composer and political activist.

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