Burns Night for Israel: Scotland's Literary Shame

Posted: 5/27/2011 6:00:00 PM
Author: Ben Cohen
Source: This essay was first published by Pajamas Media on May 26, 2011.

Burns Night for Israel: Scotland's Literary Shame
by Ben Cohen

Heinrich Heine's maxim about people being burned where books are also burned conjures up some of the most hellish images of Nazi rule. Raging bonfires devouring page after page of literature deemed toxic, their flames growing higher with each volume thrown onto the pile. There goes Freud, now it's Hemingway, next up is Proust, until finally you reach the gates of Auschwitz.

By contrast, a book boycott seems a rather dour affair. Brownshirted thugs burning armfuls of books while surrounded by screaming onlookers is one thing. A bespectacled librarian removing books from the shelves to the warehouse is something else. No?

Actually, no In the case that I have in mind, concerning a provincial Scottish council's decision to deprive its library users of books by Israeli authors, the underlying impulse is pretty much the same. And I'm not the only person to say so. Israel's ambassador to the United Kingdom, Ron Prosor, a man not normally given to bombast, declared: "A place that boycotts books is not far from a place that burns them." No doubt, those council bureaucrats implementing the boycott will be incensed by his statement. After all, while every Nazi supports a boycott of Israel, not every supporter of a boycott of Israel is a Nazi. Most boycott advocates, sensitive souls that they are, would be sorely wounded by such a suggestion.

Ergo, all the mealy-mouthed qualifications that follow. This is about solidarity with the Palestinians, not hatred of the Jews and their works; it's progressive, y'see. It's not a blanket ban, but something that will be decided on a book-by-book basis. And oh yes, according to West Dunbartonshire Regional Council Spokesperson Malcolm Bennie, the boycott doesn't apply to Israeli books printed outside Israel, just those printed in Israel. In other words, the Harcourt edition I have of Amos Oz's A Tale of Love and Darkness is OK. My prized English edition of Ahad Ha'am's Selected Essays, published by Sefer ve Sefel of Jerusalem, is not OK.

The Scots have, ironically, a rather Yiddish-sounding verb for this kind of thing: to "haiver," roughly translated as talking nonsense, or "bollocks," as it's more commonly known throughout the British Isles. It is "haivering" because all the excuses and rationalizations cannot camouflage one basic truth. Just as the German book-burnings aimed at obliterating ideas deemed repellent to Nazi ideology, so its sanitized adaptation, in the form of a book boycott, seeks to quarantine those ideas on the wrong side of anti-Zionist ideology.

West Dunbartonshire's decision to boycott Israeli books stems from a 2009 resolution, in the wake of Israel's defensive "Cast Lead" operation in Gaza, to prohibit the council from purchasing and selling goods produced in Israel. In that sense, the council is merely part of a growing pattern of labor unions, academic institutions, and regional authorities signing up to the international campaign to subject Israel to Boycotts, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS). While such efforts have been rather flaccid here in America — so much so that some U.S. boycott activists feel they have to lie about their alleged successes — in Europe, South Africa, and Australia, gaining traction has been far easier.

The long-established ideological obsessions about Jews underlying these activities puncture the misconception that a boycott of Israel, whether generalized or targeted, is simply a tactic to change Israeli policy. Boycotting is the tangible expression of a visceral opposition to Jewish empowerment that, as the anti-Semitism scholar Robert Wistrich observed back in 1990, observes in Zionism a "code word for the forces of reaction in general."

West Dunbartonshire, in fact, was an early adopter of this outlook. The area is home to the city of Dundee which, back in 1980, flew a Palestinian flag from the parapet of its town hall after being twinned with the West Bank town of Nablus. The prime mover behind that particular gesture was a local Labor Party organizer named George Galloway, later to become a member of the British parliament, an ally and confidante of British Islamists, a drooler in the presence of Saddam Hussein, and, most recently, a craven apologist for the Ba'athist regime of Bashar al Assad in Syria.

Anti-Zionism belongs to the Galloways of this world, those for whom the original sin of Israel's creation is the basic condition for understanding and responding to the push and pull of global events. Charles Maurras, a nineteenth century French rabble-rouser, rejoiced in anti-Semitism's ability to "enable everything to be arranged, smoothed over and simplified." Anti-Zionism functions in much the same way.

As I've discovered over the years, there is little point in debating with people who regard the world in this manner. I've discovered, too, that they thrive when their ideas gain mainstream acceptance, and they shrink when these same ideas are marginalized.

A shove to the margins is what will happen if Britain's literary class, painfully silent thus far, elects to confront the rot in West Dunbartonshire's libraries. Sure, some of its leading lights do regard Israel, in the words of a former French ambassador to London, as a "shitty little country" that invites harsh treatment, even if they'd concede that a literary boycott is a tad on the crude side. Yet this is not a uniform view.

The novelist Ian McEwan, for example, was recently awarded the Jerusalem Prize, inadvertantly becoming a poster child for Israel's political tolerance when he slammed its policies in his acceptance speech. Other writers, notably Martin Amis, Zadie Smith, and Salman Rushdie, hardly seem amenable to anti-Zionist witch-hunts. And what about Irvine Welsh, whose drug-soaked fables from bleak Scottish streets have been translated "into 20 different languages, including Hebrew"? He, surely, is exquisitely positioned to demand an about-turn in West Dunbartonshire.

Let us, therefore, keep an ear out for the outrage of the British literati. And let's remember that, as long as they remain mute, there's a danger that Burns Night will adopt an altogether more sinister meaning.