Gaza, Solidarity and the Right to Protest Blog Series, Guest Edited by Alana Lentin and colleagues
Blog post by Tom Six
Dr Tom Six is a Reader in Politics and Performance and Head of the Research Degrees Programme at the Royal Central School of Speech & Drama at the University of London.
One of the most striking features of British responses to Israel's recent genocidal violence has been the tenacity with which liberal commentators have defended it. If we are shocked by this willingness to defend the luridly indefensible, however, we should not be surprised by it. Defence of Israel's colonialism at a structural level - sometimes balanced by criticism of its more extreme advocates - is a core commitment of liberal politics and culture, rarely subjected to serious analysis, let alone challenged. I therefore offer, here, an account of a particular example of this phenomenon, the 2022 documentary play Jews. In Their Own Words, which was written by journalist and commentator Jonathan Freedland and staged at the Royal Court Theatre in London in response to incidents of antisemitism in that theatre.
Reading this production in dialogue with Freedland's writing about Israel's assault on Gaza, as well as that of other liberal commentators, offers, I argue, some crucial insights into the commitments and strategies of liberal anti-antisemitism and its peculiar relationship to an Israeli state that is currently – even by its own historic standards – flagrantly illiberal. In brief, I argue that what is at stake in liberal accounts of contemporary antisemitism has been widely misdiagnosed. The issue is not so much that exaggerated accusations of anti-Jewish racism are 'weaponized' for political gain, as is widely asserted, but is a criticism so generalizable that it fails to illuminate this particular context very much. More specifically, responses to antisemitism have been widely constructed by liberals so as to constitute plausibly deniable support for Israel. By analysing this strategy of liberal Zionism, we can more accurately critique its attempt to erase colonialism from considerations of Israel, and thus to defend the indefensible.
Freedland's play was produced in the aftermath of a pair of controversies over antisemitism. The first was the crisis caused by both confirmed incidents and wider allegations of antisemitism in the British Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership (2015-20). The second was the crisis caused by antisemitic stereotyping in a play by Al Smith called Rare Earth Mettle (2021) at the Royal Court, echoing the clearly antisemitic framing of Caryl Churchill's short 2009 play, Seven Jewish Children, also staged at the Court in protest against Israel's 22-day assault on Gaza that began in December 2008. Freedland and actress Tracy-Ann Oberman, whose idea his play was, seem to have seen the theatre’s desire for a reparative response to its own antisemitism as an opportunity to reassert a dominant centrist narrative about the antisemitic tendencies of the contemporary left. I want to argue, though, that the play also revealed what is at stake in that narrative: a disavowed commitment to Zionism.
When I saw the play, I was told by an usher that scripts were not available to buy, and the Royal Court's Press Office later explained that they could not send me the script for review purposes 'because this hasn’t been approved by the interviewees'. Freedland’s play was marketed as 'verbatim', which is generally understood, as in Mary Luckhurst's definition, to be 'a theatre whose practitioners, if called to account, could provide interviewed sources for its dialogue' (p. 201). Assertions of authenticity - such as Freedland’s emphatic 'In their own words' - are therefore common within the genre, and questions about the ethics of representation dominate the academic literature on the subject. In the more egregious cases, such as Robin Soans' 2005 'verbatim' play Talking to Terrorists, scripts have been, as Tom Cantrell observed of that play, 'only loosely based on the words of the interviewee[s]'. These are, however, only extreme versions of the mediations involved in all verbatim theatre production. Interviewees are always selected, particular words are selected from their interviews, and those words are then placed in constructed contexts and interpreted by actors. When the interviewees are also racialized, the tendency for this process to homogenize and instrumentalize them is, obviously, ratcheted up. This point was made at the end of Jews. In Their Own Words by the actress Rachel-Leah Hosker. 'We are actors', she said, speaking for the play’s all-Jewish cast, 'we're used to being figments of people's imagination', and yet she added that as Jews, they were all sick of it. Ironically, though, she could have been describing the play she was concluding, which had turned them and their characters into figments of philosemitic imagination.
While often represented positively as the opposite of antisemitism, as Alana Lentin shows, philosemitism tacitly reasserts essentializing accounts of Jewishness, such as 'the idea of Jews as perennial foreigners' (p. 165). Both phenomena, in other words, treat Jewish people as Jews - either positively or negatively - and thus racialize them. This racialized status unavoidably abstracts Jewish people, rendering them figments of imagination. It should therefore be no surprise that many people - such as Lord Balfour, whose 1917 declaration was a crucial early step in the creation of Israel - have been both philo- and antisemites. This does not mean that philosemitism is merely antisemitism in disguise. Nonetheless, since the only adequate opposition to antisemitism is to dismantle its essentialist apparatus, and since philosemitism merely repurposes that apparatus, it cannot be an adequate response.
Philosemitism often takes the form, in Eliane Glaser’s phrase, of 'an instrumentality of Jewishness' (p. 29), and it did in Freedland's play. Let's consider his choice of interviewees. Political journalist Stephen Bush (one of them) wrote that 'the positions of pro-Corbyn Jews were overcovered' in the press during his leadership of the Labour Party, and Freedland agreed, writing that 'there was no need to repeat that mistake' in the play. Indeed, the script contained no dissent from Freedland's view that 'it was Corbyn who made British Jews feel an anxiety they had not known for the best part of a century'. As Michael Richmond observes, 'to bolster their legitimacy, philosemites frequently reference "majority Jewish opinion" to discredit or viciously attack Jews who disagree with them', and Freedland did exactly that, justifying his decision because 'polling evidence suggests a striking degree of unanimity'.
If we then consider the dramaturgical context constructed around Freedland's interviewees' words, the instrumentality of the play's account of antisemitism also becomes clear. Its first part offered a long history of European antisemitism recounting blood libels, accusations of greed, expulsions and pogroms. It then offered examples of parallels to these various manifestations of antisemitism in the lives of Freedland’s interviewees, who comprised several well-known figures and some rather overtly ordinary British Jews, including a social worker and a painter-and-decorator. The effect was to posit antisemitism as a historically continuous prejudice affecting all Jews alike, and unaffected by - for example - class, other forms of racialization, or political commitments. This implicit argument was underwritten by the play’s references to the Shoah, which it presented, through the interviewees' families' stories, as the aberrant zenith of this unified history of antisemitism.
That history was narrated most directly in the play by interviewee Dave Rich, Head of Policy at the Community Security Trust and author of The Left's Jewish Problem: Jeremy Corbyn, Israel, and Anti-Semitism, who rejects accounts, such as Rashid Khalidi’s, of 'the essentially colonial nature' of Zionism since its earliest formation. Rich proposes, instead, that 'Zionism was a genuine Jewish movement for freedom and a response to European anti-Semitism', a fundamentally liberal argument in which individual freedoms are secured by the insitutions of a nation-state. This position also shares with liberalism the need to gloss over the colonial constitution of such nation-states, the rights and freedoms of whose citizens were founded on the exploitation and dispossession of colonized peoples. Likewise, Freedland's play's emphasis on the need for Jewish freedom produced by European antisemitism was coupled with a reluctance even to mention Palestine. Interviewee Margaret Hodge tripped awkwardly over it at one point, describing a journey to the region 'while it was under… before it was Israel'. This unspeakability marked Palestine’s necessary ontological absence from the play. Liberal claims to reconcile Zionism and anti-racism can only be made - as they were here - by bracketing out colonialism, a fallacy that is exposed by the mere existence of Palestinians.
For the same reason - and to the dismay of one interviewee in the play, novelist Howard Jacobson - the play could not offer full-blooded support to Israel. Jacobson wrote that it 'capitulated to the usual negative view … and felt pusillanimous in the very area it needed to be brave', referring to the consensus view in the play that, while Israel's government or its policies might be legitimate targets for criticism, Jewish people cannot be forced to accept responsibility for them. What he calls pusillanimity was, in fact, plausibly deniable support for the existence of Israel as both a fortress against antisemitism and the cradle of a Jewish future in the face of the constant threat of extermination. The deniability of that support depended upon denial of the fundamentally colonial nature of Israel, which - in turn - enabled an equivocatory attitude to policies that the play could frame as excessive rather than fundamental to the Israeli state. Thus, Israel the state is conveniently detached from Israel the act of historical reparation for European antisemitism. In that context, the play’s view of the responsibility of anti-antisemites was clear: fight antisemitism (principally by examining your individual prejudices and attacking the left), and support the existence of Israel (even if you don’t support Israel as it actually exists).
This position exemplifies a contemporary iteration of the long historical phenomenon of liberals finding common ground with fascists. It is also exactly the position of Freedland's journalistic commentary on the assault on Gaza. On 3 November 2023, he argued that the conflict could only be resolved by rejecting 'extremists on both sides'. On 10 November, he brought this logic home, condemning Suella Braverman for failing in her duty to 'calm tensions, not inflame them', before levelling the very same accusation at activists from Black Lives Matter and concluding with a piece of horse-shoe logic that accused both sides of trying 'to push an agenda'. On 17 November, he argued against a ceasefire by claiming – contrary to the evidence of its own charter, that Hamas is an expression of 'violent jihadist ideology', while distancing himself from 'the current government of Israel', which he characterized not as Zionist or settler colonial, but right-wing and corrupt. The conclusion is inescapable: the moderate, liberal position is to carry on bombing and blame someone else.
Taken together, then, Freedland's play and his recent journalism demonstrate the ways in which liberal Zionism attempts to force Jewish experience into a Eurocentric account of historically continuous antisemitism to which its proffered solution is - ironically - the creation of a settler colonial ethno-state along European lines. Simultaneously, liberal Zionism asserts a form of anti-racism that refuses to engage with the colonial project by which race was constituted in the first place. These contradictions cannot be resolved. They remain at the core of liberal Zionism's plausibly deniable support for Israel. Liberal Zionism, in short, is trapped in the defence of the indefensible.
 Email from the Royal Court press office, November 15, 2022. Quotations from the play in this piece are taken from my notes.
Read further in the Gaza, Solidarity and the Right to Protest Blog Series:
Genocide is not a metaphor: reflections on Gaza and genocide denial
Palestine, Islamophobia and the policing of solidarity
Regarding “human animals” and settler colonialism
The views and opinions expressed on the Identities Blog are solely those of the original blog post authors, and not of the journal, Taylor & Francis Group or the University of Glasgow.