It's 'the Jews' at work again, is it?

Guy Gavriel Kay
National Post Friday, July 12, 2002

Last week Mona Baker, editor of two academic journals, acknowledged that she had dismissed two scholars from the editorial boards of her journals for the unconscionable crime of being Israeli citizens. No other reason. Such naked abominations are actually useful: They make it less possible to avoid confronting what is going on in academia today. It would be pleasant to treat Baker as an aberration but it would be an error.

A similarly ugly display of racism and ignorance took place recently and is equally useful. José Saramago, the Portuguese novelist, has a 1998 Nobel Prize for Literature to flash if someone challenges his intellectual cojones. The prize gives him a platform from which to speak, a global stature he certainly didn't have in 1997. As part of a group called the International Parliament of Writers (IPW), Saramago also received a ticket to Ramallah this spring, to -- one would have hoped -- observe thoughtfully and comment judiciously on the ongoing sorrow that is the Middle East. He didn't do either. A long quote follows, but one can't really make a point here without it:

"Intoxicated mentally by the messianic dream of a Greater Israel which will finally achieve the expansionist dreams of the most radical Zionism; contaminated by the monstrous and rooted 'certitude' that in this catastrophic and absurd world there exists a people chosen by God and that, consequently, all the actions of an obsessive, psychological and pathologically exclusivist racism are justified; educated and trained in the idea that any suffering that has been inflicted, or is being inflicted, or will be inflicted on everyone else, especially the Palestinians, will always be inferior to that which they themselves suffered in the Holocaust, the Jews endlessly scratch their own wound to keep it bleeding, to make it incurable, and they show it to the world as if it were a banner."

That was the 1998 Nobel Laureate for Literature, writing in Madrid's El Pais. This won't be the first -- and I rather hope it isn't the last -- comment to point out that nothing in the above proposes that, say, "a particular Israeli government" or even some variant of the standard, "crazed right-wing Zionists" are busily doing the alleged scratching and showing. No, this is "the Jews" at work again, I'm afraid. Up to their old tricks, running and ruining the world. Saramago's either too blunt or too unsophisticated to bother with the routine, "I've nothing against Jews, I just hate Zionists," facade behind which more experienced western racists have learned to hide. Mona Baker might trot that one out. Saramago didn't even bother.

During his visit, Saramago specifically compared Ramallah to Auschwitz. A wonderfully imaginative stroke! When asked by a journalist where the death camps were, to sustain such an analogy he elected to dodge logic for a Laureate's pseudo-prescience: "Not here yet," he answered darkly.

There comes a point where the most eviscerating commentary feels inadequate to the numbing coarseness of what one has read or heard. At the same time, not to expose the viciousness at work in remarks such as those of Saramago is an abdication. "We are writers and each one of us has the right to express his opinions freely, but he [Saramago] does not speak for us," declared American writer Russell Banks, the president of the IPW, during a press conference in Gaza. Well, even non-writers have the right to express their opinions freely here, last I heard, but one is also permitted to find those opinions and metaphors contemptible. Israeli novelist and poet Amos Oz, a long-time backer of the Peace Now movement, said Saramago, author of Blindness, had himself shown blatant moral blindness. "He who fails to distinguish between different levels of evil becomes a servant of evil."

Last week, a United Nations report on the current status of the Arab peoples alleges -- for the first time at such a level -- that they might possibly be the authors of their own misfortune, and may not be the hapless victims of American-Zionist-imperialist-western-hyphenation. One can imagine Saramago crying "Hold on! Wait a minute!" as even the UN, where he might have had reason to expect support and sustenance, turns the other way -- or gives a faint glimmer of a sign that it might.

With his comparison of the current Middle East to the gas chambers of an extermination camp, Saramago is guilty of more than ignorance and a writer's sloppy analogy. He's cheapened himself and perhaps even exposed the unsteadiness of the Nobel platform from which he speaks. Now, the Nobel Prize for Literature has been awarded to some genuinely profound thinkers. Also to some shabby ones (and not a few bad writers). A patina clings to the award nonetheless, a conferring of importance on someone who speaks to the world with a Nobel in his resumé. Saramago has stripped a lot of that away. On the other hand, let's be fair. José Saramago hardly represents the depths to which these things can descend. Consider that Yasser Arafat's bank account (or that of the various organizations he funds, industriously sending teenagers off to blow themselves apart on buses and in cafés) has been usefully augmented with money given him as a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. Blindness, indeed.