Simon During is a Research Professor at the University of Queensland, and is currently based in Berlin. He has previously held positions at the University of Melbourne, John Hopkins and elsewhere. His research interests are broad and he is working on the relationship between Anglicanism and British literature in the period 1688-1945. His books include Against Democracy: Literary Experience in the Era of Emancipations (Fordham University Press, 2012), Exit Capitalism: Literary Culture, Theory and Post-Secular Modernity (Routledge, 2009), Modern Enchantments: The Cultural Power of Secular Magic (Harvard University Press, 2002), Patrick White (OUP, 1994), and Foucault and Literature (Routledge, 1991).
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My father, a German Jew born in 1916, was a Holocaust survivor, some of whose relations were murdered by the Nazis. I was brought up to admire Israel which my parents saw both as an experiment in socialist and co-operative state planning and as a solace for the Jewish people. As a child, I absorbed this view of Israel as a saving remnant of the twentieth century’s tragic history, a view which—not that I realized it then— tended to count the Palestinian people out. That optimistic view began to corrode after the 1967 war with Egypt, but, for me at least, it only collapsed when it became clear that Israel, for all its claims to democracy, was mendaciously preparing a future that contained no real prospects for Palestinian social justice and autonomy. And as it also became clear that this harder Zionism was increasingly willing to treat the Palestinian people in ways that were not wholly dissimilar to how the Nazis had once treated the Jews. Is it possible to think about the Gaza strip today and not be reminded of the Warsaw ghetto of the early nineteen forties? I personally have found this mutation of the hope that Israel might represent a radically post-fascist society into a fear that it is doomed to repeat past evils almost impossible to come to terms with. The ironies cut too deep.
it also became clear that this harder Zionism was increasingly willing to treat the Palestinian people in ways that were not wholly dissimilar to how the Nazis had once treated the Jews.
Especially because there are no clear exits from the situation. It is not as if Palestinian political organizations—or Palestine’s history— allow much room for optimism. It is not as if a united liberal front against Israel exists: indeed I have seen fundamentally tolerant and humane friends and relations turn into hardline supporters of the cruel and arrogant state. It is not as if it is easy to explain to them that I have become a critic of Israel not despite being a Jew but in part just because I am a Jew. It is not as if Israel’s current policies do not help to refuel that anti-semitism which once more aims to turn Jews into victims and pariahs. Certainly, it is not as though we critics of Israel are winning the ideological struggle. In another terrible irony, for mainstream politicians and the public sphere Israel, has come to represent European will and values against Islamic terror and superstition.
What, then, can be done? BDS. At least the movement has some prospect of penetrating Israel’s armor. For those of us who belong to the MLA, it signals that we who professionally represent the world’s literary and intellectual heritages— we professors of the humanities—resolve that the MLA as an institution not have any formal relations with Israel’s institutions. Refuse, that is, to accept the terrible injustices and ironies that Israel has come to represent, and instead look forward to a historical turn in which social justice might gain a foothold in the region, and in which, by the same stroke, a certain closure might settle on the Holocaust’s long aftermath.