Whenever intellectual quarterlies approach the issue of Israel — and especially if it's a journal I admire — I tend to cringe. Such was the case when I picked up a recent volume of Salmagundi.
On the cover, I read the words Zionism and Apartheid, which was the headline affixed to an essay by Derek Cohen. The writer was identified as the author of several works of criticism, including The Politics of Shakespeare, Shakespeare's Culture of Violence and, most recently, Searching Shakespeare.
Now, Salmagundi has, for most of its long history, been concerned with literature, but, as with other intellectual journals, that has never stopped it from deciding to approach politics. And, in this tradition, Cohen is not shy about stating where he stands vis-à-vis Israel — he makes it clear right from the start.
He describes his essay as "a kind of history of one person's (mine) relationship with the state of Israel. I am only slightly older than the state itself and, as a Jew born and raised in South Africa, have had a strong emotional and familial connection with Israel all of my life, despite the fact that I have visited the country only three times for periods of only weeks. This lack of first-hand experience with Israel has not prevented me from forming strong opinions about the course that Israel seems to have taken in its relation to the region and to the Palestinian population both inside Israel itself and in the territories Israel has occupied since 1967. My views of Israel, based mainly, as I say, on reading and talking about it, are firmly of the left and hence opposed to most international stances all Israeli governments have assumed since the 1967 war. Above all, and like many other Jews including many Israelis, I have been appalled by the development of Jewish settlements in the occupied land. I am no historian or scholar of the region, and yet to me, with my limited knowledge of the subject, the issue is not complicated. … [It's] about occupation and land and the corrosive effects of occupation upon the occupiers and the occupied … "
The essay continues on like this, though the message is immediately clear in the language Cohen has chosen. "Occupied territories" and "occupiers" are buzzwords. He eventually mentions how the Israelis left Gaza, but doesn't say how it went off pretty much without a hitch, especially when many like Cohen felt it would be a Jew-vs.-Jew bloodbath. And, of course, Cohen says nothing about Hamas rockets being fired into Israel nearly every day since. In fact, he seems to feel that Palestinian "anger" over the occupation justifies all this.
Now, Cohen's essay is complex, and I can hardly do justice to it in this small space. He might say that my language is as loaded as his. And he's probably right. But blaming the settlements for all that's happened seems a red herring. He never mentions the many olive branches Israelis have extended over the years and how they've all been met with violence.
Purely personal arguments like his do little to advance the peace he so obviously craves.