Harriet Sherwood’s ugly Israeli caricature

Harriet Sherwood’s latest offering on Israel, “The new Israeli barrier: a fence that splits a Jewish nursery in two“, brought to mind a penetrating quote from Jonathan Spyer’s new book, The Transforming Fire.  Spyer, noted that a purely “mythical Israel” has gained traction beyond Islamist circles, a narrative which he characterized as one which simply has no resemblance to the country for those who actually live there.

He describes the mythical Israel as:

“a place of uninterrupted darkness and horror, in which every human interaction is ugly, crude, racist, brutal.”

This “mythical” Israel has indeed taken hold among the UK intelligentsia, and is a dynamic which informs much of the reporting, and commentary, about the Jewish state at the Guardian.

The story Sherwood reports on involves a dispute between secular and orthodox Jews at Jerusalem nursery school – specifically the objections by the orthodox parents regarding what they feel are immodestly dressed female non-orthodox staff, which the administrators solved by erecting a partition (Mechitza) in the building to separate the two communities.

While it of course would have been preferable if the partition wasn’t needed, Sherwood’s desire to frame the issue as another indication of Israeli intolerance, even characterizing the dispute in terms of “a new Israeli barrier” – meant to evoke the specter of the state’s anti-terrorist separation barrier –  says more about Sherwood and the ugly caricature of Israel that she so uncritically accepts than it does about the nation she’s reporting on.

If you step back and look at what occurred at the nursery school its hard not to compare the peaceful and civil resolution of this religious-secular dispute in Jerusalem with the ethnic, racial, religious and intra-religious violence which plagues so many nations both in the region and throughout the world, and marvel at how – despite the often vexing ethnic and religious divisions within Israeli society – Israel has, by and large, managed to avoid such bloody conflicts and is typically able to find peaceful, (though often far from perfect) democratic solutions.

Indeed, in a great illustration of a reporter burying the lead, Sherwood’s last passage quotes an official from the Jerusalem municipality, in response to her request for comment, saying:

“With the aim of meeting the needs of all of the neighborhood’s pupils, both secular and ultra-orthodox, the [municipality] decided to divide the existing building … The fence will be built as part of a wider perspective that provides for the quite different needs of the community as a whole.”

Indeed, if Sherwood wasn’t intent on assigning maximum malice, she could have framed the story thusly:

“In Jerusalem: religious and secular communities clash, but continue to find creative and peaceful ways to bridge their many differences.”

Unfortunately, in Sherwood’s mythical Israel – the ugly, crude and racist place which haunts her political imagination – there is simply no room for such sober, nuanced, and layered narratives.

It’s important to note that one of the more frequent claims leveled by Israel’s critics is that Jews are quick to label those who oppose Israel as anti-Semitic, when, in fact, such charges are typically only leveled when anti-Israel invectives fall within accepted definitions of anti-Jewish racism.

As such, I have never entertained any notions that Harriet Sherwood is an anti-Semite.

She is, however, in her passive acceptance of every imaginable negative, and often irrational, stereotype regarding the state of Israel – grotesque caricatures of nation which reason and new information seems incapable of penetrating – a bigot nonetheless.

Like many of her colleagues at the Guardian, I have no doubt that Harriet Sherwood would reject overt displays of anti-Semitic behavior, but can also certainly wish for the day when she begins to equally resist the anti-Israel bigotry that so grossly distorts her view from Jerusalem.

14 replies »

  1. I certainly DO live in an Israel where the new Jewish Puritans are hell-benty on separating everything they dismiss as ‘profane’ from the little they consider ‘koisher’ (pls. note my ultra-frum pronunciation).

    However, I DON’T live in an Israel of brutality and darkness and am thrilled to count a local ARAB couple among my growing circle of new acquaintances. We have to keep talking.

  2. Your distinction between antisemitism and anti-Israel bigotry is a very important one. A lot more people are guilty of the latter than the former (that is leaving to one side the question of how they relate to each other).

  3. A religious group in a city not even in the same continent as Al Guardian’s HQ wish to separate their children at school from those not of their denomination?

    It wouldn’t make the news if it was dealing with any subject other than Israeli Jews.

  4. “a place of uninterrupted darkness and horror, in which every human interaction is ugly, crude, racist, brutal.”

    Is this not the same type of stereotyping which allowed Hitler and the Nazis to ratchet up the Jew-hatred and eventually to kill Jews as vermin?

    It is possible that those at the Guardian really are too stupid to know what they are doing – but stupidity can never be in this age of information overload and, therefore, it is probably preferable to think of Guardian journalists as vile, malignant bastards who sacrificed their humanity on the altar of Islamic supremacy some time ago in the belief that this might be interpreted as compassion for the Palistanis.

  5. Another thought – in its incessant deligitimization of Israel, the Guardian and its many allies in British public life invites us all to commit collective suicide in the face of intransigent Islamic demands for a Pax Islamic – some peace, some Islam.

  6. the guardian has established such a record of anti-israel articles that it must churn out at least two or three a week to maintain street cred.

    it is one of the guardian’s biggest drawings. profit incentive anyone?

    israel sells…period.

  7. Is a bigot – who may or may not be also an antisemite or a racist of another kind – but who knowingly provides fodder for those who are, actually any the less reprehensible than a card-carrying antisemite?
    Does the fact that this is done for commercial reasons make a difference?

    Incidentally, some 25% of British children attend Faith (religious) schools. These schools are allowed to take into consideration things such as religion and sexual orientation when recruiting staff if it conflicts with their ethos.
    That strikes me as being at least as newsworthy as a mechitsa.
    (for the record, in 2009 some 27.4% of Israeli children attended religious schools of some sort.)

  8. Let her clean her own house first. The Muslims are no less inclined than Orthodox Jews to erect barriers of separation between males and females, the difference being Jews keep it between themselves, while the Muslims are anxious to implement their laws in whatever country they happen to be colonizing.

    Maybe I should tell the Brits how they should run their own country… see how Sherwood likes it. I don’t know what gives the Guardian staff the idea they have that right. Americans have at least the excuse of foreign aid (which is getting less and less each day, thanks in large part to Bibi’s efforts back when he was Finance Minister), but the British have no such excuse. It is nothing but old-style British imperialism.

  9. The Guardian has set itself the goal of creating a mythical Israel as:

    “a place of uninterrupted darkness and horror, in which every human interaction is ugly, crude, racist, brutal.”

    This was, in the past, aided and abetted by as-a-Jews such as Seth Freedman, Shabi, Mya G. etc. who painted pictures of an Israel unrecognizable to anyone who has lived there while claiming authenticity since they are or claim to be Jewish . Plus, of course, the Ben White’s and others like him.

  10. What is the problem ? The Sherwood article is accurate in its depiction of the increasing bigoted extremism of the ultra-Orthodox in Israel. Sherwood could have selected any one of dozens of similar stories that appear every month in the Israeli press. Instead of attacking Sherwood, perhaps one should ask what the Israeli govt is doing to combat this phenomena and why these groups are liberally supported by a myriad of govt subsidies with no conditions attached.

    All the great patriots here should note that according to govt statistics Jerusalem is slowly being abandoned – the Jewish population is dropping annually (despite the large Orthodox families) and all demographers predict that there will be a Arab majority in the city within 20 years (and the city was 84% Jewish in 1975 !!!). One only has to look at Modi’in, a city of mainly Jerusalem non-Orthodox ‘refugees’, to understand the reason why. So the government, despite its bombastic patriotic talk of one eternal undivided city, is actually funding the demise of the city. Perhaps it is preferable that Sherwood write an article on stupidity rather than bigotry.

    Of course if nobody writes about it the problem will go away ….

  11. “…in which every human interaction is ugly, crude, racist, brutal.”

    All I can ask is what about my friend, Raz?
    He is a kibbutznik like me.
    grew up together and both are secular Jews.

    He became a life guard.

    One summer he was working in my kibbutz swimming pool as we visited from London.
    there were a group of Arab childrens from a summer camp funded by the government (not sure about that) from the western galilee.

    They didn’t swim very well and the superviser failed to control the boys pushing each other to the deep end.

    Like many year 6 kids this is what happens sometimes.

    Raz had to have a word with him again.

    I ask our other friend who remained with me while Raz went to have a word, what’s the problem?
    He told me that Raz had to save the life of one kid from that group the previous day and gave him the “kiss of life”…
    I’m sure these sort of conversations and jokes among late 20’s boys in a small village could have happened any where in the world.

    Now how these interactions fall into the description above I don’t know.
    How my friend’s training as a life guard and his saving of an Arab child falls into the description above?

    Spyer needs a little educations about the true meaning of coexistance.