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.

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