This was not a pogrom

Jo Glanville

The day after Hamas’s shocking attack on Israel, I flew to Berlin to make a radio documentary about the Holocaust. As a journalist, I felt that I was focusing on the wrong story of Jewish suffering. I spent the week in a state of distress, like so many people, as the details of the massacres and hostage-taking emerged.

The work I did in Berlin was emotionally draining, too. I was interviewing people who live in flats where Jews once lived. They have researched the stories of the former residents who were deported to their deaths, or who emigrated to escape the Nazi genocide, and they open their homes to the public once a year, in May, as a memorial to Germany’s former Jewish population called Denk Mal Am Ort. My Jewish family lost their home in Berlin when they fled to Paris. My mother’s cousin was murdered in Auschwitz at the age of 23.

I did not for one moment, however, see a parallel between the mass murder of Jews in Germany and the horrifying killing of Israelis on 7 October. The Jews in Israel are citizens. They have an army. They are not powerless or stateless.

A number of leading Jewish commentators made the comparison, however, with historical massacres of Jewish communities that date back centuries. Obviously there are echoes of the long history of Jewish persecution. But it is misleading and harmful to see the horrific killings in Israel as part of the same cycle. In the House of Commons yesterday, Rishi Sunak said of the Hamas attack that ‘we should call it by its name: it was a pogrom.’ He is wrong; it was not.

Israel was created as a solution to antisemitism in Europe. Zionism began as a movement long before the Holocaust. The Israeli state was supposed to protect Jews and ensure that they would never be weak or defenceless again. Hamas’s attack has fatally punctured that belief.

Yet it is the Palestinians who are stateless now. Hamas’s terrorism has caused devastating damage and death, but it does not have a military arsenal and infrastructure to compare with Israel’s – which is currently being deployed against Gaza – or such powerful allies. Antisemitism is part of Hamas’s ideology, but this is primarily a conflict about land, more than race or religion.

Portraying Israel’s suffering as a continuation of antisemitic history is an understandable but emotive response that is already having negative repercussions. The Palestinian novelist Adania Shibli was due to receive the 2023 LiBeraturpreis, awarded annually to a woman writer from the Global South, at the Frankfurt Book Fair this week. On Friday, the German literary organisation Litprom cancelled the award ceremony ‘due to the war started by Hamas, under which millions of people in Israel and Palestine are suffering’. They say they intend to give Shibli the prize ‘at a later point’.

Shibli’s novel, Minor Detail (translated into English by Elisabeth Jaquette), was longlisted for the International Booker Prize in 2021. It is a searing account of the rape and murder of a young Palestinian woman in 1949 by Israeli soldiers, which another Palestinian woman tries to investigate decades later.

I can only assume that LitProm and the Frankfurt Book Fair feared they would be accused of antisemitism if they honoured a Palestinian writer who has explored the brutality of the Israeli army at this moment of trauma in Israel. (Last year, the director of the art exhibition Documenta in Kassel resigned after it emerged that an artwork included antisemitic images.)

Yet this is a shortsighted response. Israeli writers have never been afraid to explore the brutality of their founding history. As early as 1949, S. Yizhar wrote a remarkable novella, Khirbet Khizeh, in which an Israeli soldier sees the displacement of the Palestinians as a repeat of the persecution of the Jews in Europe. In A.B. Yehoshua’s short story ‘Facing the Forests’, an Israeli confronts the dispossession of the Palestinians. David Grossman has written forensically about the injustice experienced by Palestinian citizens of Israel.

There is no better moment to honour a Palestinian writer. I was lucky to work with Shibli nearly twenty years ago when I edited an anthology of stories by Palestinian women, Qissat. She has the rare ability to take the very particular, local history of the Palestinian people and universalise their experience. Now more than ever we need writing that takes us out of the news cycle and offers a wider perspective, rather than retreating into our opposing stories of victimhood.