The Frictions of Fiction
By AXEL STÄHLER
The British Mandate in
Palestine, a literary-minded official of the Mandate administration is said to
have quipped, came to an end “not with a bang but a whimper.” The bangs,
leading up to the withdrawal and acknowledgement of defeat in May 1948, had
come before. The most effective, from a terrorist’s point of view, were the
1946 bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem (HQ of the British military
command) and the hanging of two British sergeants in retaliation for the
execution of three Jewish terrorists.
For some British Jews, the anti-colonial struggle of the Jews in Palestine was
an embarrassment. It tested their loyalty, if not in actual fact, then at least
in the minds of their fellow Brits, who were enraged by the unreasonable
violence meted out to the occupying forces and some of whom responded by
daubing swastikas on synagogues, in an attempt to erase from
"British-Jewish" the hyphen and the word preceding it.
To obliterate the latter half of the hyphenated phrase had been, and in some
cases continues to be, the objective of many British Jews, in life and in
literature. As Bryan Cheyette argues, in British-Jewish writing the assertion
of Jewishness had been impeded by the “enormous authority of the idea of
England in the age of empire” because of the seeming superiority of English
patterns of identification. With the ensuing pressure to assimilate, some
British Jews saw almost no viable alternative but to “commit” mimicry. This
very authority, continuously eroded since the war and the decline of empire,
has recently been challenged by British Jewish fictions of the Mandate.
For many Jewish writers, turning to non-English territories in their fiction,
especially to the Diaspora and to Israel, became a way of sidestepping the
hegemony of English, or even British, constructions of the past which excluded
Jewishness. This phenomenon, designated as “extraterritoriality” by Cheyette,
appears to be waning. Modern British-Jewish writers, as Cheyette shows, “are not
merely unapologetic in their Jewishness but can be characterized as Jews ‘with
attitude’ who disrupt all conventions.” Indeed, much of recent British-Jewish
writing “exposes a radically different sense of the past and rewrites an
alternative Englishness from the margins.” Donald Weber points out that
“contemporary Jewish writers and critics are re-imagining their relation to
‘Englishness,’ a relationship problematically linked to histories of whiteness
and power, a relationship associated with the shameful history of British
Yet according to Weber, Zionism and Israel are notoriously underrepresented in
British-Jewish fiction. Making reference to Linda Grant’s When I Lived in Modern Times and
Jonathan Wilson’s A Palestine Affair, Weber writes
that “these works unfold in a less remembered, and thus less incendiary,
I am not entirely convinced of the marginal status accorded to these novels and
to others dealing with the Palestine Mandate, like Wilson’s earlier The
Hiding Room or Bernice Rubens’ The
Sergeants’ Tale. The authors’ very choice of time and place
challenges Cheyette’s notion of “extraterritoriality” and questions Weber’s
claims about the less-incendiary character of this past. This particular past,
especially in the context of the so-called post-Zionism debates, is very much a
part of the present.
British-Jewish fictions of the Palestine Mandate create a space that is
"extraterritorial" to British and Jewish ideas of the past. There is
no ignoring, here, of the Jewish impact on the British past and neither can be
written without the other. This “common ground” must be seen in conjunction
with modern experiences, for in the historical fiction of British-Jewish
writers, the Palestine Mandate represents the colonial confrontation between
Jews and the British in distant Palestine and modern Britain.
In this context, there is special significance to the post-Zionist debates and
what has become known as the Israeli
“new” historiography, which attempts to debunk Zionist ideas of
the past. Introducing the Palestinian Arabs to the colonial triangle of Mandate
Palestine opens the very space explored by these novels to alternative,
pluralistic, and conflict-oriented patterns of interpretation, and reconfigures
the relationship of Jews, the British, and the Arabs.
When modern British-Jewish writers address colonial confrontations during the
Mandate, they attempt to initiate a particular form of writing back, by
referring to the successful outcome, for the Jews, of this clash. (A narrative
that challenges common readings of the British past and present.) At the same
time, these authors question this very success, because the colonial structure
is being discredited, and consequently also what appears to be the transfer
from British colonial hegemony in Palestine to a Jewish and Israeli one.
Wilson’s first novel, set in Egypt and Palestine in 1941 and ‘42 and, 50 years
later, in Israel, focuses on the incendiary question of whether the British
ignored the emerging Holocaust and deals with a past that was, in the aftermath
of the debates about the War
Crimes Act of 1991, anything but unremembered. Nor, in view of
the ensuing investigation of close to 400 suspects under the Act, was it
distant. Wilson tackles the Palestine Mandate more directly in his second
novel, which focuses on intra-Jewish strife during the early years of the
Mandate, but also on the colonial mentality as the “essence” of Britishness,
and on the challenge it poses to Jewish identities in Britain and in Palestine.
In her last major work, Bernice Rubens, the grande dame of British
Jewish literature, tells the story of the two British sergeants hanged in 1947.
By making one of them half-Jewish, she focuses not on identity conflicts but
rather on dual loyalties, and although she chose the colonial encounter in
Mandate Palestine as her subject and seems to support claims of Jewish
postcoloniality, she relates it exclusively to Palestine and, later, to Israel.
Internal Jewish colonization in Britain, addressed quite explicitly in Grant’s When I Lived in Modern Times and at
least hinted at in Wilson’s, is denied in The Sergeants’ Tale. Instead,
the State of Israel is suggested to be colonialist.
Written and published two years after 9/11 and only months prior to the
author’s death, Rubens’ insistence on what appears to be an imagined harmonious
integration of Jews into British society may be meant to be a plea for the
integration of the stranger of different faith into a new British society. This
may be intended to alleviate the “Muslim scare” that followed the destruction
of the Twin Towers. Maleiha Malik recently
argued in The Guardian, with regard not to Jewish
terrorism in Palestine but rather to the anarchism and bolshevism associated
with immigrant Jews in the early 20th century, that “despite
important differences, the treatment of British Jews provides an illuminating
comparison with contemporary anti-Muslim racism.” Rubens may have been writing
precisely against any such stigmatization.
All of the writing we've discussed ultimately leads to the following question:
Is Jewish postcoloniality “real,” then, or is it merely a figment of some
British-Jewish writers’ imagination, a fiction? This is a matter I wouldn’t
want to decide here. It seems noteworthy, however, that the novels I have
mentioned explore postcolonial frictions between Jews and the British (and in a
few instances also between Jews and Jews and between Jews and Arabs) in what
may, perhaps, be called postcolonial fictions.