Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Here’s the curious case of one of them.
Born to non-Jewish parents in 1929, Lynne Reid Banks is a prominent British novelist, best-known for The L-Shaped Room (1960) which was made into a movie. Among her works are children’s novels set in Israel, where she worked on a kibbutz, and where she married an Anglo-Jewish sculptor, Chaim Stephenson, and had three sons. She became an Israeli citizen after the Six Day War, but in 1971, after nine years in Israel, she resettled in Britain with her family. There, she stoutly defended Israel from obloquy; few more passionate expositors of the Israeli cause existed than she. I well remember the stirring speech that she made at a pro-Israel rally one brisk and overcast Sunday in Trafalgar Square to express solidarity with the valiant little Jewish State during the Yom Kippur War and to protest the Heath government’s odious refusal to supply Israel with spare parts for its British-made tanks.
Around that time, The Times (18 October 1973) published a letter by the eminent writer Dame Freya Stark, noted as an explorer and traveller, and then living in Italy; the letter observed that during the 1940, when Britain fought against Nazi Germany,
“The Egyptians did not then stand by us for territory nor for oil, but for an idea of freedom which we shared. They are fighting now not only for their Arab civilization, but for honour and respect and to prove that they can die. We too have fought against the odds, and may, in the memory of our old friendship, salute them.”
This letter drew an immediate riposte from Lynne Reid Banks, bristling with emotion and indignation, published in The Times on 20 October:
…. I cannot any longer tolerate the tone of letters like Freya Stark’s …
How can she sit there fanning herself on some Italian balcony … talking incomprehensibly about the fight for Arab civilization … what civilization? The one in which adulterers are to be whipped in the streets, in which there are public hangings, in some parts of which slaves are to be kept? Is this to be mentioned while the sons of Jews, who have contributed more to true civilization in every field than any other single group on earth, are being blown to pieces fighting against fantastic odds for a tiny corner of the world to call their own?
Let me remind Freya Stark and her ilk that the debt we owe to the Arabs for their invaluable contribution to our side in the last war – the Grand Mufti’s and the Syrian’s [sic] well-known Nazi sympathies take the edge off this, of course – is nothing to the debt that we owe to the Jews, not only for their ubiquitous contribution to the war effort, but for what we stood by and allowed them to suffer in Europe. Nor are the Arabs now fighting for their civilization, such as it is, but for their “honour”, currently represented by a large area of desert which, when they had it, they only used to site missiles in, and one war-torn strip of moonlike high ground which for 20 years was used solely to lob shells onto farm settlements below.
…. They are hundreds of millions of people. Israel is three million. They are rolling in admittedly unequally distributed money: Israel survives back-breaking taxes, sweat and charity. They possess thousands upon thousands of square miles of territory, not a fraction of which they know what to do with; Israel has, and is holding on to with her teeth, a sliver of land the size of Wales, which even the Foreign Office’s most rabid Arabist cannot claim the Jews have not earned, deserved and done well by. Apart from that sliver, there are “buffer areas”, bravely fought for and as we now see, absolutely essential for Israel’s survival. It is these two God-forsaken lumps of land that the Arabs are now saving their faces by fighting for. Could really civilized people think this worth what it is costing?
I won’t deny that one can see some right and justification on the Arab side, if one is able to preserve a total detachment. But in the present desperate situation, it is beyond me how any person, or any government, can do this. Young Jewish men, raised up in a country that I so deeply love, with such expectations, such shining promise, such an inbuilt probability of contributing to progress and sound thinking and enlightenment, are dying at this moment. I have lived with them, loved them, and taught them [English], and their deaths in this wicked, senseless struggle tear me apart. Let Freya Stark and [anti-Israel Labour MP Christopher] Mayhew and all of them weep for the Arab equivalent, if they can find them. Meanwhile, how can any outsider with any grasp of essentials fail to support Israel? How can the [Heath] Government fail to support it?’
On 23 November 1974 – ten days after the villainous Arafat’s “gun or olive branch” speech to the UN General Assembly, The Times carried a letter from Ms Reid Banks in which she fumed:
“I have been watching your correspondence columns closely, but have not seen a single letter objecting to the appearance before the Assembly of the United Nations of an avowed and flagrant terrorist without a country to represent. I find it very hard to believe you received no such letters, easier to wonder if The Times elected not to publish them.
By the same token I waited until today (November 21) for some mention of the news about UNESCO’s cultural committee calling for sanctions against Israel (for archaeological excavations in her own capital on which completely satisfactory reports have been submitted to the committee by independent experts), or for the reaction this instantly called forth from a group of French intellectuals. Simone de Beauvoir, Jean Paul Sartre and others publicly said they would dissociate themselves from all UNESCO activities unless Israel were reinstated. Was this not hard news? Yet it did not appear, not in your paper and not in others either.
These and other strange omissions have caused me to make some high level inquiries. We all know Fleet Street is in a bad way economically. Could it be that Arab government press offices might not be so willing to pay hugely for supplements and full-page advertisements if editorial matter appeared which was unfavourable to Israel? This is strongly bruited.”
Almost a year later, in a letter to The Times (14 October 1976) Ms Reid Banks joined Oxford scholar Dr Harry [Harold] Shukman and pro-Israel writer Alan Sillitoe in condemning the UN’s “present victimization of one member nation”.
And yet, nowadays, Ms Reid Banks is herself participating in that victimisation. She has lurched from the pro-Israel to the anti-Israel camp, in the most inexplicable and regrettable way.
Perhaps the writing on the wall could be read between the lines in her letter of 20 October 1973 quoted above, in her reference to “some right and justification on the Arab side, if one is able to preserve total detachment”. Yet, Israel is as heroic as ever it was, a beacon of enlightenment in a region of darkness, and its imperilment as dire as ever it was, given Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
When did Lynne Reid Banks’s lurch begin? When did she start to cross the Rubicon? “Parallel Lines,” her article in The Times of 26 February 1994 concerning her decision to visit to Jordan provides a clue:
…. There was one special thing I wanted to do, and as my trip proceeded, this goal came to seem not just the quixotic whim it had appeared, even to me, at first, but an important part in the peace process. I always said and believed that nothing will come good until we can make the imaginative leap into our opponent’s point of view.
Brian Keenan, early on in An Evil Cradling, his account of his four years as a hostage in Lebanon, wrote the words that had set me off on this quest: “There are those who ‘cross the Jordan’ and seek out truth through a different experience from the one they are born to, and theirs is the greatest struggle…. Unless we know how to embrace ‘the other’, we are not men, and our nationhood is wilful and adolescent. Those who struggle through the turbulent Jordan waters have gone beyond the glib definitions of politics or religion. The rest remain standing on either bank, firing guns at one another.”
Now, with peace at last seriously on the Middle East agenda, this need of mine, to put myself into the enemy’s eye-sockets, if not into his heart and passions, seemed no less compelling but more….
And so these days Lynne Reid Bank’s name can be found appended to full-page advertisements in London newspapers denouncing Israel.
Note this. in an interview she gave to The Times (published 13 August 1984) she explained that she had not become a Jew. “I regard the idea of converting to Judaism as a complete nonsense,” she stated. “You can sympathize with, be part of and learn about, but you cannot ever be Jewish – it is just not possible.” She added: “I think I’m more use to them as an unrepentant Gentile.”
Yet what does this “unrepentant Gentile” do now that she’s joined the ranks of the Israel-bashers? Why, she signs full page ads containing such statements as
“We, the undersigned Jews in Britain, affirm our opposition to the continuing occupation, call upon the British Government to use its influence in Washington and the Middle East to bring the occupation to a rapid end (Independent Jewish Voices, “A Time to Speak Out – Now!”, The Times, 19 November 2008);
“We, Jews who insist on the humanity of all, regardless of race and creed …” (Jews for Justice for Palestinians, “Stop the Slaughter!” full page ad., The Times, 14 January 2009)
And, in The Times of 1 December 2009, her name appeared beneath a full-page “Open Letter to [then Prime Minister] Gordon Brown(by members of Independent Jewish Voices, Jews for Justice for Palestinians, Jewish Writers Against the Occupation, Jewish Socialist Group, and Jewish Writers Against the Occupation ) excoriating Israel and supporting the Goldstone Report.
The woman who once railed so justifiably against UNESCO’s victimisation of the Jewish State also signed the noxious statement headed “Our cultural boycott of Israel starts now” that appeared in The Guardian on 13 February 2015: [https://artistsforpalestine.org.uk/2015/02/13/guardian-our-cultural-boycott-of-israel-starts-now/] and which announced so egotistically:
Along with more than 600 other fellow artists, we are announcing today that we will not engage in business-as-usual cultural relations with Israel. We will accept neither professional invitations to Israel, nor funding, from any institutions linked to its government. Since the summer war on Gaza, Palestinians have enjoyed no respite from Israel’s unrelenting attack on their land, their livelihood, their right to political existence. “2014,” says the Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem, was “one of the cruellest and deadliest in the history of the occupation.” The Palestinian catastrophe goes on. Israel’s wars are fought on the cultural front too. Its army targets Palestinian cultural institutions for attack, and prevents the free movement of cultural workers. Its own theatre companies perform to settler audiences on the West Bank – and those same companies tour the globe as cultural diplomats, in support of “Brand Israel”. During South African apartheid, musicians announced they weren’t going to “play Sun City”. Now we are saying, in Tel Aviv, Netanya, Ashkelon or Ariel, we won’t play music, accept awards, attend exhibitions, festivals or conferences, run masterclasses or workshops, until Israel respects international law and ends its colonial oppression of the Palestinians.
When I told a friend that I was writing this Elder post on the subject of Ms Reid Banks’s lurch from an arch-champion of Israel into a foe, my friend, noting her advanced aged, suggested “Perhaps she’s gone senile”. I am not so sure. Still, I find that that explanation for her volte-face has also occurred to others, such as this exchange by commenters regarding the above announcement [https://disqus.com/home/discussion/harrysplace/british_artists_respond/]:
Commenter One:
I have to admit I was quite shocked and upset to see Lynne Reid Banks on the list. I read "The L-Shaped Room" in 1978 while travelling in Europe and Israel and enjoyed it immensely. She was very familiar with Israel, lived there on kibbutz for 8 years and it showed in her work. She's quite old now so perhaps senility has set in. It's one thing for an artist who clearly identified with Israel's left to be critical of a right-wing government, but quite another to sign on to a cultural boycott. I am sad and disgusted, and find myself hoping it's dementia, which is sad in itself.
Commenter Two:
Without being able to go into specifics, I know something of Lynne Reid Banks' behaviour in respect of obligations to her Jewish family connections which show her in a less than wonderful and egocentric light. I'm not in the least surprised by her being on this list. She severed her connections with Israel long ago. The Israel she was interested in is a fantasy of kibbutz life that might have been credible in 1962 but is long past.
Commenter One (again)
By her action signing this petition, I wouldn't question anything you've written. What a dreadful "journey" (god how I hate that word) she's been on since then.
Commenter Three
That was my reaction too. Hers was the only name that took me aback.

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