Cynthia Ozick and the Palestinians

I’ve talked on this blog many a time of my love of Cynthia Ozick‘s writing.

On Twitter tonight, a bunch of us are talking about her again, particularly her confrontation with Norman Mailer at Town Hall in 1971.

But Cynthia Ozick has also said some terrible things about the Palestinians. Like this from the Wall Street Journal in 2003:

By replacing history with fantasy, the Palestinians have invented a society unlike any other, where hatred trumps bread. They have reared children unlike any other children, removed from ordinary norms and behaviors. And they have been assisted in these deviations by Arab rulers who for half a century have purposefully and pitilessly caged and stigmatized them as refugees, down to the fourth generation. Refugeeism, abetted also by the United Nations, has itself been joined to the Palestinian cult of anti-history….

…Out of Israel came monotheism, out of Greece philosophy, out of Arab civilization science and poetry, out of England the Magna Carta, out of France the Enlightenment. What has been the genius of Palestinian originality, what has been the contribution of the evolving culture of Palestinian sectarianism? On the international scene: airplane hijackings and the murder of American diplomats in the 1970s, Olympic slaughterings and shipboard murders in the 1980s….

But the most ingeniously barbarous Palestinian societal invention, surpassing any other in imaginative novelty, is the recruiting of children to blow themselves up with the aim of destroying as many Jews as possible in the most crowded sites accessible….

From anyone, this would be ugly stuff.

But from the author of these words

Four hundred years of bondage in Egypt, rendered as metaphoric memory, can be spoken in a moment; in a single sentence. What this sentence is, we know; we have built every idea of moral civilization on it. It is a sentence that conceivably sums up at the start every revelation that came afterward….”The stranger that sojourneth with you shall be unto you as the home-born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

—it’s almost unbearable.


  1. Stuart Newman October 6, 2014 at 9:23 pm | #

    Who were strangers in the land of Egypt? Part of the reason it is unbearable is the self-flattering mythopoeia. Inauthentic conceptions of the past go hand-in-hand with corrupted views of the present.

    • Lex Solo October 6, 2014 at 10:08 pm | #

      So true. It seems that the bridge between the past and the present is nonexistent, for if it was present, people would have different beliefs and understandings of the current situation.

  2. John Maher October 6, 2014 at 10:06 pm | #

    Typical of the cliche of the creative yet schizophrenic artist. I imagine Cynthia as standing over her kitchen sink in Miami eating tuna from the can like one of her characters. Essentially she falls into the same humanist trap as all oppressors: she depersonaizes the other. The Ozick passage Corey quotes is not as transcendent as he romanticizes it might be.

  3. Lex Solo October 6, 2014 at 10:10 pm | #

    The power propaganda has on people is always underestimated, but the outcome is always predictable.
    If people looked at both sides of the story, they’d see the oppressor playing the victim in this conflict.

  4. Ash October 6, 2014 at 11:04 pm | #

    Goodness! What a vile human being,

    I’ve never read any Ozick, but I certainly will after this.

  5. Robert Kircher October 6, 2014 at 11:30 pm | #

    why is it “unbearable”, intolerable? Years ago I asked Chomsky why a civil rights effort modeled on the US “ML King” example was never pressed by the Palestinians and or sympathetic Israelis. He responded that he raised the same issue long ago and it never went anywhere. Tony Judt weighed in with not altogether dissimilar advice for a ‘one state’ solution. Mutual destruction is not the answer. We know that. There is a ‘common good’ to be served. How do fear and paranoia get removed and deep human compassion on all sides become the guiding force? I think Ozick is attempting to raise that banner again for all concerned. If Israeli and Palestinian ears are completely deaf to one another, decent-peaceful alternatives blind to one another, the situation for all is captive to the ‘intolerable’. Ozick’s intervention is much beyond mere ‘name calling’ and raises the need for serious reconsideration at this point.

    • Andrew Miller October 7, 2014 at 11:58 am | #

      Palestinians tried revolting against Israeli apartheid through civil disobedience and other MLK-like tactics. It was called the First Intifada. Israel responded by removing all journalists and NGOs from the Occupied Territories, sending in thugs to abduct, torture and even rape thousands of political activists and suppressing public protests or speeches with live ammunition. The minute that Israel decided to quell popular protests with torture and murder, they lost any right to complain when the people they oppress, many of whom were scarred by Israeli torture or by the murder of their family members by the IDF, traded in their placards and bullhorns for bombs and guns.

      • Ash October 7, 2014 at 10:38 pm | #

        Shame there’s no “like” option here because that was a great response, Andrew. Thanks.

      • Barry October 8, 2014 at 2:30 pm | #

        Yes – there’s an assumption that it must not have been tried, because of course we would have heard of it. And I’d heard of it also. If there aren’t pictures, and if it doesn’t make headlines, then the information suppression worked.

  6. PAK October 6, 2014 at 11:47 pm | #

    Have any of you even considered that what Ozick has to say concerning the palestinians is true? That it is your view of the palestinians, in particular your denial of their leadership’s behavior, that is incorrect? Maybe Ozick doesn’t depersonalize the other, but you all infantilize the palestinian? Try bearing it by reading outside your comfortable social and ideological circle. If an ideology doesn’t fit the facts, discard the ideology, not the facts.

    • Steve Zielinski October 7, 2014 at 12:23 am | #

      “Have any of you even considered that what Ozick has to say concerning the palestinians is true?”

      Sure. But it’s hate-inspired rubbish.

    • Ligurio October 7, 2014 at 1:07 am | #

      So the fact is that Palestinian children are raised, uniquely among humans, to be violent? Huh. I hadn’t thought of that.

    • Andrew Miller October 7, 2014 at 11:51 am | #

      Yes, there is clearly something inherent savage in the Palestinian character. It has nothing to do with them being robbed of their homeland, their dignity and their future, forced into bantustans, concentration camps and refugee camps, watching their children slaughtered by IDF or Irgun or Stern gang forces, their existence denied or ridiculed. It’s not as though other groups that were facing brutal racist oppression ever resisted; everyone knows the black South Africans, the Haitian slaves, the Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe and the Native Americans all had the decency to meekly acquiesce to their own destruction or oppression without troubling good folks with anything as uncivilized as violent revolt.

      • Barry October 8, 2014 at 2:31 pm | #

        Yes. Right-wing US propaganda about ‘outside agitators’ and communists seems to have been swept under Cio’s rug.

  7. yuliy October 7, 2014 at 2:22 am | #

    Mr. Robin builds not so subtle trap, essentially a trope Zhdanov would approve of – of a talented author in tenets of her class prejudices. Faked pity of an allegedly wasted talent etc.

    Not surprising to see it working; what still feels bizarre, even with this seasoned crowd, that the actual horror that drives Ozick’s prose – of willingly dying children, of generations confined to ghettos – washes over them not ruffling a single feather…

  8. Raymond Deane October 7, 2014 at 3:52 am | #
  9. Theo October 7, 2014 at 9:32 am | #

    I have never understood why you admire her. On first reading her, my strongest feeling from her writing was that she was deformed by her belief.

    • Corey Robin October 7, 2014 at 9:49 am | #

      Strong writers are often deformed by their beliefs.

  10. Thomas Leo Dumm October 7, 2014 at 1:10 pm | #

    I tend to agree with Corey, though specifically Ozick has never been someone whose writing impressed me that much. It can be very difficult to work through issues and sustain a belief in the humanity of those we could easily despise. I currently am trying (struggling) to write about Thomas Jefferson and his home, Monticello, and there is both no doubt that he was a genius and responsible for an enormous expansion of democracy in the United States, and no doubt as well that he abandoned his principles completely when he realized that he could monetize the value of his slaves in order to acquire loans from Dutch bankers to expand his home, and thereafter backed away almost completely from his earlier positions on abolition. He was, moreover, a cruel slave master to boot. It wasn’t a “paradox,” he wasn’t simply “a man of his times.” He betrayed his own beliefs. What do we do?

    • seymourblogger October 10, 2014 at 2:04 am | #

      On Jefferson and I think you can feel his subtle thinking in this 1760 VA law on slavery

    • Robin Marie October 12, 2014 at 5:44 pm | #

      “…there is no doubt that he was a genius…”

      Probably true, but so what? Lots of awful and wonderful people can be described as a genius. On its own it carries no inherent positive qualities.

      “…responsible for an enormous expansion of democracy….”

      This is far too grandiose a claim to make. Personally responsible? Why? Because he wrote the declaration of independence and other similar texts? Because he purchased the Louisiana Territory? The first was merely one expression, out of hundreds and hundreds at the time, of the political thought of Atlantic republicans — it is not like Jefferson invented it or even had a terribly unique take on it — the second only expanded democracy for white men looking for land, who then took the opportunity to ensure that any version of democracy for non-whites would be violently crushed.

      But, 150+ years later we have MLK making an appeal to the declaration, so apparently this must mean we have the original white male rapist slave-holding genius to thank for our freedoms. Even in recognizing that we cannot simply write off his sins as a product of his times, you still give him far more credit than he deserves. What should we do? We should conclude this guy was an asshole.

  11. Zujaja T. October 7, 2014 at 3:47 pm | #

    I genuinely wondered what it was in the contrast with the second passage that was so striking for you–the eloquence or the irony?

    Perhaps this is what you may have been alluding to (or perhaps not), but personally I find the willful blindness emanating from the second passage rather unbelievable–to speak about the centrality of the shared struggle of exile in the development of moral civilization, and then to deny it in another breath to the Palestinians; to quote this passage from Leviticus and then speake of refugeeism as uniquely propelling a negative, anti-historical, hateful disposition among Palestinians; to deny them any civilizational belonging or cultural or metaphoric memory, as if the experience of being a refugee only ever empowered the Israelites. She is ignorant and unread on the topic of the centrality of exile in the development of identity and kinship in Islamic historical memory, and that is probably because she is too arrogant and narrowminded to even acknowledge it: “Those who entered the city and the faith before them love those who fled unto them for refuge, and find in their breasts no need for that which hath been given them, but prefer the refugees above themselves though poverty was their own lot.”

    • Corey Robin October 7, 2014 at 7:08 pm | #

      Yes, that is precisely what I was alluding to.

  12. Edward October 7, 2014 at 4:15 pm | #

    Does Ozick actually know any Palestinians to base her sweeping generalizations on? I really doubt it. Very racist.

    • BillR October 8, 2014 at 11:09 am | #

      Israelis by and large have no communication with Arabs…Israeli Jews’ consciousness is characterized by a sense of victimization, a siege mentality, blind patriotism, belligerence, self-righteousness, dehumanization of the Palestinians and insensitivity to their suffering.

      Cynthia Ozick and others from her cohort in the “diaspora” tend to have an even more oppressive siege mentality as has been studies for at least a couple of generations in studies of “Long Distance Nationalism”.

      • Edward October 8, 2014 at 1:26 pm | #

        Yes, unfortunately, Ozick isn’t alone.

      • BillR October 8, 2014 at 3:00 pm | #

        not alone by any means. The most fanatical settlers seem to come from “good families” in the US or Canada who gave up on intellectually and financially rewarding careers to move to the “Holy Land” and “redeem” it per the worst of 19’th century Nationalist tropes. Here is a mathematician born in Missouri praising a Doctor born in Brooklyn for carrying out a shooting spree at a religious place:

        At some point the bourgeois trappings of the old yeshivas and right-wing religion must have seemed inauthentic or too removed for Rav Gadi. He found his way to one of the most mystical and extreme yeshivas in the West Bank: Od Yosef Chai High School at Joseph’s Tomb, then located outside Nablus, and led by Rabbi Yitzhak Ginsburgh, native Missourian, mathematical genius, philosopher, Kabbalist, and Talmudic scholar whose political leanings could be described as Jewish-monarchist. While Ginsburgh has written more than a dozen books—with titles like Awakening the Spark Within: Finding Your Soulmate; Kabbalah and Meditation, and Interpretation of Dreams and Paranormal Experiences—he is best-known for his notorious essay “Baruch Hagever,” praising Baruch Goldstein’s 1994 murder of 29 Arabs in the Cave of the Patriarch.

      • Edward October 8, 2014 at 8:17 pm | #

        These people may be the future of Israel.

        Ozick should probably write about “Jewish monarchists”. Its something she might actually be familiar with.

  13. delia ruhe October 8, 2014 at 1:44 pm | #

    Yeah, I used to like Ozick a lot. But I find it difficult to reconcile her blind Zionism and anti-Palestinian racism with what I used to call her remarkable intelligence. I’ve quit reading her.

  14. Bill Knight October 8, 2014 at 10:27 pm | #

    There’s Tanya Preminger, Israeli stone sculptor, rudely vicious towards Palestine, perhaps the most ineffable talent of any alive who work in stone. What are you going to do?

  15. Roquentin October 8, 2014 at 11:27 pm | #

    After thinking about this a bit, it reminds me of how everyone has that relative they really like, but then out of the blue just starts saying something backwards and racist. I was once subjected to a 45 minute long sustained salvo of arguments on why Mexicans were ruining the country during a family gathering. It upset me so badly that I don’t think I said a word for the rest of the evening after we got back to the motel. Like Cynthia Oziick (whom I never would have known existed were it not for this blog), it’s easier to forgive if they’re old.

  16. adela October 9, 2014 at 1:17 pm | #

    That first passage from Oznick was very disturbing to read. It reminded me of Fallaci’s Islamophobic rant after 9/11 (“They breed like rats, and they piss in baptismal fonts.” – Fallaci, ‘The Rage and the Pride’).

    Fallaci’s journalistic career and interviews with heads of state in the 70’s were brilliant, scathing, impactful & influential….albeit, there was always a strong undertow of her ego-centrism to contend with. And then her xenophobia rose to the surface and completely discredited her. For many (including me), she was relegated to the dustbins of history.

    PS: Palestinians didn’t invent suicide bombings (atleast that is how I interrupted Oznick’s statement). If my historical references/memory is correct, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka first deployed suicide bombings in the early 80’s.

  17. adela October 9, 2014 at 2:16 pm | #

    One further thought: It is important to read from others pov’s; although I don’t agree with Oznick, censorship is never the answer; not everybody has to feel sympathy with the Palestinian plight or culture, no one should feel they can’t criticize Palestinian historical resistance tactics, or give a balanced critique of Palestinian cultural failings, shortfalls, etc; …..but one thing I do find fault with, and absolutely can’t abide, is not addressing the sufferings that the Palestinians have endured as a result of the creation of Israel. So Oznick loses credibility in my eyes when she critiques (rather harshly) the Palestinians without taking into consideration any historical cause and effect. When she fails to do so she loses the argument.

    As for the juxtaposition between her comments on the Jewish exile experience and the Palestinian experience, the lack of self-awareness is awe-inspiring.

  18. ovitt October 12, 2014 at 7:12 pm | #

    The list of morally suspect writers is fairly long: Celine, Hamsun, Saramago, Sartre, and Gorky, pop into view at once. Cynthia Oznick isn’t in this company to be sure, but her case brings up the problem of how much we forgive in the writers we love. It’s best to read them all, even if one must hold one’s nose…

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