Zadie Smith has failed the Palestine purity test

The novelist has been monstered by the anti-Israel mob for daring to recognise the humanity of Jews.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics USA World

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So the ‘pro-Palestine’ mob has now rounded on author Zadie Smith. ‘Shibboleth’, an essay on American students’ protests against the war in Gaza, has been loudly denounced as a genocidal tract.

Published in this Saturday’s New Yorker, Smith’s essay is, at first glance, an unlikely target for the keffiyeh-sporting crowd. She explicitly expresses support for a ceasefire in Gaza, calling it a ‘potential reality and an ethical necessity’. She also celebrates those sons and daughters of privilege currently draped in Palestine flags and encamped on lawns across America’s universities. These protesters are the heirs of the student radicals of the late 1960s and early 1970s, she (wrongly) claims. Apparently, for their willingness to put their own bodies and futures on the line in support of a just cause, ‘they deserve our support and praise’.

But Smith does something else in the essay, too. Something that far too many ‘pro-Palestine’ types refuse to do. She dares to acknowledge the fear felt by many Jewish students right now, faced by hostile mobs calling them ‘Zionists’ and telling them to keep their distance. She also dares to express ‘concern for the dreadful situation of the hostages’ who were taken from Israel seven months ago by Hamas. And she dares to challenge those who minimise the rape of Israeli women during Hamas’s pogrom on 7 October last year.

For this – for gently drawing attention to the anti-Semitic elements of the pro-Palestine campaign, and for expressing sympathy with Israelis as well as Palestinians – she has been monstered by academics, authors and leftists.

Book Workers for a Free Palestine, a group of activists working in publishing, decided on Sunday that Smith’s essay warranted a public denunciation: ‘We profoundly disagree with the positions that Zadie Smith has taken in the New Yorker.’ A books editor at New Left publishers Verso joined in, calling it a ‘really bad essay’, written in ‘bad faith’. Cambridge professor of postcolonial studies Priyamvada Gopal also slammed Smith, denouncing her ‘white elite politics’ and claiming her ‘precious pomposity’ and sense of ‘rightness and superiority’ were all too typical of the ‘gaslighting’ that goes on at Smith’s alma mater, the University of Cambridge. Kettle, meet Professor Gopal.

Some of the reaction has been positively sinister. Author Monisha Rajesh said that she sees Smith ‘every morning on the school run’, and will now wear a ‘keffiyeh and carry a picture of Refaat Al Areer [a Palestinian writer killed during the war] and tell her, “It’s complicated”’. Elsewhere, one widely retweeted comment claimed that the mixed-race Smith uses ‘black aesthetics’, from her ‘head wrap’ to her ‘kente cloth’ earrings, in order to ‘conceal her deeply pedestrian, white, middle-class politics’. Apparently, expressing reservations about aspects of the pro-Palestine protests means that Smith is betraying her ethnic identity.

As nasty and borderline racist as the backlash against Smith has been, it has been revealing, too. Let’s not forget that Smith praised the US student protests and threw her weight behind the ‘ethical imperative’ of a ceasefire in Gaza. In short, she mostly aligned herself with the pro-Palestine activists. But that’s not enough for them. They want more. They want absolute conformity. They want the pro-Palestine catechism reeled off. They want Israel accused of ‘settler colonialism’, and called a ‘Zionist entity’. They want repeated, genocidal talk of ‘From the river to sea, Palestine will be free’.

These are the ‘shibboleths’ that Smith criticises in her essay, for both their unreality and their ‘violent simplicity’. This way of talking and thinking, in rote-learned catchphrases, erases the ‘unbelievably labyrinthine histories’ of Israel and Palestine. As she has now discovered, any refusal to rehearse these bigoted anti-Israel clichés and you’re out. You’re a ‘white’ purveyor of ‘middle-class politics’. A sympathiser with the supposed oppressor.

The intolerance of the pro-Palestine set is striking. No criticism is allowed. You’re either with us or against us. Plus the criticisms or dissents they are taking such outsized offence to are things that really should be uncontroversial: like saying anti-Semitism is horrific or that Hamas’s rape of civilians was barbaric.

It’s not the first time we’ve seen this. When actress Gwyneth Paltrow posted a message critical of Hamas’s actions on 7 October, stating ‘Rape is not resistance or freedom fighting’, she was condemned as a supporter of ‘genocide’. It showed that among the West’s pro-Palestine set, questioning even the anti-Semitic crimes of Hamas is off-limits.

Now Zadie Smith has failed their anti-Israel purity test. All because she rejects the more bigoted shibboleths of the anti-Israel movement and acknowledges the humanity of Jews. This ought to shame the pro-Palestine crowd, but you can bet that it won’t. And that ought to tell us all we need to know about what is really driving their campaign.

Tim Black is a spiked columnist.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Politics USA World


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