In the many terrors of the Gaza War spare a thought for the admirers of Zadie Smith’s early novels. The betrayals are many but do any cut as deep as the White Teeth author and now professor of creative writing at New York University in her latest essay  in the New Yorker?


“Pretentious and naval-gazing” says Mohammed el-Kurd, a Palestinian political activist and writer, “sick of ignorant and tone-deaf writers who feel like they can lecture us from their lavish homes”. “Wow,” writes the august professor of European Studies Alex Callinicos, “Zadie Smith’s piece is embarrassingly bad”. “What a disappointment from a novelist whose early books I liked.” 

Fatuma Khaireh, a radio producer, says that “Smith uses black aesthetics to conceal her deeply pedestrian white middle-class politics”. Cambridge Professor Priyamvada Gopal says that “to understand Zadie Smith you have to understand Cambridge,” and “its special brand of self-regarding gas-lighting”. Novelist Michael McGee – you know, the Michael McGee – says “we lost Zadie” when she failed to pay obeisance to “the centuries-long dispossession and subjugation of the Irish Catholic population” in Northern Ireland.

From the reactions it would be easy to imagine that Smith’s essay, “Shibboleth” was badly written, arrogant, and, what might be taken as the real point, hostile to the cause of Palestinians currently facing Israeli bombardment in Gaza. But surprisingly, none of these turns out to be the case.

Far from attacking the Palestinian cause, Smith mostly is taking issue with the kind of thoughtless cliches that makes it easier to kill Palestinians. Hamas, she cautions “will not be ‘eliminated”. A ceasefire she says “is an ethical necessity”. More, 

“the sort of people who take at face value phrases like ‘surgical strikes’ and ‘controlled military operations’ sometimes need to look at and/or think about dead children specifically in order to refocus their minds on reality.”

 Smith supports the student protests, fulsomely, and condemns their suppression:

 “To send the police in to arrest young people peacefully insisting upon a ceasefire represents a moral injury to us all. To do it with violence is a scandal. How could they do less than protest, in this moment? They are putting their own bodies into the machine. They deserve our support and praise.”

 Some of Smith’s critics, such as Mohammed el-Kurd take issue with her presumed place of privilege and self-importance. But they are late to make that point, since she makes it herself:

“My personal views have no more weight than an ear of corn in this particular essay. The only thing that has any weight in this particular essay is the dead.”

Reading Zadie Smith’s essay, raises questions about how those who have criticised her have got it so wrong. But read critics and the piece more carefully and it becomes apparent what offends them. The theme of the essay is that clichés and formulas should not do our thinking for us. As she takes issue with the unthinking identification of Palestinians with Hamas, Smith also asks that we should not collapse Zionism into one ahistorical box, as if it was the same thing: “as if that word were an unchanged and unchangeable monolith, meaning exactly the same thing in 2024 and 1948 as it meant in 1890 or 1901 or 1920”. She wants protesters to take seriously the possibility that Jewish students might feel intimidated by their protests. And she argues that making ‘“Jew” and “colonialist” synonymous, and “Palestinian” and “terrorist” synonymous’ are the same kind of error.

To the dogmatically engaged supporters of the Palestine protests these careful attempts to upbraid formula thinking are monstrous examples of “both sidesism”. That is the terrible sin of thinking that there might be two sides to an issue. For the Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaigners subtlety is betrayal: “Here’s some nuance,” writes Cailleach Ainrialai, “Go fuck yourself.”

Zadie Smith’s essay, though it supports a ceasefire, defends Palestinians against dehumanising language that aids their victimisation, supports student protests, commits the unforgiveable sin of expecting people to think about what they do. That is enough to send her critics, critics who seem to be found entirely in the protesters camp, into a rage. Perhaps it can be concluded that maybe their goal is not after all a ceasefire or even to save Palestinian lives. It is instead to embrace a moral cause without qualification. It is not enough to be broadly on the right side, it is that all those who are not all in are traitors. Their cause is at odds with reflection or questioning, which it recognises as the death of dogma.

 James Heartfield is a writer and lecturer.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the Radicalism of fools project.

PHOTO: "Zadie Smith by Jillian Tamaki NYT Nov. 19, 2016" by Wolf Gang is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.