I spent part of my vacation reading George Orwell’s essays, which turned out to be a good thing to do for someone troubled by the recent conflict in Gaza. Why? The British writer died when Israel was two years old and there was no such thing as Palestinian national identity.
Orwell was a man of the left who could write a bitter parable of Soviet Communism. He was a loyal Englishman who could write critically of his country during the Battle of Britain: “As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.”
A few weeks ago there was a bit of a debate in the Forward about what Orwell would have had to say about Gaza. Daniel May claimed that he would have dismissed persistent Israeli claims to the right of self-defense as the just the kind of anesthetizing political speech that he excoriated in his 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language.” Gil Troy responded that Orwell, vigorous opponent of totalitarianism in all its forms, would have sided with the Israelis.
Personally, I am not sure which side Orwell would have been on. His sympathies were always with underdogs, with those who suffered most, but he was not sentimental about them. He was no particular fan of the Jews. He believed deeply in the rule of law and had little use for religion.
But at the end of the day, he was one to take sides. And what we can be sure of is that he would not have hesitated to criticize whichever side he took — even when the threat to that side seemed existential. In a conflict like Gaza, that’s the critical take-away, for me at least. Taking a side not only entitles you to turn a critical eye on it, but obligates you to do so.