JK Rowling's Weird, Nonsensical Claim That Dumbledore Would Have Been Against a Boycott of Israel

Is it really kosher to turn stories you made up yourself into parables about current affairs?

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Nov 2 2015, 4:35pm

How would Harry Potter respond to the Israel-Palestine conflict? What would Spock say about the rational markets hypothesis? Does Luke Skywalker think that David Cameron really fucked that pig, and who is Yoda backing in the Republican primaries? This isn't just a wacky thought experiment; this is the real-life 2015, in which it's impossible to formulate any kind of political thought without the intervention of some fictional wizards; a world teetering on the edge of nonexistence, where it's impossible to tell whether pregnant women dying in airstrikes is a good or bad thing unless we can find out what Dumbledore thinks of it first.

Last week, JK Rowling defended her public opposition to an academic boycott of Israel by writing a bizarre and insufferably quaint essay in which she explains why Dumbledore—who is, let's not forget, a character that she made up herself—would have agreed with her. To be fair, she admits that "the Harry of six and a half books might not understand" why the Israel boycott is illegitimate, but insists that by the end of the series, Harry Potter—again, an imaginary person, who does not exist—would enthusiastically support the political program of his creator.

Making up people who conveniently agree with you isn't a strategy unique to Rowling—after all, only this year the UK's Department of Work and Pensions created a whole cast of phantasmic scroungers who were mysteriously grateful to the government for cutting off their only source of income. But if nothing else, it's a pretty dire indictment of the current state of literature that one of our most popular authors has reduced her entire literary output to a friendly hand puppet that concurs with everything she says.

According to Dumbledore, as ventriloquized by Rowling, "severing contact with Israel's cultural and academic community means refusing to engage with some of the Israelis who are most pro-Palestinian, and most critical of Israel's government." Some background: The movement for an academic boycott of Israel is in response to a 2005 call from 171 organizations representing Palestinian civil society—including labour unions, social, and feminist movements, and teachers' associations—for worldwide boycott, divestment, and sanctions against the State of Israel, with the goal of ending the occupation in Gaza and the West Bank. It's similar to, and consciously modeled on, the anti-apartheid boycott that played a significant role in ending white minority rule in South Africa.

As was the case in South Africa, the boycott movement has gained the support of many Israelis who oppose their government's occupation of the Palestinian Territories, many of whom would be directly affected, such as Kobi Snitz, an academic mathematician at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot near Tel Aviv. Rowling writes that the voices of pro-Palestinian citizens of Israel should be "amplified, not silenced"—but it's the Israeli state, not the boycott movement, that's silencing them. In 2011, Israel passed a law preventing its citizens from supporting the boycott; originally, speaking out in favor of the movement would have been a criminal offense punished by fines, now it just exposes anyone who dares to disagree with Dumbledore to potentially ruinous lawsuits and the withdrawal of state benefits (no wonder the British and Israeli governments are so closely aligned).

Rowling writes that we should ignore the Palestinian call for boycotts because Dumbledore managed to change Snape's mind when they met on a hill, and if that hadn't happened, Harry would never have managed to return the last Horcrux to the planet Mordor and stop the Manalore invasion. (My understanding of the books is a little shaky.) Of course, it's not entirely illegitimate to base our real-life decisions on heavily fictionalized moral fables; the Bible works pretty well in this regard, and you could do worse than trying to emulate Prince Myshkin or Leopold Bloom. On the other hand, people who try to build the good life on the example of Walter White or Christopher Nolan's Batman are both intensely annoying and disturbingly everywhere. If Harry Potter can be marshaled into service as a piece of Zionist hasbara, what kind of a fable is it?

The Potter books are of course a fantasy series, but the fantasy they encode has less to do with the overt content about flying around on broomsticks and more to do with the British class system. It's the story of a boy at a turreted Gormenghastian version of Eton, someone who at first finds themselves alienated in an intimidating boarding school (incidentally, one that operates through the house elves' literal slave-labor), but who eventually becomes the savior of its wizarding aristocracy, and ends the series firmly at ease with his place among the natural ruling classes. It's a profoundly conservative fantasy: the problem, at the start of the first book, is that Harry is despised and downtrodden; his salvation doesn't come from the elimination of injustice but his elevation to the ranks of the privileged.

Dumbledore is a liberal Zionist. Substitute "Israelis" for "wizards" and "Palestinians" for "Muggles" and Rowling's weird lecture on the Middle East starts to make a lot more sense. There are the bad wizards, like Voldemort, Meir Kohane, or Baruch Goldstein, who believe that theirs is the superior tribe and want to dominate or exterminate the Mugglestinians. Then there are the good wizards, who want to implement a two-state solution, who set up a bureaucratic Ministry of Magic to keep wizards and Muggles separate, who are good because they believe in strictly defined ethnic enclaves rather than any kind of actual coexistence.

Jews (like, for instance, Kobi Snitz, or myself) who want to tear down the barriers and create some kind of properly equal settlement hardly warrant a mention. JK Rowling seems to think that her stories about the Wizarding War have a lot to teach us about the situation in the Occupied Territories, that their intrinsic moral values can help everyone arrive at a lasting peace. But really, it's the other way round: actual oppression shows how necessary it is for the revolutionary Muggles to storm the ramparts of Hogwarts.

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