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It may well be that Portuguese writer Jose Saramago deserves his Nobel Prize for literature. But his recent pronouncement on the Middle East makes me think him best described by the title of his most famous novel, Blindness.

Visiting Ramallah with a delegation from the International Parliament of Writers, including Russell Banks, Nigeria's Wole Soyinka and South Africa's Breyten Breitenbach, Saramago called Israel's invasion of Ramallah "a crime comparable to Auschwitz."

If that were all, one might suppose he was being ironic, or postmodern, for surely anything is comparable in some sense to anything else. But alas, Saramago was in deadly earnest. He wrote in the Madrid newspaper El Pais (as translated by Paul Berman in The Forward): "Intoxicated mentally by the messianic dream of a Greater Israel which will finally achieve the expansionist dreams of the most radical Zionism; contaminated by the monstrous and rooted 'certitude' that in this catastrophic and absurd world there exists a people chosen by God and that, consequently, all the actions of an obsessive, psychological and pathologically exclusivist racism are justified; educated and trained in the idea that any suffering that has been inflicted, or is being inflicted, or will be inflicted on everyone else, especially the Palestinians, will always be inferior to that which they themselves suffered in the Holocaust, the Jews endlessly scratch their own wound to keep it bleeding, to make it incurable, and they show it to the world as if it were a banner."

Now you may or may not approve of Israel's conduct in the matter of the Palestinians. You may think it justified by realpolitik or the legitimate duty of a state to protect its citizens; you may think it characterized by ill-considered overreaction; or you may think it a cynical, even brutal, exercise in neo-colonial expansionism. You may reasonably think it any number of things. But unless you are wilfully blind or morally obtuse, you may not reasonably think it comparable to a regime whose goal was the extermination of an entire people.

It gets worse. Much worse. By the time Saramago reaches the end of his tortured sentence, his villains are revealed to be not ultra-orthodox Israeli fanatics or seekers after Armageddon or militant right-wing settlers. No, his villains are "the Jews," who will simply not let go of history to serve the greater good (in Saramago's gospel).

What we have, then, is a attempt to taint with the contemporary mark of Cain (that is, racism and nazism) not just a small, fanatical element, or a contingent political leadership, but an entire people. At first, I simply thought Saramago's remarks blinkered and inappropriate, proof that writer of merit does not necessarily equal clear thinker. But that's not nearly strong enough. In fact, Saramago betrays his obligations as a writer. He indulges in precisely the sort of racism of which he accuses "the Jews." His caricature, which could have come directly from the pages of Julius Streicher's Der Stürmer, would have gladdened Hitler's heart. Just who is playing Nazi here?

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