(GUA) I still think Britain is a fine country to be a Jew in. But it is as though I now live in the shadow of an unseen enemy
Ihave been spat at in the street for being Jewish only twice. The first time was in Port Said in the 1960s and I was able to put that down to heightened regional tensions. The second time was 25 years later in Clapham, south London where there were no heightened regional tensions. I knew that I was being spat at for being Jewish in Clapham because my assailant followed the spit with the words, “Now get yourself a shower, and you know what sort of shower I mean.”
I did. I suspect that any Jew over the age of 10 would have known what sort of shower she meant. She. Why her sex surprised me, I can’t say. Maybe I automatically think of antisemites as men. Is that insulting to women? Again, I can’t say. But because she was a woman, the sense of physical danger I might have experienced had she been a man was supplanted by a sort of sadness. I am a mother’s boy and expect a woman to nurture, not abuse me. My sadness encompassed both of us. It was as though, in the act of aspersing me, she was violating her own nature. And in the act of being aspersed I was somehow, not to blame, but implicated. What had I done to be so hateful to her?
What I did next increased my dissatisfaction with myself. I did nothing.
That’s not quite true. I mouthed some such ineffectuality as “How dare you?” or “You should be ashamed of yourself”, at which she laughed. And there I left it. What else could I do? Call the police? Make a citizen’s arrest? Buy her coffee?
If I am looking to report the pains of being Jewish, these are small pickings. But I am touching wood as I say that, for there is no knowing who might do or say what to me next. My superstition, which I don’t think is uniquely Jewish, but certainly has marked Jewish components, warns against tempting fate. It’s not for nothing that there are security men positioned outside synagogues and Jewish schools. We live in a rage-filled, hate-stoked world. And where the hate precedes the cause of hate and only later looks for reasons, the Jew will always do as pretext.
I wasn’t left long distressed by the spitting incident. There is such a thing as Jewish self-hatred, though it is considered unacceptable to say so. As in all instances of abuse – and antisemitism is abuse – you introject the ill-treatment and disparagement. But in my experience the disparagement you introject is the remote, historical or even Biblical sort. Am I the stiff-necked Israelite who made God wonder whether Creation had been such a good idea? Am I the pitiless, legalistic Jew the Venetians saw in Shylock? Anything closer to home and I rally my resources. The one-to-one contact of a living antisemite makes me strong. What poisonous propaganda has my assailant been reading, I ask. What can I write to counter its effect? This is a pretty literary, chair-bound version of strength, I grant you, but we can fight only with the weapons we possess. My father wasn’t averse to using his fists.
I don’t have a Jewish chip on my shoulder. My parents didn’t arm me against a hostile world. A few things might be said in my hearing that I might not like, they warned, but I wasn’t to go looking for them. My father attended Oswald Mosley’s rallies and was once arrested, he claimed, for knocking out the horse the fascist leader was riding. He’d aimed his punch at Mosley and missed. Whatever had or hadn’t happened, I was not to go out and do something similar. “Stay stumm,” was my father’s advice, no matter that he didn’t heed it himself. “Keep your head down.” It’s not impossible he thought he was talking to the horse.
Among my Jewish friends, the person who saw an antisemite under every bush was a stock comic figure. For all the care they took to bring us up as citizens of this country, proud of our inheritance but free of ancient perturbation, our parents were still inclined, for themselves, to see enemies everywhere. This was hardly surprising. If they didn’t have their own memories of pogroms and similar acts of anti-Jewish violence in eastern Europe, they remembered hearing their parents relate their memories of them. We forget how many thousands of Jews were slaughtered in that part of the world long before the Holocaust. So antisemitism was bound to be more real to our mothers and fathers than it could ever be to us. Yes, a few of our teachers made derogatory remarks; ascribed our cleverness in some areas to a diabolically smart Jewish gene, and our ineptitude in others to a hopelessly defective one. Occasionally, we were angry, sometimes we were hurt, but mainly we laughed. None of it halted our running gag against the unenlightened shtetl Jew who thought antisemites were the sole authors of our misfortunes. “Antisemitism?” we’d ask darkly when one of us got a bad mark at school, or failed to win a prize, or lost a girlfriend. We particularly enjoyed this joke if the organisation awarding prizes, or indeed the girlfriend, was Jewish. At a time when Jews are being accused of faking antisemitism, it is important to stress that our default position is to make light of it.
This country must take some credit for our civilised amusement. Mosley aside – and my father knew how to fix him – there was little in the national discourse to upset us. But then came Israel. Or rather, as Israel had been there throughout our childhoods, the systematic anathematising of Israel to the point where it became an abomination.
I was not brought up a Zionist. For a long time, I never really knew what a Zionist was. Some of my friends went to summer camps that were a sort of trial run for life on a kibbutz, but I never fancied them. They involved too much dancing with people of one’s own sex. But it was a respectful ignorance. As a rule, our families subscribed to the lifeboat argument for Israel. We would, in all likelihood, need a place to run to again one day. I subscribe to that argument still.
Generally, there was great sympathy for Israel among the general population in the 1950s and 1960s. The left gave its support, seeing in the kibbutz a fine example of socialism in action. Winning the six-day war changed that. I recall my father-in-law celebrating the victory but saying it would return to haunt us. Us? Yes. You didn’t have to be a Zionist to feel that the victory belonged to you. Jews hadn’t won anything for a long time. Many peeled off again, of course, as Israel became an occupying force, whether or not it wanted to be. Disillusion was understandable; more bewildering was how quickly an old affection turned into a new and peculiarly virulent hatred, and how it wasn’t just the Israeli politics of the hour that people decried, but Zionism itself. That made no sense to me. If the left, in particular, could have understood the necessity and sung the praises of Zionism once, why did they have to junk it completely now? A thing doesn’t all at once become evil because it loses its way.
The Israel-loathing that began to consume the left altered my sense of being Jewish in this country. Past slights – the odd teacher wondering if Jews controlled the Nobel prize committee, my tutor at university calling me Finklebaum one day and Goldfinger the next – had been as nothing. A panto. But suddenly no one was laughing. I didn’t walk the streets in fear. I didn’t think of emigrating. And I didn’t consider becoming less conspicuously Jewish. Thirteen years ago, my wife and I chose to be married in a religious Jewish ceremony, and I continue to proclaim my brand of otherwise largely non-observant Jewishness as zestfully as I ever have. I still think Britain is a fine country to be a Jew of any complexion in. But it is as though I now live in the shadow of an unseen enemy. There are people not far away who hate beyond reason an enterprise to which I am only tenuously connected, but connected nonetheless.
If I think back to moments of Jew-related tension I’ve experienced in the second half of my life, they have almost all been to do with Israel. There is no point in citing instances. They aren’t personal to me. And they are more to do with a changed atmosphere than deeds. You can say I’m the lucky one. Post the emergence of anti-Zionism as a faith, Jews have been attacked and, in some European countries, killed. So far, I have had only to tolerate the vituperation that trails my articles.
But the atmosphere of which I speak is of a sort to which no group should be subjected. It manifests itself in habitual abuse on social media, the drowning out of any speech considered dissonant in universities, local councils and debating chambers, that cold-eyed contempt of which Jeremy Corbyn is master, and the undisguised assumption, within leftist politics, that when a Jew complains of antisemitism, he is lying. Most Jews know what antisemitism is and what it isn’t. Its history is written on the Jewish character in blood. To invent it where it is not would be a sacrilege.
The incantatory repetition of the charge that Jews cry antisemitism only in order to subvert criticism of Israel or discredit Corbyn is more than fatuous and lazy, and it is more than painful to those many Jews who own an old allegiance to the Labour party and who are not strangers to criticising Israel. It is the deepest imaginable insult. I cannot speak for all Jews, but a profound depression has taken hold of those I know. For myself, I feel I am back in that lightless swamp of medieval ignorance where the Jew who is the author of all humanity’s ills lies, cheats, cringes and dissembles. And this time there is no horse to punch.