In the shadow of an un­seen en­emy

Howard Ja­cob­son on an­tisemitism

The Guardian - Weekend - - Front Contents -

I have 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, hatestoked 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 stiff­necked 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 →

My par­ents didn’t arm me against a hos­tile world. ‘Stay stumm,’ was my fa­ther’s ad­vice. ‘Keep your head down’

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

An­tisemitism to­day man­i­fests it­self in ha­bit­ual abuse on so­cial me­dia, the drown­ing out of any speech con­sid­ered dis­so­nant in univer­si­ties, lo­cal coun­cils

Howard Ja­cob­son re­flects on his life as a Bri­tish Jew

Howard Ja­cob­son and Jenny De Yong chose to have a re­li­gious Jewish cer­e­mony when they mar­ried in 2005

Howard Ja­cob­son: ‘I con­tinue to pro­claim my brand of largely non-ob­ser­vant Jewish­ness as zest­fully as I ever have’

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.