Stereo­types aren’t al­ways true

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - David Aaronovitch

IN­AD­VER­TENT: NOT re­sult­ing from or achieved through de­lib­er­ate plan­ning.” That’s how my dic­tio­nary de­fines the word, but it may be that Mau­rice Co­hen of the Jewish Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Coun­cil of Ire­land uses a com­pletely dif­fer­ent source. Oth­er­wise I am pushed to un­der­stand his de­scrip­tion of Kevin My­ers’s now in­fa­mous “Jews are not gen­er­ally noted for their in­sis­tence on sell­ing their tal­ent for the low­est pos­si­ble price” phrase as be­ing a prod­uct of the au­thor hav­ing “in­ad­ver­tently stum­bled into an an­ti­semitic trope”.

What was in­ad­ver­tent about this sen­tence? What was un­planned? Had Mr My­ers meant to write “News Read­ers” and his spellchecker had let him down? Had a “not” crept in when Mr My­ers wasn’t look­ing? Was he the vic­tim of a brief mo­ment of de­monic pos­ses­sion in which the dark one guided his help­less mouse?

I sup­pose what Mr Co­hen meant was that Mr My­ers didn’t re­alise was that Jews be­ing “good with money” was an in­evitable prod­uct of the as­sump­tion that Jews as a rule are more con­cerned with money than non-Jews. Mr My­ers, though deeply lit­er­ate, made no con­nec­tion be­tween his gen­er­al­i­sa­tion and, for ex­am­ple, the words given by Shake­speare to Shy­lock: “My daugh­ter, oh my ducats, oh my daugh­ter!” Shy­lock, of course was not gen­er­ally noted for his in­sis­tence on sell­ing his tal­ent for the low­est pos­si­ble price. Half-a-mil­len­nium right there!

Mr Co­hen prob­a­bly felt that Mr My­ers was a man who blun­dered into an­tisemitism out of love for Jews. Mr My­ers him­self pro­fessed to be a philosemite. The man him­self later clar­i­fied that he had “ut­tered those words out of re­spect for the re­li­gion”. And I dare­say (but I don’t know for sure) that if you had bugged his con­ver­sa­tions over the years you’d have dis­cov­ered an ad­mi­ra­tion for Jewish ed­u­ca­tional achieve­ment, Jewish sense of com­mu­nity, Jewish or­gan­i­sa­tion, Jewish love of fam­ily, all of them as­cribed not just to an imag­ined col­lec­tive, but to in­nate shared char­ac­ter­is­tics of the group.

Heaven knows I pre­fer philosemitism to an­tisemitism, but only in the sense that I’d pre­fer dog mess on my shoe to dog mess in my din­ner. Very lit­tle creeps me out more (as some of the Amer­i­cans say) than crass gen­er­al­i­sa­tion aimed at me. If some­one tells me (and it has hap­pened) that they re­ally ad­mire Jews and there­fore ex­pect to ad­mire me, I feel slightly nau­seous.

Part of this is be­cause I recog­nise in it the de­sire to give Jews — and there­fore me — some kind of com­pen­sa­tion for other things. Say­ing as a com­pli­ment that Jews are good with money or at or­gan­is­ing lob­bies is akin to not­ing the nat­u­ral sense of rhythm that makes black peo­ple par­tic­u­larly adept at danc­ing, gospel mu­sic and 100 me­tres re­lay.

The other thing that both­ers me about it is that it is rub­bish. I know from ex­pe­ri­ence that it’s rub­bish and I know from the stats that it’s rub­bish. My fa­ther’s fam­ily were all Jewish. Jewish, Jewish, Jewish. Jewish go­ing back into the mists of East Euro­pean an­tiq­uity. And as far as I can tell there wasn’t a bar­gainer among the lot of them.

Good with money? They never had any. Good with ed­u­ca­tion? They never had any of that ei­ther. Good with com­mu­nity? Only as long as it took them to get out of it. I’ve told you this be­fore, but some read­ers will recog­nise their own his­to­ries in it: my grand­par­ents were il­lit­er­ate (my grand­fa­ther marked my dad’s birth cer­tifi­cate with an X), poverty-stricken all their lives, and only just sur­viv­ing in the Step­ney of the first half and mid­dle of the last cen­tury. They were and stayed —wait for it — Poor Jews.

And here’s the next reve­la­tion for the phi­los and the an­tis. There al­ways were plenty of poor Jews who scraped a liv­ing, and there still are. It’s just that no one much wants to talk about them.

The level of poverty in Is­rael, and not just among the ul­tra Ortho­dox and the Arab mi­nor­ity, is one of the high­est in the OECD. In 2013, it was cal­cu­lated that over half-a-mil­lion New York­ers lived in poor Jewish house­holds. Re­cent work in Canada sug­gested that 14.6 per cent of Canada’s Jews lived be­low the poverty line. This is al­most ex­actly the same rate as for Cana­di­ans gen­er­ally.

One Cana­dian re­searcher, Ran­dal Sch­noor, talk­ing about this re­search, said that, “there’s a mis­con­cep­tion that we don’t have poverty in the Jewish com­mu­nity (so) the stigma is even greater…”

Maybe that’s the true sin of My­ers. If so we might have to ask whether we don’t most of us abet it.

Good with ed­u­ca­tion? They never had any of that ei­ther

David Aaronovitch is a colum­nist for The Times

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