It was hard writing my recent post about my own unacknowledged racism – and there’s obviously more that I didn’t write about. I edited it far more carefully than I’ve edited most of the pieces here, trying to make sure the language I used wasn’t in itself patronising or covertly racist, and I don’t think I succeeded: the hidden racism goes too deep. But at least it was a start. I don’t want this post to be racist in its turn by highlighting the oppression of certain white people at the expense of Black suffering. But an extraordinary documentary, Meeting The Enemy, made by a young Muslim woman who courageously got to know a number of white supremacist men, has left me in no doubt that Jews – and homosexuals, come to that – are hated by these groups as much as Black people are.
It’s difficult to write about antisemitism, not only because of Black Lives Matter but also because of what’s been happening in the Labour party. I’m not going to talk about that, but it seems clear to me that antisemitism exists on the left as well as the right. And of course there’s the whole thorny issue of whether and to what extent criticism of Israel is antisemitic. I’ll say more about that perhaps in another post, but for the moment I’ll talk about my own experience.
As I’ve said in previous blog posts, I come from a Jewish background. My family wasn’t religious (my father was an avowed Marxist and my mother lost all faith during the Second World War), but we were culturally Jewish, and more so when I was younger. I grew up knowing we were ‘different’, and there was both a superiority and an inferiority in that difference. My auntie often said the Jews were God’s chosen people, but beyond our extended family and the synagogue – to the extent that we belonged to it – I was aware that not everybody seemed to think being Jewish was a good thing. I certainly felt uncomfortable about it at primary school, and found myself taking part in the Christian assembly for a while because I was too shy to say I didn’t belong. I always knew I was different from the ‘English’ children (as my parents, second-generation immigrants, still called them) but I don’t remember being picked on because of it. I believe my brother was, though. At my secondary school there was a sizeable number of Jewish girls and we had our own separate assembly – as the Catholics did – taken by one of the older girls. We’d then join the main assembly for the notices, Jews and Catholics huddling together at the back of the hall. We didn’t have any Jewish teachers, but I didn’t have a sense there was any anti-Jewish feeling. Nor did it seem to be an issue at university.
In the 1980s and early 90s I worked for what was then Age Concern in the London borough of Camden. The area had a large Jewish population, most of which divided into two halves: those whose families had come from Russia and Poland in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century and those who had arrived here as refugees from Germany and central Europe in the 1930s. There was a marked difference between the two groups. The more recent refugees tended on the whole to be richer, better educated and – those from Germany in particular – less culturally Jewish than the people who were more established here. There was snobbery, and even antisemitism, on the part of the German-Jewish people towards the eastern Europeans, especially if they spoke Yiddish or identified with Yiddish culture. I sometimes heard people say, “I don’t speak Yiddish. I speak proper German,” and I remember an elderly German-Jewish woman, a retired research scientist, who found the befriender she had been offered “too Jewish”. At the time I let it go – I doubt I would now. From some quarters there was also anti-German feeling against the German Jews. A colleague of mine at Age Concern was all too happy to tar them with the same brush as Germans who had supported Hitler.
The antisemitism I encountered was often so much taken for granted that it passed unnoticed – and at the time I didn’t challenge it. An elderly Englishwoman who lived in a rather posh block of flats once remarked to me that many of the residents there were not “people like us,” adding that they were Jewish. I said nothing and didn’t even let on that I was Jewish too. I still wish I had. On another occasion I told an elderly Russian woman, a retired opera singer (I really did meet all sorts) that my grandfather had come from Odessa. “Oh yes,” she said dismissively. “A lot of Jewish people there. They didn’t speak proper Russian.” Again I said nothing – but I did provide her with a Jewish befriender, who as it happens got on with her extremely well. Even though I enjoyed mixing with the Jewish clients, I found myself slipping into casual antisemitism too, or letting things I said be taken as such. I once said to one of our day centre workers that the women at the Jewish day centre were rather awful – having a certain affection for their particular kind of awfulness – and my colleague quite happily took it to mean I thought they were more awful than our day centre members, some of whom could be pretty poisonous at times.
Looking back on it, what strikes me is the casualness of it, the assumption that of course those Jews are different from ‘us’ and somehow not quite all right. Not to mention the equation of being ‘Jewish’ with being mean, or the unpleasant jokes that poke fun at Jewish people (I can’t think of an example) and are very different from Jewish jokes within the community. Later on, in a different job, I began to see how antisemitism is often played down as a form of discrimination: the subtle assumption that Jewish people, who are supposedly privileged, don’t deserve the quite the same amount of sympathy as other white groups, such as Irish people, when they are discriminated against. I recently listened to a talk on white privilege by a white psychotherapist. She listed, with sympathy, some of the white groups who have experienced discrimination but significantly – I felt – failed to mention antisemitism in general or the Holocaust in particular. I’m sure this again came from the sense that the Jews are privileged, and perhaps the notion that they have somehow brought it on themselves in a way that other groups haven’t.
In the context of racism as a whole, it is difficult. Most Jewish people in this country are not people of colour, and it’s possible to conceal being Jewish – as I’ve said above – in a way that it isn’t possible to conceal being Black. The Jews, though frequently persecuted, have not been enslaved in modern times, and among the Jewish population there are many who are publicly successful and financially comfortable. But the discrimination still exists, in both subtle and less subtle ways. It isn’t that long since many golf clubs, for instance, covertly or overtly banned Jewish members.
Antisemitism tends to be at its most blatant from the far right. When he worked in a south London library, my brother was asked by a member of the National Front, “Why do you have so many books by Jewish authors?” The creeping spread of Holocaust denial, the resurrection of the fake Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which outlines a supposed Jewish conspiracy, the notion that Jewish finance is behind many of the evils of the modern world, all feed into the picture of Jewish people as ‘other’, the unpleasant racial stereotypes existing side by side with an imagined sinister power. These ideas have been adopted by the far right but there are those on the left, particularly those who support the Palestinian cause, who subscribe to them too, or at any rate don’t challenge them. Jeremy Corbyn’s failure to see the stigmatising Jewish stereotypes in the mural he praised and his infamous remark that ‘they don’t share the English sense of irony’, which he said referred to Zionists but could equally well have been about all Jews, show at the very least a blindness to the reality of antisemitism. The distinction between anti-Zionism and antisemitism is often blurred – in both directions – and I won’t say more about that thorny topic now. Jewish people who support the Palestinians are sometimes described as ‘antisemitic Jews’, and that’s another whole issue in itself.
As I’ve been writing this, I’ve become more aware of my own discomfort at the subtle antisemitism that I’ve experienced, and that I’ve often accepted and barely noticed, or even colluded with. If Black Lives Matter has brought to society as a whole an awareness of the depth and breadth of discrimination against Black people, it has also brought a greater awareness of the many forms of discrimination in our society. Antisemitism is undoubtedly one of them.