By Roger Cohen
20 Aug 2011
IN his novel “Deception,” Philip Roth has the American protagonist say to his British mistress: “In England, whenever I’m in a public place, a restaurant, a party, the theater, and someone happens to mention the word ‘Jew,’ I notice that the voice always drops just a little.”
She challenges him on this observation, prompting the American, a middle-aged writer, to say, yes, that’s how “you all say ‘Jew.’ Jews included.”
This prompted a memory: sitting with my mother in an Italian restaurant in the upscale London neighborhood of St. John’s Wood circa 1970 and asking her, after she had pointed to a family in the opposite corner and said they were Jewish, why her voice dropped to a whisper when she said the J word.
“I’m not whispering,” Mom said and went on cutting up her spaghetti so it would fit snugly on a fork.
But she was — in that subliminal, awkward, half-apologetic way of many English Jews. My parents were South African immigrants. Their priority was assimilation. They were not about to change their name but nor were they about to rock the boat. I never thought much about why I left the country they adopted and became an American. It happened. One thing in life leads to another. But then, a year ago, I returned.
I was at my sister’s place and a lodger of hers, seeing I had a BlackBerry, said, “Oh, you’ve got a JewBerry.” Huh? “Yeah, a JewBerry.” I asked him what he meant. “Well,” he shrugged, “BBM — BlackBerry Messenger.” I still didn’t get it. “You know, it’s free!”
None of this carried malice as far I could see. It was just flotsam carried on the tide of an old anti-Semitism. The affable, insidious English anti-Semitism that stereotypes and snubs, as in the judgment of some gent at the Athenaeum on a Jew’s promotion to the House of Lords: “Well, these people are very clever.” Or, as Jonathan Margolis noted in The Guardian, the tipsy country squire commenting on how much he likes the Jewish family who just moved into the village before adding, “Of course, everybody else hates them.”
Jewish identity is an intricate subject and quest. In America, because I’ve criticized Israel and particularly its self-defeating expansion of settlements in the West Bank, I was, to self-styled “real Jews,” not Jewish enough, or even — join the club — a self-hating Jew. In Britain I find myself exasperated by the muted, muffled way of being a Jew. Get some pride, an inner voice says, speak up!
But it’s complicated. Britain, with its almost 300,000 Jews and more than two million Muslims, is caught in wider currents — of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and political Islam. Traditionally, England’s genteel anti-Semitism has been more of the British establishment than the British working class, whereas anti-Muslim sentiment has been more working-class than establishment.
Now a ferocious anti-Zionism of the left — the kind that has called for academic boycotts of Israel — has joined the mix, as has some Muslim anti-Semitism. Meanwhile Islamophobia has been fanned by the rightist fabrication of the “Eurabia” specter — the fantasy of a Muslim takeover that sent Anders Breivik on his Norwegian killing spree and feeds far-right European and American bigotry.
Where then should a Jew in Britain who wants to speak up stand? Not with the Knesset members who have met in Israel with European rightists like Filip Dewinter of Belgium in the grotesque belief that they are Israel’s allies because they hate Muslims. Not with the likes of the Jewish writer Melanie Phillips, whose book “Londonistan” is a reference for the Islamophobes. Nor with those who, ignoring sinister historical echoes, propose ostracizing Israeli academics and embrace an anti-Zionism that flirts with anti-Semitism.
Perhaps a good starting point is a parallel pointed out to me by Maleiha Malik, a professor of law at King’s College London. A century ago, during the Sidney Street siege of 1911, it was the Jews of London’s East End who, cast as Bolsheviks, were said to be “alien extremists.” Winston Churchill, no less, argued in 1920 that Jews were part of a “worldwide conspiracy for the overthrow of civilization and the reconstitution of society on the basis of arrested development.”
The lesson is clear: Jews, with their history, cannot become the systematic oppressors of another people. They must be vociferous in their insistence that continued colonization of Palestinians in the West Bank will increase Israel’s isolation and ultimately its vulnerability.
That — not fanning Islamophobia — is the task before diaspora Jews. To speak up in Britain also means confronting the lingering, voice-lowering anti-Semitism. When Roth’s hero returns to New York, he finds he’s been missing something. His lover, now distant, asks what.
“We’ve got some of them in England, you know.”
“Jews with force, I’m talking about. Jews with appetite. Jews without shame.”
I miss them, too.
You can follow Roger Cohen on Twitter at twitter.com/nytimescohen.
Source: New York Times