Monday, 21 September 2015

A Very British Antisemitism

I was coming out the shower after a yoga class and struck up a conversation with the guy next to me. 'Are you going to get yourself one of these?' He asked, nodding at his lovely - but expensive - yoga mat. 'No,' I replied, I've got a mat already, it's not as fancy as that one, but it's fine.' By this point I'm doing up the last buttons of my shirt, 'I'll save myself the hundred pounds.' At this I take the last piece of clothing from the locker, my kippah, and put it on my head. 'Oh,' he starts laughing, 'you said that just as you put the Jewish headcovering on, that's fantastic, that is.' He has genuinely found this an amusing moment. It takes a moment to gather myself. It's been a while since I've heard anything quite so crude directed at me and my "Jewish headcovering." He's noticed I am looking at him strangely. 'What,' he asks, 'you're not amused?' 'By the anitsemitic derogatory stereotyping?' I confirm, 'no I'm not.' Now it's his turn to be taken aback. 'I didn't mean to offend.' He sounds hurt. 'No,' I say, 'I know you didn't, but that doesn't really change anything.' And I'm off, bag on shoulder, door swinging shut behind me.

A couple of reflections.

I didn't let the moment pass. I'm proud of myself. I spend a lot of my time swallowing my tongue, as a communal Rabbi you have to. Moreover a changing room isn't a place where I feel comfortable making anything other than smallest of small talk. I'm caught off-guard, but it turns out I didn't shuffle away meekly in the face of offence - on this occasion. The papers in the Britain have recently been full of discussions about women responding fiercely, or meekly, to the slings and arrows of gentler, but still pernicious, acts of everyday sexism. It turns out for Jews too there is that moment of having to decide whether to let offense lie, or speak out. On this occasion I spoke out. I'm delighted to report speaking out against antisemitism feels good. I encourage us all to commit to it.

I often get asked, usually by Americans, 'how bad is it in Europe?' They are worried that the Charlie Hebdo murders or the latest daubing on a Jewish cemetery somewhere are heralds of a descent into the sorts of antisemitic horror that scarred Europe in the last century. I don't believe it. There are a number of genuine fascists in this country, but they are barely capable of drumming up a Minyan. There is also an islamist threat, but again these numbers are tiny and I believe mainstream Islam, not to mention every other part of society, is working hard and largely successfully, to mute and tame this threat. This anti-islamist work is vital and we, as Jews, need to ensure our own safety as well as call on everyone in society to continue to demonstrate their commitment to defending the canaries in the mine, but the threat is far from ubiquitous.

Then there is this; the just-below-the-surface jumble of good ol' fashioned antisemitic stereotypes repackaged for contemporary times; the Jew and their money most of all. And, the new kid on the block, the Zionist who thereby must hate all Arabs and disdains the grief of Palestinian loss (my own feelings on this one are that this is a modern version of the blood libel - we Jews are still being held to require the blood of the innocent non-Jew to meet our nefarious religious necessities). Those harbouring these feelings don't consider themselves to be antisemitic, they might not even realise they are such a harbour. If you were to ask such a person what they thought of antisemitism they would, of course, oppose it vigorously. But these feelings lurk under the conscious radar. For the first three glasses of wine at the dinner party they will remain in check, but come dessert-time there they are. When the person in the locker room is suddenly revealed as an observant Jew the shock dislodges these subterranean vats of pus and up they bubble.

My take on the nature of British antisemitism is not so much that it's coming back, but that it never really disappeared. It just got buried under a thin screed of politesse and, to come back to my first point, that is why naming and shaming the moments when residual antisemitism rears its ugly head is so important.
May we never have to.

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