‘The Jews will not replace us,’ the placard said. The occasion was the controversy about memorials to the Confederacy more than 150 years after Lincoln’s victory. For some the matter has not been settled. But what has this controversy to do with Jews? Nothing at all except in some confused and embittered minds.
The logic [twisted as it is] seems to be that principles like civil rights, racial equality and social justice come not from true Americans in the heartlands but from rootless cosmopolitans in cities like New York. The liberals have stirred things up, and the Jews are behind it all. They are not true Americans. They have no place at the table reserved for white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants.
The fear of difference and the need to seek out difference both emerge from some dark recess of the collective psyche. ‘Not one of us’ is the chilling phrase that is implied if not spoken. An association of people in any context survives by adherence to the law and lore of the tribe. A sense of community contains its negativities.
A Somerset farmer told me a story of how he had been swindled by a supplier. He concluded the story by judging the swindler to be Jewish. ‘Well, he must have been. I mean a Christian wouldn’t do that, would he?’ He then added, ‘Are you Jewish? Your girlfriend is so you must be.’ He then tried to assure me he was not anti-Semitic. I was assured only of an ignorance and folly that scattered insults without understanding their meaning, their power and their possible consequences.
In the same quiet and genteel county, home to writers in search of congenial space, there lived one with views that were unusual. With a superficially amiable manner he spoke of such matters as the ‘survival of the Anglo-Saxon race.’ These were apparently sincere beliefs rather than deliberate provocations. In essence he was suspicious of cosmopolitan culture, despite his proud connection to the BBC. ‘I know I shouldn’t say this,’ he told me, ‘but the trouble with a certain type of Jew is that there’s nothing behind their learning. It’s all surface.’
I felt that his fear was of depths he dared not imagine, in languages he did not know, of experiences he could not share, or refused to share. His fear is common enough to ask how many careers would lie in ruins were such people to proclaim in public what they whisper in private? They see a threat in an otherness that was for me a source of wonder and admiration.
Another time I was talking to students about Jonathan Miller. ‘Oh, you mean the fast-talking Jew,’ came one respondent. There was something pernicious in that comment, for it surely was not a neutral observation. It never is neutral to identify someone as a Jew unless it necessarily relates to an aspect of the life or the work. In Chaim Potok’s fiction it matters because it is written from within Jewish faith and culture as inextricably as Joyce writes from an Irish Catholic sensibility. Identity is important, but not to separate and by separating demean the victim of a gratuitous distinction.
One can never discover what specifically an anti-Semite has against Jews. A common thread is an expression of vague mistrust and distaste that has no reasoned and definite basis. There is nothing of substance. It is all a jumble of folk-myth and hearsay, resentment and fear. The essential root is the sense of difference that transcends tribal or cultural identity and reaches into the moral and even biological nature of the other. ‘They’ are not human as ‘we’ are human. Do intelligent, sometimes highly educated, people feel this? Yes, even after Auschwitz they feel no shame.
It must be thirty years since I read that great Irish essayist Hubert Butler’s The Children of Drancy. [Drancy was the transit camp for French Jews under the Nazi occupation.] One sentence burns still: It was something like: ‘At a time when the children should have been reading Babar books and having dolls’ tea parties” You read words like that and somehow you summon the will to go on living.
We go on living and see that nothing seems to have been learnt. Out of the ashes of Auschwitz a phoenix of tolerance and understanding might have emerged to atone for the ultimate act of hatred and vengeance visited on one people and, by implication, on all humanity.
At my junior school there was a banner of the Christ child. I thought it strange that he should be blond and blue-eyed when the people of the Holy Land were mostly darker. I had never been, but my father had been stationed there during the Mandate, and of course he talked of these things. The portrayal of the Christ child was a betrayal of the truth.
As a sixth-former I had to read Chaucer. I have never warmed to him after encountering The Prioress’s Tale. It is a tale of persecution based on a gross libel of a people. The tale is told without a hint of condemnation. The myth of a child ritually sacrificed became a warrant for genocide. Such calumny is thought to be great literature. Perhaps there are those who can attempt to justify it.
Yet none of us can be wholly consistent, for I held T.S. Eliot in high regard, forgiving him his indiscretion. Or, if I did not forgive, I ignored the hints and more of prejudice for the sake of his genius. I ignored the prejudice because I saw that no-one is perfect and that imperfection is the lot of humanity.
That is why casual expressions of prejudice are displays of silliness rather than hatred. Even more serious prejudice may be a miscalculation rather than an avowed and sustained position. There surely must have been early supporters of the Nazis who presumed the race talk to be campaign rhetoric soon to be discarded in the sobering reality of governance. Such supporters gave sinister ideas the benefit of the doubt. If later they came to doubt it was too late.
We know better. At least, we ought to know better. History has taught us where ideas of racial purity can lead. We cannot plead ignorance. The sight of the child behind the barbed wire overlays [in my mind] all talk of these matters, especially out of the mouths of deluded nationalists. There are tribal customs appropriate to a place and to a people, but encompassing the tribe is the nature of a world in constant movement. Migration seems to be natural to the human condition. We are none of us wholly of one place or of one people. The tribe with which we identify may be a matter of choice rather than inherent circumstance.
The search for identity is the essence of a thinking life. We are given the elements of identity in childhood. These may contain contradictory and confusing signifiers, for rarely if ever is anyone entirely of one class or kind. We are confronted with several versions of ourselves, and from these we chose the things we find comfortable, the elements closest to our experience and feelings.
The search for identity is the search for the true self waiting to be discovered.
There are those who fear the truth. And what is that truth? We are the banished children of Eve wandering in the wilderness. The hope is to find that land where we truly belong. Of one thing we can be certain: it is not here. Here is only the temporary stopping point before we move on with our few possessions across the wide plains and over the far mountains.
Yet we have our sense of history and heritage that requires a sense of gathering and belonging. To claim possession of a land is held not only as possible but as natural. It is just as natural to find ourselves in transit. We do not possess the land we inhabit. We till its soil and build with its wood and stone, but our settlements are transient. Look at maps of the world since 1900 and see what I mean about impermanence. Settlement is justified by quasi-mystical justifications. The bizarrely apocalyptic language of Blake’s Jerusalem is a case in point. Stealing another culture’s identity is a dangerous conceit.
Of Zionism itself this must be said: it is a special case. A history of displacement and persecution, culminating in an incomparable genocide, gives moral justification to the need of a people to assemble as a nation. It does not justify the exclusion and persecution of inconvenient others, but the principle of Zionism remains inviolate. The early idealism of the founding figures may serve to remind the world of every nation’s responsibility to its people.
Another memory is speaking of Israel to an elderly Jewish friend. ‘The problem is,’ he said, ‘if we are all gathered together it is easier to destroy us.’ The diaspora may be the key to Judaism’s survival. The remarkable contribution Jewry has given to the world is a debt that cannot be repaid.
That may be the cause of such ingratitude and resentment. Oh so clever, oh so gifted a people who return the generosity of refuge a hundredfold. Some may see it – evidently they do – as shaming.
I do not feel ashamed. I feel inspired. I feel also a deep bond, for I recognize the consonances between the ancestral people with whom I share a degree of identity [the Irish] and Jewry. The Famine and a history of persecution and dispersal bears some similarity. The sense of being apart, yet of seeking assimilation, is as acute in the Irish abroad as it is for the Jew. Nobody wants to be different in the sense of being inferior.
The excuse for anti-Irish feelings in Britain was the war that raged in the North until the British accepted they could not win. Jokes that were not jokes abounded. Slurs became commonplace even in public media. Anti-Irish slanders became the acceptable prejudice. No censure was given. All was permissible. Avowed multiculturalists could make this one exception, knowing there would be no danger to their liberal reputations. This was the acceptable terror, the dirty war of words.
The prejudice operated by stealth of course. For example a media myth arose that James Joyce had said there was no anti-Semitism in Ireland because ‘Ireland never let the Jews in.’ Ha, ha, ha. But Joyce said no such thing. A very nasty English character in Ulysses says this, in a novel that has an Irish Jew as its hero. To any sympathetic observer of Celtic culture that will not be surprising. Consider Marazion and Port Isaac in Cornwall. Something about their names hints at their history. In the Middle Ages they were places of refuge from anti-Semitic persecution.
Celts are familiar with persecution. The Cromwellian massacre at Drogheda, the Highland Clearances and the Famines are extreme instances of a long history of oppression. Elizabeth Tudor’s government devised a scheme of settlement that would gradually eradicate the Irish from their land. Celts, originally themselves a Semitic people, have found common cause with Jewry. There is an acceptance which is deeper than tolerance.
Tolerance may be no more than lip-service that does not touch one’s life at any vital point. It is easy enough to tolerate the Asian running your local convenience store, or your West African cleaning woman. Accepting and integrating other cultures into the pattern of national life is more problematic. Other cultures with unfamiliar traditions and practices can feel so alien and incomprehensible especially where the words are spoken in other tongues.
Cutting out the tongues of alien races is an age-old practice. There are Anglo-Saxon supremacists in various guises. They are not all shadows in the corner types. Embittered ignorance is ever present to sting like a wasp, but other prejudices are more subtle, though no less malign. They may be found not only in remote West Country villages. In unexpected places – including avowedly liberal spaces – may be heard the echoes of resentment. ‘Too clever by half,’ they say. They mean something else, don’t they? What is the phrase? – ‘Citizens of nowhere.’ Or ‘anywhere but here.’
And where is ‘here’ but a corner of the world where several cultures meet? Migration is natural. Like many I can claim age-old ancestry of one place, yet equally there are those roots in distant places, and a history of migrations across seas and continents even in recent years. We all have a cosmopolitan heritage. The rootless wanderers will not replace us. We are those travellers, not necessarily by choice or conviction, but by the undeniable fact of living in the world. We are citizens of everywhere. That is not a problem. It does not require a solution.
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This post was written by Geoffrey Heptonstall