Let us play Jewish guessing game

By Geoffrey Alderman, December 1, 2011

Last week, I was privileged to give a public address in Tredegar in south Wales as part of the commemorations there of the anti-Jewish riots that swept through the Western Valleys in August 1911. The audience was composed almost entirely of non-Jews. In the discussion after my talk, I was asked searching questions, not just about the events of 1911 but about much larger issues pertaining to Jews and Jewish identity.

On the train home, as my thoughts turned back to this discussion, I opened the paper and there, facing me on the page, was one of the most poignant and saddest of tales I have ever read on this subject.

The story concerns the iPhone; but it's not the story about Chief Rabbi you-know-who hurling some blame at this device and the now-deceased head of the Apple corporation that manufactures it, and then calmly retracting his condemnation. It is a story of infinitely greater depth and pathos.

So-called "third-generation" mobile phones, of which the iPhone is one, are really hand-held computers. As such, it is possible to acquire for them all manner of accessories, most notably so-called "apps" or "application software", the design and marketing of which has now become an industry in its own right.

Last Thursday, in a Paris court-room, a lawyer acting for a consortium of French self-styled "anti-racist" groups (including, I am very sorry to say, the Union of French Jewish Students) announced, on behalf of his clients, that he was withdrawing a legal action against the Apple corporation following its agreement to remove, from all its online stores worldwide, one particular app that could formerly be downloaded for less than two US dollars.

Is this what the struggle for Jewish rights has come to?

The app, designed by one Johann Levy (a Jew of British origin now living in France) was entitled "Juif ou pas Juif?" - "Jew or not Jew?" Once downloaded into the iPhone, it enabled the user to search a database of personalities and public figures to discover whether or not they are Jewish.

But in so doing it apparently fell foul of the French laws (rooted in guilt over the part played by ordinary Frenchmen and women in the deportation of French Jews during the Second World War) that prohibit the creation, without specific consent, of personal data relating to race, religion, political leanings or sexuality. In September, Apple agreed to remove "Juif ou pas Juif?" from its French online app store; now it has agreed to remove it worldwide.

I do not know how accurate (or not) Johann Levy's database was (or is). I understand that it was compiled from other publicly available sources and I assume that, as a responsible professional, he would have removed data that was demonstrably erroneous. But that's not the point.

We must - I suppose - forgive the French for the stupidity and worthlessness of the laws of which this particular app fell foul. There are plenty of other ways in which the Jewish identity of an individual can be discovered, whether that individual approves or not. In the age of the internet, indeed, this has never been easier. But that's not the point either.

The point is that Jews (OK, French Jews) were behind the legal action that has resulted in the banning of this particular app, and that the ban has actually been welcomed in other Jewish circles. I do not welcome the ban at all. In fact, I condemn it. I condemn those who sought it and I condemn the Apple corporation for agreeing to and implementing it.

Mr Levy claims that he designed the app as an amusement. It was intended (he told Le Parisien in September) to be "recreational".

"As a Jew myself, I know that, in our community, we often ask whether such-and-such a celebrity is Jewish or not," he explained. And why not? Why should such a question not be asked? And truthfully answered? Are we so ashamed of our Jewish identity that we do not want anyone else to know about it? Is this what the struggle for Jewish rights and freedoms has come to? That we can be Jewish secretly but not publicly?

I can tell you this: the Jews of the Western Valleys, who were so wantonly attacked in 1911, were proud of their Jewishness and proud to proclaim it. So were the Jews of France, so mercilessly betrayed by their neighbours. What happened in the Paris court-room last week was an affront to their memory, and to the memory of all Jewish victims of racism.

Last updated: 12:50pm, December 1 2011