We're not whisperin' any more

By David Robson, September 12, 2011
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Last month the New York Times writer Roger Cohen, who was brought up in Britain and is now an American, wrote a piece about English antisemitism. A lodger at his sister's house in England had looked at Cohen's BlackBerry mobile phone and said, "Oh you've got a JewBerry," so–called, the lodger explained, because BlackBerry Messenger is free and Jews always get things free. If this is a slur against Jews, and Cohen thought it was, I wish I were worthy of it. There can be nobody of any race or creed less accomplished at getting things free than me.

If, on the other hand, I had, like Cohen, felt even slightly be-slurred (he called it "the flotsam carried on the tide of the old antisemitism") I would have done something about it: I would have got a new lodger and bought an iPhone. But Cohen is of a more thoughtful turn of mind and it set him thinking about the "affable, insidious antisemitism that stereotypes and snubs." He quoted a barbed comment made in the Athenaeum Club when a Jew was elevated to the House of Lords.

How many of us I wondered have been "JewBerried". I made extensive enquiries - when I saw men in tefilin with phones in their ear I quizzed them. I trawled bagel shops. Nobody I met had been JewBerried. I was starting to think Cohen's response was the sort of thing that gives paranoia a bad name. We Jews do have a tendency to complain. Sometimes we even complain about the things we get free.

But how much do we really have to complain about? Apparently much of last month's rioting in English cities was organised via the Messenger system. So what are we to make of the fact that the phones are called BlackBerries? Just imagine how the blacks must feel about that.

Sometimes we even complain about things we get free

Actually, you can turn your BlackBerry into a real Jewberry by downloading prayers on to it - everything from shacharit to brit milah (and you never know when you may have to perform an emergency brit).

Cohen's article was headlined Jews in a whisper and describes what he, and the novelist Philip Roth, see as the rather shrinking-violet behaviour of English Jews compared with the forceful Jews of America. By way of example, he remembers his mother's sotto voce in a London restaurant circa 1970. ("her voice dropped when she said the J word").

True. I too remember that time a generation ago when English Jews were rather tentative and nervous about attracting attention. But is it still true? Not really. We can talk as loud as we like because the English talk even louder and anyway, who's listening? Who's interested in us? Mostly just ourselves and a few rabid anti-Zionists. In multiracial Britain Jews are not news.

The Oxford English Dictionary as its fourth meaning for the word Jew used to have the transitive verb "to swindle" or a something similar. It doesn't any more. Whenever there was a new edition there would be a hooha – a Jew-ha – not least in this publication. The great columnist Bernard Levin was very bored by it all. He wrote that his definition of a Jew was someone who looked up the word "Jew" in the Oxford Dictionary.

    Last updated: 10:20am, September 12 2011