One day last week — it doesn’t matter which, so let’s call it Jewday — I had two encounters in the space of five hours that, together, left me feeling alarmed. The first was a planned meeting with a young woman seeking career advice. The other was when I was run into in a tube station in North London as I was going in and this man, the runner-in, was going out.
The career advice, for what it was worth, was given over coffee, but then the young woman seeking it told me that she might not be staying in Britain to follow such counsel after all. One plan, she said, was to go to Israel forever. Then she told me some of the reasons.
An Orthodox Jew, she had been an officer of the Jewish Society at a large and very good provincial university. Over the course of a couple of years, carrying out the various duties of her office — putting up posters, engaging in discussions — she had felt constantly disliked and disapproved of by a significant number of fellow students, and this disapprobation had been growing. She was pessimistic about the future in Britain.
We parted, and perhaps I wouldn’t have thought too much more about it, had the man with the moustache and the fierce expression not popped up in the station a few hours later.
“You,” he told me, “are that writer!” A few years back when my byline picture first began to appear and I was doing a bit of telly I used sometimes to deny that I was “that writer” in order to escape moments like this. But for some time now I have realised that this was a form of rudeness and that it is better to own up and take whatever results from recognition. So I agreed with the man with the moustache.
He was perhaps 40 and was originally Russian and still Jewish, he told me. The thing that he wanted to say so badly that he stopped the first media person he recognised as soon as he saw them, was the following. He was a fan of Arsenal and had just recently attended a home game in which his team had played Tottenham. On his way from the tube station to the ground there was a small demonstration, with a banner and leaflets. The banner read “Arsenal and Spurs fans against apartheid”. When he got closer he saw that the “apartheid” state this group was demonstrating against, was… well, it wasn’t Nicaragua.
To him, all this stuff about Yids at the football, the Anelka quenelle salute, had combined into one big urgent picture, and he was determined to paint it for me. “Why does no-one say something?” he demanded. “What is wrong with this country?”
It just so happened that Jewday took place in the middle of the quenelle debate when there were plenty of mild apologists for the French performer, Dieudonné, who originated the salute. Those who have read my book on conspiracy theories, Voodoo Histories, will know that I devoted two pages to this man precisely because of his very modern version of an ancient hatred. So I knew what was being talked about.
As if that weren’t enough I was also listening on audiobook to Robert Harris’s fictionalised account of the Dreyfus Affair. And so I thought, by the end of Jewday, that I was becoming as mad as hell and I wasn’t prepared to take it any more.
I have had it. I have had it with “but Palestinians are Semites”, with “nothing that calls itself anti-Zionist is anti-Jewish”, with “but you must admit the Israel lobby is uniquely powerful”. I find I have no patience any more to explain to people, especially those who are not keen on listening, the nuances that they cannot feel.
I need to take a deep breath and calm down. Give me strength, as Tony Hancock used to say.