This happened to me yesterday. A young person interested in journalism asked me for advice about becoming a columnist. We sat down to talk things through. How did one pitch a subject to a commissioning editor? What process did I go through to think of a topic to write about? Who else other than The Times did I write for? The Jewish Chronicle, I told him. But that was much less frequent and at £X per column did not amount to a substantial proportion of my income though – I added quickly (imagining his circumstances) – I should not be so blasé.
And this is what he then said. "It's not surprising is it? I mean, they're notoriously tight-fisted." Eh? What was that? "They"? He might as well have produced a platypus from his trousers. So, astonished and hoping I might have misinterpreted him but fearing that I had not, I checked. "Who is tight-fisted?" And he replied, in a mildly baffled voice, "Jews. They're known to be stingy and miserly with money." If my face registered my feelings it must have been quite a sight. "Are you serious?" I asked. "It's what everyone says," he protested. "It's well known."
Not trusting myself to any further conversation and needing to calm down I sent him away. Later he returned to apologise. He had not meant, he told me, to be in any way offensive. He was very sorry if he had been. And I could tell he had almost no idea of why I had reacted as I did. For him the sentiment that Jews were money-grubbing misers was not just commonplace, it appeared that he had never even heard it contradicted. Perhaps in his part of the country (rural East Anglia, I discovered) it was what everyone thought. But you might have expected a three year degree course at a new university to produce at least one challenge to this medieval stereotype.
He was not Jewish himself, but was he joking in some kind of installation-art offensive way? In our previous discussion there was no hint of a smile or a laugh, he had shown no inclination to be witty. If anything he was over-earnest.
I have little doubt that his prejudice was held out of naivete not malice. By way of evidence for this, it seemed not to have occurred to him that someone writing for the Jewish Chronicle and possessing a name like mine might actually be, in some sense or relationship, a bit Jewish. I don't think that even if he had thought black people were, say, animalistic, he would have sat down with a black writer and talked about "them" having smaller brains. (There is, of course, a comedy in this since I may be one of the better known "Jewish" writers in Britain, making his choice of insultee an improbably bad one, as the fact of this column demonstrates.)
I hated him for a few minutes, and couldn't bear the thought of exchanging another word with him, but then the "why" supplanted the "what". And I thought about what it meant. The first observation I would make is that for him, and possibly his generation, the idea of giving offence is more important than holding a terrible idea. Thinking and saying a dreadful and damaging thing about Jews (or whoever) was less of a crime than making me feel offended by expressing it to me. ''I don't care about being offended," I told him, when he apologised. "I care about you being a racist".
I’ve no doubt his prejudice was held out of naivete not malice
The second observation is the obvious one. Is that what they really think? I can't get the moment and shock out of my head. After everything that has happened and that day – the day – that the commemoration of the liberation of Auschwitz was actually on the TV screens behind us, a young Briton tells me about our racial shortcomings.