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Stereotypes aren’t always true

Heaven knows I prefer philosemitism to antisemitism, but only in the sense that I’d prefer dog mess on my shoe to dog mess in my dinner, writes David Aaronovitch.

    Al Pacino as Shylock in A Merchant of Venice (2004)

    "Inadvertent: not resulting from or achieved through deliberate planning.”

    That’s how my dictionary defines the word, but it may be that Maurice Cohen of the Jewish Representative Council of Ireland uses a completely different source. Otherwise I am pushed to understand his description of Kevin Myers’s now infamous “Jews are not generally noted for their insistence on selling their talent for the lowest possible price” phrase as being a product of the author having “inadvertently stumbled into an antisemitic trope”.

    What was inadvertent about this sentence? What was unplanned? Had Mr Myers meant to write “News Readers” and his spellchecker had let him down? Had a “not” crept in when Mr Myers wasn’t looking? Was he the victim of a brief moment of demonic possession in which the dark one guided his helpless mouse?

    I suppose what Mr Cohen meant was that Mr Myers didn’t realise was that Jews being “good with money” was an inevitable product of the assumption that Jews as a rule are more concerned with money than non-Jews. Mr Myers, though deeply literate, made no connection between his generalisation and, for example, the words given by Shakespeare to Shylock: “My daughter, oh my ducats, oh my daughter!” Shylock, of course was not generally noted for his insistence on selling his talent for the lowest possible price. Half-a-millennium right there!

    Mr Cohen probably felt that Mr Myers was a man who blundered into antisemitism out of love for Jews. Mr Myers himself professed to be a philosemite. The man himself later clarified that he had “uttered those words out of respect for the religion”. And I daresay (but I don’t know for sure) that if you had bugged his conversations over the years you’d have discovered an admiration for Jewish educational achievement, Jewish sense of community, Jewish organisation, Jewish love of family, all of them ascribed not just to an imagined collective, but to innate shared characteristics of the group.

    Heaven knows I prefer philosemitism to antisemitism, but only in the sense that I’d prefer dog mess on my shoe to dog mess in my dinner. Very little creeps me out more (as some of the Americans say) than crass generalisation aimed at me. If someone tells me (and it has happened) that they really admire Jews and therefore expect to admire me, I feel slightly nauseous.

    Part of this is because I recognise in it the desire to give Jews — and therefore me — some kind of compensation for other things. Saying as a compliment that Jews are good with money or at organising lobbies is akin to noting the natural sense of rhythm that makes black people particularly adept at dancing, gospel music and 100 metres relay.

    The other thing that bothers me about it is that it is rubbish. I know from experience that it’s rubbish and I know from the stats that it’s rubbish. My father’s family were all Jewish. Jewish, Jewish, Jewish. Jewish going back into the mists of East European antiquity. And as far as I can tell there wasn’t a bargainer among the lot of them.

    Good with money? They never had any. Good with education? They never had any of that either. Good with community? Only as long as it took them to get out of it. I’ve told you this before, but some readers will recognise their own histories in it: my grandparents were illiterate (my grandfather marked my dad’s birth certificate with an X), poverty-stricken all their lives, and only just surviving in the Stepney of the first half and middle of the last century. They were and stayed —wait for it — Poor Jews.

    And here’s the next revelation for the philos and the antis. There always were plenty of poor Jews who scraped a living, and there still are. It’s just that no one much wants to talk about them.

    The level of poverty in Israel, and not just among the ultra Orthodox and the Arab minority, is one of the highest in the OECD. In 2013, it was calculated that over half-a-million New Yorkers lived in poor Jewish households. Recent work in Canada suggested that 14.6 per cent of Canada’s Jews lived below the poverty line. This is almost exactly the same rate as for Canadians generally.

    One Canadian researcher, Randal Schnoor, talking about this research, said that, “there’s a misconception that we don’t have poverty in the Jewish community (so) the stigma is even greater…”

    Maybe that’s the true sin of Myers. If so we might have to ask whether we don’t most of us abet it. 


    David Aaronovitch is a columnist 
for The Times

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