Zoe Strimpel

Is it possible to be Jewish and feel relaxed at a garden party?

It turns out that The Spectator magazine's glitzy summer party was the perfect place to find out...


Waiter holding a tray of sekt outside

July 13, 2023 13:41

Last week, I turned up at the offices of The Spectator for the magazine’s glitzy annual summer party.

It’s a throng of the great and the good from the media and politics, with more cabinet ministers and TV presenters than you can shake a stick at. It is, therefore, somewhat daunting, especially as I’ve been feeling a bit lacking in confidence of late (even being “always right” doesn’t stave off the occasional period of doubtful ennui).

I have always felt like something of an outsider. As a child, this was painful. As an adult, it’s given me useful analytical distance, allowing me to do my job: observe.

But as I headed to the party, I felt a childlike anxiety about non-belonging.

While I don’t normally link my occasional pangs of social anxiety to being Jewish, such rumination is often brought on by immersions in Deep Establishment situations.

And there is nothing more Establishment than a garden party in the premises of a 300-year-old magazine, in the heart of Westminster.

I grabbed a glass of ice-cold champagne, which flowed as if from fountains, and kept at it until, merrily ensconced with friends and acquaintances, I forgot all my worries.

A few glasses in, I happened to see another Jew: Richard Sharp, the recently resigned chairman of the BBC, and the object of that absolutely odious, blatantly antisemitic cartoon in The Guardian back in April. The cartoon, by the insufferable

Martin Rowson, saw Sharp depicted with the exaggerated features of a Der Stürmer cartoon, in front of a pig, plus what appeared to be a pile of money, a squid, and parts of the words “Goldman Sachs” obscured on the box containing these items so that only “gold sac” remained. (Rowson claimed that what appeared to be gold coins were in fact the squid’s yellow polyps.)

I scurried over to Sharp to express solidarity, one Jew to another. Sharp is a controversial figure because he was accused of — though denied — helping to facilitate an £800,000 loan for the former prime minister Boris Johnson at around the time that he was given the BBC’s chairmanship, ultimately resigning over it.

But I felt the urge to commend him for his fortitude in bearing up under such an utterly vicious, degrading public attack.

I also liked the idea of brazenly seeking out the only other Jew that I had at that point spotted; others would appear, including Emily Maitlis, Emma Barnett, and the delightful Orly Goldschmidt, spokeswoman for the Israeli embassy in the UK.

In the cold and hungover light of the next day, I thought more about Jews and the English summer season. Is there really some kind of tension between being a Jew of any stripe and feeling at ease at a British garden party? Yes and no.

The British Establishment, especially the Tory Establishment, is not antisemitic, as it once was — grossly so.

In 1830, the Tory home secretary Robert Peel spoke passionately in Parliament against dropping civil disabilities from Jews.

“The Jew is not a degraded subject of the State,” opined Peel, “he is rather regarded in the light of an alien — he is excluded because he will not amalgamate with us in any of his usages or habits — he is regarded as a foreigner.

In the history of the Jews… we find enough to account for the prejudice which exists against them.”

Less explicit antisemitism flickered in and sometimes defined Tory circles, mostly behind closed doors, for more than a century after that.

In the Thatcher era though, that mostly changed: Lady T’s robust and entirely novel philosemitism allowed the likes of Keith Joseph and Nigel Lawson to gain top positions, and the emphasis shifted from stuffy, impotent, often antisemitic, conservatism to meritocratic pragmatism.

Today, then, being Jewish is not a social disadvantage, at least not in Tory circles, and it certainly isn’t a bar on success in the sorts of circles that get you invited to garden parties from the glitzy to the royal.

Jewish women, in particular, are some of the nation’s most glamorous Establishment figures, from Luciana Berger to PR tycoon Elaine Stern to Emily Maitlis to ex-Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman, to Emma Barnett to, of course, the delectable Rachel Riley of Countdown fame.

But at the end of the day, the question of discomfort and belonging is internal, not external: it’s to do with beliefs and ideas about yourself, your family and the world imbibed subtly as a child.

As with most forms of self-consciousness, it comes down to messages that, while once based on something that felt real, are no longer true.

If Jews internalise messages about not being wanted, or not quite making the grade, it’s because for most of British history we were entirely unclubbable, uncool and too intense.

Now we can just about let go of those fears, but I suspect it’ll take generations to really feel part of the Gentile gang — for those who even want to.

July 13, 2023 13:41

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