My father changed his name because of people like Stewart Lee. Nothing changes.

Stewart Lee's bigotry seems to have a welcome home in the Guardian

May 17, 2020 15:56

70 years ago, a man called Bernard Polak changed his name.

He had been brought up in the East End, the son of a taxi driver. As a pupil at Tottenham Grammar School he excelled and won a scholarship to the LSE - the first in his extended family to stay on at school beyond the earliest leaving age, let alone to go to university. He did well at college, graduating with a first, winning the LSE's prestigious Gladstone Memorial Prize, and making his way eventually into the civil service.

He reached the very top of the civil service, advising a number of Chancellors and ending his career as Director General of the Inland Revenue.

But you will search in vain for any record of a Bernard Polak in the civil service.

While at college, he was advised by people he respected - Jews and non-Jews, all of whom meant well - to 'Anglicise' his name. So he changed it to Pollard.

And not just his surname. On his first day, his boss called him Barry and my father thought it best not to correct him. So throughout his stellar civil service career, Bernie Polak was known as Barry Pollard.

I am telling you this not simply because I am proud of my father but because a piece in the Observer today by the comedian Stewart Lee shows that nothing changes.

Seventy years ago my dad needed to change his weird foreign name to avoid the sly glances of bigots. Stewart Lee is that bigot - a man who thinks the best response to a foreign sounding Jewish name is to ridicule it in a national newspaper.

The piece has no other argument or purpose. It is nothing other than an extended riff on the idea that the Conservative MP Tom Tugendhat has a funny surname:

"Many names – Fisher, Cook, Smith – derive from ancient trades. But “Tugendhat” is just different words put together, like Waspcupfinger, or Appendixhospitalwool, or Abortionmaqaquesymptom. This former intelligence officer is the nephew of a real man called Baron Tugendhat. Baron Tugendhat is not a character from a 19th-century German children’s book about a baron with a weird hat, the end of which gets tugged. But what did Tom Tugendhat want? Why was he bothering us?"

On an on it goes, on and on it repeats the 'joke'. He even manages to drag Dominic Raab into it. Of course he does; Mr Raab's Jewish father escaped Hitler in 1938 arriving here as a refugee. The pattern is not so much hinted it as bludgeoned.

This is not merely grotesque; it is the very definition of racism - specifically, of antisemitism. As Mr Tugendhat put it on Twitter:

"The idea of uppity foreigner coming over here and conspiring to take power is literally the archetypal antisemitic trope. It is so standard it’s dull but that doesn’t make it any less true. The search into my name shows he knows the origins. It’s not new."

In my twenties, I thought a lot about changing my name back to Polak. I decided, eventually, that it would seem like an insult to my father - as if I was making a point that I somehow had more courage than him when, in reality, I had it easy as a Jew in tolerant modern Britain. I still believe that to be true.

But the likes of Stewart Lee show that however tolerant the vast majority of us may be, there will always be a subset of bigots for whom the Jew remains an outsider - an object of scorn and derision for their otherness. 

And, it seems, they will always have a home in the Guardian.

May 17, 2020 15:56

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