There’s space on the arts bailout form for the non-binary. But not Jews

Arts Council questionnaire looks troublingly prejudiced

July 31, 2020 14:54

This is either the best of times or the worst of times to be chairman of the Arts Council, now that Rishi Sunak has bunged in £1.57 billion to save the dormant culture from certain death. Rishi’s cheque is half a billion bigger than Angela Merkel’s bailout for German arts and it ought to be just enough to keep companies and individuals afloat until Covid has blown out.

The present chair of Arts Council England is Sir Nicholas Serota, a scion of Anglo-Jewish royalty whose head will not be turned by the sudden flood of largesse. Nor will he show fear or favour in the committee-room carve-up — one can imagine him saying “I’ll approve ten mill for the Lowry if you vote six for my orchestra.” That’s subsidy business as normal.

The dilemma Serota faces is more delicate, though he may not be aware of it until he reads the JC.

 Arts organisations have sent me copies of a questionnaire they are expected to fill out about their staff before they can pass the first threshold for subsidy. The questions are so brutally personal that anywhere but the public sector they’d get the interrogator charged with privacy violation. But this is Whitehall and we’re talking money, so here’s what arts managers are required to disclose.

“Please select your gender identity”. There are four options: “Female (including trans women), Male (including trans men), Non-binary (e.g. androgyne)” and “prefer not to say”. Some applicants cross out the last line and write “I’ve never looked”. Seriously, though, does Whitehall need to know?

Next question: “Is your gender identity different to the sex you were assigned at birth?” Well, who can remember that? If it weren’t for the circumcision, I’d be stumped for an answer.

“Please select your sexual orientation,” the form continues, with a whole ice-cream menu of options that I won’t splash across your Friday-night dinner-table for fear of mixing one dubious streak with another. I’m advising colleagues to write in mango with raspberry ripple, which seems vaguely neutral and even a little creative.

But this is where it gets distinctly sticky and a touch sinister for Jews. “Please select your ethnicity,” demands the Arts Council. Eighteen different options are available, starting with White British, White Irish, Gypsy or Irish Traveller and Any Other White Background. Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi are three separate ethnicities, on grounds I cannot understand. Are Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands different on ethnic grounds, or just historically so?

Black Caribbean, I see, is not the same as “Black and White Caribbean” and the word “Arab” covers up a multitude of hostilities, religious and territorial. I wouldn’t say it aloud in my Iranian grocer’s store. Most shocking to my eye, however, is that, among 18 dominant ethnicities in the arts of England, there is no designation on the form for a person of Jewish ancestry.

If Jews are not ethnic, what are we? We come from all over the world with a religion that divides us rather than unites and a civilisation that is more distinct and diverse than any other on the list. Yet, when it comes to dishing out Rishi’s dosh, Jews are the ethnicity that dare not speak its name.

A gentile friend who knows the official mind better than I do says “well, Jews come under Any Other White Background”, but we don’t, do we? There are Jews whose skin is darker than Wiley’s and whose music is way out of harmony with European tonality. There are Jews of every tongue and nation, every shade of Jewish opinion. The refusal to recognise Jews as an ethnic group is an act of blatant prejudice, and it may run deeper than we think.

You’d have to go back to Nazi Germany to find official forms calculating bits of identity — quarter-Jewish, half-Gypsy, Mischling. I am not imputing that civil servants in SW1 are cut from the same cloth, but their ethnic curiosity in what ought to be a simple transaction — I am an arts organisation, give me the money — expose a deep-seated crisis in British identity, a cry for help from bureaucrats wanting to know who or what anyone really is beyond the top end of the Northern Line.

Would it hurt them to add Jewish to the list? Perhaps. To put Jew on a form is subliminally Nazi. But there’s a more troubling prejudice at play right now, one that the rapper Wiley was allowed to vent this week on Sky news — the notion that Jews are all lawyers and bosses. They shouldn’t be queuing with artists for a dollop of Rishi’s porridge. I’ve heard similar things said in unguarded moments by certain well-known actors. Jews are well off, they help each other, they give to Israel. Ergo, they are not a British ethnic group. We have a right to exclude them.

Just as the Arts Council has done.

July 31, 2020 14:54

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