Time to take action

Stephen Pollard explains why he intervened when he heard antisemitic comments in a coffee shop

January 23, 2017 14:45

I'm in my ninth year as editor of the JC. But even I am regularly surprised by the volume and vehemence of the antisemitism in my email inbox or my social media feeds.

I rarely encounter it in real life, however - from living, breathing humans around me, as it were. I once walked out of a dinner party when one of the guests started spouting forth on how "the Jews use the Holocaust to get away with whatever they want now". When the hostess told me to be quiet for picking the woman's racism apart, I realised I no longer wanted her as a friend and walked out.

But it's rare to hear antisemitism directly.

This lunchtime, as I was waiting for a hospital appointment, I nipped into Pret (in Tottenham Court Road) for a sandwich. Next to my table were two women chatting away. They looked in their mid-twenties and seemed perfectly normal.

I was on my own and, because they were speaking very loudly, had no choice but to listen to their conversation. Which had reached, by the time I sat down, a discussion about how awful Israelis are and how Israel isn't a real country because it's on land stolen from the Palestinians.

To be honest I was bored with their ignorant clichés and just wished I could turn down the volume.

But then - as I guessed they would - they moved on from Israelis to Jews.

One of them started talking about a colleague: "She's Jewish and she's like really annoying - you know, rich like the rest of the them and keeps going to f***ing Israel for holidays."

The other woman laughed. "Ugh. Hate them".

My mind started racing. What should I do? Nothing? Something? What?

I tossed over the possibilities. How can I intervene? It's none of my business. It's a private conversation. And do I really want to make a scene? How will it end up?

Except it wasn't a private conversation. They were speaking so loudly and clearly I could not but hear every word. So if I said nothing they would simply carry on. And I would somehow feel complicit in it.

I'm making this sound like I weighed up the options with deliberation and calmness. But it wasn't like that. The whole thought process lasted a.matter of seconds. And ended when I realised I simply HAD to say something. I am editor of the JC for crying out loud! And if I don't say something, how can I possibly comment when other people dont?

So I lent across and said - calmly, I think - this: "Excuse me, but if you want to spout antisemitic clichés you should do it in private. You are being racist and it is rude and unacceptable."

They looked stunned.

The quieter one replied: "How dare you listen to our conversation."

I pointed out that I had no choice but to listen becuse they were speaking so loudly.

I hadn't noticed - because I was at the table at their side - that they had already been putting their coats on. So they were on their way from the table when the other one said: "F**k off you twat".

And with that our dialogue ended.

I doubt anyone nearby had the first clue what was going on. Everyone was busy with their own conversations and probably didn't even see what was happening. But I'm pleased I said something, even though I might have decided it wasn't worth it.

Paradoxically perhaps, their words were so low level on the scale of Jew hate that it made it more difficult to decide what to do. It wasn't as if I was stopping an assault.

But it turns out, now I've done it, that intervening is important, at least to me. I am sure I haven't made any difference to their views but, as Sajid Javid pointed out last week, it's low-level antisemitism that needs to be tackled as much as more obviously dangerous examples..

Next time I won't even have to weigh it up in my mind. I'll just do it.

January 23, 2017 14:45

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