Truth about the J-word

November 24, 2016 23:26

"Jew!" The contents of the pint glass were already airborne as we turned towards the shout. The beer hit my friend Doug directly in the face, soaking his glasses and forming a little drip from the end of his long, classically Jewish nose. He removed his spectacles and tried to find a dry spot on his shirt to wipe them. I looked back towards the shout and saw the backs of three youths, wearing tight, white T-shirts, the flesh on their wiry arms chapped raw by the chill July afternoon. Their bony shoulders shook with laughter as they disappeared into the throng sluicing down into the centre of Durham, in the north-east of England, where the annual Miners' Gala was in full swing.

Douglas and I turned away and trudged wordlessly up the hill towards St Aidan's College. It was the summer of 1967, the summer of love, and we had been in England less than 24 hours. Despite that introduction, I have managed to live half my life here.

Antisemitism is a complex phenomenon and it grows more complicated all the time. The latest wrinkle is the jihadi double tap as practised in Mumbai, Paris and Copenhagen - attack a soft target in a big city and then find a Jewish target for a secondary attack. The hope that the blood sacrifice of the Holocaust would end it has proved false, but is the antisemitism of today the equal of that which led so many to either joyfully participate or quietly turn their backs when European Jewry was being eliminated? Obviously not.

Are Jews over-sensitive? Perhaps. For much of my life, despite the name-calling, occasional threats and social slights, it was clear that as a secular Jew, I was living in a golden age of security. Not since Solomon was building the First Temple in Jerusalem had there been a time or place when Jews were as safe as they were in post-war America. Not everyone in the Jewish community feels this way today.

To add to the complexity is the Israel factor. Israel is the "Jewish" state but most of the world's Jews are not Israeli. Yet, the Israeli government's actions arguably do more to shape people's attitudes to Jews than any other factor. In a poll conducted for the BBC World Service two years ago - about how different countries are perceived around the world - only one in five people globally had a positive view of Israel. It's a reasonable assumption that the country's approval rating slid lower following the third war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza last summer.

As during the previous conflicts, there has been an upswing in antisemitic acts. In July 2014, as the fighting raged in Gaza, the Community Security Trust logged 240 incidents in Britain, a record for a single month. Thankfully, most of this Jew-targeted hatred takes the form of verbal aggression rather than physical violence. But because many critics of Israel make no distinction between citizens of the Jewish state and the worldwide Jewish community, the J-word has been the focus. You won't see "Kill Israelis" scrawled on London synagogue walls. What you see on walls is "Kill the Jews", and on banners, "Hitler was right".

And this brings me back to the point about the complexity of antisemitism today. It is always around and in the end focused primarily on the J-word, in the same way that another form of racism is focused on the N-word. Those on the receiving end find their lives shaped by it. Certainly my life, my sense of myself, has been shaped by the casual antisemitism I have encountered. The first time I was called a "Jew" with malicious intent was September 1958 in the playground of Belmont Hills Elementary School, in the suburbs of Philadelphia. It came as a surprise. I was eight years old and up until that time had been living in New York City where everyone I encountered was Jewish. Until that moment, the word "Jew" had simply been one of the words and phrases - like "Mike", "son" and "114 East 90th Street" - whose meanings were slowly building up into a sense of who I was.

Whoever called me a "Jew" didn't accompany the word with a shove or a punch, but the way the word was bitten off and barked contained enough implicit violence to make it clear that being Jewish was bad and someone wanted to hurt me because of it. I didn't know how to respond. Before long I learned I was a "mockey" and a "kike" as well as a "Jew". And with the help of the adults in my world I learned the boys calling me a Jew could be called a name back. They were "Wops" and "Dagos" and "Micks".

The Second World War is ancient history to most Americans so it is easy to forget that, in addition to its horrors, the war liberated a generation of immigrants who had grown up in the Depression with little prospect for a better life. The conflict did more to break down class barriers and shake the society up than any of the New Deal's economic plans. Those who did not get killed began to acquire wealth in the post-war boom. By the 1950s new suburbs were being thrown up to give them a chance to get out of the city and breathe clean country air.

Regardless of ethnic background, when people did move to the suburbs they stuck to their own kind, recreating the security-in-numbers feeling of the old neighbourhood. In Philadelphia, many Jewish professionals moved to new developments, barely over the city line and just adjacent to Belmont Hills, a working-class neighbourhood strewn up and down a steep ridge overlooking the Schuylkill River. Belmont Hills was similar to hundreds of mill towns throughout the north-east in topography, architecture and ethnic structure - mostly Italian and Irish with a few Germans and one or two French Canadians who had drifted south, all staunchly Catholic. Their lives were based around employment in the small factories that still lined the Schuylkill in the 1950s.

Because of the way the school district boundary lines were drawn, the children of the new middle-class Jews and the working-class Catholics were thrown together. There was mutual suspicion and occasional exploration between the two groups and a childlike acceptance that "they" were different. But a couple of times a year the tension in that difference boiled over in the schoolyard or an unsupervised moment in the classroom.






Then shoving, and 10-year-old fisticuffs, until a teacher intervened. Being periodically called a Jew and the threat of very real violence that hovered in the air with it - playing in the local woods, my younger brothers had knives held to their throats and told to convert or be killed - continued to add to my sense of who I was. I was a diligent student at Hebrew school but not very religious. My sense of being Jewish came as much from the way in which I was reminded of my difference from the Catholic kids of Belmont Hills as it did from rituals of religion.

So much of our identity is bound up in that word "Jew". It's odd because, in the beginning, Jews weren't called Jews at all. In the Torah, Jews are usually called the children of Israel, but in the book of Exodus they are called Hebrews. The precise origin of the word "Hebrew" is lost somewhere in the time before writing. In the language spoken by Abraham, "eber" means the other side of the river. It is possible that the word Hebrew comes from that root. The other side of the river is a perfect metaphor for where the monotheistic tribe descended from Abraham stood in relation to the polytheistic idol-worshippers around the Middle East. More prosaically, it might just be a name whose origins are unknowable. There is a tribe called the "Habiru" mentioned in ancient cuneiform texts who apparently did battle in Canaan.

The word Jew is notable by its absence in the Old Testament. The New Testament on the other hand makes plentiful use of it and defined "Jew" as a term of abuse for the best part of 1,800 years.

A polite fightback by community leaders began in France during the early days of the French Revolution. One of the leaders of the Jewish community during that time, Berr Isaac Berr, noted that "Jew" was a term of abuse and asked that in future, officials should use the word "Israelite" or "Hebrew" when referring to his people. "Israelite" had not acquired the pejorative connotation of "Jew", he explained. "Israel", after all, was the honorific bestowed by God on Jacob after their all-night wrestling match.

Throughout the 19th century, "Israelite" or "Hebrew" or "follower of Moses" supplanted "Jew" as the politically correct way to refer to the community. It was a process analogous to the way "black", "African-American" or "person of colour" replaced "Negro" in polite discourse after the civil rights era.

Not every Jewish person went along with these semantic games. In 1832, a magazine appeared in Germany that left no doubt who it was for and what it was about. It was called Der Jude ("The Jew"). The editor and pretty much sole reporter was Gabriel Riesser, a lawyer by training who was prohibited from practising his profession because he was Jewish. Many members of the community had converted to Christianity to get around the restriction. Riesser would not.

Riesser asked readers of Der Jude if they thought by changing the name "Jew" to something more socially acceptable they would avoid injustice and hatred. "Vain hope! Believe me, hatred will find its man, just like the Angel of Death. It shall recognise him through a thousand favourable names."

Thirty years later, a new word for this hatred was coined - "antisemitism". This was when race science was all the rage. Antisemitism avoided the connotation of pure hatred against individuals which is, after all, irrational. It focused scientifically on the supposed racial and social characteristics of a group, the Jews, without mentioning them by name. From there it was easy to start a political movement - based on scientific "facts" - to rein in a people who clearly were alien.

Succeeding generations of Jews, rapidly integrating into European society, found their own strategies for dealing with the hatred. As a child, Sigmund Freud watched his father fail to fight back against bullies who called him a "dirty Jew", and he resented it. Later in life, while out walking with his own son, Martin, he was confronted by a gang of young thugs who were threatening him and calling him a Jew. Freud charged at them and began assaulting them with his walking stick. Clearly he wouldn't take the insult as his father had.

But as his psychoanalytic theories began to gain international currency, Freud was keenly aware that they were perceived as being "Jewish". When the Swiss analyst, Carl Jung, not Jewish and thought by some to be an antisemite, showed keen interest in his theories, Freud appointed him the first editor of the Yearbook for Psychoanalytical and Psychopathological Research. Jung's name on the masthead would make Freud's ideas seem less parochially Jewish.

Karl Abraham, one of Freud's first disciples, was angered and questioned Freud's judgement in appointing someone he thought was an antisemite to this important position. Freud wrote to him: "My opinion is that we Jews, if we want to co-operate with other people, have to develop a little masochism and be prepared to endure a certain amount of injustice. There is no other way of working together."

I wonder how Freud's views might have changed after the Holocaust?

Certainly the Holocaust didn't end Jew hatred. After all, the first time I was called a Jew with malicious intent was a mere 13 years after Auschwitz had been "liberated". But the advice my father gave me the first time I told him someone called me a "dirty Jew" was similar to what Freud told Abraham. Being called names and disliked for no reason is just part of being Jewish. You have to learn to live with it. And so I did. A good thing too, because antisemitism never really goes away.

In the autumn of our last year in high school the Jews of Penn Valley were challenged to a game of full contact American football by the guys from Belmont Hills. We were already well on our separate ways: us to college, many of them to Vietnam. The Jews against the Hill: one last showdown.

Our ready agreement to the game wasn't so remarkable. It is impossible to underestimate the impact that Israel's astonishing victory in the Six Day War a few months earlier had on the collective Jewish psyche. We fight back!

The Sunday of the showdown was just before Thanksgiving. Game day was so cold that a warm-up stretch was as likely to snap a hamstring as loosen it up. The Hill players took the right approach. They sat in cars that quickly filled with cigarette fumes and just before the appointed kick-off time they emerged. We recognised most of the guys but one was unfamiliar.

Butchie DC, ohmygod, Butchie DC. The Butchie DC. We all knew his legend - thrown out of more Catholic schools than there were holy orders to staff them. Here he was, not overly tall but slab-like in the torso, stalking across the rock-hard grass towards us.

We lost the toss and on the first play, Butchie stormed through the line untouched. Just as he was about to pick up real speed, Doug - the same Doug who had had a pint of beer thrown in his face in Durham the previous summer - stepped into his way. Butchie bore down on him trying to run him over. At the last minute, Doug - half his size by width and height - stepped to one side, leaving only his toe out. Butchie tripped and went down hard on his face into the frozen grass. He popped up almost immediately, both fists clenched. Doug backed away at speed laughing: "Sorry man, I couldn't think of anything else." Butchie took a few more steps then started to laugh as well. The riot potential in the game ended there and then - although the good, clean violence didn't.

The Hill won the game by three to one, or maybe four to one, but the Jews gained the moral victory - the next day we all managed to make it to school, but a couple of their players didn't. And that was it, we went our separate ways, although a week before graduation one of the kids from the Hill managed to hiss a last "dirty Jew" at me. It was not for old time's sake and it was as threatening as ever.

Then, for a while, antisemitism disappeared from my life. Jewishness became central to American culture. We weren't isolated by the J-word, Jews became the paradigm of the American immigrant experience.

A golden age of writers: Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Joseph Heller, Norman Mailer and Cynthia Ozick dominated American literary life. Jews had always been prominent in American entertainment but had hidden their ethnicity. Now Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Barbra Streisand and dozens of others became enormously successful, out and proud of their heritage.

For a couple of decades I never heard the J-word uttered in anger. But then things began to change. In Prague, in the heady days after the Velvet Revolution, well past 1am, walking home from a rave in the basement of an old communist monument, a shout came from the other side of the street: "Zhid!" The teenage boys who shouted at me could not have seen many Jews in their lives.

How they could tell I was Jewish, moving in and out of the expressionist shadows thrown by the street lights, was beyond me. It made me wonder whether a millennium of Jew-hatred had become genetically encoded.

And as for Jew-hatred encased in the political science of antisemitism, that never ends either, even where there are no longer Jews. In the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, just before the Euro 2012 football championships, I interviewed Yuri Michalchyshyn, chief ideologue of Svoboda, a far-right nationalist party, and the largest party in the regional parliament. He knew I was Jewish but didn't soft-pedal his vision of an ethnically pure Ukraine. He was clear, the country's 70,000 Jews (down from a pre-war total of 900,000) could never be full Ukrainian citizens because they were not of the blood and would not have the vote.

Svoboda won just under 5% of the vote in national elections last October, and today, Michalchyshyn is head of strategy and analysis in the SBU, Ukraine's security service.

Last spring in Hungary, I encountered the same sorts of ideas and prejudices while reporting on the far-right Jobbik party ahead of the European elections.

The anonymous comments following an article I wrote for the Daily Telegraph marking the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz are a rhapsody of anti-Semitic tropes.

A new cycle of Jew-hatred/antisemitism has begun in Western Europe since Israel's third war with Hamas.

Is it physically violent? More than it used to be. Does it have political teeth? No. Does it remind me of every incident since I was eight years old. Yes.

How does it make me feel? Like I said at the top - it's complicated - but it reinforces for me the knowledge that being hated is part of being Jewish.

November 24, 2016 23:26

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