Zoe Strimpel

What if Jews started demanding apologies like the victims of empire?

The attitude of descendants of former British colonies contrasts with the Jewish experience


People visit the Jallianwala Bagh Martyrs' memorial on the occasion of 103rd anniversary of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar on April 13, 2022. (Photo by NARINDER NANU / AFP) (Photo by NARINDER NANU/AFP via Getty Images)

January 26, 2023 10:13

Having done battle with its perplexingly hostile visa process, I made it to India ten days ago and found myself in Jaipur at the famous literature festival. So many bigwigs were there: William Dalrymple (unofficial king of the festival), Anthony Beevor, Edmund de Waal, Simon Sebag Montefiore.

I knew that Anglo-Indian history, and therefore empire, would be a major theme, but I was still taken aback in the session starring Times journalist Satnam Sanghera, author of recent bestseller Empireland and the forthcoming, rather vicious-sounding children’s book Stolen History: The Truth About the British Empire.

I was shocked mainly because Sanghera kept saying that Britain refuses to own up to its imperial past. If he really thinks that, then he has not read the news in the past ten years, in which — contrary to the idea that Britain is hiding the negative aspects of its history of empire and involvement in the slave trade — universities and cultural institutions almost universally, plus a good number of schools, are pushing to teach almost nothing else.

Hundreds of Benin Bronzes have been pledged for return, the real history of their seizure (the massacre of a British expeditionary force) sealed in a politically correct chamber of silence.

Tate Britain has just rehung its collection so that it focuses on British involvement in the slave trade and empire, stowing the likes of Hogarth. The Wellcome Collection recently shut down its peerless Medicine Man exhibition because of the colonised “voices” that had been obscured.

As I stood among a vast crowd listening to Sanghera repeat his demand for some kind of huge state apology for the British past — over and above the perpetual state of apology to which all our institutions seem completely committed — my intense irritation gave way to a question.

What would happen if, everywhere a Jewish population had been wronged in or by Britain or Europe or the US, it set about not only demanding state apologies but demanding that everyone else demand one? The number and scale of our persecutions is such that we would never be able to do anything else.

Plus, our efforts would be fruitless because we have, “always already” (to quote the Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser), lost the psychological war. Whenever Jews complain about their treatment, past or present, you can feel the eyes palpably rolling back in their owners’ skulls.

The exception is the Holocaust, which still enjoys widespread interest — though woe betide the Jew who drops the H bomb at brunch or dinner or drinks, selfishly bringing down the mood.

Meanwhile, it has become common among former British colonial subjects to point to Germany and say look, they gave the Jews an apology, why can’t we have one from Britain?

But the comparison is offensive and stupid; not least because it suggests Germany is somehow now saintly where Jews are concerned.

With soaring rates of antisemitism in Deutschland, including on the left, and increasing levels of disinterest, forgetfulness and even hostility towards remembering the Holocaust, Germany deserves no halo.

Back to Jaipur. As earnest questions came from an admiring crowd, I tried to imagine a world in which Jews held festivals and conferences — glamorous ones requiring the great and good of Britain to fly across the world (to, for instance, Israel…) — largely dedicated to the nastiness of their home country. I almost chortled to think, despite contemporary Britain’s tireless attempts to stamp out racism, how the case is different with Jews.

We have Jewish Book Week, which rarely wallows in grievance, especially with the British past, unless it’s got a sharp point, like last year’s excellent session with the Ridley Road writer on the Jews who fought the fascists of the 1960s.

The irony is that although in 2023, antisemitism is ubiquitous, cropping up in all sorts of respectable places, from the Labour Party to university common rooms and classrooms to Saturday Night Live, it remains the least challenged, least understood, and least interesting (to non-Jews) of all.

There is no zero-sum game. We can and should take the history of empire seriously as well as that of Jews. Nor do I want to be mistaken as saying the British Empire was lovely, and never cruel, loutish, thieving and homicidal, or that it did not have an indelible effect on its subjects. Nor am I saying that Britain’s history of involvement in the slave trade — highlighted, and how, since the Black Lives Matter movement exploded in 2020 — should remain under the radar.

But I do say that noticing the incongruity between the Empireland point of view — full of an anger that demands limitless prestige and attention — and that of Jews pointing out their ongoing battles against antisemitism, to say nothing of the past, offers a poignant reminder of the particularity of Judaism and Jews and our struggles.

January 26, 2023 10:13

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