Kate Maltby

Yes, it is possible to be Jewish and love dogs

When Muslims or Jews are being told they can’t be English if they don’t love canines, it should worry us all


Members of the new dog unit part of the Efrat emergency squad pose for a picture during a drill in the settlement of Efrat, in Gush Etzion, West Bank, on July 10, 2022. Photo by Gershon Elinson/Flash90

September 01, 2022 13:58

If one thing will end a career in British politics, it’s a dead dog.

If you watched the 2018 TV series A Very English Scandal, you’ll know that Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe found this out to his cost.

­Thanks to the death of the Great Dane Rinka — shot by a man whom Thorpe had hired to kill, confront or pay off a former male lover, depending who you ask — he’s been largely scrubbed from official Lib Dem history. And in 1549, Edward VI’s powerful uncle Thomas Seymour lost his head after shooting dead the king’s favourite spaniel.

No one wants to be associated with dead dogs. No one in Britain, at least.

Earlier this week, a new documentary aired about the notorious “animal airlift” of August 2021, in which 170 dogs and other small animals were evacuated from Kabul with former marine Pen Farthing. Many desperate human beings, on Taliban hitlists, were denied the opportunity to evacuate.

An official report by the Foreign Affairs Select Committee includes seven pages of damning evidence of why Farthing’s team was called to the airport in “a total overriding of the Foreign Office’s prioritisation system”.

The U-turn came at 1.33am on 25 August, in a tweet from Defence Secretary Ben Wallace. Dominic Dyer, the animal welfare lobbyist prominent in Farthing’s campaign for government support, is convinced that Boris Johnson intervened after being told that The Sun was preparing to run a front-page story showing Farthing’s dogs being prepared for euthanasia, allegedly because the government had bungled their evacuation.

Certainly, emails and WhatsApp messages between Dyer and senior government figures back up the timing. And Johnson is a PM who knows his English history — never be blamed for the death of a dead dog.

I contributed towards Channel 4’s documentary, as a journalist who covered the story. It’s a great doc, but I was sorry it couldn’t find space to further explore the social media community that emerged among Farthing supporters, in particular the ways in which his fans tied their language about loving dogs to their ideals of Englishness.

Some were explicit that they valued dogs’ lives over people’s, especially when those people weren’t English, white or Christian. “One dog is worth more than 100 Muslims”, read one post.

But the more moderate majority still repeatedly came out with old lines about the English being the only nation who treat dogs with respect.

Their fears seemed rather undercut by the fact that Farthing was able to return to Kabul earlier this year to visit his old clinic, which was still operating despite Taliban control.

All this rhetoric about dogs and Englishness left me wondering: if the English relationship with dogs is idealised as something indigenous and racial, does that exclude Jews from this most quintessential of English traits?

There are plenty of stereotypes, inside and outside Jewish communities, that will tell you that Ashkenazi Jews, at least, just don’t appreciate dogs. As the old Yiddish saying goes, “A Jew with a dog? It’s either not a Jew, or it’s not a dog.”

In Israel and the Sephardic world, however, things are different. In Israeli military culture, you’ll find plenty of celebrations of the relationship between lonely soldier and loyal dog.

In 1972, a patriotic film based on the ideas of Motta Gur, then-IDF Chief of Staff, even created the fictional army mascot Azit, a Paratrooper Dog. Readers who know the Israeli TV series Hatufim — screened in the UK as Prisoners of War — will know that we learn about the humanity of the dead hero Amiel each time the relatives who mourn him visit the dog shelter he lovingly constructed.

The difference between diaspora and Middle Eastern relationships between Jews and dogs points us to a sadder truth in our history.

Across the world, the deepest relationships between dogs and humans develop among those who work the soil.

If European Jews don’t have the historic relationship with dogs of their Gentile peers, it is in large part down to those old exclusions of Jews from owning land in various contexts — the source of ancient hatreds, based on the idea that we lack indigeneity or the capacity for honest sweat, the “Blut und Boden”, or “blood and soil” so beloved by the Nazis.

There’s nothing positive for us, then, about a rhetoric that denies Englishness to those who are too urban or too foreign to truly love dogs and land.

Plenty of English Jews do love their dogs — Dan J Jacobs’ documentary Frum Dogs of Hendon recently introduced us to several — but when Muslims or Jews are being told they can’t be English if they don’t love dogs, it should worry us all.

September 01, 2022 13:58

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