The anti-Semitic holiday destination

New Statesman - You’re Jewish? You can’t be English

I read this in this week’s New Statesman, by one Rhoda Koenig, a theatre critic on the Independent and Punch, who lives in London but comes from New York. She describes how she gradually distanced herself from a friend who she became convinced was an anti-Semite because he agreed with another guest at a dinner party who called Israel “unpleasant” and “aggressive”, and later took off on a trip to Syria over the author’s protests that the place is “a hotbed of anti-Semitic terrorism”, which it plainly isn’t.

Besides this obvious nonsense, the author compared her former friend’s attitude with English “Gentiles” of a bygone age “dismissed reports from central Europe as hysteria or propaganda”. This is surely an understandable reaction when dealing with reports of this kind about your enemy during a war, particularly given the experience of atrocity propaganda during the First World War. As for the chance conversations with people who invite one to “realise that the Jews are plotting to steal our gold and rule the world”, it’s never happened to me in 32 years, at least, not with a middle-class white person. It’s not to say I’ve never encountered stereotypes about stingy or “careful” Jews, but certainly not in respectable company in London.

She does make some good points about how, for example, English “reserve” can also lead people to keep silent when someone makes an obviously bigoted comment, as they do when they see someone acting up on a bus or tube; this does not, however, mean that “‘nice’ anti-Semitism is practically bred in the bone”, because not wanting to humiliate someone who makes a social faux-pas, such as what they do not realise is a statement of prejudice (against anyone, not just Jews) is just part of good social grace: there may well be a hush, someone will cough and the subject of conversation will change or the host will offer the next course or some drinks. The person who made the remark will know that it was not appreciated even if nobody made a song and dance about it. Also, bigots can often be loud-mouthed and aggressive, and it’s often difficult (or dangerous) to challenge them, even publically. I remember sitting in the canteen at the Royal Mail depot in south-west London (Nine Elms, to be precise) as a big bloke went on about “Muzzos” (Muslims) getting this and that. I was an agency driver who had been there a few days, and if I’d told him to keep his opinions to himself, I would not have made much headway (except perhaps for my own head, in the wall).

Of course, there is a big difference between prejudice and what Ms Koenig is apparently unwilling to countenance, namely someone unwilling to give one particular foreign country a free pass to do whatever it likes to a group of its subjects in the name of “self-defence”. This latter sentiment is actually pretty common, despite what politicians say and whatever you read in certain newspapers. I can perfectly understand ending a friendship when it becomes clear that your friend has prejudices he is unwilling to shift and cannot keep to himself, but going to Syria is not an example of anti-Semitism, and neither is criticising Israel.

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