I’M PREJUDICED about Jews. Might as well get it said upfront, before readers find it threaded throughout this column. It comes from an old pattern whereby someone, after perhaps a dozen encounters with individuals from a particular race, extrapolates from those encounters into a general view of the totality, and is of course to be questioned as a result.
The pattern is often inherited, and may also, in my case, be partly hereditary.
The hereditary bit came about when my parents and older sister lived off the South Circular Road in Dublin.
My sister was sick half the time, as a child, suffering grievously from asthma and all its nasty cousins. On either side of my parents lived families of Orthodox Jews who would occasionally ask my mother, on a Saturday, to light a fire or do any one of a number of tasks the orthodox can’t undertake on the Sabbath.
The two families were medical, as were many Jewish clans in Ireland at the time, and they provided their high level expertise, even in the middle of the night, free of charge to my parents for my sister.
That’s how a prejudice starts — with family stories handed down. In my case, the story of Jewish generosity came with the parental caveat “And so, when you grow up and encounter anti-Semitism, you must challenge it. Every time.”
My sister and I were primed before our teens, although, to be honest, our readiness to fight for Judaism was never called on when we were kids. One of the students in the Holy Faith Convent in Clontarf was Jewish, but nobody picked on her.
She got out of prayers and religious knowledge classes and that was about the height of it.
While I was still at school, however I did encounter adult Jews. Like artist Harry Kernoff, who awarded me first prize in a painting competition and told my mother he would be willing to take me on — gratis — as his student.
My mother was enthusiastic about the prospect. I wasn’t, simply because I knew my talent as a visual artist was shallow and derivative and had no desire to be found out by Kernoff.
Then, when I worked for the long-defunct Irish Press, I had short stories published in the paper by David Marcus, the literary editor there.
I submitted them under a false name and later, when they were published in a collection, had to tell him about deceiving him. He thought it was a riot.
These Jews were a key part of Dublin in the rare oul times, and I hope Fáilte Ireland will at some point create a global conference — like the one held recently in Sweden — examining the history of Jews in a city.
One of the reasons for that hope is that the more we learn about Judaism, the less likely we are to evince the anti-Semitism with which Britain’s Labour Party is rife.
The latest example is the giving of a peerage by Jeremy Corbyn to a woman who protested about the suspension of Labour members over anti-Semitic comments by those members.
Campaigners against anti-Semitism claimed that Labour’s leader had sent the Jewish community a “two-fingered salute” by nominating Martha Osamor for a peerage.
“Mr Corbyn has sent an unmistakeable signal to those in the Jewish community who still harbored the hope that he might change,” was how they put it to the Daily Telegraph this weekend. Ms Osamor issued a statement that she’s not an anti-Semite.
Perish the thought.
Although, now you mention it, there was the support she gave to Ken Livingston, whose comments about Nazis were so horrifying that he did get suspended, although at least one Irish public figure who has worked closely with Livingston on Ireland-related events hasn’t said a dicky bird of reproach about the former London mayor.
It’s still safe to hang around with anti-semites and to describe opposition to vile comments about Jews as Osamor did.
She talked of a “somewhat hysterical atmosphere” when people called out her anti-Semitic friends. It’s interesting how frequently the defenders of racism and political incorrectness go for hysteria and witch hunting analogies to cover mild protest.
They never credit the “politically correct brigade” with restraint, although, right now, in Dublin, that restraint is being displayed by art lovers.
No major protest has been mounted against the National Gallery’s exhibition of Emil Nolde’s works, even though the artist was irredeemably anti-Semitic and some of his caricatures of Jews are shudder-inducive in their offensiveness.
Just why a left-wing party like Labour should contain so many anti-Semites and be so unwilling to address them decisively is a mystery, given that Jews have tended to be more socially liberal and economically more to the left than otherwise.
Adam Gopnik of the New Yorker magazine has pointed out that they tend to root for “governmental support for the poor, abortion, homosexuality, social justice, and freedom of expression for unpopular minority groups. Here American Jews traditionally assume a very liberal position, and consequently the overwhelming majority of them vote [in the US] for Democratic candidates. In recent age terms at a higher rate than the population as a whole.”
And yet the Left turns on them and always has, going back to the Stalinist years in the USSR.
Anti-Semitism seems to have begun with early Christians condemning and seeking to convert them, early Christian states segregating them, and finally, in the twentieth century, the Nazis seeking to exterminate them.
Today, anti-Semitism is on the rise again in Europe and elsewhere, although, as Naomi Klein writes, they’re finding unexpected supporters: “When Jewish cemeteries in St Louis and Philadelphia were vandalised, for instance, Islamic organisations raised more than €160,000 — eight times their initial goal — to help pay for the repairs.”
In Ireland, Jews, now a community in radical decline, have experienced some hostility, even in relatively recent times. Alan Shatter’s wonderful autobiography, Life is a Funny Business, published a few months ago by Poolbeg, records his experiences as a kid growing up in Dublin, of bigotry openly expressed against him as a Jew — and how the wound stayed with him.
Here was one little boy from a diminishing minority whose biggest ambition at the time had to do with playing soccer, and yet he was got at by other kids.
One of the perennial excuses for anti-Semitism is that the Jews are believed (by the bigot) to be omnipresent and powerful, particularly in America.
Yet, even in the United States, according to Gopnik, speaking at the recent Swedish conference, “The Jewish minority comprises 5.6 million individuals, just over 2% of the population. This is a figure that often surprises observers of the cultural, academic, and political life of the United States.”
In Britain, the percentage of Jews within the wider population is even smaller than it is in the US.
The “pick on someone your own size” rule cannot begin to apply. The only thing that’s clear is that Jeremy Corbyn is demonstrating, at the very least, a lamentable lack of respect for diversity.