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April 10, 2001

  The Jews and I


Saturday evening we went to a seder at the home of some friends. It was an easy-going affair: our friends are not devout Jews. In fact the husband is not Jewish at all, and neither am I, and neither is my wife. Since we took our two kids, and our hosts' party consisted of only husband, wife, their one child and the wife's sister, Gentiles in fact outnumbered Jews five to three round the table (Elijah was a no-show). Still it was a most enjoyable evening, and an occasion for thought. As a conservative, I approve of all customary and traditional observances, even when the religious content is minimal. I also appreciate the opportunity offered by Passover to take out my own thoughts and feelings about the Jews and examine them, an exercise I recommend to all Gentiles, though once a year is probably often enough.

I myself grew up among the traditional attitudes of the English lower classes. These were best expressed by the late Kingsley Amis, who was once asked by an interviewer whether he was antisemitic. "Very, very mildly," replied Amis. Pressed to elaborate, he offered this: "Well, when I'm watching the credits roll at the end of a TV program, I say to myself: 'Oh, there's another one.'" That is about the temperature of antisemitism I knew as a child: barely detectable. (I have, of course, already outraged a number of American readers, devotees of the proposition that anyone who makes the merest remark about the Jews that is not absolutely, irreproachably positive, is secretly plotting to massacre them. I acknowledge this with a resigned sigh. One thing you learn, writing for the public, is that anything whatsoever that you say about the Jews will be seen as virulently antisemitic by somebody, somewhere.) For a view of Anglo-Jewish life from the other side, I recommend the slow, quiet, modestly funny novels and stories of Chaim Bermant.

My father was a working man of little education, and his attitude in these matters was pretty much the same as Amis's. I never heard him say anything malicious — nor even, I think, derogatory — about the Jews, and I know from many conversations that he believed Hitler to have been a very wicked man. Dad's usual term for a Jew was "sheeny," which he deployed in utterances like: "You remember Marjorie Sykes. She married that sheeny bookkeeper from over Towcester way." Again, there was no malign intent that I could, or can, detect in this. It was just a way of speaking, very widespread in England thirty and forty years ago, and for all I know still so today.

The English have nothing to be ashamed of in this regard, having been exceptionally hospitable to the Jews since re-admitting them in Oliver Cromwell's time. (A marvellous story in itself, told in Part Four of Paul Johnson's History of the Jews.) English philosemitism has continued in a direct line of descent since then, enlisting such notable figures as Sir Walter Scott, Queen Victoria, Charles Dickens, George Meredith, David Lloyd George and Margaret Thatcher. Most Americans would consider it a wonderful and striking thing if a Jew were to be elected President of these United States. Pooh: We Brits had Benjamin Disraeli as Prime Minister 133 years ago. (Yes, I know, his father took the whole family to Christianity when Benjamin was 13. But Dizzy was born a Jew.) I was a bit disconcerted some years ago, when some different Jewish friends took me along to a Kol Nidre service, and I discovered that the only reference to England in the prayer book was to the 12th-century pogrom at York. Come on, guys: that was eight hundred years ago. Isn't there a statute of limitations on pogroms?

The sleepy English country town I grew up in had only a small contingent of Jews, who of course all knew each other. My first contact with this little world came through an elderly couple of Silesian Jews whose anonymity I shall preserve behind the name "Kellerman." The Kellermans had fled Germany when Hitler came to power. After some unhappy years in Palestine, they had washed up in England, where Martin Kellerman was export manager for a firm — Jewish-owned, of course — that manufactured greeting cards. Gussie Kellerman gave piano lessons, as a result of which those of the town's young people who had any aspirations to higher culture all knew her.

Martin used to conduct a sort of salon for us, in fact. Though close to sixty at that point, he was one of those people who genuinely like to be among intelligent youngsters. Half a dozen of us at a time would go over there to sit in his living room and talk about the events of the day, books we had read or plays we had attended, while Gussie fed us with wonderful little middle-European snacks she made up herself, out of ingredients purchased at the county's lone delicatessen.

I still have a vivid memory of the Kellermans' house. They had brought with them into exile all the manners and attitudes of the old Central European Jewish bourgeoisie, one of the most civilized populations that ever existed. (It exists no more, of course, having been wiped out by Hitler and Stalin. Most of the Kellerman's childhood friends and relatives had perished in the camps.) They spoke German to each other, were intimidatingly well-read in that and a couple of other languages, and could identify any piece of classical music after a couple of bars. On top of a fine, gracious old wooden bureau in their drawing-room stood the most valuable object I had ever seen outside a museum: a Meissen vase, worth, according to Gussie, twenty thousand pounds — at least twice my father's entire lifetime earnings up to that point.

For a working-class boy from a family with very narrow horizons (I had never even heard the word "delicatessen" until I heard it from Gussie), this was heady stuff. Martin was a man of much learning and strong opinions. Some of his pronouncements were made with such force and conviction that I have not, even to this day, ventured to gainsay them. When, one evening, someone asked him for an opinion on Proust, he shook his head and gave a firm "No!" Why? we asked. Replied Martin, in his heavy German accent salted with British slang: "Because I do not like poofs. Und I especially do not like Chewish poofs. It is against nature, und against my religion." I have never since felt the slightest urge to read Proust.

The Kellermans were not in fact very religious, and Martin could be rather scathing about this. The town's other Jews (he said) looked down on the Kellermans because "They do not think we are religious enough." The Kellermans didn't even think of themselves as very Jewish. I remember once Gussie even corrected me, gently, when I referred to them as "a Jewish couple." Said Gussie: "I would prefer you to say, 'A German couple.'" For all the vile things the Nazis had done to them and theirs, and for all that their home town was now a part of Poland, they still thought of themselves as German. All the men of their parents' generation had fought  — for Germany, of course  — in World War One, many with distinction.

I was very surprised, therefore, when I called on them one evening by myself and found Martin seated in his customary armchair, but wearing a yarmulke and reading a black-bound book printed in Hebrew. Here was his explanation. "For some time I have been suffering from an embarrassing and very painful cyst. At one point, the pain was so intense that I made a vow to my Creator. I said if he would be so good as to relieve me of this pain, I would do my duty to him as a Jew, and attend shul for three months, and make proper observances. The pain went; and now, you see, I am fulfilling my side of the bargain." (A true story, though now I see it in print, it would not be out of place in one of Chaim Bermant's books.)

I find myself now, in middle age, with complicated and sometimes self-contradictory feelings about the Jews. Those early impressions — culture, wit, intelligence, kindness and hospitality — are still dominant, and I have read enough to know what a stupendous debt our civilization owes to the Jews. At the same time, there are aspects of distinctly Jewish ways of thinking that I dislike very much. The world-perfecting idealism, for example, that is rooted in the most fundamental premisses of Judaism, has, it seems to me, done great harm in the modern age. That dreadful speech Charlie Chaplin gives at the end of The Great Dictator made me gag instinctively, even before I understood why. I also find the theories of Kevin MacDonald (The Culture of Critique) about the partly malign influence of Jews on modern American culture very persuasive — though this is not an endorsement of MacDonald's theory of "group evolutionary strategies," which I do not understand. And like (I suppose) every other Gentile, I have often been irritated by Jewish sensibilities, and occasionally angered by them.

For an example of what I mean by that last, recall the Spectator incident of 1994. In October of that year, the London Spectator — a literary and political magazine of impeccable gentility — published an article titled "Kings of the Deal," analyzing, in a thoughtful and entirely unthreatening way, the dominance of Jews like Steven Spielberg, David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg in Hollywood. To the amazement of the Spectator's editor (who was Dominic Lawson — a Jew!) this innocuous article caused a storm of outrage in the U.S.A. The young author, William Cash, was denounced from the pulpits of political correctness — that is, from the Op-Ed pages of the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times. Prominent American Jews like Leon Wieseltier went into high-hysterical mode, denouncing Cash as the new Julius Streicher and so on. The storm went on for weeks, led by a howling mob of buffoons — Barbra Streisand, for example — who had certainly never read, nor probably even heard of the Spectator up to that point. (I have been reading it for 30 years, and have also written for it.) It was a display of arrogance, cruelty, ignorance, stupidity and sheer bad manners by rich and powerful people towards a harmless, helpless young writer, and the Jews who whipped up this preposterous storm should all be thoroughly ashamed of themselves.

Taken all in all, though, I am proud to call myself a philosemite, and even at low points like the Spectator affair still, at the very least, an anti-antisemite. I recall the numberless kindnesses I have received at the hands of Jews, friendships I treasure and lessons I have learnt. I cherish those recollections. As a keen reader of history, I also stand in awe of the sheer staying power of the Jews. In Paul Johnson's words:

When the historian visits Hebron today, he asks himself: where are all those peoples which once held the place? Where are the Canaanites? Where are the Edomites? Where are the ancient Hellenes and the Romans, the Byzantines, the Franks, the Mamluks and the Ottomans? They have vanished into time, irrevocably. But the Jews are still in Hebron.

These are not very happy days in Hebron. I have no doubt, though, that 3,000 years from now the Jews will still be there, arguing, feasting, theorizing, charming and vexing all who come to know them. What an astounding story theirs is! "How odd of God, to choose the Jews." (To which one Jewish wag offered the response: "Not news, not odd: we Jews chose God!") A peaceful, healthy and happy Passover to each and every one of them. L'chaim!