Argus title : Racism stinks just like an infected wound and I can smell it here in Britain
When I was a child we had a family doctor called Dr Flower. He had come to South Africa from Northern Ireland and spoke in a soft Ulster burr. He had a pale kindly face and seemed the gentlest of men.
When I was 14 I asked him what he thought of the IRA. He said softly “They should all be hung”. “What, all of them?” my mother asked, very startled. That was when I realised Dr Flower was an Ulster Protestant of implacable bigotry.
Many years later my mother told me Dr Flower had once said to my grandfather “Hitler had the right idea about the Jews”. My grandfather replied “Oh no Dr Flower I think he went a bit far.”
South Africa at that time was wracked by racial division and appalling discrimination against and violence towards Black people. Therefore, the prejudice and discrimination which divided the White community – by religion, ethnicity, gender, class and sexual orientation – were less obvious.
Jews were part of a privileged White minority and many had succeeded in business and the professions. So the prejudice against them was usually expressed by some degree of economic or social exclusion and more or less vicious insults behind their backs.
My own parents were not anti-semitic, but I grew up hearing several male members of my wider family refer to Jewish men as “Yids” and “Jewboys” and “Shmos”. ‘They’ were accused of cheating, sharp business practice and sly dishonesty – very similar stereotypes to those used by the Nazis in Germany.
When I came to this country in the early 1970s I noticed that there was far less overt anti-semitism than in South Africa. It festered below the surface, but the political and social conditions for its expression didn’t exist. It was far more common to hear expressions of prejudice against the Irish, including anti-Irish jokes.
Up until the ceasefire with the IRA, Irish people in Britain experienced police harassment, misrepresentation and vilification in the media. However, in some ways these must have been easier to bear than the constant ridicule to which they were subjected. Every armchair humorist told jokes about ‘thick Micks’ and Irish ‘bombers’ and these stereotypes were the stuff of almost every TV comedy show.
Of course, it was said at the time that it was “just a bit of fun”, but remarkably the jokes stopped when the ceasefire was agreed. It was a remarkable illustration of the power governments have in setting the cultural tone of British society.
Now, of course, political configurations have changed. Britain is no longer fighting its own colonial war. These days it helps wage the “War on Terror” or (depending on your point of view) assists the US’ imperialist war for oil and profits. Different social groups are in the firing line and, for the first time in my experience, Jewish people are emerging as targets.
Johann Hari is a Jewish journalist who has vigorously opposed both Israeli actions towards the Palestinians and the invasion of Lebanon. Initially he supported the invasion of Iraq, but he changed his view and had the courage to acknowledge it.
Over the past two years Hari has warned of a growth in anti-semitism in Britain, highlighting the increase in anti-semitic attacks on Jewish people and synagogues. He has recognised the danger that justified criticism of Israeli policies together with unfounded accusations of anti-semitism by what he calls the “Israel-right-or-wrong-brigade”, may give encouragement and cover to genuine anti-semites.
He wrote recently “”Now the Lebanese War is stammering to an end – although the crimes against humanity in Gaza and the West Bank continue – we need to talk about the fact that streaks of raw Jew-hatred have re-entered our public discourse.”
Hari commented that at the recent Edinburgh Festival there had been “a fever of nakedly anti-semitic jokes”. He quoted one comedian who said he “wanted to kill that fucking Jew Richard Perle”.
He could have called him an American Neoconservative or a Pentagon Hawk. He chose to call him a “fucking Jew”.
The same comic suggested that children be taught to play Nazis and Jews rather than Cowboys and Indians. Someone yelled from the audience “Throw them in the ovens” – and raised a laugh. It would once have been impossible to tell ‘jokes’ such as these.
At a recent anti-war demonstration in Brighton strong feelings were raised when the police seized from an 8 year old Palestian girl a poster which equated Nazism with Zionism and showed the swastika with the Star of David. Some Jewish people expressed outrage, while others said they took no offence because the poster referred to the state of Israel rather than the Jewish people. The police however judged it to be “inflammatory” and “racist”.
I personally do not believe that the poster was racist or that the police were justified in removing it in the way they did. However, had I been a steward on that march I would have strongly advised against carrying it – not because it is politically and historically inaccurate (though I think it is) or anti-semitic, but because of the hurt it could cause to Holocaust survivors and their families.
There is also a real danger that such images could give comfort and encouragement to the fascists and anti-semites who over the years have scrawled swastikas on synagogues and gravestones. This graffiti has had nothing at all to do with anti-Israeli politics, but has been an expression of threat and contempt towards Jews and Judaism.
Accusations of anti-semitism on the peace demonstrations in Brighton are almost certainly unjustified. Police allegations that the confiscated poster expressed racism “against Israelis” have no legal basis and have muddied the waters.
However, there is no reason for protesters to be complaisant. There was evidence this week of anti-semitism at a small demonstration outside the TUC Conference. A lone protester handed out seemingly self-produced leaflets accusing Ariel Sharon of sending “Jew suicide pilots to crash into Twin Towers”. The leaflet demanded the disarming of what it called “al-JewQuaeda”. It was “Jews” who were accused, not the Israeli state. Yet a trawl of the Internet shows that the man who claimed to issue the leaflets has many amused supporters apparently untroubled by his use of language.
The Government gives no useful lead. In fact it seems more concerned to muzzle protest against the Israeli government than it does to counter fascism and the growth of anti-semitism against British Jews.
It is true that the government’s stance is re-inforced by the tendency of some Jewish people to conflate all opposition to Israel with anti-semitism. However, at a time when there is increasing interest in religion and its political influence, there has been little attempt by the government to inform the public about Judaism or to promote understanding of the Jewish community in Britain and its contribution to British society.
I have a Jewish friend of the left who says he sees no great increase in anti-semitism. He compares the present situation in Britain with the pogroms of the past and the present situation of the Palestinian people and says“Jewish people here are part of the establishment….they have power”.
He falls into the error of anti-Semites when he assumes Jews have power and disproportionate influence. He falls into the error of extreme Zionism by conflating the situation of British Jews and Israeli Jews. Just because the Israeli state unjustly gives all Jews the so called ‘right of return’ to formerly Palestinian lands does not make them all responsible for the actions of the Israeli state. The prejudice they experience here should not be weighed against the suffering of the Palestinians.
I am not Jewish, but I grew up in a society saturated in racism. I recognise it because I was educated to do so and because it corrupted almost every part of my childhood. It stinks like an infected wound and I can smell it right now, here in Britain.
Johann Hari refers to an old woman who survived Auschwitz. She told him: “Growing up in Weimar Berlin, I used to laugh when I heard my grandparents ranting about anti-Semitism. I told them they were paranoid. Well, I wasn’t laughing in the cattle trucks. I obviously don’t think Britain is about to turn Nazi. But in Jewish terms, sixty years is nothing. Nothing. Sure, we’re on top today – but how many times in history have the Jews been on top and thought we were safe, only to see it disappear in the blink of a gentile eye?”
I fear fascism, both secular and religious. But, almost more than that, I fear the blindness and innocence of those who oppose it in one place, but cannot see it in another.