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A DANGEROUS TIME TO BE A JEW
11 September and Iraq have sparked the return to a medieval anti-semitism in which Blair, Bush and the media act as pawns of a sinister cabal.
By Simon Sebag Montefiore, New Statesman 28 June 2004
When I was 16,1 went to toil in a kibbutz in Israel for a few months, imagining myself as a Hebraic warrior, sweatily harvesting oranges with fecund Israeli girls in groves blossoming with Jewish ingenuity amid the once-sterile Negev Desert. I actually found myself making plastic toilets. This was not good for my Jewish self-image. David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founder, foresaw that statehood meant Jewish intellectuals, but also truck drivers and criminals. But he never mentioned loo-makers. From the shtetls of Lodz to Starbucks in Manhattan, even our comic geniuses - Sholom Aleichem, Woody Allen or Jerry Seinfeld, had not invented the Jewish toilet-maker. So here I was: a new character in our ancient canon of self mockery, the humour that makes our tragedies bearable, our successes ridiculous. My favourite example: my witty great-uncle being asked his age at a funeral. “Ninety-two,’’he said. “Hardly worth going home, is it?”
At the toilet factory, I worked a sealing gun joining the pipes. Whenever I tried to fuse them, however, one would fly off, spinning around the factory and sending workers ducking for cover. I was such a klutz, that I was called before the Boss, a septuagenarian cockney who had fought Mosley’s fascists in the 1930s. He was contemptuous of me not only for my lack of toilet-training (as it were) but also because I was a public-school, “gilt-edged Jewish Monte-Fauntleroy” - by which he meant the Montefiores had helped build Jewish settlements in Ottoman Palestine, but never deigned to live there. I retorted that my mother’s family were tough immigrants from Lithuania, Poland and Russia. The Boss laughed: “That’s being a Jew: Heinz has 57 varieties.”
This Heinzian principle of Judaism has been overshadowed by the contemporary image of Israel - and by the frenzied anti-Zionist, anti-American circus of bizarre conspiracy theories that present jews as as in a gepolitical “cabal” rather than the world’s most diverse diaspora, a wealth of religious, cultural and racial communities, separate from Israel or America.
The diaspora tells its stories in some newly republished litera ture - remarkable voices such as Joseph Roth and Isaac Babel: as well as Isaac Bashevis Singer, Saul Bellow and Philip Roth. In Britain, Howard Jacobson has just published an Anglo-Jewish comedy, The Making of Henry, which shows the Jewish experience here is as laden with absurd angst as that of Bellow or Singer. I learned how small the Jewish community is in Britain when I was at Cambridge, having an affair with a girl who had no idea I was Jewish. One day, in bed, it slipped out. Eyes widening as if I had horns and fangs, she explained that her father had warned her that she might “meet Jews” at Cambridge, but she must beware of this “amoral but diabolically clever sect”. Now, she mused, with an erotic shiver, “The first one I meet is in my bed.”
Being an English Jew is very different from being an American Jew. American Jews can never quite understand the insecurities of being a European Jew, for the 5.8 million American Jews feel totally secure. (Though it should be noted that in the US, there are still co-ops in uptown NYC, clubs in Miami, where Jews are inadmissible.) Here in Britain, we are only 275,000 out of 60 million. Most parts of Britain have no Jews at all. I constantly meet educated Brits who have never met a Jew. Such people can never quite believe it: “You’re not, are you? Oh, you really are. Great! I’ve always thought you’re a very clever people.”
You might say that only a Jew could possibly take this acclamation of cleverness as an insult. Being a Jew is all about living on several levels, listening on different frequencies, deciphering codes. Even in England. But I have to say that there is not a single day when I do not thank God that I was born a Jew in England, this tolerant, quirky, flexible land that has embraced Indians, Pakistanis, African Caribbeans as it embraced Jews. It is typical that, when my wife converted to Judaism, I couldn’t have been more welcomed into her family. Ultimately, since our Cromwellian ^