I must have been sixteen before I knew I knew anyone Jewish. My parents were warmly pro-Israel: there is a family legend that in May 1967, my mother drove into the back of a Stockholm tram while distracted with worry over the Six Day War. But they had few close friends, and none that I know of were Jewish.
At the time of my mother’s car crash I was twelve, away at a school in England, where there must have been a number of “Jews”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jew : I see from Friends Reunited that there was someone in the year below me called “Lionel Stanbrook”, but Jewishness was a quite invisibly trivial property there; at the Dragon School anti-semitism would have been like prejudice against freckled people.
Later, at Marlborough, a school founded for the sons of the clergy, there were traces of the traditional, Buchanesque anti-Semitism of the British upper classes. Some people would use “to Jew” as a verb, meaning to bargain successfully, as in “I Jewed him down”, but Jews were only a minor subdivision of the undesirables and I don’t remember anyone explicitly known as Jewish or as obnoxious for that reason. Jewishness may have been a misfortune, but it was not on its own sufficient grounds for pariah status. Compared with homosexuality, an offence defined as masturbating less often than your peers, Jewish blood was trivial; the division that mattered was between people who acted like ghetto Jews and people who acted like Israeli paratroops (whose victims were of course the ghetto types).
Because of this, I felt at times very strongly that I should have been a Jew, in the tortured ghetto intellectual sense, and that it was just one more manifestation of Life’s Unspeakable Unfairness that I was a protestant Irishman with a naturally healthy complexion.
At Bedales, which I briefly attended when I was sixteen, there were self-identified Jews all over the place, but they didn’t form the aristocracy of the school; some were in the circle of ultimate chic, but not because they were Jewish, and the people I remember as setting the tone were the children of the Gentile establishment: Tomàs Graves, Jeremy Mortimer; Polly Fisher, who glamorously lived with him in a cottage outside the school grounds; Tamasin and Dan Day Lewis. Carlo Geblér. Does he count as Jewish? I think his father was. In any case, I hated him, because he was confident and fashionable and accomplished and I wasn’t. This all seems very silly now. If I’d thought he was Jewish, I would probably have hated him more, but only because it would have been one more social advantage, like having parents who were divorced.
Then I got thrown out and went away to lose a few years, smoking dope or wishing that I was doing so. My thoughts about the Jewish question did not much extend beyond the continued unfairness of my not being Leonard Cohen, or, indeed, Arthur Koestler, who seemed to me the perfect model of an intellectual.
Anitha, my Swedish wife, had actually worked on a Kibbutz, as a sixteen-year-old volunteer. She didn’t talk about it much, but took away a lasting dislike of the kibbutzim. The men, she said were arrogant sexual predators, who despised anyone who hadn’t killed an Arab. The women regarded the female volunteers with a mixture of jealousy and contempt.
Ten or twelve years after leaving school, when I came back to London as a journalist and part-time policy wonk, I found myself in a hugely Jewish world, but these were people who were all Jew-ish in the sense of the Jonathan Miller joke. This was especially true of the people regarded as Conservative intellectuals. With the exception of Charles Moore, all the cleverest young Thatcherite intellectuals whom I knew seem to have been Jewish. The two most admired were Oliver Letwin and Dominic Lawson; the Centre for Policy Studies, for whom I wrote a pamphlet, was founded by Keith Joseph, and had as its resident malevolence Alfred Sherman. The _Spectator_, where I worked, was traditionally anti-Zionist, but it wasn’t in the least bit anti-Semitic.
The one thing that none of these people were, nor could be imagined being, was religious. I did not meet any religious Jews until I went to work for the Independent, sixteen years ago, and sometimes I think I am still getting over the shock.
(to be continued).
I grew up and was schooled in Plymouth, where the most exotic species on display was the Cornish. It’s still a place where you can be killed for being homosexual (last time I was down, I read about a gay man being battered to death in a city park – it was around page 5 in the Evening Herald) but that’s OK – nobody is. Not in Plymouth.
All I knew of the Jews was that they wrote the Old Testament, they were nearly wiped out by Hitler (when he wasn’t redeveloping Plymouth City Centre), and that they’d all gone back to Israel to fight the Arabs. Once, in a fit of teenage revulsion at the nonsense of the Trinity, I did tell my father that I wished I’d been Jewish as the theology made a whole lot more sense: he seemed unperturbed. My mother was a lot more scandalised, but at the time I didn’t really clock why.
Then I left Plymouth, ostensibly to become an engineer, and by some quirk I ended up in Stanmore (working for Marconi Space and Defence Systems – a whole ‘nother story). I quickly made friends with various fellow home computer spods in the area, and on my return to the Vicarage I excitedly related tales of my new pals: Schifreen, Gold, Rockman, San, Margolis et al.
My grandmother, who lived with my parents, went white. “But… they’re all shonkas!”. “Er, what?” I said, bemused. “Shonkalollies! JEWS!”.
“Are they?” I said, rather pleased with my unintentionally cosmopolitan adventures, “How can you tell?”
I knew that gran had grown up in the East End in the 20s, but I hadn’t really twigged what that might mean. I quickly learned…
As they say in marketing meetings, the take-away from that experience was that Jews were friendly, intelligent, geeky types whose company I thoroughly enjoyed, whose religiousness was on a par with mine, and that my family on my mother’s side had a streak of anti-Semitism as wide as the Red Sea.
As you might guess, none of this prepared me for my eventual encounters with yer actual Zionist, fervently religious variant. I’m not sure anything could.