On being Jewish (sort of) in these febrile times

by Sue Hubbard

A response to the BBC’s Panorama programme and the Labour party crisis

I am Jew –ish. The ish is important. For although I had four Jewish grandparents and Hitler would certainly have turned me into toast if I’d been born a few years earlier over the wrong side of the Channel, my upbringing was more Thelwell Pony Club and Surrey Young Conservative tennis parties (apologies I was only 13!) than north London Bar Mitzvahs. I even went to a private Christian Science girls’ school, where the only other Jewish girl refused to say the Lord’s Prayer in assembly and I wondered if I should too. Our days were spent riding our bikes in the Surrey lanes and listening to the Beatles and Rolling Stones. And my mother – a bit of a snob – was more interested in gardening and horses than Golders Green glitz. My Jewishness then – such as it was – amounted to having a grandmother who’d arrive on the Greenline bus from London for Sunday lunch with a bag of gefilte fish. As a child I never attended a synagogue or a Friday night Shabbat. Didn’t even know what they were and felt very alien the first time I did.

So most of my life I’ve not thought about being Jewish. As a teenager in the 1960s I did rather fancy going to pick grapes on a kibbutz (it was a fashionable thing to do in those days when Israel was seen as a beacon of social democracy in a sea of despotism) because you were likely to meet arty boys. But that’s about it. Since then I’ve gone on marches protesting about the current Israeli government’s appalling alt-right behaviour towards the Palestinians. Injustice is, after all, injustice.

But suddenly I’m afraid. Aware of my Jewishness in a way I’ve never been before.

The Panorama programme on antisemitism brought it home. But what’s even more disconcerting is the number of people, good people, intelligent people, who are dissing the programme, claiming  poor research, a Corbyn smear tactic, BBC bias etc, rather than looking at the unpalatable truths that were exposed. These are the same people, I can’t help feeling who, if the programme had been about institutional racism against black police officers, would (rightly) be applauding it. Most shocking was the revelation of the  belittling abuse that many Jewish MPs put up with for so long because they loved the Labour party and hoped it would change.

In these febrile political times Jews are like canaries down a coal mine. The first to smell the whiff of something nasty in the woodshed as our society, daily, becomes ever more polarised  and half-truths and fake new abound. We have self-serving liars at the top of both the British and American governments and everyone is looking for someone else to blame. But what seems to have changed is there seems, increasingly, to be a generalised indifference to antisemitism among those who’d claim to have been anti-racist all their lives. The old tropes are back about cabals, power and money, world domination – Soros and the Rothchild’s etc. But put up a post on Facebook and the only people to respond are those with Jewish connections. To most this is a none issue. Made up, a smear, over-played by those pesky Jews. After all most Jews are white, middle class –ish. What have they got to bleat about when any card carrying metropolitan lefty should be worrying about the Gaza strip?

But it is not either or. Most educated Jews I know abhor the behaviour of the Israeli government, just as my American friends abhor the behaviour of Trump. But tolerating antisemitism seems to have become acceptable. The desire in the Labour party – the natural home of British Jews – to reinstate the likes of Chris Williamson is deeply distressing. And yes, Jews can be antisemitic, just as gay men can be homophobic or women can refer to each other as bitches. These are the Jews supported by Corbyn’s cadre. The rest are the wrong sort of Jews. Untruthful, slippery, neurotic, making a fuss. Such phrases have echoes of those bandied around in 1930s Germany. And you’ll remember that didn’t turn out well.

Sue Hubbard is an award-winning poet, freelance art critic and novelist. Her latest novel, Rainsongs, is published by Duckworth.