I never encountered anti-semitism until I went to work in Poland in 1992. I was a partner in a Jewish law firm, by which I mean it had been founded by Jewish lawyers and most of the partners were Jewish. I don’t remember considering the matter when deciding to apply for a job and it didn’t occur to me that it might feature in their decision to hire me. Clearly, it didn’t as they didn’t even ask. My new boss sent his secretary to my office on my first day at work to ask if I would be free for a meeting on a certain date. I remember thinking that it was a dumb question as I had just arrived and my diary was empty. I went through the motions of checking and had my pen poised to write something in when she said, “No, that’s fine. He’ll get back to you.” He didn’t. When I mentioned to a Jewish colleague that I thought it was a puzzling episode he laughed and said “That’s a holy day. He was checking.” Even then it didn’t occur to me that my faith, or lack of it, might affect my future career. It didn’t. Within two years they offered me a partnership.
So I was surprised when a colleague in Warsaw told me that the general counsel of a Polish client kept asking him whether I was Jewish or not. “Why does he ask?” I said and my colleague told me that the guy was something of a Catholic Nationalist anti-semite and was probably unhappy that his company had hired us. “What shall I tell him?” he asked me and I said he should say he didn’t know. “Let him wonder”, I said. “Let any assholes to whom it matters wonder and if it matters enough for them not to hire us then screw them!”
Years later, I was invited, by a Jewish friend who had project managed the restoration, to the re-opening of a synagogue in Oświęcim (better known to the world by the name, Auschwitz, that it bore during its darkest days under German occupation). For the first time in my life I was wearing a yarmulke, handed to me by the Chief Rabbi of Poland, whose daughter was in the same class at school as Miss P the Elder. The event attracted international coverage and I apparently appeared on the television news as, at two metres / 6′ 7″ tall, I towered above the crowd. When I got to the office in Warsaw the next day, the colleague who had asked what to say to our anti-semitic client during my first month in Poland laughed. He said this had finally answered the question and that the office was buzzing. I was the office managing partner by this time and was rather shocked by the idea that there might be anti-semites in our own ranks. So I made a point of leaving my yarmulke on my desk as a kind of talisman to scare them away.
It was about this point that I came up with one of my jokes to use at Warsaw parties. “How does a Jew become Polish?” it went. “He wins the Nobel Prize.” That’s unfair to most modern, reasonable Poles, you understand, but satirises a tendency even for them to distinguish “Jews” from “Poles” when they mean to distinguish Jewish from Catholic Poles. If you ever want to wind up a less reasonable Pole, you might try mentioning the arguably Jewish heritage of their “Shakespeare”, Adam Mickiewicz. How hard they defend him from such a “slur” is a jolly good litmus test of their anti-semitism.
I don’t really get racism. I never did. It’s fairly obvious that we are all Homo sapiens and that evolution has simply varied our skin tones to adapt to the intensity of the sunlight where our ancestors lived and ensure us paler people get our Vitamin D. Who could possibly care about that? Racism based on skin colour, however, at least addresses visible difference. It doesn’t make sense but it’s a stupidity the origins of which can at least be understood. Jews on the other hand are indistinguishable unless (as in the case of some Orthodox) they make a point of standing out. The one moment when I understood how anti-semitism might arise, occurred when I was celebrating a deal-closing in NYC at the offices of a famous Jewish real estate guy. We were drinking champagne out of paper cups and when I asked why they were cheaping-out on glassware I was told that the boss couldn’t drink from a vessel that might previously have been used by a goy. That didn’t make me anti-semitic you understand, but it did make me think “… these guys could use some PR”.
Polish friends patiently explained to me, during various conversations over my decade+ living in their country, that Christianity, and specifically Catholicism, had created anti-semitism in Europe. I remember a colleague who had grown up in a backwards rural area of the country telling me that his own Catholic priest had ranted from the pulpit about “the killers of Christ”. “But the Holocaust happened here!” I exclaimed, shocked, “… how could a post-war priest still be an anti-semite when the Church has denounced the idea?” He couldn’t explain it and I still don’t get it. Ideas persist despite evidence and experience to a very shocking extent. As witness the young Poles who are Social Justice Warriors today when their parents were inoculated against leftism by growing up amid its terrible consequences and their grandparents are mostly still there to tell them precisely what socialism was like. “Clogs to clogs in three generations” as Sir Keith Joseph told a young me when I said I was bothered by the idea of inherited wealth. “The hog cycle” as economists call it, when people fail to remember history.
So if a warped interpretation of Christianity is what gave us anti-semitism in Europe and if an accurate interpretation of the teachings of Mohammed is what brought it back by way of Muslim immigration, how come such a mind-bogglingly stupid idea is now most evident on the Left of British politics rather than on the Right? Marxists oblivious to the ethnicity of Marx and Trotsky? Atheists informed by religious medievalism, for goodness sake?
“But it’s not about Judaism”, they say, “it’s about the State of Israel”. The wrongs of the Holocaust, say those Momentum-ites who don’t deny it, don’t justify the misconduct of modern Jews in the Middle East. Fair enough. I am a supporter of Israel, for the good reason that it’s the only democracy in the region and that its Arab citizens have the vote and equal civil rights. It’s a tolerant place where dissent is permitted, gays are not thrown off roofs and apostasy (from any religion) is not a criminal offence. That kind of liberalism is rather unusual in the Middle East, to put it mildly. I also support Israel because of the thought experiment posed by one of my Israeli friends, an eminent lawyer who is also, as it happens, on the Left. “Disarm Israel’s enemies” he said, “and you will have peace. Disarm Israel and you will have genocide.” A cursory read of the Hamas Charter or a few minutes spent watching videos published by MEMRI suggests he is right. Nonetheless I would not suggest that Israel never does wrong. Nor, obviously, would I seek to prevent it from being criticised.
How then to distinguish between being anti-Israel and anti-semitic? They clearly have the potential to be two different things, even if they do often seem to coincide in the same people. One of the wisest chaps I know (sadly not personally) Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks explained it like this.
Not liking Jews is not antisemitism. We all have people we don’t like. That’s OK; that’s human; it isn’t dangerous. Second, criticizing Israel is not antisemitism. I was recently talking to some schoolchildren and they asked me: is criticizing Israel antisemitism? I said No and I explained the difference. I asked them: Do you believe you have a right to criticize the British government? They all put up their hands. Then I asked, Which of you believes that Britain has no right to exist? No one put up their hands. Now you know the difference, I said, and they all did.
The speech to the European Parliament in which he told that story can be viewed in full here.
Pace the good rabbi, if anti-semitism was “only about Jews” it would still matter. Jews matter not because they are Jews, but because they are human. No different qualification is required. That anyone thinks a better qualification than being a human is required to enjoy particular human rights is precisely what is wrong with our society today. Every time someone speaks of “Gay Rights” or “Women’s Rights” or “Black Rights” or “Muslim Rights” or uses the phrase “hate crimes” I am immediately on my guard. Such people are more than likely to be a threat to human rights in general.
Damn it, how often does this need to be said before tribalists stop blathering? The whole point of the post-Enlightenment West is that every individual matters, regardless of who they are. Not just anti-semitism but tribalism in general is the virus that, as Rabbi Sacks says, keeps mutating. The only valid reason to regard an individual as better or worse is, as Dr King famously said (but as the Left seems to have forgotten) “the content of his character.” The only valid reason to treat an individual differently before the law is his or her conduct. Amen to that.
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