The England I know

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Writing in Front Page magazine, Carol Gould describes a terrifying place called England, where anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism run rampant, and ordinary shop proprietors can't wait to burst out with a Jew-hating tirade. Lauren and I have been forwarded that article by two different concerned friends, wanting to know if it's true. My answer is: I have no idea. I can't speak for Ms. Gould, because I've never visited the England on her planet. In the England where I live, here on Earth, things are very different than she describes.

Let's start with the rather remarkable charge that Brits are so filled with loathing for the US that they were pleased by the events of September 11, 2001.

Lauren and I moved to the UK on September 11, 2002. One of my first memories of this country is riding in the taxi from the airport, listening to the British callers to a British talk show, who were talking about the one-year anniversary of the terrorist attacks with as much shock and grief as if it had happened in their own country... which, in a way, it did. More British citizens died on September 11 then in any other terrorist attack in history.

As recently as a few weeks ago, I was at a government office getting some paperwork, and in answer to one of the questions, I told the clerk that I had moved here on 11 September, 2002. She shook her head, and, visibly upset at the thought, said, "The anniversary--that terrible, terrible anniversary."

I've certainly met people who, on hearing my accent, have told me my president is a moron and a danger to the world. But that's never translated into hostility towards me--and when I explain that I, like the majority of my countrymen, never voted for the man, I always get a friendly laugh.

And despite the fact that my name and my appearance make it pretty obvious that I'm Jewish, nobody has ever expressed any anti-Semitism to me. There was one occasion when somebody accused me, in a public forum, of trying to scam him. At the time, I thought the incident sprung simply from the accuser's paranoia, but afterwards, a (Gentile) British friend of mine speculated that the charges were motivated by anti-Semitism.

My friend might well have been right. I don't want to sugarcoat things; you will certainly find anti-Semites here, as you will throughout the world, and I have, on occasion, been staggered by the anti-Israel bias of BBC News--and I say that as somebody who has never used the phrase "anti-Israel bias" to describe mere honest reporting of Israel's flaws. But the Britain she describes--this seething mass of hatred and bigotry--does not resemble the Britain I know.

My first instinct was to think that perhaps Ms. Gould lives in some distant and darker corner of London--but no, she says she lives in St. Johns Wood, which is one Tube stop before mine. in fact, I believe that the "local synagogue" where she was subjected to a "loud and red-faced screeching session" is the same synagogue Lauren and I have attended on past High Holy Days. There--as at most other places we've been in the UK--Lauren and I have been treated at the very worst with polite neutrality, and at best with such kindness and warmth that we've been left to wonder where the stereotype of the reserved Brit came from.

I want to give Ms Gould the benefit of the doubt. It's really possible I've just been remarkably lucky in my two years here, or that she's been very unlucky. But it's hard to credit an author with honest intentions when she writes a lengthy article on the state of Jews in the UK without once mentioning the name "Michael Howard".

Mr. Howard is the current head of the United Kingdom's Conservative party. He is also Jewish, and his religion has been made so little of here in the UK that I didn't know about it until an American Jewish friend of mine mentioned it. I'm sure in certain households his Jewishness is the subject of anti-Semitic sneers behind closed doors, just as Senator Lieberman's must be among certain American households. But by putting him in charge of their party, the Tories have made a public wager, at very high stakes, that a majority of Britons will choose to be led by the son of a Romanian Jewish shopkeeper who fled to Wales to escape the Nazis. If they are right, Great Britain will have a Jewish Prime Minister long before we have a Jewish President. (Of course, Mr. Howard has a long way to go before that happens. While the Brits I've met have had no prejudices against Jews, they've certainly had strong ones against Tories. )

To be honest, though, when I read Ms. Gould's argument, my first response wasn't to think about Michael Howard. It was to think about the dinner that Lauren and I recently had here in London for Rosh Hashannah, the Jewish New Year. Among our dozen or so guests, the religions represented included Christian, Jew, Muslim and Hindu; places of birth included England, Hungary, India, Brazil, and the US. There were, by my reckoning, no more than two people there who had both religion and national origin in common.

The London that you would have found inside our flat that evening was more-or-less the same as the London that I've always found outside it--diverse, cosmopolitan, and friendly. The only real difference is that, outside our flat, it's much harder to get a good noodle kugel.


Good heavens! I didn't realize that London was such a frightening place! The way that woman writes though, she sounds like a Brit herself. Her stories seem a little fantastical as well...

It's sad, I grew up thinking that prejudice and racism were things that happened in the past and didn't exist anymore. Now I am ill-equipped to be sensitive to it as it appears in the modern world.

Thank you so much for the Spanish birthday cake from you and the entirety of Europe, by the way. It really cheered me up, as I was trapped at work until very late that night. Now I just wait for my car insurance premium to drop...

Psi said:

Jacob, you said 'If they are right, Great Britain will have a Jewish Prime Minister long before we have a Jewish President.'

I thought I ought to let you know that we've already had one - Benjamin Disraeli, who was PM in 1868 and from 1874 to 1880.

I'm quite proud of the lack of focus on religion (and indeed many other things like gender, race, disability and sexuality) in politics in this country, long may it continue.

Peter said:

Yes, Psi, but Disraeli was christened as an Anglican (unlike his elder siblings - I believe Disraeli's father happened to have fallen out with the local rabbi when young Benjamin was born). If he hadn't been a member of the Church of England, he couldn't, at that date, have become an MP. Michael Howard, on the other hand, goes to synagogue from time to time, though I don't think he claims to be particularly pious

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This page contains a single entry by Jacob published on October 20, 2004 11:09 PM.

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