In 1959, accepting an Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series, the Jewish comedian Jack Benny said: “I don’t deserve this award, but then I have arthritis and I don’t deserve that either.”
In doing this, he summed up the experience of living in Britain as a Jew in the latter half of 2018.
To live as a Jew in Britain in 2018 is to occupy a period of rare historical privilege. There are no pogroms to drive you from your homes; no ghettoes to house you in poverty and illness; no prohibitions on your movements, religious expressions and entry into certain professions; no seizures of your assets; no camps to mechanise your mass murder; and no threats to your existence that could honestly be described as either credible or imminent.
In short, the generation of Jews of which I am a part is enjoying an extended holiday from the persecution that has defined our history since God was young. Every one of us has won the lottery.
And then there’s the arthritis.
What did I make of all this nonsense with the mural, I was asked recently by a well-meaning acquaintance, who knows I’m a severely lapsed, non-practising Jew. In the last few years I’ve taken to disclosing this fact in my first few encounters with anyone I might want to get to know. In part this is a test – if they react by asking me to justify the occupation of the West Bank, or worse, by telling me they love Jews and where can they get the best smoked salmon, their card is marked – and in part I want to protect myself from an accusation that has dogged Jews since we slivered up onto the land to take control of your media: that somehow I’ve been hiding something. Nevertheless my answer surprised him: I don’t agree that it’s a “nonsense”.
My acquaintance went onto explain that only two of the figures in the much-discussed mural were Jewish (an identification he’d made based on the reheating and propagation of centuries-old antisemitic tropes) and pretty soon, as these things always do, the conversation slipped towards Israel.
I tried to explain I had no special insight and no interest in discussing it, but nevertheless he persisted: the treatment of the Palestinians was truly shocking (I agreed). Really, it was “on a par with Nazi Germany”.
My family were also lottery winners. My great-grandparents, who came from Poland, Russia and Lithuania, abandoned all that they knew (their families and friends, their professions, their language), and, sensing the beginnings of an ill wind, came to Britain in the 1920s and 1930s. They fought discriminatory laws, poverty and hostile locals to put down roots in a country they didn’t know and raise my grandparents in a tongue they didn’t speak; my only memories of my great-grandma Golda, who died when I was young, are of her smuggling me sweets, speaking in an English that remained idiosyncratic to the end: there was no need to make a solemn dance.
The families of many of my friends were not so lucky. My closest friend’s grandfather survived the ghetto in Lodz before springtime in Auschwitz (a few months earlier and he would not have survived) and a death march to Loslau. These days, at the age of 88, he travels the length of the country to talk to schoolchildren about the dangers of hatred and where it can lead.
Another friend’s grandmother was separated from her family and brought up Catholic. Another’s grew up in hiding. One thing we all share: none of us can trace our families back more than a couple of generations. The Holocaust, as I’ve come to think of it, is history’s loudest full-stop.
Imagine you’re in a dispute with a bully whose whole family has been wiped out by cancer. Imagine you watch them punch someone repeatedly in the face and react by calling them a cancer.
The analogy is imperfect and simplistic (analogies always are; for one thing it conflates Israel and the Jews in a way many on the left are so guilty of doing) but on a basic level it serves to illustrate the problem. There comes a point when insensitivity becomes something more sinister: a wilful provocation that does less to call attention to the issue you’re ostensibly discussing than to diminish a trauma that’s still being processed and felt, one that’s encoded in our genes.
Accusations of antisemitism against those on the left (predominantly, but not exclusively, in Corbyn’s Labour) are often met with cries that the “real” racism comes from the right. If this is true it demonstrates again that the left is neglecting its duty of care towards the Jews of this country. In viewing antisemitism as a “lesser” racism, in failing to provide a haven for a minority who, by the left’s own reckoning, have reason to be fearful of the right, the left has rightly earned the suspicion of many young Jews who until recently have thought of antisemitism as an anachronism.
More damning, instances of antisemitism are treated as siphoning attention from more pressing and popular causes or as reason to question the loyalty of those Jews who bring them to light.
None of this would matter so much – depressing, frightening and infuriating through it is – except for the wider context in which it is happening.
We are living through a significant moment in history. My friend’s grandfather will soon no longer be able to speak to schoolchildren about his experiences. Soon there will be no more first generation survivors to keep the story of the Holocaust alive through their firsthand accounts of its horrors.
That Holocaust denial is resurgent at a time when firsthand accounts are getting harder to find is no coincidence, and neither is its own evolution in form.
The Holocaust is in many ways a natural frontier for the alt-right whose modus operandi is the casting into doubt of objective truth. Holocaust denial, once an end of level boss for conspiracy theorists and truthers, is now a starting point.
Convince people to question Auschwitz and what else can’t you challenge?
What’s scariest though, as a Jew and as a liberal, is that Holocaust denial is now where extreme left and right meet. The language, gestures and agendas might differ but what both amount to is a deliberate attempt to diminish the victimhood of a people who have faced massacre or expulsion on average every hundred years for the last two thousand.
The question of whether or not Jeremy Corbyn, who on Holocaust Memorial Day 2010 chaired an event whose title compared Israel to the Nazis, is an antisemite is no longer the right one to be asking. The question is: if he can’t protect us from the neo-Nazis and the alternative historians, then who can?
Victory in the battle for Holocaust remembrance is, as yet, far from assured. For many Jews this can seem the result of a perfect storm of policy and circumstance, but really it is the natural result of a slow but steady conversion of the Holocaust from historical fact to rhetorical flourish, of the idea that the Jews have somehow overplayed Auschwitz.
My father, himself a lapsed Jew, once claimed that the Jewish people are unique in that we are the only minority hated equally by the left as by the right. The right, he claimed, hated us for the same reason they hated everyone – because they didn’t see in them a reflection of themselves – while the left hated us because we failed to fit their idea of a victim; because they believed what the right had told them: that despite our cowardice, our weakness, our stinginess and our greed, we had incredible power.
At the time, as throughout my childhood, I considered my father an alarmist and borderline fantasist, but one of the painful facts of coming of age as a Jew of my generation is the dawning realisation that our parents might have had a point.
That all along we were the ones being complacent.
That many Jews who never have previously are considering moving to Israel (a country I feel no affiliation for) are now doing so, while it will infuriate many who rightly advocate for the rights of Palestinians, should surprise no one.
Personally I don’t fear for my safety or sleep with a suitcase under the bed. I still maintain that compared to other minorities who do not have the choice of when and how to disclose their ethnicities Jews have it easy. But one thing’s for certain: it’s starting to feel like the holiday’s over.