There’s been a little storm in the Twittersphere regarding whether or not it is acceptable to ‘admit’ to loving the Jewish people if one isn’t a Jew. This article in the Groaniad by Hadley Freeman http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/nov/07/god-save-jews-from-philosemitism asserts that all us non-Jews who profess to admire Jewish culture and the nation of Israel are in fact indulging in a spot of racism. For it is, in her view, reducing Jews to a single common character, and therefore is just as noxious as if one were doing it in order to defame rather than to praise.
I am at once British, half Indian and a little Belgian, French, German and Italian. I can state quite plainly that I love much of the best characteristics of British and Indian people, and even strongly assert that there is much more to Belgium than the boring snoring version too often presented, and that is not controversial. I also love Italy, France and, in some ways, Germany for their unique cultures and characteristics even though plainly these are nations made up of individuals many of whom must not share these traits.
However, suddenly it is wrong and racist to state that there are some amazing and quite uniquely wonderful characteristics of the Jewish people and the state of Israel that I admire and love? Julie Burchill, Louise Mensch and Martin Amis have all been singled out for this sin – and I share with them this Philosemitism whicb is being decried. Of course with all these assertions comes the caveat that not every single individual within a grouping is in equal possession of the qualities which are admired – but why is it akin to racism to admire the prevalence of high achieving, intelligent people within the Jewish community? I would say the same of Indians and Chinese without controversy. I think a lot of the brilliance of New York is thanks to its Jews – but of course not exclusively. There are aspects of Jewish culture which my Jewish friends dislike, especially the more conservative aspects of orthodox Judaism, and most are secular Jews. There is still a common brilliance and intelligence which I love about my Jewish friends, and I see it amongst famous Jews too as well as in the nation of Israel. The strong family bonds, love of learning which is nevertheless worn lightly and with humour, but most of all the very love of living which I see so often. The fact that my Jewish friends make positive efforts to make the most of their lives each and every day – I can’t help but associate that with their culture – as it is so unique.
So to clarify – it’s not something Indians of different areas tend to complain about when other cultures admire the great food, spirituality, ancient medicinal traditions and scientific knowledge and great variety within their shared continent, or that the children of the Indian diaspora tend to outperform most other cultures in UK schools, like those of the Chinese. In Britain we surely don’t think our world renown for tolerance, for standing up for the underdog, for our healthy disregard for authority and our ability to laugh at ourselves is somehow reducing us. The French don’t tend to exhibit fury at being known for their gastronomy and creativity. There are undoubtedly Brits who don’t exhibit the tolerance and self deprecating tendencies which we as a nation still hold dear. I think that it is therefore quite possible to admire Jewish people for how regularly amongst their number can be found the qualities of hard work, self-determination, autonomy, love of life and education and ability to contribute in areas as various as the creative arts, science, technology, business, politics, and academia.
Of course, some of it is a throw-away generalisation, but within that is a core of seriousness. Whilst there are some quite way out crazy Israelis (as in every society), the fact is that Israel is the only nation in the middle east where anyone can live harmoniously as long as they don’t want to destroy Jews. It is the only nation in that troubled area where Gays, Christians and women can life happily, where democracy flourishes, the people are well looked after, educated and employed in the furtherance of national prosperity as well as coming up with countless scientific advances the entire world can benefit from. All Israelis want is to be able to exist in peace in their tiny land without being mown down by Arabs fuelled by hatred or attacked by missiles or kidnapped or stabbed simply for being Jewish. Let’s not forget the reason that the state of Israel had to be created – that for thousands of years Europeans and Muslims persecuted this tiny race of people so much that try as they might to integrate, they were consistently rejected and of course, worse. Now, Israel is demonised for its very existence and Jews worldwide are seeing renewed anti-semitic attacks.
We cannot say for a single moment that all Jews are perfect, just that it is quite a delightful religion which makes it so damned hard to convert (it is a tough ask – even for adopted children of Jews). This sets it apart from the proselytising religions of Christianity and Islam, and further of course, the fact is that Jews have never tried to establish colonies or invade land (unless in order to defend itself from attacks in the first place). I know I’d rather live in Israel with its freedoms, modernity, development and progress than say, Iran, Syria, Russia or Pakistan – or Switzerland for that matter! The fact that Israel is a self-evidently Jewish state surely has some determining effect on its success, would it not be fair to say?
I think for one that Jews, in their tiny number, have contributed a massive amount to human knowledge and society for the better. From Albert Einstein to Marc Chagall to Bob Dylan, Jews have been creating and discovering and inventing in the face of pretty wholesale hatred for centuries. Do they spend their lives moaning about it? No, they remember their history of course, but I can’t think of many times we have to hear Jews blaming their failings in life on the terrible things which have been done to them or their ancestors. Jews in fact can still laugh at themselves, as with Woody Allen and Jon Stewart, and yes I admit it – I do find that pretty admirable. I happen to think Indians are not immune to this either – yes they had to live under British colonial rule but are they furious still? No, they have taken some of the best aspects of British life and moved on, to make India into a great power in its own right. No, neither are Indians all saints, but there is a clear energy and positivity that emanates from the faces of so many of its billion people time and again that it is hard to disregard it as mere coincidence. It is therefore gratifying to see India and Israel forming close links in defending their people against violent Islamism.
Surely then it should be fine to admire certain specific aspects of different cultures without having to belong to that culture and not be labelled a racist or an evil objectifier? It’s quite an old argument I think, and quite facile, to be so ungracious as to remove the right of other cultures to admire Jews or any other peoples simply because we were unlucky enough not to be born of blood ties to it. We are not de-humanising but celebrating characteristics that can often be found in groups. In fact, insisting on a blood link before allowing comment on Jews is more racist I would argue, than forging close links with Jews and voicing admiration for them.
Most of all I admire Jews because like Christians they look inwards at what they can do to improve their lives and the world rather than at what others can do for them. This is an invaluable attitude to take towards life and in no small way should be seen as the roots of Jewish and Christian successes. They have both been called religions of guilt, but from this stems self-reliance and autonomy, together with the need to strive to improve yourself before looking outwards at why others are not helping you. This could be seen as why in their own tiny state of Israel today Jews are militaristic in defence of their hard won freedoms. They have learnt the terrible lessons of being unwanted guests in others’ worlds and want to protect however possible the precious land that they have finally been able to reclaim. And look at the differences between Israel and the Arab world – Israel has technology, a thriving economy, medical care, welfare, religious freedom, women’s and gay rights and a fertile land (which was bare desert before the back breaking work of cultivating it since the beginning of the Zionist movement). Most of all there is room for fun and a rich enjoyment of life – all these things without thought to what is happening outside except for when outsiders attack these liberties.
As Lenny Bruce lampooned, “He was charming… They said, ‘C’mon! Let’s go watch the Jew be charming!'” – but is it so tough being seen as charming, witty, creative, smart and driven? It is often the case that the oppressed concentrate on what they are allowed to do and end up doing it really really well – it doesn’t mean once the oppression is removed that the culture ends there, but it certainly will still retain some of that character. So we have brilliant, intelligent Yiddish humour and folk music helping people to process with abuses and successes alike. We have the keen eye for an argument and the law inherent in debate about Torah leading to brilliance in the modern court room and politics as well as arguably the forensic imagination of great scientists. Oppression tends to fuel creativity and we have the great art created by Jews we would be so much poorer for the lack of.
I think therefore that it should be fine to celebrate positives especially when as a broad group some of them will have happened as a response to oppression and tragedy centuries old – and of course, in response to having been labelled and dehumanised in the past by host societies. It validates and celebrates the good that a valiant and beautiful people has been able to forge from the ashes of evil.
Interesting view on Palestinians in contrast here http://nblo.gs/11mjah
Of course, it has only been since the establishment of Israel that Jews in recent memory have had the space and security to really develop not only as a group free of oppression, but also independent identities within their own nation state, but away from the group labels forced onto them by anti-semites of old. So of course I do understand the sensitivity here, but in the face of renewed widespread negative criticism of Israel and vicious attacks on Jews by today’s new breed anti-semites, these positive characteristics are brought into sharper focus than ever and should be harder than ever to deny. There is something wonderful about Jews as a group and I would glory in it were I to be lucky enough to have been born within that community – but I could still imagine it possible to retain my individual humanity despite it. As someone posted in response to the Guardian article – the halo effect of being loved perhaps a little too much by non-Jews is not the toughest situation Jews have had to contend with over the millennia nor are contending with today.