Phyllis Chesler Interviews Carol Gould

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Jews Against Jews
Last uploaded : Saturday 29th May 2004 at 22:13
Contributed by : Meryl Yankelson


This article has been written for the Awards for All Lottery project supervised by Current Viewpoint.

I was out for a drink recently with a Jewish friend and some of her non-Jewish colleagues. She was joking about how she disliked the Jews that she had met at university. She had mostly been irritated by their wealth, their flashiness, the fact that they all had the same car and she implied that they were all incredibly superficial. I felt embarrassed and tried to point out that not all Jews were like that, but I doubt that it had much of an impact. Her work mates later hinted to me that she had said far worse things when I was out of earshot.

I suppose that my friend felt unthreatened by her liberal minded colleagues and was pleased that she had made them laugh, but the whole thing had sent an awkward shiver down my spine. I couldn?t understand how she could present such a negative image of a people whose history had been plagued by prejudice and persecution. Surely we had enough enemies? We didn?t need to dig our own grave.

The first time that I talked about anti-Semitism with non-Jewish friends was at university. In late night conversations, some non-Jewish friends told me that until they met me and a few of my close friends, they had thoroughly hated Jews. Through their experiences at school, the Jews that they had encountered had been horrible, arrogant, insensitive people. They had concluded that Jews in general were a bad bunch. They freely admitted to being anti-Semitic in the past and felt that this stance had been justified. I found this very upsetting and alarming, because it led me to question just how many other people shared this view. According to them, it was more than I would like to imagine. It was hard to redress the balance.

I discussed this with a Catholic friend of mine, who had never had much contact with Jews before she arrived at university. She confessed that on her first day at university a girl in her flat had warned her: ?Be careful. I?ve heard that there are a lot of Jews in the building.?

My friend didn?t pay much attention to this remark and soon discovered that half her flat- mates were Jewish. The girl who had passed the comment (who had never met a Jew before) ended up dating a Jewish student a few weeks later. The Jews and the non-Jews became well integrated within a short space of time. However, my friend recalls that there was one Jewish boy who was open about the fact that he was not interested in having non-Jewish friends and she found this very offensive. Luckily she didn?t hold it against the other Jews that she had met.

As far as Jews slating Jews went, she had overheard discussions about ?Jewish Princesses? between her Jewish friends, but because she knew Jews who didn?t fit into that category, she didn?t automatically form a stereotype of all Jews. She did point out though, that had she been more inclined towards prejudiced viewpoints, she would have been provided with ample ammunition.

I?m always conscious of being part of a minority and of how others perceive my community as a whole through the way in which I act as an individual. This awareness becomes particularly acute when I am around someone who has never met a Jew before, usually when I?m abroad, rather than in North West London. I never try to hide the fact that I?m Jewish, but I?m careful what I say because I know that the impression that I leave really counts.

We all find certain elements of our community life annoying, upsetting or distasteful, but surely it?s better to talk about it within the framework of our community, rather than with outsiders who could take everything we say at face value and have a lack of Jewish contact to balance out the good against the bad.

Maybe I?m being oversensitive. I was talking it over with an Indian friend and she admitted that she had no qualms about criticising other Indians in front of her white friends. She talks openly about her frustration at seeing the lack of integration of some Indians in Britain. She told me that it?s common for more Westernised Indians to condemn the more traditionally minded Indians for not making enough of an effort to adapt to British culture. She thought that Indians in Britain ought to at least learn the English language and form friendships with non-Indian people. I asked her if she worried that by saying all of this to white British people, she was fuelling the anti-immigration argument and potentially damaging the position of Indians in this country. She said that she had never really thought about this risk. However, she did point out that if a non-Indian were to say something negative about her culture, she would defend it until she was blue in the face.

Speaking to another Jewish person put a different perspective on things. He said that he would freely state his opinions regardless of who was listening. He had problems with certain types of Jews and he wasn?t going to hide it from anyone. In fact, he said that choosing to exclusively air his views to Jews would be as good as being racist. I asked if he had any concerns about the impact that his words might have on non-Jewish people. He said that if anything, they would improve the public perception of Jews. He argued that it would enable non-Jewish people to see that not all Jews were the same and serve to counter stereotypes, particularly the notion that Jews kept themselves to themselves. He cited examples of a Jew joining in with non-Jews to discuss their mutual hatred of North London Jews and accepted this because it was an honestly held opinion. So is honesty the best policy?

Sometimes it has to be. If we can?t be open about our disagreements, we could do ourselves a huge disservice. There?s a fine line between protecting ourselves and degrading ourselves. We?re always being warned that anti-Semitism is on the increase and there is a lot to be said for facing the threat head on, rather than burying our heads in the sand. If we can talk about what we dislike in ourselves, we can probably discover what other people find distasteful. There?s very little that is said behind our backs that we haven?t said about ourselves. Offensive it may be, but the truth hurts.

On a grander scale this debate extends to Jewish support or otherwise of Israel. Israel receives plenty of negative media attention, so one could argue that the Jewish people at least ought to present a united front backing Israel. I?ve seen Jews get angry when Jewish public figures or journalists are critical of Israel, but do Jews in Britain have a duty to show Israel unconditional allegiance?

Surely it would be better to base our support on our convictions and speak out when we think that Israel is in the wrong. Looking at the Arab world, since 9/11 there have been so many Muslims who have spoken out to inform the world that most Muslims don?t support the terrorist attacks. I?m sure that if the Jews were pushed into similar circumstances we would do the same thing.

Perhaps I feel more strongly defined by my Jewishness than many other Jews. I take insults to any aspect of Judaism as a personal insult. It feels like someone has insulted a member of my family and I?m sure that you can understand how one?s defences automatically go up when a family member is threatened. It?s hard to be objective when something is so close to the heart. It?s human nature to defend our own and perhaps the root of my discomfort on hearing my friend?s comments to her colleagues that day was the basic survival instinct.

I felt her comments as a personal attack, but she disassociated herself from the Jews she was denigrating. On that occasion I doubt that her words did any long term damage to the Jewish community and I?m sure that her colleagues took what she said with a pinch of salt. She wasn?t the first Jew to come into their lives and her humorous insults had an air of exaggeration.

Still it?s worth being careful. We have enemies out there who hate all Jews regardless of their individual viewpoints. They?re not interested in our personal differences, so sometimes we also have to look beyond the surface tension to the bigger picture.

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