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Apr 2007 Journal

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How odd of God (Point of View series)

There is a debate going on just now about multiculturalism and its discontents. Can Christians and Muslims co-exist harmoniously under the same laws? How many Poles does it take to change an English light bulb? Can Arsenal still call itself an English football club without an Englishman in sight? And where do the Jews fit into all this?

The natives are restless and it shows itself in open hostility or over-compensation. Some of the confusion is semantic, assimilation and integration being used interchangeably. But assimilation means, literally, ‘becoming similar’ by surrendering identity, being absorbed into the native culture to the point of becoming indistinguishable from the majority. Integration describes a different process with a different outcome whereby shards of distinct cultures, each retaining its own shape and colour, embed themselves in the cement of the host society to form a harmonious mosaic.

Jews are rarely welcomed with open arms whichever way they choose to go. When did you last hear someone say that they actually liked Jews, the way people say they like Italians or those cuddly Austrians? We are not considered cuddly. Antipathy towards Jews is a constant; what varies is the impunity with which it may be expressed. At present, we are in a ‘no-holds-barred’ phase: antisemitism carries no odium; on the left, it is practised with the abandon that comes with being off the PC leash.

The broad stream of antisemitism has been fed by many tributaries over the years - it has run with blood as well as holy water. At present, daily reinforcements arrive from the world of Islam, from the Arab tendency in some of the media; for the squeamish, there is the all-purpose cloak of anti-Zionism to cover anti-Jewish feeling.

How much of it is our own doing?

Jews enjoy high visibility: there appear to be more of us than can be accounted for by published statistics. Herbert Morrison, Peter Mandelson's grandfather and wartime home secretary, used to say that everybody knew at least one Jew. It convinced him that there had to be 50 million in this country. Hence the myth of the Jewish lobby, a cohesive power base with an overriding objective. If only. Early in February an advertisement appeared in The Times calling for just such a coming together on a programme of apple pieties, except that among the signatories were the names of some notorious self-haters with whom one would be wary of making common cause.

Exerting influence is another matter. In some spheres of public life Jews are prominent, making their individual impact on the economy, the arts, science, medicine, and the law. Two beards and a halo sufficed to change the climate of the twentieth century. Without Marx, Freud, Einstein no book, no painting, no intellectual debate could be what it is today.

So are we Jews cleverer than other people? That would give reasonable cause for complaint. Let's just say that we are efficient converters. Even with a well-laid fire, much of the heat goes up the chimney; a Jewish fire tends to provide a warmer room for the same amount of fuel.

This traditional devotion to achievement - spiritual or material - causes discomfort among the competition. There is an intensity about us, the wariness of the endangered species - call it Jewish arithmetic: one of us has to equal a hundred of them. Disproportion is the word that springs to mind, of numbers to achievements, of individual suffering to collective survival. Remember when ‘disproportionate’ was the buzzword? I never discovered what would have been ‘proportionate’ in Lebanon. But I consoled myself with the statistic that while Jews form a fraction of one per cent of the world's population, they have grabbed 20 per cent of all Nobel Prizes. Is this the acceptable face of disproportion?

Concentrates tend to be unpalatable. We Jews may produce an above-average amount of nectar, but to our detractors it tastes just like Camp Coffee straight from the bottle. Perhaps our ultimate offence is survival against all odds. Being a survivor, I admit I feel different, I feel special. Antisemitism is the weather God made for the Jews. I put up with it and have long given up banging the barometer.
Victor Ross

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