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Dec 2004 Journal

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Harking back to ancient stereotypes (editorial)

The antisemitic stereotype of 'the Jew' - more deeply ingrained on the Continent than here - is a composite of six traits, five of which, by strange coincidence, start with the letter c: cupidity, cowardice, conspiracy, cosmopolitanism and concupiscence (i.e. inordinate sexual appetite).

The sixth is vengefulness as conveyed by the un-Christian concept of 'an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth'. English literature features two classic examples of the vengeful Jew in Shakespeare's Shylock demanding his 'pound of flesh' and Marlowe's Jew of Malta poisoning an entire nunnery in retribution for his daughter's apostasy.

Both these evocations of the Jewish spirit of unforgiving vendetta date back 400 years, and more 'recent' literary constructs like Dickens's Fagin and Trollope's Melmont have focused on other undesirable characteristics. I was therefore touched to the raw to hear the 'telly-don' Dr Starkie (on Radio 4's Question Time) trace the Iraq war back to Old Testament-inspired vengeful feelings for 9/11 among Christian fundamentalist Americans. Dr Starkie was not content to leave it at that. Feeling he had to dot the 'i's and cross the 't's, he performed a labour of supererogation by describing the Old Testament as Jewish.

In fact, the whole history of the permeation of Western thought by Jewish influences points in the opposite direction. The most striking example of this occurred in Britain in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. At a time when, in reaction to revelations about Belsen and Auschwitz, anti-German feeling in this country was running high, two prominent Jews - the publisher Victor Gollancz and the musician Yehudi Menuhin - took a stance against Germanophobia and advocated reconciliation. (This somehow chimes in with the bizarre fact that although Wagner wrote the poisonous antisemitic tract Das Judentum in der Musik, individual Jews - from Hermann Levi via Bernard Levin to Daniel Barenboim - have been among the most impassioned Wagnerites.)

In the sphere of specific German-Jewish history one can list two further instances of influential Jews promoting a spirit of forgiveness. After the assassination in 1922 of Walter Rathenau, the foreign minister of the Weimar Republic, his mother appealed to the court trying his murderers not to invoke the full severity of the law. A little earlier, during the Bavarian Civil War between White and Red Guards, Ernst Toller, the Jewish commander of the latter, had won a minor victory which yielded many prisoners. He immediately ordered the release of all captives below the rank of officer on the grounds that they had been duped by their superiors. Alas, the freed prisoners immediately rejoined the White Army, which ultimately won the Civil War.

In the sphere of jurisprudence too, Jewish influence has overwhelmingly been exerted towards ameliorating the rigours of the law. In pre-Nazi Germany, Magnus Hirschfeld and Friedrich Wolf campaigned for the repeal of punitive legislation against homosexuality and abortion. In France, Justice Minister Adolphe Crémieux liberalised the law and, in the USA, Supreme Court judge Felix Frankfurter played a similar role. Last but not least, the current British Chief Justice, the arch-liberal Lord Woolf, is living refutation of Dr Starkie's ill-considered assertion.

But the clincher in any contemporary discussion on Jewish vindictiveness is surely the attitude to the Likud brand of Zionism. One can confidently assert that at no time since the creation of the Jewish state has an absolute majority, either in Israel or the Diaspora, favoured an intransigent hardline solution to the Arab-Israeli problem. The fact that the Likud has been in the ascendant for the last 25 years has more to do with the weakness of the Labour Party and the splintering of Israel's political spectrum, than with overwhelming support among the electorate.

In the Diaspora, lack of support for an 'eye-for-an-eye' policy is even more pronounced. A recent Jewish Chronicle headline, 'Two out of three US Jews oppose Bush over Iraq', is indicative. After all, the toppling of Saddam had removed a lavish financer of suicide bombing, and dispatcher of Scud missiles, against Israel. For Britain, no poll results exist, but it is a fact that two leading advocates of a boycott of Israel are Jews, the senior MP Gerald Kaufman and the Open University's Professor Steven Rose. Similarly, two out of the three creators of Guantanamo - a play demanding justice for militant Islamist (and militantly anti-Israel) detainees held at the US facility - are Jews: the writer Gillian Slovo and the director Nicolas Kent (see Profile). And, surely, not even Dr Starkie would be able to detect a spirit of vindictiveness in the editorials of the Jewish Chronicle.

next article:Gott moves in mysterious ways