Jul 2002 Journal

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The contentious issue of pride (editorial)

When as a teenager I asked my father if he was proud to be Jewish, he replied angrily: "Don't be so bloody ridiculous!" In retrospect, I suppose for him my question implied the notion that pride in being Jewish was a bit like being proud of being white: these were accidents of birth and any pride carried with it at least the potential for discrimination against the opposite - in this case, non-Jews.

Thus writes Charlotte Eilenberg in the introduction to the printed text of her play The Lucky Ones (Methuen). Reading it sets one thinking. Is pride in being Jewish commendable? Or is it to be disavowed on the grounds that it resembles White feelings of superiority over Blacks?

Any comparison between the two forms of pride is, in fact, so far-fetched as to be almost perverse. While feelings of White superiority always rested on solid foundations of global political and economic dominance, Jewish pride was, at least in part, compensation for utter powerlessness. That does not mean to say that it lacked solid foundations - but this fact has only become commonly accepted in the last few decades.

Nowadays it is taken as read that the Judeo-Christian heritage forms the fundament of Western civilisation. However, leaving to one side our over-arching achievement in giving mankind monotheism and the Ten Commandments, a useful way of investigating whether we have reasons for pride is to speculate on what the world might have looked like in our absence.

In a hypothetical Jew-free world, it is doubtful whether such universal ingredients of modern living as Hollywood movies, Broadway musicals and psychoanalysis would have come into existence. Something similar applies to the development of nuclear physics, which, admittedly, also had a negative spin-off. Even so, the hugely disproportionate number of Jewish Nobel Prize winners - especially in the sciences - must have helped transform the world into a far better place. Names that come to mind at once are Boris Chain (penicillin), Jonas Salk (anti-polio vaccine) and Carl Djerassi (birth pill).

The benefits of the birth pill are, of course, rather debatable - but in the sphere of sexual ethics and enlightenment, Jews have also played a key role. Playwrights from Schnitzler to Tony Kushner have shone a light into dark places - but the obverse also applies, pace Felix Salten's porn novel Frau Mutzbacher and Richard Desmond's top-of-the-shelf publications.

A similar ambivalence obtains in the sphere of politics. Jews have been advocates of liberal values and social equity in Germany (Rathenau), France (Blum) and Britain (Disraeli) - but they have also acted as illiberal extremists in Soviet Russia and its satellites. On the credit side, one can list human rights activist Elena Bonner as well as Boris Pasternak, Isaak Babel and other dissident writers.

The postwar United States presented a distorted mirror image of this picture. If the blacklisted Hollywood writers were largely Jewish, so were Senator McCarthy's legally trained henchmen Roy Cohn and David Shine. At the same time, the most powerful denunciation of McCarthyism was Arthur Miller's play The Crucible. It is no exaggeration to say that without the latter - and his novelist fellow-Jew Philip Roth - American letters would hardly occupy the pre-eminent position they do.

Twentieth-century music is likewise unthinkable without the Jewish input provided by the likes of Mahler, Schönberg, Weil and Bernstein. (Nor, incidentally, would the Salzburg and Edinburgh Festivals have been started but for their Jewish initiators.)

The visual arts - an area closed to pre-emancipation Jews by rabbinical edict - are now awash with Jewish names from Epstein to Rothke, Chagall to Modigliani, and Freud to Auerbach.

But the last mentioned may be rather rarified pursuits. The spheres in which Jewish innovators have touched the lives of millions of people most closely are industry and commerce. Without Jews there would have been no department stores and AEG in Germany, no Macys in New York and no ICI, Marks & Spencer, Lyons, Montague Burtons and Tescos in the UK.

Not that all Jewish entrepreneurs benefited wider society. There were also quite a few big-time fraudsters - Barmat, Bosel, Castiglione, Stavisky, Meyer Lansky and Robert Maxwell - among them. However, when weighed in the balance, the bad guys pale into insignificance compared to the good ones.

Likewise, when Jews feel squeamish about associating themselves with Israel under Sharon's leadership, it might be well to remember (a) whom he is confronting, and (b) that his predecessors included Yitzhak Rabin.

So, all in all, it is hard to share the gut reaction of Charlotte Eilenberg's father that pride in being Jewish is an expression of reprehensible feelings of superiority.

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