Anne Karpf's opinion piece in the Independent this Sunday, Anti-semitism is at the limits of irony, introduced me to an entirely unexpected, deeply insidious form of anti-Semitism where saying good things about Jews demeans them.
If anti-Semitism of this kind [the classical all Jews are rich, the Jews killed Jesus] seems to have disappeared altogether, we live in postmodern times where some of what looks like anti-Semitism isn't, but, conversely, some of what doesn't look like anti-Semitism in fact is. Consider the "philo-Semitism", for instance, of Michael Gove and Julie Burchill ("the Jews are my favourites"; "Jews do things so well"). Burchill's philo-Semitism is a form of anti-Semitism, I'd suggest, because it bunches all Jews together, as though we were a single, uniform entity. The idea that all Jews are wonderful is little different from all Jews being hateful: in both cases Jews are stripped of individual characteristics, and are nothing except Jewish — a view to which most racists happily subscribe. If Burchill, as is rumoured, converts to Judaism, she'll discover that some Jews are nice and others not — rather like the rest of the human race.
This is but one astonishing paragraph from a mid-sized commentary, yet it leaves us with much to contemplate. Michael Gove, by the way, is an MP, sometime journalist, currently Shadow Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families. Julie Burchill is a notorious journalist/novelist. I say notorious because she is said to write in the Internet version of all caps. Neither of them, obviously, is Jewish, both of them hold Jews in high regard. This, of course, is how anti-Semitism works.

Saying one likes Jews is bad because it bunches them together. It omits to mention that there are probably Jews one does not like. At least, it omits the possibility that there could be some as yet unknown Jews one would not like if given the chance. In some circles this is called the inability to accept a compliment. I believe it's a sign of deep-seated insecurity. Worst of all, "it strips Jews of individual characteristics" and suggests they are "nothing except Jewish."

Saying one likes Jews…

To me, this raises a number of questions. If it's unacceptable to refer to Jews as being Jewish — presumably, that's what lumps them together — for fear of reducing them to being nothing more than members of a group, do Jews themselves claim to be Jewish, and if so, on what grounds? I'm not attaching myself to any historical questions here, I'm just asking. Is there a group to which Jews belong? If it was the goal of Jews to shake off their Jewish identity, to ask with Shakespeare's Jew, "If you prick us, do we not bleed?" emphasizing their mere humanity, then they would surely be justified in considering the words "Jew" and "Jewish" in and of themselves to be slurs. If, on the other hand, Jews do belong to a group, and if to their own satisfaction they are Jewish, if they do not wish to entirely assimilate into the quasi-Christian mainstream, warts and all, but wish rather to maintain their distinct but unacknowledgeable identity, then we're caught in a paradox. Jews are and, at the same time, are not Jewish.

At this point I would very much like to say that I like Jews and always have. My first serious girlfriend was Jewish. Leonard Bernstein was Jewish. Leon Uris was Jewish. My best friend by far in high school was Jewish. My debate partner was Jewish. Gershom Scholem was Jewish. Henry Miller wanted to be Jewish. But the thrust of Karpf's argument insists that to say I like Jews is to secretly communicate that I hate them.

I remember only one Jew in elementary school. His name was David. He was frail, olive complected and wore a gold chain with a Star of David around his neck. I don't remember the names of all the children in elementary school, but I do remember his because it struck me as ironic, yes, even at that young age, that the name of the star, which we learned in some lesson or other, was also his name. So, there were three things that made us distinctly different. I was freckle-faced and therefore pale, chubby beyond control and never once thought to wear a gold chain around my neck. Anyway, even if I'd worn such a chain, I had nothing to advertise. There was also a fourth and more subtle difference related to this last fact. I could understand not being a Christian — almost everyone I knew wasn't one — David wasn't one either, which made him in that respect almost like everyone else. The difference was that David, in addition to not being a Christian, was in fact something else. That seemed very odd to me at the time.

Perhaps I'm missing the seriousness of this problem, but I'd like to conduct an experiment. What would happen if I said I like the English? What if I said, the English like fish 'n' chips, they're friendly, talkative, polite? Have I offended anyone? Have I revealed a subtle dislike, even hatred for the English? Obviously, I've overlooked the Smith lady who doesn't like fish or foreigners and doesn't mind saying so. But we go with that, don't we? If I say I like the English, we understand that I haven't said something perfectly worked out. It's not an absolute. It's a generality. The fact that we make general statements does not mean that our intent is to cover things up, just to cover as much ground as possible in the fewest number of words. The English are not "a single, uniform entity." I have not "stripped" anyone of his "individual characteristics." I have merely attempted a generality that any Englishman worth his salt in a pub fight could thoroughly disprove.

The truly insidious thing about this paragraph is the following. "If Burchill, as is rumoured, converts to Judaism, she'll discover that some Jews are nice and others not — rather like the rest of the human race."

Must she really convert to Judaism in order to see that there are nice Jews and not so nice? Can Jews only be judged by other Jews? This is the troublesome heart of the matter. This is the goal of Karpf's tortured logic. If only Jews can judge the nature and behavior of Jews, then only Jews can rightfully speak about Jews. Non-Jews can speak neither for nor against. It's a nice trick if you can manage it. It places Jews entirely above criticism. It damns all who speak one way or the other about them. It allows Jews to be just like everyone else, which seems reasonable, and yet profoundly special. I'd like that for myself sometimes.

I'm going to go out on a limb tonight. I'm going to say that I agree completely with Gove and Burchill where they indicate a liking for Jews. It's probable that I disagree with them on most other things. In deference to Anne Karpf, whose words prompted this post, I will also say there are some Jews I don't like. For example, those whose goal it is to limit my freedom of speech.