Buy Albion, The More Perfidious Detergent

That title, with thanks to S.J. Perelman’s satirical musings on the jargon of advertising.

I lived in England as a grad student (or in Britspeak, post-graduate) for five years in the mid-to-late 1970s: Oxford, then London. It took some getting used to: two cultures divided by a common language, etc. A kind of anti-Semitism was and is socially acceptable in the UK in ways it is generally not (or was not till recently) in the US. That came as a shock. Once, the Oxford student drama club advertised its production of The Merchant of Venice with green, fake dollar bills featuring a caricature of a hook-nosed Jew where Washington would be. These were scattered everywhere. Nobody found them in the least objectionable. I found that the hatred of Jews in Britain often went together with a supercilious contempt for Americans, as the late American Jewish expat painter Robert Kitaj was to find out in his turn, after his show at the Tate Gallery in 1994. He believed the vicious attacks on him and his art in the press caused the stroke that killed his wife Sandra; and after decades working and raising a family in London he pulled up stakes and moved to LA.

In the autumn of 1977, when I was studying at the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London, the Student Union passed a resolution banning the Israel Society on the grounds that Zionism was a racialist ideology. The UN had decided this two years earlier. So far, so good. But the problem here was that the ban was hypothetical, since there was no Israel Society at the college. Banning something that does not exist, one hand clapping, Aztec equitation, potisection (the procedure of slicing soup)— the Student Union, but for its utter vileness, might have amused Umberto Eco.

Gentle reader, yours truly founded an Israel Society, along with a few other quixotic souls: a middle-aged woman with Royal Navy pedigree who had converted to Judaism, a quiet Bahraini Jewish girl, and a handful of others. The International Socialists (why did they even bother with the Inter-) who dominated the Student Union trotted out the Israeli-born anti-Israel activist Moshe Machover for an event. I see he’s still in business, and very much in vogue with the Labor Party of Jeremy Corbyn. Some East End taxi drivers, burly Jewish guys, got wind of the Machover event and noisily protested it. During the resulting melee the IS leader declared, with unguarded candor, that this was why people have always hated the Jews.

He was wrong, of course. People do not hate Jews for defending ourselves when attacked: those who hate us, hate us no matter what we do. If Jews do not fight back we are craftily cowardly. If we do, why then, we’re militaristic. You can’t win. During that fall semester Sadat went to Jerusalem and it became obvious to us that world events were moving along without any reference to what was going on in the UK (which some Americans I knew there used to say stood for Used Kingdom). Besides, we were few and isolated: the Jewish community organizations proved to be Uncle Toms to a man and ignored our requests for moral and other support.

So we decided to pack up the Israel Society with a Chanukah party. My temperamental motorcycle chose to break down on the way to it; so I rang my roommate, a Parsi Zoroastrian from Bombay, and asked him to stand in for me. He gamely did so and told me later of what transpired. Apparently the IS and their Arab hanger-ons (which makes it sound less sinister than it was— Saddam Hussein’s secret police acted more or less openly in central London in those days) came to our event to glower and intimidate us. Then the cavalry arrived: not the Board of Deputies of British Jewry needless to say, but Chabad! Hurrah! The black-Stetsoned Hasidim rode in with suitcases full of latkes and vodka, and toted a big, angular Maimonidean menorah. Figuring that my dusky friend was a Mizrachi Israeli, rather than a fire-worshipping scion of the Sasanian masters of Talmudic Babylonia, they taught him the blessings and he lit the menorah. (It’s a holy fire in its way.) Then the Lubavitchers, God bless them (now I can say with pride, us) made everybody sing, dance, eat, and offer a few L’Chaims. Apparently even the die-hard Judeophobes in attendance could not resist the offer of a nip of the hard stuff. This was before militant Islam came into vogue, you’ll recall.

Then we latter-day little Maccabees went back to our studies; the oafish IS, back to its support of “Palestinian” terrorism and so on. Two years later, I returned to the States. (The situation here has become increasingly complex, but more on that another time, perhaps.) One’s begun to lose touch over the years with friends back on the Sceptered Isle, but a few trips back were all happy. And now this— Jeremy Corbyn is in the news a whole lot, singing songs I’ve heard before. Was he associated in any way with that IS lot, in his student days? It wouldn’t be a surprise, and so what if he was— the man is not in the least ashamed of any of his overtly anti-Semitic statements and actions, and his party positively revels in them. How to discredit this fellow? Did he commit a sexual indiscretion when he was in kindergarten? Aha! Got him! But then, maybe not— one good thing about the Brits is that they expelled the damn Puritans. They have that going for them.

What is one to make of what is happening in Britain now? Is it surprising? No. Never mind the fun and games of the 70s in threadbare, hypothermic pre-Thatcher London. (There was IS to be sure, but then we also had the Stones, Led Zep, and The Police. It wasn’t bad at all.) Looking farther back, England was the country of the York massacre, of Hugh of Lincoln and the blood libel, of the expulsion of the Jews in 1290, of the infamous White Paper and the closing of the doors to the Land of Israel during the Nazi years and after. But it was also the country of George Eliot and Daniel Deronda, of the Balfour Declaration, of the Kindertransport, of Churchill and Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain, of the Princelet Street synagogue and David Rodinsky’s little room, of “Buy British, speak Yiddish”. (And of the Beatles.) Perfidious Albion, or Jerusalem in England’s pleasant land? The answer: a stranger, who is sometimes an enemy, sometimes a friend. I wanna hold your hand— just not all the time.

The late great William S. Burroughs after living in Britain for a few years growled:

“… God save the Queen and a fascist regime … a flabby, toothless fascism to be sure. Never go too far in any direction is the basic law on which Limey-Land is built. The Queen stabilizes the whole stinking s**thouse and keeps a small elite of wealth and privilege on top …. The English have gone soft in the outhouse. England is like some stricken beast too stupid to know it is dead. Inglorioulsy foundering in its own waste products, the backlash and bad karma of empire. You see what we owe to Washington and the Valley Forge boys for getting us out from under this den of snobbery and accent, this ladder where everyone stomps discreetly on the hands below them: ‘Pardon me, old chap, but you aren’t you getting just a bit ahead of yourself in rather an offensive manner?’… The English thing worked too well and too long. They’ll never get all that ballast of unearned privilege up into space. Who wants that dumped in his vicinity? They get out of a spaceship and start looking desperately for inferiors.”

Well, yes.

Somewhat earlier than Valley Forge, the signers of the American Declaration of Independence had made the same point more simply. They declared that they would henceforth regard the British people “as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.”

Jeremy Corbyn and his party promote extreme anti-Semitic policies and values. These are part of a larger philosophy and program, which is not hostile to Jews and Israel alone. It is rooted also in a profound hatred of the United States. Americans who have lived as expats know that animus. Many Jews in Britain have been feeling increasingly and particularly targeted and marginalized, though. This was a place they thought their home. They are perhaps right to consider leaving— read the British Jewish writer Howard Jacobson’s recent novel J, in which there has been a holocaust of the Jews in Britain that is euphemistically referred to, a few generations later, as What Happened, If It Happened. Many of my British Jewish relatives, with whom I used to spend delightful Shabbosim way back when (is Grodzinski’s bakery still in business?), voted with their feet a long time ago, moving here, or to Canada, or to Israel. The present Prime Minister, Mrs. May, has condemned the party of Corbyn unambiguously, but much as I am grateful to her for her decency, it is cold comfort: a very significant part of the British electorate applauds Corbyn’s position. He may be elected the next Prime Minister. Well, if he is, I guess it’s Enemies in war, in peace friends.

Keep tuned in and see you again next week in radioland. And now a message from our sponsor:

Remember, folks, when it comes to getting out those stains, wash with Albion, the more perfidious detergent!

 

About the Author
James R. Russell is Mashtots Professor of Armenian Studies at Harvard University (semi-retired), Distinguished Visiting Professor of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and a part-time Lecturer in Jewish Studies and Biblical Hebrew at California State University, Fresno. He is on the Editorial Board of the journal Judaica Petropolitana, St. Petersburg State University, and a founding member of the International Association for Jewish Studies, chartered in the Russian Federation. His PhD is in Zoroastrian Studies, from the School of Oriental Studies of the University of London; and he taught Ancient Iranian languages and religions at Columbia University from 1982-1992.
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