Once again, the unthinkable has become entirely possible. In two days, when the citizens of the UK will go to the polls, an all-but-self-avowed anti-Semite may be elected prime minister of a Western nation.
Last week, a British television journalist finally wrung an apology out of Jeremy Corbyn, the candidate in question. As Corbyn doggedly attempted to forswear anti-Semitism forever (much like a smoker promising, this time, he’s really going to quit), the journalist repeated over and over, “Just say sorry. Just say sorry. Just say sorry.”
Finally, Corbyn did literally just say sorry. “Obviously, I’m very sorry for everything that’s happened.” But what, exactly, has happened?
In his brilliant 2014 novel, J, the Man Booker-winning author Howard Jacobson writes about a dystopian England in which something terrible has happened, but no one knows quite what. That’s because everything that might possibly tie the present to the past, including—and particularly—via the driver of human memory, emotion, is insidiously repressed by a culturally authoritarian state power. The terrible event, as if pre-echoing Corbyn, is referred to as What Happened, If It Happened. (And I humbly submit this telling little phrase as the title of Labour’s next manifesto.)
That event, we’re given to understand, resulted in an absence of Jews—of Jewish culture, of Jewish memory, even the word “Jew”—from Britain. How? We don’t know. And, for the inhabitants of this newly reconstituted state, it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that “a recriminatory past” has been turned into “an unimpeachable future.” The grime of memory is exfoliated away by a scrub of ceaseless apology.
“Only by having everyone say sorry, without reference to what they are saying sorry for, can the concept of blame be eradicated, and guilt at last be anesthetized,” goes a favored saying of the emergent culture in J. The maxim itself is a response to the two-word, quintessentially Jewish imperative, “Never forget.”
But the motivation for all this forgetting in J is not to pretend the crime of Jewish genocide never happened in the past. It’s to preempt the need for genocide in the future. If a physical Holocaust could not wipe out the Jews, maybe a psychological one can. A people that lives on its memory can only be eradicated by the elimination of that memory. The authorities in the world of J learned a valuable lesson from Hitler.
And so has Corbyn and his ilk. When the Labour leader made his apology, after refusing four times in a previous interview, he neglected to mention to whom he was apologizing. Was it to British people in general? To the interviewer? To the network? To advertisers? To humanity? None of the above. Corbyn was not apologizing at all. He was expressing regret cleansed of remorse. He’s sorry it happened, the way you’re sorry you locked your keys in the car. You wish it hadn’t happened that way (if it happened at all), major inconvenience that it is.
The surprise is that we’re still surprised. If England were ever more “tolerant” of Jews than other European countries it’s only because it had succeeded for so long in keeping the country free of us. In Joyce’s Ulysses, Mr. Deasy, the headmaster of the school where Stephen Dedalus works, asks Dedalus if he knows why “Ireland has the honour of being the only country which never persecuted the Jews.” The reason? “Because she never let them in.” Deasy bursts into laughter.
It’s so damningly true. In England, where there were no Jews to speak of for three hundred years, anti-Semitism persisted. Possibly even worsened. Even in Mr. Deasy’s time, the Jewish community made up a tiny fraction of the population. Still, Deasy informs Dedalus, “England is in the hands of the Jews. In all the highest places: her finance, her press. And they are the signs of a nation’s decay.”
Adam Kirsch, in his biography of Benjamin Disraeli, relates how the latter’s English schoolmaster saw no problem in “assigning the young Ben the part of Gratiano in a school production of The Merchant of Venice.” Why would there be any issue with compelling a young, impressionable Jewish boy to perform a monologue addressed to a Jewish character that begins, “O, be thou damn’d, inexecrable dog!”
Jeremy Corbyn is, in reality, carrying on a great English tradition. He even has a pinch of the great bard’s verbal facility. (Remember, Shakespeare virtually invented whole cloth the anti-Semitic trope that Jews demanded Christian flesh for re-payment of defaulted-on debt.)
But here’s the sadder, scarier truth: even us Jews don’t want to remember our history. Many of us don’t want to remember the present. In a much buzzed-about New York Times column, “Inconvenient Murders,” Bari Weiss laments the wave of anti-Semitism we’re seeing around the world. In the column, Weiss lists egregious cases that have surfaced recently, from an Italian town refusing to create a Holocaust memorial, to a fundamentalist Christian pastor fulminating against Jews, to Swastikas painted on a Washington synagogue, to a rabbi assaulted in England.
But there are a few curious omissions in the column: namely, the young (Israeli) woman killed on a hike by an IED. Children (in Israel) huddling in shelters last month while under attack by a Jew-hating death cult. Worshippers in an afternoon minyan (in an Israeli city) stabbed to death by an anti-Semite on a rampage. People shot, beaten, knifed, lynched. For decades. These murders—no more convenient than the ones taking place in the diaspora, at least not for the dead—don’t merit a mention by the Times columnist. Why not? We can hear the Israeli Shylock intone, “Are we not Jews? Do we not bleed like Jews?”
Last Holocaust remembrance day, I penned my own lament to forgetting. It was a tribute to Primo Levi, a man who could not forget even had he wanted to. I wrote:
Turning our faces away from that lived experience of history, which can be gained only through books like Levi’s, we strengthen our weakness. Knowing that it once occurred, we firmly expect it to never happen again. Like a Maginot Line of memory, our slogan of vigilance, Never again, becomes not a call to action but a statement of belief.
Despite all the evidence that always existed to the contrary, we find ourselves astonished that these things not only could exist, but that they ever did—and still do. Surely, though, there are still some decent people left who will be good enough to say sorry. Hopefully, that will be enough.