Two years ago, the All-Party Parliamentary Group Against Antisemitism partnered on a conference to investigate antisemitism and misogyny. It was named the Sara conference. There were a number of reasons for calling it that, but one was to reclaim the name which the Nazi’s forced upon Jewish women.
It wasn’t just forenames that were forcibly changed though. Jews across the world bear the name-scars of persecution. Jewish Chronicle Editor Stephen Pollard eloquently described how his father, a Jewish man from the east end of London, Bernie Polak, became Barry Pollard through fear of discrimination. Barrister Jeremy Brier tweeted that his surname was “completely made-up” following his grandparents, the Brodskys, escape from Pogroms – murderous anti-Jewish riots.
It isn’t just the Jewish community that has suffered name discrimination either. Hugh Muir was covering this for the Guardian more than 15 years ago, setting out how a BBC investigation had found “job applicants from minority communities, particularly Muslims, are still suffering widespread and overt discrimination from virtually every sector of the market”.
Sadly, fifteen years later, when it comes to name discrimination, little appears to have changed. Writing in the Guardian this weekend, comedian Stewart Lee took it upon himself to send up Tom Tugendhat MP – a British forces veteran – for his name. “Stay alert!” wrote Lee. “Many names – Fisher, Cook, Smith – derive from ancient trades. But “Tugendhat” is just different words put together, like Waspcupfinger, or Appendixhospitalwool, or Abortionmaqaquesymptom. This former intelligence officer is the nephew of a real man called Baron Tugendhat. Baron Tugendhat is not a character from a 19th-century German children’s book about a baron with a weird hat, the end of which gets tugged. But what did Tom Tugendhat want? Why was he bothering us?”
That Lee wanted to take issue with Tom’s tweet is his prerogative but in taking aim at Tom’s name he has, in my view, effectively lowered the bar for racists to take aim at others’ names. He did so whilst seemingly perpetrating an ‘us and them’ narrative, bearing all the hallmarks of the one that painted Jews as failing to understand English irony. In this world view, Jews are imposters, foreigners, an irritant in our midst.
In fact, Jewish names have historically derived from ancient trades or positions. Some of the most well-known ‘Jewish-sounding’ surnames, Cohen, Levy and Israel, relate to the roles that individuals played in religious services in temple times in Israel. Whether Lee knew this, or bothered to look it up, I do not know. It certainly appears he took the time to google Tom’s name. Of course, whether Tom is or isn’t Jewish and however his name may sound is fundamentally irrelevant. In Britain, we do not mock and abuse people for ‘foreign sounding’ names, whatever the provenance or their background.
Some might think that I am too sensitive, that this is a snowflake response, something Lee himself has sent up in his comedy. Others will say that he was seeking to take the voice of something he found problematic, or even hated, in order to mock and therefore subvert it. Fine, but did he need to employ a bigoted approach to do so? If he did, his comedy is outdated and should be consigned to the comedy dustbin.
One Guardian review had it that much of Lee’s comedy is “infantile and cerebral at the same time.” That Lee’s article was infantile is clear, in my opinion it employed playground racism. That he put thought into it is a much greater concern. According to the comedy website Chortle, Lee isn’t going to comment further on his article. Such a failure to recognise wrongdoing on his part is simply moral cowardice. I hope that on re-thinking this, he’ll understand why what he did was wrong, apologise to Tom Tugendhat and take the time to learn more about antisemitism and its impacts, he’ll find it is no laughing matter.