Criticising from without while fitting in

When he was a young man in England, Benjamin Disraeli wrote three highly acclaimed novels that shone an interesting light on society at the time. They did so, I’ve always suspected, because the man later to become the first Jewish Prime Minister of the British Empire could see more clearly than most the mismatch between those in the higher and lower strata of Victorian english culture.

Being a heavily anglicised Jew, Disraeli brought insights to bear on the pack hierarchies and hatreds that go with being of the species Homo sapiens. He was apart from and yet within: a member of an at times despised minority, and yet a man in the end beloved of the English – who paid him the inestimable compliment of giving the Outsider a nickname – ‘Dizzy’.

One of my favourite Jewish jokes is about how in the 1970s a well-established British Jew gets his uncle Jacob out of the USSR, and discovers – on the old bloke’s arrival at Heathrow – that he’s hassidic full-on Kosher cowboy. So he tells him look, in Britain you have to fit in. So he takes him to Savile Row, gets him kitted out in English tweed, then shuttles him over to Claridges to get a long on the top short back and sides public school haircut.

As the uncle’s ringlet sideburns are clipped and fall to the barber’s floor, his British nephew notices that the Russian immigrant is weeping. Suddenly, he is overwhelmed by a sense of having bullied this poor chap into being anglicised. He hugs him in the chair and says Uncle Jacob, how could I be so crass – I’m so sorry I did this: I’m so sad to see you crying about losing your hair.

“Hair?” Jacob responds, “I’m not crying because I lost my hair…I’m crying because we lost India”.

A recurring theme in the history of immigration into the UK is about “trying to be more British than the British”. And a lot of the modern history of Jewish diaspora is about a unique ability to adapt, get along and not become a target. This is what makes Jonathan Miller’s line about “I’m not really a Jew – I’m just sort of Jewish” a golden nugget of genius in the English context. It also explains the black humour of the two Viennese Jews about to be shot by the SS after the Anschluss.

“You are about to die Jews,” says the SS Ubersturmbannfuhrer, “Have you any last requests?”
“Yes,” says Abe, “I’d like a blindfold”. His companion looks at him in horror.
“Heimy,” he pleads, “How many times I have to tell you: don’t make trouble”.

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How does this potted précis of complex recent history inform where the world is at today? I think it does so in two ways; and as so often with this blog, I have no doubt that I will lose some valued followers, gain bigoted followers I don’t want, and be the recipient of angry emails as a result of making these two observations.

But here goes anyway.

First, Disraeli’s thoughts about social class and pack hierarchy led him to come up with one phrase – ‘Two Nations’ – to describe a Victorian culture in which the working man from Spitalfields might well have been from the Planet Mungo as far as the noblewoman in Oxfordshire was concerned…..and vice-versa.

Benjamin Disraeli invented ‘One Nation Conservatism’ as the gradualist alternative to revolutionary Socialism in 19th Century Britain. As such, he helped influence everyone from George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde to Harold Macmillan and Ted Heath. His remedy too was one of genius…and over time – a long time, I might add – it helped the UK move peacefully from Empire to Commonwealth. It provided a degree of consensus when the alternative was division, violence and descent into dictatorship. He came in the end to personify the rise from nothing to embrace the fears and aspirations of everyone.

I think we have lost that. And I wonder if now more than ever our need in Britain might be for another Outsider with Dizzy’s decency and genius to apply the same macroscope to our dilemma of a divided Opposition that perpetually fails to resist a devilish Corporatism.

Second, I would say to all those on the Left and/or dedicated to Islam and/or in the so-called peripheral EU States, did it ever occur to you that the global Jewish success so many of you envy is based not on a Zionist conspiracy, but rather on an ability to adapt, accept, cooperate, engage and reflect….rather than dismiss, repel, attack, alienate, and reject?

Equally – and yet to some extent conversely – after discussing these matters with Jews across Europe and America over seven decades, I have over time realised that their denialism of the Jewish genius gene is not a valid “deconstruction of stereotyping”. I think that assertion to fly in the face of facts, and I also find it neurotically defensive: for it is based on that ancient fear, “don’t make trouble”.

There is no Jewish ideology. There is a Zionist ideology, and it is just as unreasonable as Socialist, neoliberal, pc, feminist, Islamist and Christian fundamentalisms. The few Zionist Israelis I’ve met strike me as atypical: they lack the insightful introspection of ‘real’ Jews, Muslims, Christians, mixed economists and crossbencher politicians.  Ideologists (nearly always the activists) are above all almost completely devoid of an eclectic sense of humour. They despise people who enjoy themselves.

We should welcome the Outsider who offers constructive criticism of our tribalism while laughing at his own. Jews do this better than most….as do the Irish. But then, being half-Irish and brought up among Manchester Jews, I’m obviously biased.

Earlier at The Slog: Round the Bend and Behind your Back