The Stolen Pen - The resonance of anti-Semitism

by David Gilbert

August 26, 2018

My mother was nine years old when she arrived in England as a kinder-transport refugee. Her father had been forced by Nazis to paint the Yellow Star and words ‘juif’ on the pavement outside his shop in the Viennese suburbs. Then scrub it off. Then paint it again.

My mum’s parents just made it out of Vienna a few months later, but many of her relatives were murdered by the Nazis. She spoke no English and never spoke about the holocaust. My granny later suffered dementia, retreated to speaking German, and died in Friern Barnet.

My mother's silence was a pall over our lives. My next book of poetry will be devoted to 'mining the silence'. She was resilient but anxious and, being a sensitive child, I picked up that suppressed emotion. And suppressed my own when my parents divorced. in later years, I had a breakdown and still suffer terrible bouts of chronic repetitive thoughts and anxiety at times of major stress in my life. Some of this, I am sure, is due to the resonance of history I must have felt in the family home.

We used to go to my father’s parents for seder on Friday nights. My great great great grandfather was Samson Rafael Hirsch, the founder of neo-Orthodox Judaism in the second half of the 19th Century who promoted a practical and ethical following of the Torah against what he saw as the splintering of Judaism through the reform movement and assimilation.

My grandfather had come to England in 1913 before the first world war. His family changed its name from Guggenheimer to Gilbert as the former was too Germanic. Assimilation has always been one tactic of the Jew. But invisibility carries its own risks.

Grandpa Joe was the kindest person I have ever met. He founded the Hillel movement and on student campuses, there are ‘Gilbert Houses’ for Jewish students. My great uncle was a communist. My great aunts were leftist zionists. My grandfather and grandmother proud and spirited supporters of the new Jewish state. They all saw Israel as the necessary homeland after six million of their brethren had been wiped out. And they believed in a socialist state. I have cousins in Israel who would vehemently oppose my political views now.

My uncle was an educated gay cosmopolitan Jew who worked throughout his life for the cause of better Arab-Israeli relations. He played a central role in helping the Falasha Jews move to Israel in the early 80s. And set up many vocational endeavours that spanned Arab-Israeli boundaries. He worked to help liberate young women from the Haredi orthodox sect and set up the Jewish Aids Trust. His partner, a Swiss non-Jew, an abstract artist worked for the International Red Cross. My lovely uncle Robin was best friends with Rabbi Lionel Blue, who made a speech at my wedding – talk about people who tried for peace!

(As I write this, a robin comes to feed off tea cake crumbs on my plate in the garden! The notion of Jews feeding off crumbs comes into my mind).

Being a Jew

Being a Jew is not simple. They say ‘two Jews, three arguments’. I have mixed feelings about Israel, to say the least. And about being Jewish.

Politically, I am a soft-lefty. I liked what Tony Blair did, until the war in Iraq. I was a Labour Party member and have always voted for Labour.

Internationally, I have grown to dislike what the Israeli government has done, and is doing to Palestinians and see the injustice. I am ambivalent and torn about the cause of zionism. On the one hand, I bow to its necessity at that historical juncture. And yet I weep sometimes for what it has become.

But I hear too much from the left and from pro-Palestinian leftists (themselves seemingly unaware of how they are being ‘played’ by wider forces) about ‘destruction’ of the State of Israel.

And I have come to dislike Jeremy Corbyn for his continued inability to tackle anti-semitism, at least as much as for his collusion in Brexit (IMO). Yes, I know the right wing forces control the media. Yes, I know the Israeli government are stoking some of this. I am not a fool. But you have to understand the resonance of the current discourse for people like me who have known of ‘denial’.

We have also heard those words ‘destruction’ before. How do you think that sounds to the son of my mother. Where do people want Jews to go after 'the destruction' of Israel? Or do they want Israelis to be destroyed too?

We tried to assimilate and we got wiped out. We set up a State that has gone in the wrong direction, and extremists want to wipe that out too. Nu?

This is not simple for me, and I am trying to work out what a Jew who has married out, who has two sons does with his Jewish heritage.

What I do know

What I do know is that I did not ever think that I would witness the rise of the far right. Or of the far left in this country. And their virulent intolerance – of Muslims and of Jews respectively. Both far right and far left have hatred running through their veins. And lets not even talk of Trump and the forces of Brexit. Remember, ‘first they came for the Socialists…’

Oh how I wish Jews and Muslims could come together at this moment to realise their common experiences. We are being played by wider forces. And both religions have peace running through their veins. More in common than that which separates us. I am agnostic, but feel that the true spirituality and humanity that breathes like a wind through true Jews, Muslims and Christians, despite what human institutions have done to us, is a force for good.

But let’s come back to earth. And psychology. I write this not primarily to make any particular political point. Am no historian or political writer.

The Stolen Pen

I write more of a fear that rises in me – to describe the resonance I feel when non-Jews try to articulate what being anti-Semitic is and is not. And how, to me, that sounds perilously close to denial. A closing down to another's experience. An ‘othering’ that resonates for Jews who are only, at most, one degree of separation from the six million who died.

I have never, as a white, tried to describe what anti-black racism is or is not. I have never challenged a black person when they say they feel discriminated against.

I have never, as a man, tried to describe what feminism is, or is not. I have never challenged a woman when they say they feel discriminated against.

Anti-semitism is one of the oldest forms of persecution – the idea of the invisible enemy within is a trope of both the left and right. But I thought the left in the UK – where tolerance has usually reigned - knew better. There is a better leftist to be revealed than that currently on display. And it comes as a shock, but no surprise that many on the far right have come to support what Corbyn has said in recent days.

Corbyn argues he is using the 'right terms' for zionism. That he wants us to understand 'irony'. That he never inhaled. That he never had sexual relations with that woman.

Semantics. Shmemantics.

Yes, it is time for diasporan Jews to question and challenge the Israeli government, and (for people like me) to once again, like my uncle, strive for dialogue and peace. Between two states.

But it is also time for those who deny anti-Semitism in the UK and the left and the labour party to recognise what they are doing… before it is too late. I am a Jew. I am human. In fevered times, we need to pause. Stop the hate.

I have been looking for, am looking for, ways to forge dialogue – whether in the health service, in mental health, through arts, and perhaps in Arab-Israeli Jewish-Muslim dialogue like my wonderful uncle.

Maybe I can help a little though writing? I don’t know. My mother told me once that she stole a fountain pen from her father and smuggled it deep inside her coat pockets the night before she left Vienna.

Dear Mum. I am holding on to that pen, metaphorically.


© 2018 David Gilbert

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11 comments on “The Stolen Pen - The resonance of anti-Semitism”

  1. Thanks David!
    You just done really good with that stolen pen!
    Great article!
    I completely agree about not speaking for others.
    Now I'm kind of asking, please, what advice you might have for non Jews who definitely dont agree with anti Semitism or Corbyn's not-answering. But also is concerned about where Israel is going.
    I had decided to just shut up. Unless anyone says anything either anti-Semitic or pro the worst policies of the new Israel - in either case I argue.
    But dont feel its enough? With eg Corbyn kind of doing something close to that ...
    I'm sorry if its annoying (it is!) my asking - of course, feel free to ignore me!
    Many thanks if you want to share more though!

  2. The problem is that we are being required to accept that there is one country and one country only that we may not speak freely about and Labour Party members are being required to accept a rule book that declares all Palestinian Arabs to be racist

  3. Beautiful and thoughtful piece that is a powerful voice amongst the rage and noise of intolerance. There are plenty of people - Jews, Muslims, Christians and all of different political colours who are against what Israeli government are doing and identify Zionism in its current form as something that is destructive. Not just to the Palestinians but also to Jews. We rely too much on what the media - with its agenda and influence - portray to us and this drowns our these voices. One thing we don’t hear of, for example, is the huge problem of anti Semitism in the Tory party that is not being addressed - the focus is all about Brexit. I pray, as a Muslim, that voices such as your are heard more and that reasoned discourse is valued over heated and hate filled screams that seems to dominate especially on social media. My thoughts and prayers are with you.

  4. Thoughtful and beautifully written personal response, thank you. I'm also frightened about the seeming rise of antisemitism in the Left. The left of the left seemingly put their fingers in their ears and refuse to listen, and invalidate the personal experiences of many Jewish people. What is really disturbing is the lack of empathy shown. Lack of empathy is a scary prospect.

  5. I'm sure you do not hold your grandfather's metaphorical pen. Your contempt for Judaism and Israel only shows that you have moved away from your ancestors' legacy, and you ask yourself whether you should stay Jewish. Judaism for you is no longer value and quality, but weight and quantity.

    As for Israel, I suggest that you do not rush to criticise her. Israel has been facing repeated attacks by extremist Islamic forces for 70 years. Once these were Arab countries and today it is more Islamic terror organizations with Iran on the horizon. Israel made it clear that she wanted peace while compromising, and the Arabs, called Palestinians today, rejected any proposal since. The Arabs want to inherit Israel and not live alongside with her. The main reason why the Palestinian Arabs refuse to make peace with the Palestinian Jews is that they know that their demands will not be achieved in an agreement but only in the war - because their demands are that Israel will not be the state of the Jewish people but a "state of all its nationalities/citizens" and that 5.5 million Arabs that are wrongly recognized as refugees, will have the choice to move into Israel and be her citizens. In other words, the Arabs plan, alongside the military / terrorist planning, to destroy Israel from within and by civilian takeover to become the majority. The Palestinian state in Judea and Samaria will serve the Arab majority in Israel for completing the takeover of Israel and the Jews in the country. I mean, those who still will stay, if not escaped or fled.

    So do not come and teach Israel what extreme right and extreme left mean. The extreme right in your British terminology is the sane and moderate right in Israel. The Jews in Israel are not your game ball, so when your loss it means death to Israelis. The Jews in Israel know how to conduct their affairs professionally and morally, and it is improper to preach morality to them. You can argue ideologically as you wish, but you have to understand that when you are closer to the front of the fire, you feel the heat much more than in the sugary home from faraway Britain.

    1. Thank you for your comments.

      Firstly, I do not have contempt for Judaism and Israel. The very reverse. So, I am going to disagree with you on that. To preach to me about my views is the mirror image of what you are accusing me of. My family through generations have struggled with their views on Judaism and Israel (witness for example my Uncle's work in the Middle East and beyond) while he lived and worked often in Israel. I also have much loved cousins in Israel. And several friends - some who would agree, and some who would disagree.

      As to your second paragraph, maybe you are correct. I refer to these 'wider forces' and in a previous draft had been more explicit about pan-Arabist forces wanting to destroy Israel. But I am also pro-peace, pro- a two-state solution. I know many Jews and have read many Israeli's holding similar views - I am influenced by them perhaps too much? But I do not think long term Israel will survive unless there is refound enthusiasm for dialogue. I may be a naive idealist. But that view may not change.

      Thirdly, it must be of course harder to live in a country 'at war'. But these days in the UK are not as sugary as you might assume. The rise of the far right and the far left is a worry across Europe, and I have lived with that anxiety since my childhood. And Brexit, Trump and Putin introduces a significantly different moral compass. I have been close to terrorist attacks in London, both those of the IRA back in the day, and now extreme Islamicists.

      I wish you well. I do not preach morality, and do not 'come and teach'. I am trying to express a psychological narrative that allows some diasporan Jews to question the current government of Israel, and also to stave off rising anti-Semitic. I am human, still a Jew, connected to Israel, and entitled to try to help forge a different future.

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