The bitter brouhaha in Britain about anti-Semitism in the Labour Party brought me back 50 years to when I was an English schoolboy—or more precisely, a suburban Chicago kid who was thrust into that role, school uniform, National Health Service glasses, and all.
Throughout the sixties, my father, an academic researcher, had brought the family to live in London for an aggregate of three years. Over school terms and summers, I experienced a scintillating parade of cultural phenomena: the Beatles and Rolling Stones, Mods and Rockers, James Bond and Dr. Who.
World War Two wasn’t so long ago; my friends’ parents still spoke about the Blitz. Every week bomb squads would block off part of London to defuse unexploded ordinance of the Nazi, rather than the jihadi, variety.
London was largely an English city, not the ethnic stew of today. I was the only Yank at Barrow Hill, my London County Council school, as well as at William Ellis, the grammar school I was lucky enough to attend after passing the Eleven Plus. That was the dreaded matriculation exam given to every fifth-grade child in order to determine what educational track—and thus what opportunities—the classist society would subsequently provide. It separated my classmates who spoke Cockney from those who spoke the Queen’s English.
It took me months to learn to speak either language. Even after subconsciously softening my R’s and dropping my H’s, just like “me mates”, my teacher still wouldn’t give me speaking roles in school plays. Diversity was not a value to put on stage.
Then I discovered I was Jewish. Not Chicago Jewish, London Jewish.
Sure I already knew I was Jewish. My school tie and beanie cap notwithstanding, I knew I wasn’t English. But I was shocked to discover that the few other Jewish kids weren’t considered English either—certainly not in the same way that I was an American Jew.
“Are you American or are you Jewish?” one of the blokes had asked me in the playground—a place where every day blood was spilled over far less weighty matters.
“I’m American and I’m Jewish,” I answered, confused by the question.
“No! Are you American or are you Jewish?” he demanded, as if I hadn’t understood him.
Being both was arithmetically impossible in 1960s England, where one plus one equaled one. If you were Jewish, no “ands” were allowed. You could be a British Jew, but not an English Jew. The English were English; Jews were Jews.
I’ve not been back to Britain in 37 years, though I loved the place and yearn to return, Jeremy Corbyn’s self-inflicted “Jewish problem” be damned. I thought that my Jewish mates had found a level of acceptance and integration in Britain approximating what we experience in America, despite our nation’s vastly different histories and cultures (make no mistake, they are vastly different). The May 5 London mayoral election, with a Jewish and Muslim candidate squaring off, seemed proof of that.
Brought up in a Zionist Socialist home, I had always identified with the Left. Now, in Britain as in America, elements of the Left are revealing that they have “Jewish problems” that are coming to resemble each other.
Call it if you will a problem with Zionism or with Israel, thanks to my childhood years in England, I know how a Jewish problem looks, sounds and feels. It looks like an equation that doesn’t add up. It sounds threatening despite all the protagonists’ protestations that they don’t hate Jews. And it feels rotten, knowing that the laws of math, of identity, and of justice have been altered, just for you.
If I have hope, it lies in the
voices raised in England from across the political spectrum decrying racism of
all kinds, including anti-Semitism. The Labour Party, by pandering to the
intolerant, has brought the issue to the fore. Now it’s time for the same thing
to happen on American’s college campuses, and everywhere else where double
standards concerning identity and justice arise.