Jews in a whisper – Roger Cohen

This piece, by Roger Cohen, is from the New York Times.

IN his novel “Deception,” Philip Roth has the American protagonist say to his British mistress: “In England, whenever I’m in a public place, a restaurant, a party, the theater, and someone happens to mention the word ‘Jew,’ I notice that the voice always drops just a little.”

She challenges him on this observation, prompting the American, a middle-aged writer, to say, yes, that’s how “you all say ‘Jew.’ Jews included.”

This prompted a memory: sitting with my mother in an Italian restaurant in the upscale London neighborhood of St. John’s Wood circa 1970 and asking her, after she had pointed to a family in the opposite corner and said they were Jewish, why her voice dropped to a whisper when she said the J word.

“I’m not whispering,” Mom said and went on cutting up her spaghetti so it would fit snugly on a fork.

But she was — in that subliminal, awkward, half-apologetic way of many English Jews. My parents were South African immigrants. Their priority was assimilation. They were not about to change their name but nor were they about to rock the boat. I never thought much about why I left the country they adopted and became an American. It happened. One thing in life leads to another. But then, a year ago, I returned.

I was at my sister’s place and a lodger of hers, seeing I had a BlackBerry, said, “Oh, you’ve got a JewBerry.” Huh? “Yeah, a JewBerry.” I asked him what he meant. “Well,” he shrugged, “BBM — BlackBerry Messenger.” I still didn’t get it. “You know, it’s free!”


None of this carried malice as far I could see. It was just flotsam carried on the tide of an old anti-Semitism. The affable, insidious English anti-Semitism that stereotypes and snubs, as in the judgment of some gent at the Athenaeum on a Jew’s promotion to the House of Lords: “Well, these people are very clever.” Or, as Jonathan Margolis noted in The Guardian, the tipsy country squire commenting on how much he likes the Jewish family who just moved into the village before adding, “Of course, everybody else hates them.”

Of course.

Jewish identity is an intricate subject and quest. In America, because I’ve criticized Israel and particularly its self-defeating expansion of settlements in the West Bank, I was, to self-styled “real Jews,” not Jewish enough, or even — join the club — a self-hating Jew. In Britain I find myself exasperated by the muted, muffled way of being a Jew. Get some pride, an inner voice says, speak up!

But it’s complicated. Britain, with its almost 300,000 Jews and more than two million Muslims, is caught in wider currents — of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and political Islam. Traditionally, England’s genteel anti-Semitism has been more of the British establishment than the British working class, whereas anti-Muslim sentiment has been more working-class than establishment.

Now a ferocious anti-Zionism of the left — the kind that has called for academic boycotts of Israel — has joined the mix, as has some Muslim anti-Semitism. Meanwhile Islamophobia has been fanned by the rightist fabrication of the “Eurabia” specter — the fantasy of a Muslim takeover that sent Anders Breivik on his Norwegian killing spree and feeds far-right European and American bigotry.

Where then should a Jew in Britain who wants to speak up stand? Not with the Knesset members who have met in Israel with European rightists like Filip Dewinter of Belgium in the grotesque belief that they are Israel’s allies because they hate Muslims. Not with the likes of the Jewish writer Melanie Phillips, whose book “Londonistan” is a reference for the Islamophobes. Nor with those who, ignoring sinister historical echoes, propose ostracizing Israeli academics and embrace an anti-Zionism that flirts with anti-Semitism.

Perhaps a good starting point is a parallel pointed out to me by Maleiha Malik, a professor of law at King’s College London. A century ago, during the Sidney Street siege of 1911, it was the Jews of London’s East End who, cast as Bolsheviks, were said to be “alien extremists.” Winston Churchill, no less, argued in 1920 that Jews were part of a “worldwide conspiracy for the overthrow of civilization and the reconstitution of society on the basis of arrested development.”

The lesson is clear: Jews, with their history, cannot become the systematic oppressors of another people. They must be vociferous in their insistence that continued colonization of Palestinians in the West Bank will increase Israel’s isolation and ultimately its vulnerability.

That — not fanning Islamophobia — is the task before diaspora Jews. To speak up in Britain also means confronting the lingering, voice-lowering anti-Semitism. When Roth’s hero returns to New York, he finds he’s been missing something. His lover, now distant, asks what.


“We’ve got some of them in England, you know.”

“Jews with force, I’m talking about. Jews with appetite. Jews without shame.”

I miss them, too.

This piece, by Roger Cohen, is from the New York Times.

16 Responses to “Jews in a whisper – Roger Cohen”

  1. Steven Says:

    Maryl Yourish sets Roger (and like minded thinkers) right once more:

  2. Israeli Jew Says:

    Allow me to put in a word for nearly half of the Jews alive in the world today – not loud, embarrassing American Jews and not meek, embarrassed British Jews – just independent citizens in our own crazy little country, busy doing our own thing without much thought at all, on a day to day basis, about how the goyim see us. We’re perhaps not particularly ‘nice’, but the beauty is we don’t really care.

    So the word is this –

    I totally agree with you. About the vociferous insistence, that is.

    Or at least I did. We would get out of the West Bank and Gaza. We would let the Palestinians get on with their state building, and even help. It would be great. Two downtrodden, underdog peoples (so much in common – the Arabs despise the Palestinians just as much as the Western world has always despised the Jews), side by side, doing great things. We really thought it could work. Even my right wing friends were starting to come round. We had such high hopes. And it was starting to happen, or so we thought.

    And then it all blew up in our faces. Literally.

    It took me quite a while, but eventually even I realized that the Palestinians had no intention of compromising, of sharing this land with us.

    Anyone still of the view that this conflict is all about the settlements should get his or her fingers out of his or her ears and take the blinkers off his or her eyes and start paying attention to what is actually happening.

    I won’t say what you can do with your vociferous insistence. I’ll attempt being polite for once. But the bottom line is that you’re no different from the ashamed British Jews. You just go about it a different way.

  3. SnoopyTheGoon Says:

    So, the lesson learned by the world-class putz Roger Cohen from hundred of years of insidious British anti-Semitism is what? That “Jews, with their history, cannot become the systematic oppressors of another people.”

    God forbid such Jooz should procreate, and I don’t even believe in God!

    Sorry, David – bad example. I was going to link Meryl’s post here, but somebody got to it ahead of me. She said it much more forcefully.

    This man (Roger C.) is really a heavy stone on Jooish collective back.

  4. Absolute Observer Says:

    I’m with Snoopy here.
    Cohen notes the existence of English antisemitism in both its past and present forms.
    His solution to this problem?
    Not confront this antisemitism. Not to fight it. Not to confront it; but to stand up against Israel’s Occupation of a future Palestine.

    And one other point.
    Are we to say that because the UK, Germany, France, etc. all have a history of oppressing others, then it’s ok for them to do it, or, at the least, to judge them according to normal political criteria.
    However, because Jews do not have such a history (although, even here, antisemites will disagree with such a view of Jews oppressing others over history), then somehow the crime is doubled.
    That, I am afraid is romantic tosh that looks back to the good old days before assimilation, before the mid-19th century, through rose-tinted glasses.
    And, as far as we know, Jews may well have been as happy oppressing other people as anyone else in history, only they weren’t given the chance, either in Europe or Palestine.
    Wishing it were like that again is wishing to turn the clock back to a time when Jews had no rights and lived at the mercy of its host country.
    Ah, what wonderful times they were – chicken soup, matchmakers, wisdom, Jewish ethics, signing, dancing, pogroms, the Black Hundreds, expulsion.
    As the song says, it was a stable as a fiddler on the roof.

    I am sorry to make this comparison, but it seems fitting.
    Would Cohen a few decades back have suggested that Jews fight British antisemitism by “speaking out” against Jewish capitalists? Would a few decades earlier he would have suggested confronting British antisemitism by f”speaking out” against the poverty stricken Jews of East Europe managing to find their way to Britain.

    The way to fight antisemitism is to fight antisemitism and its carriers and its causes.
    Antisemites and those unaware of what antisemitism is will tell you time and time again that it is a “reaction” to what Jews and /or Israelis do. It is not. It is a claim that let antisemites and antisemitism of the hook.

    No-one would accept blaming the victims of racism for the racism they face, I am no sure why (or maybe I am) a special rule applies for Jews.

  5. Comment is not free Says:

    “Now a ferocious anti-Zionism of the left — the kind that has called for academic boycotts of Israel — has joined the mix, as has some Muslim anti-Semitism.”

    The lesson is clear: Jews, with their history, cannot become the systematic oppressors of another people. They must be vociferous in their insistence that continued colonization of Palestinians in the West Bank will increase Israel’s isolation and ultimately its vulnerability.”

    The only problem is that many (not all) of those Jews speaking out are also the ones calling for the boycott. So not quite as black and white as it seems.

  6. Ignorance is bliss Says:

    “That — not fanning Islamophobia — is the task before diaspora Jews”

    Oh, and this is not a task for anyone else, just Jews!

    Cohen can’t have it both ways.
    Islamophobia is a real problem in the UK. It effects some British people and not others. It effects some Jews (a minority) and not others (a majority). And these Jews should be opposed as one opposes anyone else for thinks racists and fascists have an “answer” to what is really not a problem at all. But Jews are not just Jews, they are British Jews and, as such, are as open to the influences (good and bad) as the rest of the country. There is, I am sorry to say, nothing special about Jews in Britain today, no matter how much the Chief Rabbi and anti-Zionists Jews say and would like it to to be otherwise.

    But, again, somehow, because Jews have been crapped on for centuries, that gives the right of others, like Cohen, to make them even more responsible for fighting the racism and Islamophobia
    in the UK today. The argument runs that because Jews suffered they should be the first to fight back. Well, my view; the people who made the Jews suffer, they should be the first to fight back. But they are not, are they? They are the ones who ban Islamic dress, they are the ones stopping Muslims at airports, they are the ones stopping certain Islamic structures from being built, they are the ones locking them up in prisons on Cuba and flying them to illegal prisons. Maybe one needs to talk the them first and not the Jews.

    British Jews should oppose Islamophobia because Islamophobia is a bad thing. That some British Jews don’t is the conesequence of bad politics, of bad decisions, but it is certainly not a “Jewish” thing, any more than Islamophobic non-Jews can be put down to their being Christian, atheists or secularist

    Enough with the Jews already!

  7. Benjamin H. Says:

    Ah yes. Jews must come out against the treatment of the Palestinians or they will be labeled as aliens and extremists, because as well all know, unless a Jewish person speaks out against it they are guilty of being oppressive. As for fanning ‘Islamophobia’, well, I can just see the mass majority of mainstream Jewish organizations fanning the flames of hatred.

    (As a side note, I don’t deny the existence of hatred and prejudice towards Muslims; I object to the word used to describe it.)

  8. Saul Says:

    For 2000 years Jews were oppressed.
    For the past sixty or so years Jews have not been oppressed in Israel or in Europe and elsewhere (but not everywhere; see. for example, the Soviet Union).
    Now that Jews are not being oppressed, Jews in the UK are being told that they must “speak out” against the oppression Jews are responsible for in the Occupied Territory.
    Now that Jews are not being oppressed, they are being told to stand up “as Jews” against Islamophobia.
    Only in these ways can UK Jews combat antisemitism.
    And if they do not stand up or speak out “as Jews” in this way, they are betraying their history; a history reduced to nothing more than oppression.

    Now, however, this history of past oppression repeats itself. It places the burden of that past onto the Jews. It constitutes a new form of oppression. It forces the Jews to remember that past. It forces the Jews to remind themselves constantly of what they and who they were; a despised and hated people. It forces onto the Jews the historical guilt of others, but which says that only the Jews are commanded not to forget and a guilt that only the Jews can expiate.

    To make demands of Jews “as Jews” to “speak out” and “stand up” against all forms of injustice only makes sense because of their history of oppression. If they refuse to do so, they (and others) must pay the price; Jews (and Muslims and Palestinians.)

    As in the past, it is the Jews who are to shoulder the entire burden of their own history and, in so doing, shoulder the burden of the entire world. And, if they refuse to do so, not only are they to be held guilty of betraying their own history, they are to be held guilty of betraying the whole world.

    The Jews are no longer oppressed. Yet, the history of their oppression is being used as a tool to oppress the Jews of today.

  9. Benjamin H. Says:

    And of course, this article has made him a darling of Philip Weiss (who doesn’t think he goes far enough, granted):

  10. Brian Goldfarb Says:

    Comment is not free says: “The only problem is that many (not all) of those Jews speaking out [against the colonisation of the West Bank] are also the ones calling for the boycott. So not quite as black and white as it seems.”

    Well, given that many of the commenters here who are clearly for Israel, against boycotts and are fighting antisemitism, as well as opposing West Bank settlements, then it certainly isn’t black and white. We do all this (even if “Israeli Jew” thinks we’re whistling in the wind concerning the West Bank, settlements and peace) because we’re blowed if anyone is going to push us around and we’re entitled to our opinions. So Roger Cohen can put _that_ in his pipe and smoke it; it might give him a bigger hit than whatever it is he’s smoking at present. Further, if he can’t see that, then he’s spending too much time with the likes Anthony “if British Jews were less pro-Israeli/Zionist, then antisemitism would go away” Lerman and not enough reading Engage and other websites like Harry’s Place, et al.

  11. arnon Says:

    Many of the comments on Roger Cohen’s article in the NY Times not only agree with him they think he is calling for the elimination of Israel which is what they are applauding.

    There were so few comments protesting Roger Cohen’s tendentious article that I wondered if the NY Times moderators were inclined to post mostly comments in support of their baby.

  12. Ben Says:

    “…The way to fight antisemitism is to fight antisemitism …”

    The way to fight antisemitism is to fight antisemites. It is much easier than fighting antisemitism, and much more satisfying.

  13. MTC Says:

    Perhaps British Jews should speak out against the continuing occupation of Afghanistan by the British Army ?

    Perhaps British Jews should ask why the British media ignores the the thousands of Afghani civilians that have been killed by the British Army.

    Perhaps British Jews should mobilize the “progressive” forces in Britain to recognize the occupations of Tibet, Chechnya, Cyprus, etc.


    • Absolute Observer Says:

      Ah, but people like Cohen seem to think that Israel and Palestine is a “Jewish” thing (or a “Muslim” thing for that matter;) just like some people in the UK think that blowing up buses is a “Muslim” thing for which all “good” Muslims need to speak out against or suffer anti-Muslim hatred for not doing so; or, again, that the murders carried out against workers in US abortion clinics is a “Christian” thing and the Christians should be persecuted for not “speaking out” against them; or that the crimes of Ghadaffi are a “socialist” thing and that unless socialists speak out against it, then socialists will have to suffer their own form of discrimination.

      It is funny that when Cohen’s thinking is applied to other situations it appears ridiculous; but when it is applied to Jews it is meant to be taken seriously.

  14. Absolute Observer Says:

    “The way to fight antisemitism is to fight antisemites. It is much easier than fighting antisemitism, and much more satisfying.”

    If only it were that simple!
    The problem is that many of those spouting such nonsense do not even realise they are culpable of it.
    The first way to fight antisemitism is to explain to them why what some are saying is antisemitic.

    It seems to me that Engage was set up to do that.

  15. Brian Goldfarb Says:

    So presumably Roger Cohen would blame Reitblat (see article above) for the SPSC supporting student committing an offence deemed to be in breach of the Scottish law on racism, etc. That is, if Reitblat hadn’t had an Israeli flag on his (private) wall and made it clear that he was a supporter of the right of Israel to exist, Donnachie wouldn’t have committed the offence.

    Yeah, right.

    As the old saying has it, if you believe that, you’ll believe anything. But then “you” already do. Especially if your surname is Lerman, or your full name is Roger Cohen, or Richard Silverstein or…

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