Show Hide image

Will Self: Who are you to call me Jewish?

Next they’ll be calling me a “British writer”.

My mother used to say that the difference between American and British anti-Semitism was that in the States they hated you because you were a Jew, whereas over here they hated you personally and it was only incidental that you happened to be a Jew. On the whole I think she preferred the British brand of prejudice, which slipped bigotry under the carpet together with other crumbs they couldn’t quite exercise themselves to clean up properly.

English Jews I don’t think she could get a handle on – we lived at the unfashionable end of the Hampstead Garden Suburb (the Wilsons, the Mandelsons et al were on the other side of the North Circular) surrounded by Jews, but Mother thought them a pretty colourless lot compared to the New York variety she’d grown up with.

On the whole, though, my mother was not much given to either exalting or denigrating her Jewish heritage (which is how she thought of it, ethnicity – or race – being somewhat of a troubling ascription in the first few decades after the Holocaust), rather, she sought to sideline it. Nobody knew she was Jewish, so there was no need to make a song and dance about it. Neither I nor my brothers were raised in the faith – I wasn’t even circumcised, for Christ’s sake! On the few occasions I went to the synagogue with friends, I was preoccupied not by the bearded weirdos with the scrolls, but by the insubstantiality of my paper yarmulke, which I felt was in danger of being wafted up from my head by hot air from a hidden grille, leaving me exposed to the full judgement of Jehovah (or whatever his name is).

Certainly, I suspect Mother’s being American did rather trump all other perceptions for the Little Englanders of the 1950s and 1960s, but that they were unable at least to suspect a touch of the Jew-brush about my mother, I doubt. The sallow-dark skin, the curly hair, the – yes, why not concede it – large and flat-bridged nose, surely these were giveaways? They’re all characteristics I’ve inherited and I’m always struck by how, when I say I’m half-Jewish, people look at me first one way and then – as if adjusting a 3D postcard – another, before saying: “Oh, yes, of course, I thought. . .” before repressing the rest of the thought, which is, “ . . . you had a big nose and dark skin for an Englishman.”

While my mother definitely did, I can’t say I’ve experienced a great deal of anti-Semitism in my life. Up until the late 1980s, I can recall a few occasions when I’d find myself among people in tedious work contexts who’d begin expressing some low-level animus – remarking on how this institution or that business was “run by Jews” – and I always used to enjoy calling them out, using the great prow of my Semitism, as it were, to break through their prejudicial pack ice. But the truth is that, not being acculturated or contextualised by my Jewish heritage (wrong name, most obviously) I could pass – and still do, although it does say at the bottom of my Wikipedia page “British Jews”. British Jews? Puh-lease! Anything but that. Next they’ll be calling me a “British writer”.

Still, people are convinced of my Jewishness – Gentiles and Jews alike. Almost always, following the squint that reveals me – like Woody Allen at the Hall family’s Wasp table – to be a davening frummer with luxuriant payess and a phylactery the size of a rhino horn, they always ask, “Was your mother or father Jewish?” When I concede that it was my mother, they pronounce, “Aha! That means you’re Jewish.”

They may not realise it – these self-appointed judgers of ethnic purity – but their assertion is, in its own insidious way, a small but significant piece of anti-Semitism. I always counter them by snapping back: “It’s only the Jews themselves who say that, so why do you? You wouldn’t tell a woman whose mother was French that it meant she was French.” It’s not that I mind being Jewish – it’s just that given my upbringing, my religious convictions and my blood (yes, Semitism is to some extent genetically defined), such a claim would be, well, bogus – indeed, flat wrong. No, I am half-Jewish by blood, and any inclination Gentiles have to return me to the Jewish fold is a wilful capitulation to some sort of bizarre restorative justice – as if, in compensation for all that hatred in the past, it were possible to propitiate the Jews by offering them up all the souls and bodies they may lay claim to.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Who speaks for British Jews?