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31 July 2017

The antisemitism of Kevin Myers is a timely reminder of how prejudice hibernates

Overt antisemitism is now unacceptable, but that doesn't mean prejudice against Jewish people is extinct.

By Jasper jackson

How could anyone look at the words “Jews are not generally noted for their insistence on selling their talent for the lowest possible price” and think, “yeah, this is fine to publish in a national newspaper”?

That was my first response to the article by Kevin Myers in the Irish edition of the Sunday Times this weekend, and a question I’ve asked myself repeatedly since.

The newspaper’s publisher will try to find an answer, to isolate the source of the “error of judgement” which led to the column appearing not just in the paper, but also on the website the Irish edition shares with the Times and Sunday Times published in the UK. Both the Irish editor and his UK counterpart have apologised for the piece, and it has been withdrawn from the website. Myers will not write again for the paper, according to a statement issued yesterday. 

While the individual incident – and the swift response – are noteworthy, the bigger pattern is important too. Antisemitism still exists even in a country like the UK, and even within the sort of genteel circles Times readers are drawn from.

I have good friends who have used exactly the same offensive stereotype to my (half-Jewish) face. I remember one, when a handful of us were eating at a restaurant, asking whether we should order another bowl of dumplings. I said no, I wasn’t hungry, to which he responded: “Stop being such a Jew.”

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That kind of comment will be wearingly familiar to many with a Jewish background, but there is something instructive in why my lefty, liberal friends thought it OK to say something they knew was antisemitic. It was because, as far as they were concerned, antisemitism is no longer a problem.

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The argument is obviously self-defeating. If antisemitism no longer existed, why would “Jew jokes” about penny-pinching occur to anyone in the first place?

Yet it’s not too hard to see why some people believe that Jews no longer face any prejudice worth talking about. Compared with those from other religious and ethnic minorities, most Jewish people in Britain are rarely made to feel uncomfortable because of their background. Abuse on the street – though seemingly rising – is still relatively rare, in part because, unlike many other minorities, most Jews are difficult to visually identify.

Discrimination in the workplace is also unusual, and Jews now face few barriers to a professional or business career. In contrast, most other minorities are massively and consistently under-represented.

Importantly, antisemitism has become publicly unacceptable in a way that most other forms of bigotry have not. Kevin Myers was rapidly dispatched from his berth in the Irish Sunday Times, but many commentators are employed across Fleet Street seemingly for the express purpose of spewing equally damaging stereotypes and slurs about other groups – especially Muslims.

I suspect that this all played a role in how Myers’s piece slipped through. Editors are attuned to the issues of the day; antisemitism is meant to be a problem of the past.

Things are of course worse in places like Hungary, where vicious, violent and increasingly institutionalised antisemitism is returning. Jews still make a good scapegoat, an other to persecute, for authoritarians and fascists.

But here in the UK, I find these individual incidents – my friends’ casual bigotry, the antisemitism of Myers – not all that worrying. Indeed, many Jews have got used to shrugging off half-heard comments or jokey banter.

But Myers’s comments – and the casual antisemitism of my friends – are reminders that prejudice has a surprising ability to endure, to hibernate and poke its head through into the light, even when you think it is gone for good.