A Jewish cemetery. Photo: Getty
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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.

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 Both the Irish editor and his UK counterpart have apologised for the piece, and it has been withdrawn from the website.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.”

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.

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. 

Jasper Jackson is the New Statesman's digital editor. He was formerly assistant editor of Media Guardian, and editor of TheMediaBriefing.

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David had taken the same tablets for years. Why the sudden side effects?

Long-term medication keeps changing its appearance – round white tablets one month, red ovals the next, with different packaging to boot.

David had been getting bouts of faintness and dizziness for the past week. He said it was exactly like the turns he used to get before he’d had his pacemaker inserted. A malfunctioning pacemaker didn’t sound too good, so I told him I’d pop in at lunchtime.

Everything was in good order. He was recovering from a nasty cough, though, so I wondered aloud if, at the age of 82, he might just be feeling weak from having fought that off. I suggested he let me know if things didn’t settle.

I imagined he would give it a week or two, but the following day there was another visit request. Apparently he’d had a further turn that morning. The carer hadn’t liked the look of him so she’d rung the surgery.

Once again, he was back to normal by the time I got there. I quizzed him further. The symptoms came on when he got up from the sofa, or if bending down for something, suggesting his blood pressure might be falling with the change in posture. I checked the medication listed in his notes: eight different drugs, at least two of which could cause that problem. But David had been taking the same tablets for years; why would he suddenly develop side effects now?

I thought I’d better establish if his blood pressure was dropping. I got him to stand, and measured it repeatedly over a period of several minutes. Not a hint of a fall. And nor did he now feel in the slightest bit unwell. I was stumped. David’s wife had been watching proceedings from her armchair. “Mind you,” she said, “it only happens mid-morning.”

The specific timing made me pause. I asked to see his tablets. David passed me a carrier bag of boxes. I went through them methodically, cross-referencing each one to his notes.

“Well, there’s your trouble,” I said, holding out a couple of the packets. One was emblazoned with the name “Diffundox”, the other “Prosurin”. “They’re actually the same thing.”

Every medication has two names, a brand name and a generic one – both Diffundox and Prosurin are brand names of a medication known generically as tamsulosin, which improves weak urinary flow in men with enlarged prostates. Doctors are encouraged to prescribe generically in almost all circumstances – if I put “tamsulosin” on a prescription, the pharmacist can supply the best value generic available at that time, but if I specify a brand name they’re obliged to dispense that particular one irrespective of cost.

Generic prescribing is good for the NHS drug budget, but it can be horribly confusing for patients. Long-term medication keeps changing its appearance – round white tablets one month, red ovals the next, with different packaging to boot. And while the box always has the generic name on it somewhere, it’s much less prominent than the brand name. With so many patients on multiple medications, all of which are subject to chopping and changing between generics, it’s no wonder mix-ups occur. Couple that with doctors forever stopping and starting drugs and adjusting doses, and you start to get some inkling of quite how much potential there is for error.

I said to David that, at some point the previous week, two different brands of tamsulosin must have found their way into his bag. They looked for all the world like different medications to him, with the result that he was inadvertently taking a double dose every morning. The postural drops in his blood pressure were making him distinctly unwell, but were wearing off after a few hours.

Even though I tried to explain things clearly, David looked baffled that I, an apparently sane and rational being, seemed to be suggesting that two self-evidently different tablets were somehow the same. The arcane world of drug pricing and generic substitution was clearly not something he had much interest in exploring. So, I pocketed one of the aberrant packets of pills, returned the rest, and told him he would feel much better the next day. I’m glad to say he did. 

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game