Was Miriam Margolyes right that people don’t like Jews? We need to talk about anti-Semitism

On the ABC’s Q&A program recently, actress Miriam Margolyes, not known for her reserve, made two incendiary remarks that instantly set social media alight and provided plenty of fuel for heated office-corridor discussion the next morning.

One pithy remark was in response to a question from the audience, near the end of the program, about her views of Tony Abbott. “I think he’s a tit,” she said with exquisite diction and lethal precision. The audience was in disbelieving but approving uproar.

But Margolyes’ comment of deeper significance and lasting reverberation was on the subject of anti-Semitism, a subject often considered too sensitive for robust debate or frank assessment.

As a questioner from the audience pointed out, racist attacks against Jews do not seem to elicit the same kind of spontaneous sympathy and support for Muslim Australians in the wake of the Martin Place siege in January, which gave rise to the #illridewithyou social media campaign.

For Margolyes – a British-born Jew, now an Australian citizen – there was only one response:

“People don’t like Jews. It’s not comfortable to say that and it’s not comfortable to hear it, but I believe it to be true.

“After the Holocaust it was not fashionable or possible to be anti-Semitic…but because of the actions of the state of Israel and the appalling treatment of the Israelis towards the Palestinians, and the settlements that have been built in contravention of the United Nation’s rulings, and the support that has been given by American Jews and Australian Jews to what is going on in Israel, anti-Semitism has again reared its horrific, ugly head and anti-Semitism is as unacceptable as anti-Muslim feeling.”

It was a controversial sentiment, but it’s one that many Australians would agree with. However, it’s not the kind of sentiment to be expressed in polite society. But is Margolyes right: are the actions of Israel the reason for the rising tide of anti-Semitism around the world, including Australia? (So great in Europe that Israel Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has urged European Jews to emigrate to Israel. “The State of Israel is your home,” he says.)

It is true that opposition to Israel’s stance in relation to Palestine has galvanised growing and increasingly strident support for Palestinian statehood and condemnation of Israel. But that’s more likely to be the subject of blogs, scholarly articles and newspaper opinion pieces.

At the risk of sounding elitist, the intricacies of the intractable Israel-Palestine standoff are unlikely to be the catalyst for the desecration of synagogues and Jewish cemeteries, the outpourings of searing anti-Semitic invective directed at anyone going about their business simply because they are wearing a yamaka or a fedora hat, the bullying of school children, and the cowardly assaults.

A problem that Australians prefer not to talk about

At least Australia has been spared the menacing fascist street marches that are now almost commonplace across Europe.

But that is not to say that anti-Semitism is not a problem in Australia, albeit a problem that many Australians deny, or simply prefer not to talk about. There will be self-conscious remarks about the old-money Melbourne Club not permitting Jewish members – a claim the club vehemently denies by pointing out the names of prominent Jewish members – but it’s a touchy subject nonetheless.

A Melbourne businessman and prominent Liberal Party identity once told me that he deliberately chose not to join the Melbourne Club for that reason.

“Behind the closed doors, the old Melbourne Club view of the world is that you don’t promote Jews, you don’t socialise with Jews. The way I express my disapproval of this is by not joining the Melbourne Club and not being seen at the Melbourne Club, and a lot of people like me, who have Jewish friends, think in exactly the same way.”

Even so, this normally outspoken individual declined to put his name to the comment.

But sometimes a controversy will emerge that makes it impossible to look the other way in the face of blatant anti-Semitism.

In 1998, as a staff writer on The Bulletin magazine, I covered the explosive “Gutnick tapes”, the revelation of taped telephone conversations between employees and clients of the venerable stockbroking firm JB Were & Son which exposed a series of offensive remarks about Melbourne businessman Joseph Gutnick and other Jewish investors.

The tapes came to light when they were played during a Melbourne insider trading trial. Gutnick refused to let the matter drop and secured a formal apology to himself and the Jewish community. Oddly enough, Gutnick was criticised for making a bigger issue of the tapes than it needed to be – including by fellow Jews – but as Gutnick told me, there was an important principle at stake:

“If you don’t fight language like that, it goes further. We live in a golden era with regard to tolerance, but in times of economic turmoil, anything can happen. The lesson to others, not only regarding anti-Semitic remarks, but any type of racial vilification, is that it won’t be tolerated in business.”

When I was writing that story, which included interviews with several Jewish community leaders and prominent Jewish businessmen and women, I was sympathetic but professionally dispassionate. I was, however, very moved, when I wrote a sidebar to the story which involved the reaction of a young Jewish manager to the tapes controversy.

‘Those boys didn’t speak to me again’

He told me that the incident reminded him of his schooldays and he recounted this story:

“In 1985 I was playing cricket at a Scotch College cricket camp. During the first few days I was mixing with a group of boys I’d met for the first time. On the third day of the camp, I mentioned that I played cricket for [the Jewish cricket club] Ajax. Those boys didn’t speak to me again for the next three days and I was taunted on the field whenever we played. It upset me that kids could have that attitude, and it still does when I think back.”

It was a conundrum for me then and it remains so today: what is it about being “a Jew” that stirs up such venom in non-Jews? Why would an Australian boy, who happens to be Jewish, find himself the victim of centuries-old hatreds, in a young country that couldn’t be more removed from the dark and blighted histories of pogroms, displacement, systematic discrimination and genocide?

This is where Margolyes’ proposition falls short: anti-Semitism is a constant through the ages that defies rational explanation and is connected to no one event.

In the 1980s I was a journalist at Peter Isaacson Publications, at the time the largest independent publisher of business titles. The urbane and modest Peter Isaacson was – and is – a war hero (he was a World War II fighter pilot, flew dangerous missions over Nazi Germany, was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, and on his return to Australia flew his Lancaster bomber, Q for Queenie, under the Sydney Harbour Bridge) and a media trailblazer. Last year he was inducted into the Media Hall of Fame.

Working for Peter remains a defining time in my career. I was only a few years into journalism when he appointed me editor, at age 26, of one of his national publications that set me on my way as a business journalist.

I really didn’t think about it then, but it would horrify me to think that anyone would see Peter first and foremost as being Jewish. Peter is a proud Jewish community leader, but he is so much more. And Peter himself, whether in his workplace, or anywhere else, could not abide any behaviour that smacked of intolerance, racism or discrimination.

In 2002, Isaacson had a very public stoush with then editor of the Crikey site, Stephen Mayne, over an article in Crikey which he felt had gratuitously referred to Larry Adler and Louis Moss as “Hungarian Jews”.

“I do not care whether you publish this letter or not. It is a protest about your unnecessary identification of the religion of Larry Adler and Moss as Jewish,” he wrote.

‘He’s a Jew you know’

“I do not recall, in the two years I have subscribed to Crikey, of reading the religious identification of any Anglicans or Presbyterians or Roman Catholics or Plymouth Brethren or any of the multitude of other religions. Why specifically identify those whose religion is Judaism or any other religion UNLESS the identification has a bearing on the report? What you have done is to disregard one of the prime ethics of journalism.”

A clearly very angry Isaacson demanded that Mayne instruct his editorial staff ”not to use a person’s race, colour, creed or sexuality as an identifier UNLESS such use is imperative to the meaning of the story”.

I get where Isaacson was coming from, because I know people who, when referring to someone who happens to be Jewish, feel they must identify him as such, irrespective of the context. A friend of mine has this habit: “I worked with Max a few years ago – he’s a Jew – and he was a bloody good salesman…” When I take issue with him his riposte is always: “Well, it seems you’re the one who has a problem with him being Jewish.”

Is my mate anti-Semitic? Probably not. Maybe. Who knows? But what is it about being Jewish that it cannot go unremarked? Is it a harmless cultural tic, or does it signify something deeper?

Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen recently reflected on the death of four Jews in the Paris kosher supermarket during the murderous “Charlie Hebdo” terrorist rampage in January and the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe.

“In the long and blood-soaked history of Europe’s Jews, the death of four more in a Parisian kosher market is, at best, a footnote. But they were not the accidental victims of the terrorists’ wrath, not just merely in the way or in the line of fire. They were singled out for who they were and not for what they had done,” he writes. “They were killed for being Jews.”

The terrifying aspect of anti-Semitism is that from this volatile well of ancient hatreds, which has irrationally and inexplicably transported itself to one of the youngest nations on Earth, Australia, some similar horror might easily emerge.

In these times of dread and uncertainty – unnecessarily fanned by opportunistic politicians and excitable commentators – who would blame those Jews who fear what the darkest minds among us may be capable of? Who would blame those Jews who toss those words around and around in their minds: “They were killed for being Jews.”

No wonder that for some Jews even the relatively innocuous – whether it’s the insults of a racist stockbroker or gratuitous references to someone being Jewish – casts such menacing shadows.

There are no answers here. Perhaps many more questions need to be asked. Certainly some frank discussions need to take place. Just because we’re too uncomfortable to talk about anti-Semitism doesn’t mean it hasn’t set deep roots in our society. And a little empathy and understanding wouldn’t go astray.

We can’t will anti-Semitism away. We know it’s not that simple. But perhaps we can make a promise to our better selves that no matter what trials and challenges lay ahead, no one will be singled out for who they are.

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2 thoughts on “Was Miriam Margolyes right that people don’t like Jews? We need to talk about anti-Semitism

  1. A timely blog Leo. What, however, occurred in the past that created this antipathy towards Israelies who follow Judaism and probably more importantly, what is it that they are promulgating over the ages into current thought that maintains this antagonism?

  2. Spot on Leo. Whilst Miriam was right in respect of many of Israel’s actions, this is not the reason for the latent anti-Semitism in the world. I am Jewish and was subject to overt anti-Semitism in the 1970s whilst growing up in Elwood, Melbourne. Anti-Semitism rears its ugly head by disguising itself under the banner of support for the Palestinians whenever Israel takes military action in that region. I do wish for a Palestinian State along side Israel but unfortunately this will not happen in our life time; probably never. But there are two sides of the story which is not considered by the many anti-Semitics out there. But she is wrong that this is the underlying cause of anti-Semitism which goes back in history well before Jesus. It is just convenient to use the Palestinians, however badly treated they are.

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