Friday, August 26, 2011

Jews with force

Roger Cohen used the following fragments of dialogue from Philip Roth's novel Deception to bookend his recent New York Times opinion piece on anti-Semitism and Jewish identity.

The novel's protagonist, a middle-aged American writer, is speaking to his English lover.

"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... [That's how] you all say 'Jew'. Jews included."

When he returns to New York, he tells her that he has realized he had been missing something. What? she asks.


"We've got some of them in England, you know."

"Jews with force, I'm talking about. Jews with appetite. Jews without shame."

Nicely observed. (Sits uneasily, by the way, with Cohen's worthy but rather contorted reflections.)


  1. I read this article the other day and groaned inwardly. The author clearly knows and cares little of English social conventions - the difference in attitude he notes between people in England and America to my mind has very little to do with Jewishness and more to do with more generally applicable national/social conventions and attitudes.

    Understatement/distaste for too open an expression of nationalism or allegiance/irony/indirectness on one side of the Atlantic (all of which could be pejoratively regarded as cowardly, lily-livered,Old World hypocrisy, I suppose); straightforwardness, assertiveness, apparent lack of self-doubt (though not sure that one is a particularly Jewish characteristic!) on the other (all of which could be pejoratively characterised as a kind of gauche uncultured New World aggressiveness. (and since when was being "without shame" regarded as a positive characteristic?! - or openly expressing appetites either... I sense a big atlantic divide here)

    As such, I really don't think that what the author is attemption to describe question is principally one that pertains specifically or necessarily to the treatment, status, or self-perception of Jews at all, let alone antisemitism.

    Being muted and muffled is often a good thing. It undermines selfish egotism, for starters. In any case the expectation that one should be muted and muffled in some sections of English society is not one in which Jews are singled out for special treatment, as Cohen appears to imply

  2. You may be right. I'm inclined to see that old, Establishment form of anti-Semitism as virtually defunct, and the voice-lowering phenomenon as being more associated with memories of WW2 and - as you suggest - a manifestation of old-fashioned middle-class politeness and reserve.

    And, for clarity's sake, I would like to see social observations divorced from discussions about the rights and wrongs of various government (Israeli or otherwise) policies.

  3. I recall you discussing Paul Berman once before, so this may be of interest (even if dated).

    A new-fangled anti-Semitism?

  4. Yes, very interesting background on Berman's book The flight of the intellectuals. The Islamists perpetuate an old, crude form of anti-Semitism, I would say. But the issue Berman is most concerned with is that so many Western thinkers and journalists have lost their moral compass.