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Jew’ve Come a Long Way — Is the U.K. Anti-Semitic?

December 3, 2009

Columnist Roger Cohen touched a nerve this week — in my family, anyway — with his op-ed in the International Herald Tribune (and blogged in the New York Times) about anti-Semitism in the late 1960s at London’s Westminster school. (That’s the “Westminster Abbey” Westminster — “London’s only ancient school that is still on its original site.”)

His classmates’ casual bigotry, like taunts of “Yid,” he shrugged off easily enough, as Cohen tells it. What still rankles, though, is the institutional bias among the supposed grown-ups that cost him a scholarship to the school’s affiliated college. “This seemed normal then but appears abnormal in retrospect,” he writes. Prompted by An Education, the recent film in which Peter Sarsgaard plays a Jewish lothario crashing WASP barriers, Cohen asked his prep school’s current headmaster what policy had stood between him and the scholarship.

Receiving good will but little information that way, he turned to a favorite Westminster English teacher, who described in an email a situation undoubtedly reflected in prep schools and universities on both sides of the Atlantic:

The demography of London began to change markedly in the 1930s with refugees from mainland Europe, and when the school returned to London after five years’ evacuation, the number of Jewish applicants slowly began to increase. The bursar and registrar was an ex-Indian Army colonel with the kind of views you would expect such a background to provide. I recall archiving his notes on Nigel Lawson” — later Britain’s chancellor of the exchequer — “when his parents brought him for interview in 1945 or 46. On the lines of ‘Undoubtedly a bright and clever child. Very Jewish of course.’”

… Colonel Carruthers (his real name!) almost certainly operated with a Jewish quota in his mind when admitting people to the school, and at some point in the early 1960s got the Governing Body to agree to a new condition of entry to College: the candidate should ‘profess the Christian faith.’

The story shocked my sisters and me, who attended a not so dissimilar institution (tony private prep school) in New Jersey less than a decade later, but encountered nary a whiff of ingrained anti-Jewish bias. Our father (the emails flew all morning) took a more jaundiced view: “Sounds not that different from America in that time,” he wrote.

Really? we asked.  As late as the 1960s?

“In the ’50s for sure,” he replied, recalling reports in my own article on Einstein’s Jewish identity of Princeton University’s supposedly “unofficial official” quota of only 25 Jews per freshman class. And “most likely in the ’60s and maybe even into the ’70s,” he added.

I fell off the email-go-round early but pondered all day whether my dad could be right that things were just as bad for Jews here as across the pond.  In the end, I think not. I’m no pollyanna; leaving completely aside the kind of whack-job, KKK hate that inspired June’s Holocaust Museum shooting, no American born before 1975 could deny sensing at least an occasional twinge of anti-Semitism. But I’ve suffered so little from anti-Semitism in my life, and so rarely hear it in mainstream public discourse here, that I can’t help thinking that tolerance of Jews and Judaism in this country outpaces the U.K.

George Orwell

It’s a subtle thing. Certainly I never felt mistreated or heard slurs when I lived briefly in England in late 1999. What struck me though, as I bathed myself in London’s newsprint and political-TV culture, were the many frank and casual references to Jewish traits, idiosyncracies and (seemingly acceptable) exclusion. (There were shockingly frequent public references to drunkenness, too, but that’s fodder for another post.)

English anti-Semitism seemed then (and now?) more rhetorical than institutional. By most reckonings, Jews thrive in Britain, assuming positions of great prominence — like heading the foreign ministry — and living lives unmolested for reason of origin or faith. So it can be hard (though it wasn’t for George Orwell in 1945) to pinpoint a problem. It can also be hard, though, as for blacks in this country, not to suspect that a stigma of Jewishness doesn’t still stymie careers.

Orwell wrote in his essay on everyday British anti-Semitism:

[T]here is no real Jewish “problem” in England. The Jews are not numerous or powerful enough, and it is only in what are loosely called “intellectual circles” that they have any noticeable influence. Yet it is generally admitted that antisemitism is on the increase, that it has been greatly exacerbated by the war, and that humane and enlightened people are not immune to it. It does not take violent forms (English people are almost invariably gentle and law-abiding), but it is ill-natured enough …

Things have undoubtedly improved not only since then but since my 1999 sojourn, but I still get the impression, outside London, that urbane Englishmen know and socialize with far fewer Jews than their typical yuppie American counterparts. Jews’ status has been complicated on both sides of the pond, to be sure. England may once have expelled its Jews and denied them political rights until the late 1800s, but it is also to Westminster, and never the White House, that a Jewish head of state was elected (twice).

It’s been interpreted many different ways, but a recent English Supreme Court case seemed to require a Solomonic determination — in a dispute over admissions to a state-supported religious school — about how the state defines a Jew. The ruling concerned not a prestigious Christian academy like Cohen’s, seeking to exclude the sons of Abraham but, rather, a sought-after state-supported Jewish school, operating since 1732, trying to decide which Jews to let in.

That British society now supports Jewish schools on an equal footing with Christian ones is certainly a step forward, assuming we favor any state-funded religious education. (Personally, I don’t.) And the debate can only be a good thing to the extent it exposes the question of Jews’ real status in fair, and “fair,” England.

Cohen agrees, though he concludes that Jews — and, by implication, all outsiders, whether minorities, commoners, nouveaux riches, working class, non-U — still stand a better chance in our more fluid society:

Westminster, like Britain, has changed. Openness has grown. Bigotry’s faint refrain has grown fainter still. But I think my old school should throw more light on this episode. And I still believe the greatest strength of America, its core advantage over the old world, is its lack of interest in where you’re from and consuming interest in what you can do.

Is he right?

UPDATE: British solicitor Anthony Julius — a scholar of anti-Semitism who famously defended an American scholar against charges of libel from a Holocaust denier (and also represented Princess Diana) — takes up the discussion from the inside in the Times of February 2010.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Marcia Slade permalink
    December 6, 2009 3:14 pm

    I think that you are amazing researching so many provoctive subjects.

    I agree with your last statement . I would say that most of the people I know do have a greater interest in what you do.
    I don’t recall ever encountering anti-semitism in any school that I intended. But, I do admit that if my education had been different, not so liberal, I might have encountered negative remarks.
    Your Dad had some bad experiences in school where he lived. The scocial situation was very different in Karny than mine in private school and college.
    I am well aware that (even when I was young) that were were quotas. Princeton for example

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