At the crossroads where races collide

A black woman and a Jewish man fall in love and plan to get married - and their families will do anything to stop them. Yasmin Alibhai-Brown steps into the minefield of interracial prejudice in Britain
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When Larry met Danni on the Northern Line, she was reading The Diary of Anne Frank. He was so astonished that he struck up a conversation. Larry, a liberal Jew, wanted to know why a black woman was interested in the Holocaust.

Danni, who works for a local authority, thought it was the stupidest question she had ever heard. She is tough, funny and startlingly outspoken with a voice that appears to rumble out of volcano lava in her chest: "There he was, this white boy with his milky ways, like one of those guys in Friends, daring to question a black woman three inches taller than him. I looked at him for a good 10 seconds before replying, just to make him sweat you know?"

They both giggle as they recall that moment. They went on to have coffee, met again and again and fell in love. Eight months later they decided to get married and set the date for this summer. Only her mother will be attending Danni's wedding. Her brother has told her never to show her face in Harlesden, where he lives, with her "shit Jew boy". Bountiful friends supply endless advice about the pitfalls of such a marriage. Danni now understands Larry's question.

Meanwhile, Larry's mother has developed a new interest in The Nation of Islam and unmarried black mothers, and his grandfather keeps asking: "Why are you messing up your life with one of them? They are all criminals or on the dole." Nice Jewish girls are suddenly turning up for Sabbath these days at the family home. "It's like a bad Woody Allen movie," Larry says. "A frantic mother on the verge of interfering, slipping into appalling prejudice because she wants the best for you. They have never asked Danni over once for dinner. What do they think, that she'll boil their heads in the kitchen pot and dance around it?" Serious doubts are clearly setting in and these lovers have lost that fresh joy they once exuded.

This is but one more illustration of the unease between many Jewish people and those from the other minority communities and an issue that Oona King, the impressive new Labour MP in Bethnal Green, is having to confront in a stark way. Her mother is Jewish, her father African-American. A large proportion of people she now represents are Bangladeshi Muslims. "How can this person be our voice?" says one Bangladeshi shopkeeper as others nod and add their bit of bile. "She is a Jew. They are our enemies. Not even that. She is a half-cast. And she came here in her short skirt. It is shameful."

King remains realistic and sanguine: "Given my background, I am a bridge- builder. I truly believe that these traditional hostilities can be overcome. I feel honoured to have been given this challenge. There is such deprivation in this area, surely that is what we must deal with, not these petty prejudices. Anyway, I studied Islam and the Koran at university." Saying that, she rushes off for her first meeting at the Brick Lane mosque: "If I am late for this, there will be no forgiveness. So much is at stake."

The recent, somewhat controversial survey by the Institute for Public Policy Research into attitudes towards different racial, religious and ethnic groups confirms these inter-ethnic tensions. Researchers found ample evidence of white racial prejudice and also mutual mistrust between various culturally distinct groups. A Jewish woman was quoted as saying, "Enoch Powell was right," and asserting that Jewish people "do not have anything in common with the ethnic races". The questions on intermarriage were most revealing: 48 per cent of Jewish people and 46 per cent of Asians said they would mind if one of their close relatives were to marry an Afro-Caribbean. One in five Afro-Caribbeans said they would mind if a close relative were to marry an Asian or a Jew.

Some people claim that hostility to intermarriage is not a reflection of prejudice but is born of a desire to protect religious and ethnic identities. Neo-Nazi groups like Combat 18 use the same reasoning when they target mixed-race families for their bombing campaigns. The first race riots in Britain back in 1919 were instigated by white men furious that their white identity was being contaminated by white women having children with black men. Rehana, a Muslim college student who gave up her Jewish boyfriend after Israel bombed the Lebanon last year, has little time for such hypocrisy: "In South Africa, in Mississippi, here, when whites rejected mixed-race relationships we condemned them. So why excuse such attitudes in our communities? I will never marry because I cannot love anyone like I love Howard. But this bloody prejudice between our people makes such love impossible." In fact the current state of inter-community relations must make the most irrepressible optimist want to go to bed and turn off the light until the afterlife.

What makes it worse is that these tensions are rarely discussed in public, except on those occasions when extremist Islamic groups make ominous noises or when the poisonous fumes of Middle East politics waft in this direction. And even then it is only the "Islamic threat" that preoccupies commentators. The rest of the time a lid is kept on the subject. In part this is because people fear - with some justification - that such revelations will further divide minorities who need to provide a united front in the face of prejudice. But whether it comes from discretion or fear, such reticence is dangerous. Worse, feelings driven underground can cause irreversible schisms. We can see this in the United States where black and Jewish Americans, once allies in the civil rights movement, now stand utterly apart.

What are the reasons for the growing chasms in this country? In the case of Muslim-Jewish relations, besides the Middle East situation, there is resentment from Muslims who think that Jews have disproportionate influence whereas the Muslim voice is entirely absent from the public sphere. Many feel like Nabila, a law graduate: "Jewish people are in parliament, in the courts, in the media. So if Marlon Brando says something nasty about Jewish power in Hollywood, these powerful Jews raise hell. But when Bernard Levin blamed Muslims for the Oklahoma bomb, we could do nothing. We are labelled anti-Semitic if we criticise them. I would rather die than date a Jewish man." These angry young things have yet to learn that their exclusion cannot be blamed on the fact that Jewish people have found entry and acceptance.

But what makes an elderly Jewish man I am interviewing about his experiences as a refugee, declare without shame, that Bangladeshis are "lazy, and uncivilised; they wash their hair by sticking their heads into toilet bowls. They give immigrants a bad name".

Edie Friedman, the director of the Jewish Council for Racial Equality, believes such views illustrate not only fragmentation between people but also the anxiety of the dispossessed: "We forget our similarities because blacks and Asians have taken our place as scapegoats. Some Jews have adopted the norms of British society in order to be accepted. We distance ourselves from more recent immigrants and begin to think that Jews equal law abiding, deserving immigrants who succeeded, whereas other immigrants are less deserving."

Look at other ethnic minorities and you find the same tendency. People stereotype other groups, loathe them, attribute collective culpability, think themselves superior. Another problem is the dispiriting, senseless competition between historically victimised groups, what the black academic Paul Gilroy calls "ethnic absolutism", "the way that each history of terror and persecution gets assigned to the particular group that has lived through it. It becomes their special property ... Racial slavery thus belongs to blacks, Nazism to Jews." Then, in all seriousness, such ideologues debate which of these horrors was the worst and (these days) whether what happened in Bosnia was genocide.

Concerned people are now beginning to confront these thorny issues. Tomorrow in London there is a public debate on the subject as part of the Jewish Film Festival. Others are speaking up, too. The writer David Cesarani, for example, wrote in the Jewish Quarterly asking: "Does the hue and cry after `militant Islam' actually obscure a community of interest between British Jews and British Muslims that would, if acted upon, reshape British society?"

One way forward is to acknowledge debts. British anti-discrimination laws were developed by dynamic Jewish lawyers such as Lord Lester and Geoffrey Bindman. Nearly three million blacks and Indians (including thousands of Muslims) volunteered to fight in the war to defeat fascism. Anti-Nazi organisations have always been supported by black activists. But such empathy is hard for most. Most black and Asian people don't understand how vulnerable Jews still feel - the suitcase is always half-packed. Too many Jewish people believe that all Muslims are fanatics or that all immigrants should more be like them.

For Danni and Larry who simply fell in love, such bigotry and ignorance will spoil what should be a day to remember. If there is such a day, that is

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