Yom Kippur: Anti-Semitism is flourishing, but one man can no longer ignore his Jewish identity

The bigotry that Grant Feller faced as a boy made him turn his back and flee from his Jewishness. But a remark muttered at a dinner party changed all that....

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The Independent Online

On Friday, I shall be shuffling down the north London streets of my childhood, helping my 86-year-old father to take a seat at the synagogue that welcomes us, in truth, only a couple of times a year. He has trouble getting around these days but Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement – is still to him the most important day of the year, and he insists that we walk rather than break the rules by parking the car nearby.

Aside from being the dutiful if slightly more sceptical son, I shall spend the day thinking not only about the many sins I have committed this past year and asking for some kind of forgiveness from a God whom I’m not sure is really there, but thinking also about two women –the Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, and the ambitious young British politician Vicki Kirby.

Merkel has just announced that all German synagogues should have an armed guard during the imminent Yom Kippur holy day, for fear of attacks from anti-Israeli and pro-Muslim demonstrators. I’m pretty sure there will be just such a guard at my own synagogue in Finchley, as there is every year. Perhaps more than one this time.

But it’s Merkel’s “pro-Muslim” reasoning about the alarming rise of anti-Semitic attacks that makes me think of poor Vicki, a leading figure in Labour’s youth movement who has just been suspended by her party for claiming that Hitler might be the “Zionist God”. Labour’s candidate for Woking posted a series of vile anti-Israeli comments on the internet, including this astonishing political deduction: “We invented Israel when saving them from Hitler, who now seems to be their teacher… I will make sure my kids teach their children how evil Israel is.” Not the sort of sentiment that will endear her to her Jewish party leader, one imagines.

But it is the sort of anti-Semitic sentiment – though I’m sure Vicki herself is not an anti-Semite, merely astonishingly stupid – that is fairly par for the course in a Europe which is markedly more nationalistic and intolerant of minorities. These kinds of expressions are not, as Merkel and other leaders would like to think, expressed by agitated Muslims, but by pretty normal white, middle-class people.

I doubt that my experiences are unique but I can think of two incidents that, in retrospect, are among my most life-changing; coincidentally, they occurred almost exactly 30 years apart. Let’s start with the more recent. A Saturday night dinner a few months ago with some close friends, a familiar mix of middle-class angst, ostentation and smugness, overcooked lamb shanks and overpriced claret.

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Family affair: Grant Feller, sitting first on the left, with his relatives

The conversation at my end of the table turned to a man in the public eye for whom I once worked – fellow guests wanted to know what he was really like and I regaled them with outrageous anecdotes coloured by a dose of cod psychology about the Jewish cultural influences that had helped to propel his success.

At which point a rather rotund, ruddy-faced man at the end of the table whom I’d not met until that evening – a real-estate broker who was probably the most educated and wealthy person there – mumbled (not terribly well, it must be said) to the hostess sitting next to him: “As my father would say, when it comes to business, you can’t trust a Jew.”

Within a millisecond, the shout echoed round for “Who wants seconds?” and my wife kicked me forcefully in the shins with a both menacing and pleading look on her face that said: “Not here, not now.”

Nothing more was said on the subject, everyone in between us pretended nothing had happened, and I sat there practically mute with anger for the remainder of the evening. I thought that perhaps my wife, who isn’t Jewish, would tell me I had misheard until, tucked up in bed later on, she hugged me and thanked me for holding my temper. “I’ve never heard anyone say anything like that in my life,” she said. “What a terrible thing to say, to think, even.”

Except I had heard it. And seen it. And felt it. Most of my life. The difference now, though, is that it’s not the language of the disaffected, unthinking youth or the hate-fuelled yob, but of the otherwise intelligent middle classes who suddenly feel able openly to voice their prejudices.

The turmoil and catastrophic waste of human life in Israel, Gaza and the rest of the Middle East provides some of the oxygen. But there’s something else this time. When a former colleague, in all seriousness, once asked me why “Jews are so good at holding on to their money”, I put it down to old-fashioned idiocy. But then I was helpfully advised in the office that if my fellow Jews and I stopped “banging on” about the Holocaust, we wouldn’t get such abuse.

I’ve begun to join the dots. A few weeks ago, there was the absurd suggestion from Harry Redknapp, a man once tipped to be the England football manager, that a former associate of his who gloated that “there’s nothing like a Jew watching money slip through his fingers” was merely engaging in a bit of banter. And then, during a recent work project, I was in a room full of executives who disregarded the suitability of a certain individual because they were foreign. “Well, not foreign, but Jewish,” the boss said.

It’s as if what was always there is now being allowed to flourish in the open. I’m convinced that the argument of whether there is more anti-Semitism than ever before is bogus. Rather, it has always been there; it’s just that now, people feel more able to express it. Because even 90 years on from the last major influx, we are still seen as immigrants. It’s one of the unspoken reasons why Ed Miliband is so often targeted as “weird”. Within metropolitan circles, he’s pretty average – but out there in the far more insular Britain, his facial features and exotic background are not winning him any votes.

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For the vast majority of Britain – a Britain that is, remember, according to the popular press, still “flooded” with foreigners, and whose borders are “teeming”, whose indigenous societies are becoming “unrecognisable” – Jews are the forerunners of mass immigration.

My grandmother spoke Yiddish her entire life, we ate strange food, followed odd customs, were different. But we weren’t a threat because, well, we didn’t possess very much. The Establishment could rest easy. They didn’t like us but they didn’t have to worry about us.

And so racism’s most vociferous villains were the thugs and bullies. During that sleepless night after the dinner party from hell, I recalled a series of long-forgotten episodes from my privileged schooldays in the mid-1980s when one schoolboy’s venomous abuse left me similarly speechless. I say long-forgotten because I’ve willed myself to forget them, not because they were trivial. But they were, I only now realise, powerfully influential on my life and personality.

Adam – not his real name, because if I used his real name I’m pretty sure you would, like me, be able to track him down on various social-networking websites and discover that he now helps to run a rather famous City institution – used to hiss every time I walked into the room, mocking my ancestors who died in gas chambers; jingle the money in his pocket and menacingly ask: “Want some of it, Jew-boy, not got enough?”; and scrawl or yell “Yid”, “big nose”, “I love Hitler”, torrents of bile, whenever we were thrown together in class or on the games fields.

Adam was – is – an imposing figure, hugely confident, intelligent and wealthy. But he was the most vicious anti-Semite I have ever come across, his hatred borne from an arrogance that only a certain type of upbringing can bestow.

And instead of hitting back, I ran away. I absorbed it all, pretended to ignore it and let it scar me internally to such an extent that I vowed to get away from my north London upbringing as fast and as far as I could.

I didn’t want this fight. I cared more for the country I lived in than the antiquated religious rules that my parents insisted I follow. Brought up in a predominantly Jewish area – Golders Green – I was from an early age deeply sceptical about the religious observance I was expected to adhere to. I gorged on forbidden, un-kosher food whenever I had the chance, pretended to attend synagogue when instead I puffed away on cigarettes in the nearby park, refused to pledge my allegiance to either Tottenham or Arsenal, as most Jews did at the time, and opted for the most “goy” team I could find. It helped that Liverpool were often top of the league.

My Jewishness was part of me but never defined me. I found some of its all-encompassing philosophies ridiculous, meaningless and claustrophobic. But most of all I hated the anti-Semitism. Not just in the playground, but in the swastikas daubed on walls and railway bridges, the skinheads who meandered past synagogue on High Holy Days chanting abuse.

I turned my back and ran. To Lancaster, where, during my three years of university, my cultural background was something of an exoticism – in a good way. I hardly returned to north London, preferring to spend my time in what my family may have viewed as an alien culture but which I saw as a chance for anonymity. In the end, I never went back, really. I returned, of course, to spend time with my parents but, perhaps subconsciously, I always met friends from my youth in the bustle of the town rather than the familiar streets of our youth. My religious observance was close to nil, I settled in a very Wasp-ish district, and the only real ways I expressed my Judaism were in my love of bagels, Woody Allen and hypochondriac paranoia.

Until the dinner party. That’s when I realised that the Adams of this world are not works of fiction, childhood reminiscences or imagined threats. And they’re not suddenly expressing these thoughts and emotions. They have always expressed them; it’s just that they used to do it behind closed doors or under their breath. And none of them is a Muslim.

Now, their bigotry has been liberated and it’s spreading like a cancer through society. An elected Member of Parliament is able to declare his constituency “Israel-free” without much censure (I do not think it’s wise to ignore George Galloway, despite his moronic views), several Liberal Democrat MPs have crossed the line in expressing their hostility to Jews rather than just Israel, supermarkets remove kosher produce for fear of upsetting Muslims, a security guard at a Sports Direct store banned Jews from entering, British universities outlaw Israeli academics from lectures, discussion forums on websites (even those of national news organisations) display the most abhorrent anti-Semitic abuse and nothing is done about it, rocks are thrown at Jews on their way to synagogue in middle-class neighbourhoods, the millennia-old customs behind kosher food are called into question by people claiming to support animals’ rights, anti-Semitism is regarded as banter by respected multimillionaire football managers and television pundits, and guests at lavish Saturday night dinner parties openly express why Jews can’t be trusted.

And so I’m fed up with running. I cannot pretend that just because I’m a second-generation British immigrant with a private-school education, my own successful business, a £1m house and a non-Jewish wife and two children, I’m safely ensconced in a so-called establishment. My religion means that I never will be.

Like Ed, I am not quite “one of us”. I doubt I ever will be. Where other people are identified by their qualities and achievements, Jews are often identified by the fact that they are Jews. It never ceases to amaze me that profiles of successful businessmen often refer to the fact that they were brought up in a Jewish household. And why must the obituaries of Jewish celebrities always refer to their religion? What has that got to do with anything? Non-Jews aren’t treated in the same manner. It is almost as if their Judaism – and I use this word intentionally – is some sort of badge.

I dusted off my badge after that dinner party and started writing occasional articles for a newspaper which has been my family’s preferred choice of news for many decades, The Jewish Chronicle. And then, quite out of the blue, I was offered the chance to work there part-time. Two or three years ago, I would have politely rejected the approach, protesting that, like the playwright Jonathan Miller, I’m not the whole hog, just Jew-ish.

But now, I realise that for all my distrust of religion, I can’t ignore my identity. In fact, to ignore it at such a brittle, tinderbox moment in the history of minorities in the UK would be selfishly negligent. The “badge” is more important than ever and I want to assume control of it.

When I was growing up, faced with anti-Semitism, I sometimes considered my Jewishness to be a handicap – not unlike Sammy Davis Jnr when asked what his handicap was by a golf club to which he was applying for membership: “I’m a coloured, one-eyed Jew – do I need anything else?”

Now, seeing such bigotry with far more sinister prevalence, it is something I want – need – to fight for. Because if, like Angela Merkel, we continue to fool ourselves into thinking that this anti-Jewishness is the preserve of the thug or rabid religion-hater – as I suspect my relatives in Poland and Romania did 80 years or so ago – we will be sleepwalking to disaster.