Howard Jacobson: If you raise a hand against your own country, you also raise a hand against yourself

You can be loyal to a country even if it doesn't give you all you want or be as kind as you would wish it to be
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The Independent Online

I have been trying this last week to remember why I could not have raised my hands against this country, or against any section of this country, when I was growing up in a Jewish ghetto in Manchester in the 1950s. I must not pretend to deprivations or persecutions we did not suffer: by "ghetto" I simply mean a close-knit, largely self-sufficient, middlingly poor neighbourhood of liberal-minded Jews, in which no more than the usual ethnic paranoia prevailed. Not entirely without perturbations, we were grateful to be left alone to do Jewishly what needed to be done Jewishly, and otherwise acculturate ourselves as English men and women.

But we could have enumerated a few grievances against our host culture, had we been of a mind to. No one kicked us into the gutter, but people routinely used the word "Jew" to mean swindle, golf courses refused Jews membership, and some schools imposed quotas on the admission of Jewish children. At our school, teachers were sarcastic when we took time off to celebrate a Jewish festival, and one of them would inspect us for sunburn on our return, convinced we'd been lying on the beach at Blackpool instead of saying prayers. Holding up a chewed-up pencil box which was all I had to show for three years of woodwork, Mr Jones, the woodwork teacher, asked "Why are all Jewboys gammy-handed?", thereby sparking a furious letter campaign from our parents, several of whom were upholsterers and cabinet makers.

As far as the attitude of the British government to our suffering brothers and sisters around the world was concerned, we also had our thoughts. Britain and America had done the business against the Nazis right enough, but they had known about the magnitude of Jewish slaughter in Europe a lot earlier than they admitted, and for their own reasons had turned a blind eye to the death camps. Their records weren't all that clean on Jewish immigration either. The overt anti-Semitism of the beginning of the century had ceded to more polite expressions of aversion to the swarms from Eastern Europe, but refugees from Nazism had still been turned away before and during the war, and many, under the British Mandate, were refused entry to Palestine.

Whatever the truth of it, we grew up convinced that when it came to Arabs or Jews, Britain - bound to them by poetical ties as much as anything else - would always favour the former. "The Foreign Office," I was told by someone who worked there, "is Arabist from top to bottom." In regard to Israel - and Israel counted more to some of us than to others - Britain sometimes felt like an enemy state.

So why weren't we throwing bombs here? Well, there wasn't a culture of it, for one thing. Throwing bombs at the innocent presupposes a mind-set, a sort of self-pity commingled with self-righteousness, an assumption that when the world isn't the complexion you would wish it to be, you have an obligation to blow it up; and of course, as with any culture, you need examples, history, wherewithal. But even had we possessed the wherewithal we lacked the rage. To be a bomber you must feel that one single truth is paramount to all others. But there was no single truth in our relations with the country in which we lived. I was brought up to hold two contrary positions simultaneously: when the chips were down, things could go badly for us here (an innate anti-Israel sentiment playing its part in this), but also Britain was the most tolerant country in the world and we were damned lucky to be here.

But that doesn't explain it either. The real reason we could not have raised a hand against this country was that it would have been like raising a hand against ourselves. We loved it here, and loved it no less for the unease we sometimes felt. I saw myself entirely as an Englishman who had happened, happily, to be born Jewish. I spoke English not Hebrew. I sucked on English culture - parsed English sentences, studied English poems and novels, read English history as my history.

No matter how many Jews had been refused entry to Britain, no matter how many times I heard the word "Jew" used to mean a swindler, no matter how many Arabists were in the Foreign Office, I was an Englishman. My nationality could not be compromised by the prejudices or even, if I chose to see it in those terms, the wickedness, of my country's foreign policy. You can be loyal to a country even though it doesn't give you all you want or be as kind as you would wish it to be to your co-religionists the world over.

Multiculturalism changed all that. With multiculturalism we disinherited generations. I was given "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud" and became an Englishman by it. An education which made the country conjunctive to my imagination and entwined the English language about my heart. Now we do not presume to impose our culture on immigrant communities, so we give them nothing. As an alternative to the seething heat of their religions - nothing. And it's easier to blow up nothing than something.

Co-existent with multiculturalism, which is the outward manifestation of a pathology - hating whatever proceeds from yourself - is its political equivalent: believing that whatever is done to you, you deserve. You shouldn't strictly speaking bomb us, says Ken Livingstone, but I concur entirely with your reasoning. You're right in everything but deed - we are murdering bastards; we have been exploiting your brothers and sisters for aeons; there are only good guys or bad guys in the Middle East and Israel's the bad guy; it is our fault.

For which inflammatory synthesis, since it is made of lies, since it sets community against community, since by the sorrowing brothers and sisters argument it implicates and damages me, and since Livingstone is Mayor of London, I should be bombing the Underground.

See above for why I won't be.