From Shylock to the Scot Rifkind A particularly German awareness

Anti-semitism is a slippery thing, at home or abroad, says Paul Vallely
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Some news reports register intellectually. Others hit the stomach with a thud. When I heard that a leading German newspaper had referred to the British Foreign Secretary as "the Jew Rifkind" I felt it viscerally.

It's a slippery thing, anti-Semitism, not least so for those of us who are not Jewish. There are two intermingled issues: a straightforward one of prejudice and a more intangible one of mere awareness - people seem to divide into those who notice whether someone is Jewish or not and those who are largely blind to the fact. Perhaps nations do too.

Until this row broke most members of the public asked to describe Malcolm Rifkind would have said he was a posh Scot. For the majority Jewishness would not have come into it. Suddenly, with three words in the leading conservative daily, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, powerful latent emotions have been released. Senior Tory and Labour figures alike have spoken of their "abhorrence" at the "canker" inside Germany "that may never be entirely expunged". It is "an appalling incident which must not be allowed to go unchallenged".

Until now we might have thought old lines had become blurred. Conservatives may once have shouted "Shylock" at Disraeli but some of the most powerful British advocates in recent times for Zionism have been right-wing Conservatives. And Mrs Thatcher, who was said to have had more Estonians than Etonians in her Cabinet, was according to Nigel Lawson's memoirs "without the faintest trace of anti-Semitism in her make-up".

Yet there was quite a stir when The Sunday Telegraph ran an investigation into the Jews in the Thatcher administration. And Alan Clark's Diaries revealed talk at eminent Tory tables about there being "too many Jews" in the Thatcher Cabinet. Others report continuing remarks in high Tory circles today - always more in sorrow than in anger - about why neither Rifkind or Howard could ever become party leader.

The fact is that any mere statement on race is never mere. Just to speak some things aloud invites inferences about divided loyalties and much else. The line between prejudice and political correctness is sometimes a hard one to pick.

Many German commentators insist this is a fuss about nothing. The 28- year-old German journalist who used the phrase claims that she was merely remarking on the irony of a Jewish Briton quoting a German Protestant (Luther) in a speech in Germany whose real audience was back in the UK. Perhaps so, though it was pity she used the form der Juden popularised by Goebbels rather than the more neutral judische.

The ensuing row points to something deeper. "We are no longer anti-Semitic," a German musician is supposed to have told an English violinist. "We have 15 Jews in this orchestra. How many do you have in yours?" It may be decency or just wishful-thinking that blinds us to knowing the answer. We must only hope that we are not simply averting our eyes from something we need to root out.