It was Woody Allen, appropriately enough, who best articulated my relationship to the Jewish religion. “I'm not a real Jew,” he said, “I'm Jew-ish”.
Although I was born Jewish, my parents were not so much liberal as permissive when it came to religious observance, and I have never really regarded my faith as part of my identity. I always remember the late writer and journalist John Diamond being interviewed about his Jewishness. “What does being Jewish mean to you?” he was asked. “Well,” he responded, hesitantly, “I suppose it's about being funny and clever.”
I would never be as presumptuous as that, but do I know what, for me, being Jewish doesn't mean. It means not getting offended every time someone makes a critical remark about the policies of the Israeli government, deeming it be an attack on all Jewish people and hurling accusations of anti-semitism. My position on the politics of the Middle East is neither unusual nor contradictory: I believe that the state of Israel has a right to exist, but I think the monstrous injustice that has been visited on the Palestinian people shames the civilised world. So I'm afraid I see any attack on Israeli actions through this particular prism.
I have been accused of being self-hating Jew more times than I care to remember. (My friend, the novelist Howard Jacobson, was indignant about this. “Him?” he said. “A self-hating Jew? Certainly not. He loves himself”.) Anyway, all these issues have come to the fore in recent days as I observed the minor controversy over a cartoon by the veteran draughtsman Gerald Scarfe in the latest issue of the Sunday Times. It depicted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu building a wall, and squeezed between the bricks are Palestinian bodies. He is using blood to hold the wall together, and the caption on the drawing is “Will cementing the peace continue?” It is a powerful statement. Scarfe, like many who plough the same furrow, is not one to pull his punches.
The cartoon was published on Holocaust Memorial Day, which even Scarfe himself thought was insensitive, but I examined my reaction on seeing it for the first time. I was taken aback. I winced. It made me think. I imagine Scarfe would think that, in my case, he had done his job. At no stage did I think it was an assault on my religion. There were plenty, however, who thought precisely the opposite, and they swung quickly into action - I have been on the wrong side of the Jewish lobby at various times in my career, and they're a pretty formidable bunch. Rupert Murdoch, no less, was forced to tweet an apology. “Gerald Scarfe's has never reflected the opinions of the Sunday Times”, he wrote. “Nevertheless, we owe a major apology for grotesque, offensive cartoon.”
Of course it's grotesque. Has he never seen a Scarfe cartoon before? But offensive? I can't find any impulse, emotionally or intellectually, that causes me to be offended. Does this make me a bad Jew? Maybe it does, but I do think the world would be a better place if people were able to tell the difference between a political comment and a religious insult.
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