Howard Jacobson: If Richard Ingrams wants us to declare our ethnic identity, I'm very happy to oblige

Is there a reader so gullible that he cannot assess the worth of an argument on its own merits?

Saturday 12 August 2006 00:00 BST

Just so that no one should be in any doubt, I today announce, unequivocally and without mitigation, that I am Jewish. I do this in response to my fellow columnist Richard Ingrams' "suggestion" last week that anyone defending the Israeli government should declare whether or not he is a Jew.

In fact I think it highly unlikely that I will be defending the Israeli government today. It is equally unlikely that I will be attacking it. When it comes to conflict, there is usually much to be said on both sides. And while this column does not believe that might is right, we are a little long in the tooth to be arguing that it is in every instance wrong. That conviction belongs to our salad days when we were green in judgement and bought Private Eye to read under our school desks.

But you never know what pops out inadvertently, and were I to show, perchance, and just in passing, that I am not party to the near universal anti-Zionism of our times, Richard Ingrams would not want the innocent reader to mistake me for a Papist. Be it known, then: I am a Jew.

And now pause to ask yourself, innocent reader, what I have saved you from. Jewish cunning? A Jew concealing his identity in order to win you round to his way of thinking? But how could I do that, Jewish or otherwise, unless my thinking struck you as persuasive? And would discovering my identity make my reasoning at a stroke unpersuasive? Is there a reader out there so gullible or so easily manipulated that he cannot assess the worth of an argument on its own merits, but first must know the ethnic identity of the person from whom it originates?

Bit offensive to the reader, that. And a bit offensive to the Jew - I say no more - to suppose that once you can know him as a Jew you know the complexion of his mind. Consult any recent edition of The Jewish Chronicle and you will discover that on Israel, as on every other issue, there is no Jewish consensus. We argue fiercely with one another, in line with our honourable tradition of disputatiousness.

In pursuance of the logic of his own position, that he will not read a letter on the subject of Israel when it's written by a person with a Jewish name, because he knows what a person with a Jewish name thinks, Richard Ingrams does not, presumably, read The Jewish Chronicle. As why should he? But if he could bear to buy a copy he might discover that we pose less threat to the security of this island than he fears.

Because that is what he seems to be imputing to us - nothing less than treacherous intent. We Jews must give our rank and number when we speak, "Otherwise, the idea gains ground that Israel has a fifth column of politicians, commentators, businessmen, etc, in this country all seeking, at this time, in their different ways, to excuse or explain away Israeli atrocities."

If we examine the implications of that "Otherwise" we find some surprising assumptions. One is that any attempt to explain Israel is of necessity an explaining "away", that is to say an act of false reasoning and devious exculpation, no other position but blame being allowable in Ingrams' eyes. A second is that whoever is Jewish and doesn't feel about Israel the way Ingrams does is in the moral, if not actual, employ of Israel. A third is that this group of undeclared commentators, were it to exist, would be subversive of this country, hostile, infiltrative and treacherous - for that is what a fifth column implies.

But even if such a group could be identified - condoning Israeli atrocities while concealing its Jewishness under names like Janner and Kalms - in what sense would it be undermining the security and well-being of this country? Is it treacherous, suddenly, to hold to a minority view?

What happens if I put the identical proposition to Richard Ingrams that those attacking the Israeli government, to say nothing of impugning Jewish impartiality, should declare in advance whether or not they are anti-Semitic or might be contaminated by the unthinking cultural anti-Semitism of their milieu?

The fact that I do not think Richard Ingrams anti-Semitic empowers me to suggest this. Only someone entirely free of personal racism would fail to notice how close asking Jews to proclaim their Jewishness is to demanding they wear a yellow star. But that's all the more reason to examine the cultural baggage of anyone who proposes such measures, and to have him in turn, publicly and unequivocally, identify it as his.

When Richard Ingrams speaks on the subject of Jews - this is my point, and I make it as a Jew - he speaks not from himself but out of the air he has breathed. And we need to know this, otherwise the idea gains ground that anti-Semitism has a fifth column of commentators, comedians, public schoolboys, etc, in this country, all seeking, in their different ways, to denounce Israel and those who speak in its defence.

As it happens there is much in Richard Ingrams' sense of being English that I like and, yes - though you should be aware that I am Jewish - share. We agree, I think, on the merits of Dr Johnson. Had Ingrams not written a biography of William Cobbett I might have. A rough, cudgelling Englishness that tolerates no pretentiousness or poppycock appeals to us in equal measure.

Had I only gone to public school we might have become firm friends. Ingrams' enthusiasm for the dyspeptic Merry England bigotry of Chesterton and Belloc, however, I am unable to share. A writer may hate Jews and not incur my displeasure, but he will not thereby earn my affection or esteem. So I stop at Englishness in this guise.

Chesterton also thought Jews should identify themselves to the populace. "Let a Jew sit on the Woolsack," he opined, but "let him sit there dressed as an Arab. Let him preach in St Paul's Cathedral, but let him preach there dressed as an Arab... The point is that we should know where we are; and that he should know where he is, which is in a foreign land."

Enjoy the irony - one day we're taking flak for not being Arab enough, the next for daring to think we are Arab at all. The point of invoking Chesterton, though, is simply this: he who would ask any man to declare himself ethnically or religiously makes a stranger of him, saying this is my country not yours.

Allow a Johnsonian English Jew to refuse that sinister distinction.

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