Insults, inadvertent offence and anti-Semitism

What happens if we discuss someone where the Jewishness and the wealth are both very much to the point?

By Philip Hensher
Thursday 04 December 2003 01:00

John Updike is an unlikely controversialist, and may have been surprised to find himself labelled an anti-semite by the New York Observer. His offence came in a review of Peter Carey's new novel, My Life as a Fake, in which he referred to one of Carey's characters, Peter Weiss, as a "rich Jew". The New York Observer took exception to the phrase, which was Updike's, and not Carey's, and explained "To say that the expression 'rich Jew' is loaded with historical anti-Semitism is an understatement."

Would Mr Updike describe someone as "a rich Catholic" or "a rich Protestant"?' The situation immediately became more complex. Timothy Noah, a more industrious fellow than me, or indeed, the leader writers of the New York Observer, swiftly searched through Mr Updike's vast output, and, indeed, found instances where he had described Catholics and Protestants as rich.

From a 1985 short story, "You loved my family, the idea of there being so many of us, rich and Episcopalian"; from Couples, "[T]here was little in her religious background - feebly Presbyterian; her father, though a generous pledger, had been rather too rich"; from an essay on Graham Greene, "In this rich and glamorous American Greene met his spiritual match; like him, she was a promiscuous, frisky, hard-drinking Catholic."

There was, in short, no apparent difficulty in finding instances where Mr Updike had met exactly the test set by the New York Observer. But are these examples precisely the same in tone as saying "rich Jew?" For instance, had Updike written "wealthy Jewish publisher", would any offence have been caused?

There seems little doubt, either, that Updike was justified in referring to the character in this way. Carey's novel, which is based on a true case, partly rests on the fact that Weiss is Jewish, and also that he is rich; it does not make these points frivolously, but is in part about the way in which someone in that position can be accepted in the society of the 1930s only in a provisional way. The two facts, that the character is rich, and also Jewish, are significant in the novel, and it is responsible of a book reviewer to mention it; it is not only something which would strike an anti-Semite.

Thus far, it seems absolutely astonishing to call Updike an anti- Semite on this evidence, and I rather hope he brings a charge of defamation against the newspaper. All the same, I have to say that I myself would never in a million years use the expression "rich Jew", for exactly the reasons cited by the New York Observer. It just sounds anti-Semitic.

Of course, it makes no sense. If one read, in, say, a newspaper profile of Charles Saatchi's gallery, a description of him as a "rich Jew", we would be quite justified in thinking that, since his ethnic origins, connected to his wealth, are not really obviously interesting, the inspiration is anti-Semitic.

But what happens if we are discussing someone, like Carey's character, where the Jewishness and the wealth are both very much to the point? There are Jews who are rich, after all. It might seem absurd to shrink from the blunt formula "rich Jew" on the grounds that anti-Semites have used it in the past. But is that really so? I suppose, too, that there are Jewish people who might be reasonably considered to be as pushy as some Gentiles, and black people who are habitually dishonest. But no one on earth of any intelligence would ever use the phrases "pushy Jew" or "thieving black", even if in particular instances, the description is reasonable. They just stink of bigotry.

This is a very difficult question to come to any conclusion on, not least because I don't think we should get into the habit of telling other people, and groups of people, what they may or may not be offended by. The mental habit of ascribing particular qualities automatically to certain groups is an unattractive one, whether the qualities are negative or positive ones. Where the cliché description is not true and not relevant, then, certainly, it ought to be deplored.

In the Updike case, however, it looks to me as if sensitivity has reached such a pitch in this area that it objects to a plain description of a relevant fact. It's not quite clear whether the New York Observer objects to the words used, or to Updike's drawing attention to the fact. If the words "rich" and "Jew" are now unacceptable, separately or together, I think we can live with that and write, when necessary, "Jewish and wealthy," as, indeed, many of us already do.

If it is, as the New York Observer seems to suggest, unacceptable to imply that some people may be Jewish and also rich, in any context, then we are well into realms of dishonest pretence, and nobody should have anything to do with it. Of course it is wrong automatically to bring these things up, but it is also wrong and irresponsible to find abuse everywhere, and also wrong to equate such marginal cases with much worse excesses.

Anyone in a minority group puts up with the sort of laziness which slides into name-calling, and perhaps it would be responsible to recognise that the perpetrators of verbal offence are not necessarily perpetrators of real hatred. The complicated case here is that of GK Chesterton, a man who in his early career wrote some really poisonous verse against Jews in general, much worse than anything anyone would write since Nazi Germany - "I am fond of Jews/Jews are fond of money/Never mind of whose/I am fond of Jews/Oh, but when they lose/Damn it all, it's funny." Nothing could be clearer than Chesterton's anti-Semitism.

And yet, when the time came, he bravely and independently fought against the rising tide of real anti-Semitism, denouncing first Beaverbrook and Rothermere's anti-Jewish stance in the 1920s and, subsequently, towards the end of his life, the horrors which the Nazi Party were beginning to perpetrate. He was one of very few people at the time to understand that the wickedness of Nazism lay in its persecution of Jews, and was one of the very first to talk about this consistently. After his death, he had no shortage of admirers among Jews.

His anti-Semitic poems are completely unacceptable, but they are largely outweighed by the action he took later, when things really mattered.

The present case is a tricky one, because if people are offended by stereotypical language, then there is no reason why anyone else should be able to tell them not to be offended. To take a parallel example, there is something rather unpleasant about literary London currently telling the Bangladeshi community not to take offence at Monica Ali's somewhat stereotyped novel, Brick Lane. Similarly, I greatly dislike the fact that any newspaper feature about any gay person will instantly start describing them as "bitchy", "snarky", "flamboyant" without any obvious justification at all, and no one should tell me that it is absurd for me to dislike it.

But there is a difference between inadvertent name-calling and intended insults; there may be some difference between verbal insults, even, and real hatred. In these instances, we shouldn't ignore them, but go on opening them up for debate. Perhaps we ought to understand, however, when what we are dealing with is, at best, a peculiar form of naivety, and perhaps not even that. It seems a little excessive that the New York Observer has so dramatically libelled John Updike for so very debatable an offence.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments