Monday, 27 January 2020

The Guardian has a go at the Labour Party on Holocaust Memorial Day

Here is a paragraph from today's Guardian editorial for Holocaust Memorial Day:

"In Hungary, the prime minister, Viktor Orb├ín, has pursued a prolonged dog-whistle campaign against the Jewish philanthropist George Soros, whose arguments in favour of accepting Muslim migrants from the Middle East have been presented as “endangering the Christian culture of Europe”. Meanwhile, in the UK, the Labour party’s failure to effectively combat the use of antisemitic tropes by some members led to a breakdown in its relations with the Jewish community."

This leaves out:
1. The person who has repeated the Soros trope in Britain is Rees-Mogg. Not only 'repeated'! He directed his comments to two Jewish MPs, Oliver Letwin and John Berkow. 

2. Tim Montgomerie, Johnson's aide at the time, said that the UK should have a closer relationship with Orban who not only plays the antisemitic card but also has racialised IVF treatment in what must be one of the first official government pronouncements in Europe of racialised eugenics since the Nazis. 

3. Dominic Cummings (Johnson's adviser) has twice picked out Goldman Sachs as a special example of what's wrong with the EU and its financial arrangements identifying the bank having 'fingers in every pie'. By selecting a bank that was founded by Jewish financiers, I suggest that this is deliberate dog-whistling in order to racialise Cummings' real or phoney objections to international finance. We should remember that whatever arguments that we have with international financiers it's not the ethnicity or religion of the financiers that is the problem. 

4. And if we're talking about the failure of dealing with 'antisemitic tropes', Johnson himself has never had to answer for the fact that he platformed and edited 'Taki' a self-identifying antisemite when he, Johnson, was editor of the Spectator.

5. The Guardian has conceded here that the long and the short of the Labour antisemitism crisis is the use of antisemitic tropes. Is that it? Well, if that's the case, how does that distinguish the Labour Party from the rest of society? UK society and culture and politics is full of antisemitic tropes. My thought has always been: if we are combatting antisemitism but only combat it in the Labour Party, we are not combatting antisemitism, we are combatting the Labour Party. And that's precisely what the Guardian has done on Holocaust Memorial Day.

Friday, 10 January 2020

Holocaust Memorial Day song for children

Each year Holocaust Memorial Day has a theme. This year it’s ‘Stand together’. I work closely with schools in Cambridge doing poetry, song, drama and documentary, doing a variety of story-telling, poetry performance, getting the children writing and performing too. This is all under the auspices of Professor Helen Weinstein and ‘HistoryWorks’. This year they asked me to write lyrics for three songs, one for Primary, one for Secondary and one for the Community.

Here are the lyrics for the primary song. Hundreds of children will sing this in the Cambridge Corn Exchange on January 26:

A child wanders through the ruins

A family fears a knock at the door

A grandma looks for her old home

They know they didn’t start this war

We are better

when we stand together

When we stand together

We are better

The child is ours, we must make it safe

The family’s ours, we must hear their call

The grandma’s ours, we must find a home

We know we have to stand with all

We are better

When we stand together

when we stand together

we are better

The music is here:

Sunday, 5 January 2020

Oh dear, I shouldn't have been at the vigil

Over the last 60 years I've been on hundreds of demonstrations in support of people or in solidarity with them and then last week along came an issue where I was actually demonstrating on behalf of myself: the antisemitic daubing in Hampstead - about two miles from where I live.

I now find that instead of being told that this or that issue (as with the last 60 years worth of demos) was not really my issue and that it was e.g. a matter for the government to decide which country to invade or it was a matter for the police to decide which group of fascists could walk down which street, this time I find that there are people saying that I wasn't entitled to be at this demonstration because it wasn't really to do with me. This seems to be because the graffiti (apparently) wasn't attacking me, it was attacking them.

I had no idea that antisemites were so careful and nuanced in their choice of Jew.

Friday, 3 January 2020

I'm in another mainstream Jewish tradition

Sigmund Freud was Jewish but he didn't affiliate to a synagogue and, as far as I know, wasn't in any way 'observant' in terms of Jewish customs and worship.

In the present climate of labelling Jews as 'mainstream' or 'not mainstream', if Freud was alive today he would be 'not mainstream', 'not in the community', 'not part of the Jewish community'. This way, whatever he had to say about e.g. fascism and Nazism (which he wrote about by the way), could be dismissed as 'not representative' and if (in this little fantasy I'm running by you) he signed letters to the paper in support of a candidate for election or if he didn't go along with 'mainstream' opinion then he would be vilified as e.g. a 'used Jew' or even a 'kapo'.

We might imagine Freud would say that he never sought to 'represent' anyone and that he is 'his own man'. More than that, that he feels he has inherited and studied traditions of thought from many cultures including those expressed by people of Jewish belief and/or origin. Or more than that, perhaps, that he expresses a kind of culture or sensibility that developed in Europe over hundreds of years as part of the encounter between Jews, Christians, Muslims and people of no religious belief but in his case, it's 'flavoured' or is intertwined with specifics to do with the Jewish beliefs, customs, habits, communal life of his predecessors and people around him in Vienna and later Hampstead, London.

And more than that (!): now that Mr Freud's own ideas have had a huge impact on how people all over the world think about consciousness and what it is to be human, then talking about Freud as either 'mainstream' or 'not mainstream', or 'representative' /'not representative' misses the point. No statistic represents his impact. No attempt to minimise him by excluding him from the 'mainstream' deals with the fact that his ideas have spread.

Now, if you multiply Freud by all the other secular Jewish thinkers, and add in anyone and everyone who has led their life in some respect or another in acknowledgment of their Jewish background without being religious, we have a picture of something much bigger and much more significant than an entity that can be dismissed as 'not mainstream'.

And, importantly, its claim - if ever one were to be made - is not to counter it by saying, 'o yes we are part of your mainstream'. Its claim is simply that it exists, that it is diverse, multi-voiced, does not have to be corralled into specific categories or given labels that reduce it to this or that minority.

What is absurd is that the media (in the fullest sense of the word ie the whole Fourth estate' or 'republic of letters') has plenty of such people working in it and yet the media as a whole has repeatedly trotted out the fib that there is just 'the Jewish community'. It's as if Freud (and Marx and Kafka and Walter Benjamin (you add thousands more!) had never existed and that there is nothing for those of us alive now to read, be inspired by or to draw on in our lives, politics and action from this huge tradition!

We need another word: a word to counter this reductive matter of 'mainstream' or 'not mainstream'. The word 'secular' doesn't do it. For the moment I can only think of whole sentences along the lines of 'inheriting some of the many diverse traditions of secular Jewish thought - and that there are millions of people, Jewish and not-Jewish who are part of this.' (Not much of a sound-bite, though!)

Every time someone uses phrases like 'inferiority complex', 'Kafka-esque', 'class war', and thousands more, they come from the minds of people who were born into some kind of Jewish tradition and have been taken up by millions of people since then.

I, for one, am delighted and proud to be part of this, both as someone who was also born into one aspect of Jewish tradition but also as someone who lives and works in a world which shares these ideas (along with the ideas of course of many other cultures and traditions).

Perhaps - thinking aloud here - I (we?) should reclaim the 'mainstream' word and say, 'I'm part of the "mainstream secular Jewish tradition", thank you very much.'

I'm not in your mainstream perhaps (seeing as you keep telling the world I'm not!) , but I am in another mainstream Jewish tradition...

The history of the UK in the 21st century in one statistic

Stat put up on Twitter by Matt Thomas:

Between 2010 and 2018, aggregate wealth in the UK grew by £5.68 trillion:

6% went to the poorest 50% of households.
94% went to the richest 50% of households.

Source: ONS Total Wealth Dataset

There is an argument for saying that the history of the 21st century in the UK so far is written in this stat.

Tuesday, 31 December 2019

Antisemitic daubing - who has the right to protest about it?

Every group, nation, or minority experiences struggles over what ideas dominate. However you see yourself - in terms of your group your nation, your minority, perhaps you've seen this process going on: people claiming, for example, that there is a 'right' way for your group to think, behave or act. Or that there is a 'mainstream' way and other ways are not legitimate. 

Part of what's gone on with Jews and the Labour Party, I believe, has running through it tensions about precisely this matter: who speaks for Jews? Who represents Jews? 

As it happens, the UK's 284,000 Jews make up a hugely diverse population whether that's seen in terms of lifestyle, employment, beliefs, religious practice, manifestations of culture or indeed along any lines of culture you would like to think of. One view of this is to acknowledge it and celebrate it. Another is to treat it as if this variety doesn't really exist. Another view is that the variety is awkward and that things should be done to get some kind of unity or homogeneity to it all. 

Here's how I think this applies to what's been going on recently, in particular on twitter where the vigil held in protest against the daubing in Hampstead in North London has provoked some bitter exchanges: 

(the paras that follow were originally tweets) 

If one’s view is that Corbyn is an antisemite and a Corbyn government would have been an existential threat to Jews, I speculate as to why a greater enemy than me isn’t the Jewish Lab candidates. All I do is sit on my tukkhes and tweet.

I’m beginning to wonder if something else is happening: some kind of unspoken struggle for hearts and minds over who has the right to speak. (We used to call it ‘hegemony’ in the ‘discourse’).

Antisemitic daubing is an attempt to intimidate Jews of all backgrounds and affiliations. North London is a place where this variation in Jewish culture and religion is very marked. Antisemitic daubing doesn’t threaten one kind of Jew more than another. Any Jew or group of Jews could/can show their resistance to that intimidation in whatever way they want.

One show of resistance by some Jews doesn’t exclude another group of Jews from showing their resistance in whatever way they want. Only if a group is seeking ‘hegemony’ (authority, domination) over others does it become an issue.

The discourse around me as being self-hating [there's been a lot of it going on on twitter!] is an attempt to delegitimise my type of Jew (however that’s perceived).There are many secular and radical traditions that are easily hidden, forgotten or sat on in this debate.

It’s no more relevant whether this is a ‘minority’ or ‘not mainstream’ than it is to say Philip Roth is not as mainstream as Alan Dershowitz. Cultural politics is not only about numbers. It’s also about attitudes and sharing thoughts and feelings.

Monday, 23 December 2019

The Tiger who Came to Tea - don't try to make a nuanced point about it.

This is a warning for anyone trying to say something nuanced about literature (or probably any of the arts) in the mainstream media outside of the arts pages. 

On BBC One's 'Imagine' I was asked to speculate about 'The Tiger who Came to Tea' - a book that I love and admire enormously. I tried to make the point that when we writers, artists create unreal or surreal images we don't know exactly what these represent. 

This is hardly a new or controversial point. Shakespeare nearly makes the point several times. This is a central point of Freud and many writers, psychologists since. So if you come to me and tell me - as some have - that a little poem I wrote - as I thought about the death of my mother, uses the image of a van going off because somewhere in my mind I have the image of vans or trains taking Jews away during World War Two, I'm not going to 'deny' this. I can say, 'I don't remember having that image when I wrote the poem', but this is not ultimately the 'truth'. The impact of history on our minds is not fully known to us. (I wrote a Ph.D about this, now published as 'The Author'!)

So, I suggested that when Judith Kerr created the tiger, I floated the possibility that this quite genial creature is in its own way just a bit threatening also. A tiger is a tiger is a tiger. Tigers, when they appear in children's books or as soft toys are indeed cuddly and giant-cat-like. But tigers are also at some level in our mind predators. So, I suggested that perhaps Judith had put into her image of the tiger some of her perhaps-repressed or hidden fears of the door knocking and someone dangerous being there. 

According to Freud and others we 'sublimate' our fears or we 'displace' them, we make them 'safe'. We are so successful at this, that we don't even know that we've done it. That's the argument.

Since I tried to make this point, the news media have had a glorious time, saying that I said that the tiger = the Gestapo. I didn't say that. I tried to make a more nuanced point. O foolish Rosen. 

(For people who don't know Judith's life: when she was 7, her family fled Berlin because the Nazis had just come to power, and Judith's father was under immediate threat of arrest for being both Jewish and 'subversive' (he was a left-wing theatre critic).)

It's being repeated all over the news media at the moment because the wonderful animation company Lupus, who made the animation of 'Bear Hunt' - have made an animation for this Christmas of 'The Tiger who Came to Tea'.

So if you see anywhere that Rosen said that the Tiger = the Gestapo', I didn't.