Can you explain, briefly, why some people are prejudiced against Jews? It’s an interesting question. My late mum was a bit anti-Semitic, and I always found her mild animus incomprehensible and indeed weird, as did my father. It surfaced during the Yom Kippur War, when I was 13: my dad and I were urging on the Israelis — in a slightly detached way, as if it were, say, Leeds playing Chelsea in a football match and through default one found oneself supporting the lesser of two evils, i.e. Chelsea. Mum was cheering on the Arabs because, she admitted, she wasn’t ‘keen on’ Jews. We were both surprised, my Dad and I. Not so much because she had shown prejudice per se — I think we largely concurred with her dislike of Japanese people, southern Europeans (especially the Spanish, but excluding the Portuguese), Finns, Biafrans, the Ceylonese, all Indo-Chinese and Irish Catholics. It’s just that we tended to think of Jewish people as the good guys in what was a simpler, more Manichean world than the one we have today.
Of course there has been a long history of anti-Semitism in Great Britain; my mum’s antipathy drew upon this, not least the disquiet occasioned in the East End of London, where she and her own dad had lived, by Oswald Mosley. Jews were disliked then because they were ‘clever’, my mother opined — and she would not budge from this as a valid reason to bear some grudge against them no matter how cogently I argued that paradoxically she disliked Africans because they were ‘very stupid’. Other peoples, it seemed, couldn’t win either way.
But that ‘clever’ was a loaded charge. It summoned the idea that they had money, that they involved themselves in money and, simultaneously, controlled international capitalism while sponsoring international bolshevism (which seemed to me then, as now, self-defeating activities and not remotely ‘clever’); that they had their paws in everything and, being rootless aliens, held allegiance to no one but themselves. This collective paranoia lay behind the persecution of the Jews all the way from their expulsion from England in 1290, across the centuries to Jew Suss, Kristallnacht and the death camps. Hitler, requiring a whipping dog, found a ready audience for this confused and irrational fury not simply in Germany, but well beyond; certainly in the quickly conquered territories of eastern Europe (especially Slovakia and Lithuania), but also in more civilised parts. Anti-Semitism was not a product of fascism (indeed, the more authentically fascistic Mussolini needed to be cajoled by Hitler into entering into the proper Axis spirit of Jew-baiting and Jew-murdering); it was there already, of course. It gripped Stalin from time to time. Nor was Winston Churchill wholly unburdened.
I have only touched upon some of the secular reasons why someone might have a prejudice against the Jews. And we haven’t even touched upon religion: might it be that anti-Semitism has been acquired by people, over the years, via religion? It’s a possibility, isn’t it?
Christianity’s relationship with the Jewish race has been over the years a tad problematic, a little fraught. And not simply because they are held aloft as those monkeys who killed our Saviour, or at least dobbed him in to the Romans. But it is as nothing compared to the venom directed at Jews via the desert-bred and vindictive conduit of Islam. The Koran is rather more unkind about Jews than it is kind; the hadiths which followed depict Jews as treacherous, conniving and untrustworthy, deserving of a bloody good smiting, all things considered. Some people will argue that it all depends upon how you interpret these texts — the Koran, the hadiths. But you would guess that those combatants in the Yom Kippur War interpreted them in a fairly direct fashion; most Muslim countries have an antipathy to Jews which exceeds their simple objection to the presence in this world of the state of Israel.
The causes of anti-Semitism are multifarious, interconnected, labyrinthine and bewildering. I cannot imagine a more pertinent, crucial and pressing question than: why are some people prejudiced against Jews? The answers, all of them, explain why we are a deeply flawed species; they touch on religion, politics, sociology, philosophy, psychology and theology. Being able to grasp at some of the reasons for such a prejudice is key to becoming a sentient human being. In a sense it is as important as knowing about gravity, or thermodynamics, or the sonnets of Shakespeare.
Which is why the education secretary, Michael Gove, should resign. Or, if not resign — for he has been a very good education secretary up to this point — take himself into a quiet corner and beat himself with a birch switch until something approaching comprehension and regret registers itself inside his thick head. Gove objected to a question set for GCSE students by the examinations board, Assessments and Qualifications Alliance. The question in question asked simply: ‘Explain briefly why some people are prejudiced against Jews.’ Gove deemed the question ‘bizarre’. He said: ‘To suggest that anti-Semitism can ever be explained rather than condemned is insensitive and, frankly, bizarre.’ He has called for the AQA to explain itself. This is the reaction of a pig-ignorant philistine, and on the borders of insanity.
How can you condemn something properly, and with conviction, until you have understood what it is and how it came into being? Should everything which right-minded folk abhor be deemed inappropriate for academic discussion and investigation? Michael has been momentarily captured by the mindset of the authoritarian left, which will banish all discussion on issues which it deems difficult. It would be bad enough coming from any politician — but from an education secretary it is truly shocking. Get a grip, Gove.