October 3, 2023

Bigots are often so blind to their bigotry that they don’t realise they are bigoted. Take what prime minister in waiting and foreign secretary Liz Truss put out to the Jewish community – a message she clearly believed to be supportive and vote-winning but was in fact reinforcing the most damaging tropes about Jews. “So many Jewish values are Conservative values and British values too, for example seeing the importance of family and always taking steps to protect the family unit; and the value of hard work and self-starting and setting up your own business.” She added that “the British Jewish community is incredibly proud of this country and so are Conservatives”, and that she was determined to protect the community from “woke civil service culture that strays into antisemitism”.

So that’s us Jews neatly classified. Conservative, business-minded, industrious, patriotic and anti-woke. Just like black people are great runners, Asian people are brilliant mathematicians and Yorkshire folk such as our Liz are careful with money … which takes us back to the Jews.

As with many of Truss’s ill-judged comments this one begs questions. For example, which communities don’t see the importance of family and actively take steps not to protect the family unit? Truss used her statement of support for her idealised Conservative Jewish community to randomly attack civil servants and “wokeness” (defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as, horror of horrors, “Originally: well-informed, up-to-date. Now chiefly: alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice”).

Truss’s blindness to her bigotry in this case might be because she likes Jewish people – or rather the ones she shares values with. The woman who loves to portray herself as Margaret Thatcher the Second is like her hero a philosemite. In theory, that’s great. We should be philo-everything. The problem, though, is she likes her kind of Jew – and her kind of Jew is the exact same stereotype of someone that many antisemites dislike, cruelly caricature and, in the case of the Nazis, tried to obliterate.

When referring to Jewish and Conservative values, Truss may well be thinking of the Jewish men who played such prominent roles in the Thatcher governments. Nigel Lawson, Keith Joseph, Leon Brittan, Malcolm Rifkind and David Young were all senior ministers, the political analyst Alfred Sherman advised her, and she was hugely influenced by American free-market economist Milton Friedman. All these men had Conservative values (though Sherman had been a communist volunteer in the Spanish Civil War). But a coterie of like-minded thinkers does not a Jewish identity make. Karl Marx, Leon Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg were also Jewish. No community, whether defined on racial, religious or sexual grounds, acts and thinks as one.

To suggest the Jewish community is homogeneous is ignorant and offensive. There are many Jewish people like me who do not have Conservative or conservative values, are not entrepreneurs, do not need protection from “wokeness”, and rather than feeling proud of Britain, feel ashamed at the way this government has treated asylum seekers in need of refuge. Similarly, there will be plenty of Jewish people who share a mix of my values and Truss’s values.

The most alarming aspect of Truss’s remarks is that it reinforces age-old stereotypes – the Jew as self-made in business, with all the attendant assumptions of wealth, privilege and meanness. The trope is at the heart of much left- and rightwing conspiracy theory – Jews control banks, Jews control Hollywood, Jews control everything.

While for Truss the stereotypical Jew might be a role model, for many others it’s anything but. When I was at school, a related stereotype was attached to Jews, but as a term of abuse rather than a badge of honour. I was regularly told that somebody thought to be ungenerous was “tight as a Jew’s arse”. These kinds of stereotypes were all over literature too. Even those who hadn’t read a word of Shakespeare or Dickens knew about Shylock and his pound of flesh; and Fagin, the legendary miser, villain and Jew (in the first 38 chapters of Oliver Twist, Fagin is referred to as “the Jew” 257 times).

Antisemites with a literary bent might think of Truss’s stock Jew as the repellant Bleistein in TS Eliot’s poem Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar. “On the Rialto once / The rats are underneath the piles / The Jew is underneath the lot / Money in furs.”

And for those of us with a sense of none-too-distant history, Truss’s depiction of Jews as entrepreneurs may make us think of 1 April 1933, when the Nazis boycotted Jewish-owned businesses. On that day the Star of David was painted in yellow and black across thousands of doors and windows, with signs saying “Don’t buy from Jews!” and “The Jews are our misfortune!” In his will, written hours before his suicide in April 1945, Hitler referred to Jews as “international swindlers” and “the poisoner of all nations”.

Of course, Truss’s statement could not be more different in tone, sentiment or ideology (as it happens, Hitler associated Jews with Marxism rather than Conservatism). But the stereotype at the heart of it – that Jews, business and money go hand in hand – is identical and equally dangerous whatever the intention.

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