“No one is coming to save you. You have to save yourself.”
This sticks in my mind as one of my mother’s great nuggets of advice. Alongside “only buy diamonds in America” and “it doesn’t matter how you drive, so long as you don’t hit anyone”. Unlike the notorious latter two, however, this was not said in a jocular tone. This was a lesson passed down, implicitly or explicitly, through generations, and now to me. I think my mother meant it to apply to a range of things – my being shy, my being a woman, but none more so than my being a Jew. Thus it was instilled in me from an early age that however small my voice is, I have to use it; because no one is going to speak up for me if I don’t speak up for myself.
My mother, when watching the news, or in conversation, would often say that most people are, to some degree, antisemitic. I used to tell her not to be so silly; it couldn’t possibly be true, I reasoned, that so many people could dislike us simply for being Jewish. In school we were taught that this was something which had happened in one isolated incident in the past, far removed from our present day British existence. It had come out of nowhere because of one man called Hitler and then gone away forever. Besides, I was barely Jewish: my father is an avowed atheist, raised Catholic; we never went to synagogue; we rarely celebrated most Jewish holidays. We were safe.
Except, except, except. At the age of around 8, I came across a copy of Anne Frank’s diary, accidentally moved to my classroom’s bookshelf from the school library. I was intrigued by the cover: a young Jewish girl with my mother’s surname. I took the book home and read it. And then I had nightmares. I remember sitting at the kitchen table and asking my parents why the Nazis had wanted to kill people like us, our family. Why the Jews? Why us? Rather than answering the unanswerable question, they asked sharply where this was coming from, and Anne Frank was whisked away out of my hands and placed back in the library.
Still I wondered. At 14, I seized the opportunity provided by a school history project to write up my grandmother’s stories about her family’s experiences in the Holocaust. Now I had facts, which I carefully stored away, and tried to arrange neatly into a coherent narrative, accompanied by black-and-white photos. But still no answers.
Aged around 15, in conversation with a few classmates about depictions of Jews in antisemitic propaganda, one of the girls I was speaking to asked me, “So do you have a big nose because you’re Jewish?”. I paused for a second, stunned. The worst part was, she didn’t seem to realise that there was any problem with this question – even though it had literally stemmed from discussion of antisemitic propaganda! With as much dryness as I could muster, I replied “Well, I don’t know; you’re looking at me – what do you think?” She didn’t have an answer to that.
But the damage was done. To this day, at the age of 20, I look in the mirror and wonder if my nose looks too big, if somehow the bridge of my glasses accentuates it. I hate that I do this, and I know perfectly well that it’s ridiculous – but once the seed is planted, it’s hard to shake. Maybe that’s how it is with antisemitism. Maybe this is how it is internalised.
When I moved to a boys’ school for sixth form, I became preoccupied with new versions of the old question: why all the desks were covered in swastikas and other Nazi iconography, for example. Why, while sitting alone on a bench in the school gardens, some boys decided to sit down opposite me and joke about cooking Jews in ovens and eating them. Why so many of the students thought it was funny to joke about recreating the Third Reich. I sat in my A-level History lessons, staring at images of prisoners in Nazi extermination camps, alongside the same boys who had grown up in that school and probably participated in its “humorous” and “edgy” Nazi fetishism, trying to make it all fit together. I was very quiet, focusing. Still I couldn’t.
Thus I discovered through first-hand experience that, “ironically” or not, the discourse of fascism remained alive and well, with antisemitism as one of its primary components. Well, I thought, good thing I’m a leftie. We enlightened progressives, so concerned with social justice, know how wrong this is. They’ll protect me.
In the summer of 2019, I tagged along with a friend to a local Labour Party meeting. All the people I chatted to there seemed very pleasant. All the talk was of social justice and proper reform and a bright future for all. Until, during a Q&A, a member of the audience stood up and delivered a tirade about how the accusations of antisemitism against the Labour Party were the result of a smear campaign by the Jews. A conspiracy. I stiffened, as tense as if I had been physically slapped. I looked around, waiting for someone to say something. Waiting for someone to save me.
No one batted an eyelid. I saw a few people nod their heads. The speaker, a high-profile member of the Labour Party to whom the tirade was directed, delivered a weak response about how this perhaps wasn’t entirely true and the allegations did have some substance, but at the end of the day Corbyn was a good chap, and then swiftly changed the topic. I have no idea how the speaker in question truly felt about the antisemitism scandal, but I do know that he wasn’t willing to alienate an antisemite by forcefully condemning his conspiracy theory rhetoric.
At the soonest possible opportunity, I fled the room. I no longer felt safe. I realised fully for the first time that antisemitism predates and transcends modern politics. Antisemitism is not just a problem of the “bad guys”, or of teenagers who think that being offensive is a substitute for a personality. It’s everywhere.
A little while into my time at university, the switch flipped. I decided I didn’t care anymore about trying to figure out the puzzle: why the Jews? Why us? I was done with being quiet, sure that I must have missed something, sure that what seemed the obvious conclusion couldn’t be right. I remembered my mother’s words: save yourself. And so now I speak up, and I stop trying to comprehend the incomprehensible. I stop being made to feel small and embarrassed and uncertain. I stand tall and I open my mouth and I save myself.
So, I don’t care how many people I alienate, how many people will inevitably see me as the loud Jew, the annoying Jew, the self-important Jew – the Jew who can’t shut up about antisemitism. Because I can’t shut up. No one is coming to save me. So time and again, when I see antisemitism, I do not just drag, but throw myself into the ring. Because that’s what you do when it’s existential. This is the only way I know how to honour adequately the legacy of my family and of our people.
May their memory be a blessing.
May their memory be a revolution.
It is also the only way I know how to respond to – to cope with – my unanswered question, the one I have carried since childhood. Now I have different questions: why is no one coming to save us? Why does no one spot antisemitism until we do? Or, if they do spot it, why do they not care? Or, if they do care, why do they not care enough to speak up for us?
No one is coming to save us. Will you?
Image credit: Jaime Antonio Alvarez Arango. Licence: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.