On hearing any expression of hope, however muted, my mother’s reflex is to rebuke the optimist with a hissed, “Don’t beshroi”. If a horse she’s backed jumps the last 25 lengths clear, and someone says, “I think you’re safe with this one,” she will suck in her cheeks and mutter “Don’t beshroi”.
For stronger reasons than the memory of Devon Loch, I often say it myself. If “beshroi” exists as a word at all (as with most of my mother’s Yiddish, I cannot be sure until finding it in a Howard Jacobsen novel), it translates, as you will have guessed, to “tempt fate”. A sense of fatalism is, for heartbreakingly compelling historical reasons, imprinted on the Jewish soul. In any secular reworking of the Ten Commandments, as handed down to Woody Allen on whichever is the tallest Caitskill mountain, “Thou shalt not beshroi” might be No 1.
And so it is with the greatest reluctance – it feels like sacrilege, in fact – that I tempt fate by pointing out that no Jewish person has been killed in Britain in an anti-semitic attack since … well, my possibly flawed internet researches find no fatality on record at all. Even among the smattering of serious assaults over the past 20 years, there appears to be no life-threatening injury. Even when antisemitic crime peaked last year, as it does whenever Israel visits her wrath upon the Palestinians, no one was badly hurt.
Obviously it would be insane to assume smugly that this record will continue. What happened recently in Paris could happen here today. But even if it did – even if a couple of Jihadis strolled into a kosher deli and unloaded the contents of their AK47s into people queuing for roll mops – would that retroactively justify the level of fear currently gripping the Jews of Britain?
The latest polling finds that almost half (45 per cent) of British Jews now doubt that they (we) have a long-term future here, though the growth in alarmism pre-dates the events in Paris. Last August, after some bozo at a Sainsbury’s moved the kosher items to a different fridge to spare them becoming weaponised by anti-Israel demonstrators, Danny Finkelstein wrote in The Times about feeling nervous for the first time in his life. In a memorably fine piece full of wisdom, while acknowledging that this remains a marvellous country for the Jew, he ended by saying that most Jews “have a niggling feeling that perhaps it might be a good idea to keep a suitcase packed … I don’t have such a suitcase. I won’t need it, I know I won’t. But if I told you that I didn’t understand it, I’d be lying.”
Other Jews, less clever and nuanced than Finkelstein, glanced across the Channel at the surge of serious assaults in various nations, and succumbed to hysteria. The notion of an existential threat to British Jewry, never deeply buried, resurfaced. What was a wave of fear last summer now threatens to become such a tsunami that the Home Secretary feels obliged to reassure those “fearful of remaining here in the United Kingdom that efforts to eradicate anti-semitism will be redoubled”.
While admiring Theresa May’s ambition, I wish her luck. Efforts can be redoubled, retripled and requadrupled, and some people will still hate Jews, as some always have and always will. This is an unalterable fact of life with which we must live.
The important questions, always, are who those people are and what power to indulge their hatred they have. The answers, in Britain, are that they are the malevolent imbeciles who infect online message threads with their semi-literate poison, and who use Israeli brutality as cover for a more primitive loathing, plus that minute proportion of fanatics who seek to glorify their faith by slaughtering innocents.
Their power, respectively, is to disgust, to alarm and to commit occasional acts of terrible violence. It is not to pose an existential threat to British Jewry, or even to plant a seed that could grow into such a menace. To imagine otherwise is more than paranoia. It is, unwittingly, a distasteful slur against this country.
For all that some people in this country dislike Jews, we are among the best protected and most valued minorities that have lived anywhere at any point in history. In recent years, among many other Cabinet members, we have had two Jewish foreign secretaries (Malcolm Rifkind and David Miliband), and a Jewish leader of the Conservatives (Michael Howard). We may soon have a Jewish prime minister. Pollsters analyse a myriad of factors in the run-up to an election, but if any has detected Ed Miliband’s genetic heritage as an influence on voting intentions, it has escaped me.
We may or may not be Charlie. But we are not France, or Belgium, or Germany, or Italy, where the notion of a Jewish political leader remains unlikely. We never had a Dreyfus, let alone a Kristallnacht. If the cultured Jews of Berlin believed themselves safe in the mid-1930s, their Fuhrer had thoughtfully published Mein Kampf 10 years earlier as a reference work to disabuse them of that.
Like Finkelstein, I understand how and why the petrifaction echoes down the decades. Who could not? But in a sentient lifetime of 45 years during which I recall hearing five anti-semitic remarks, compared with untold thousands of racist sentiments about West Indians and Asians, never for a moment has the spectre of that packed suitcase in the hall crossed my mind. It never will. Spiteful things – amplified into shrieks like all spitefulness by social networks – will be murmured about Jews. Swastikas will be daubed on graves, hateful assaults will be made, and there may, God forbid, be murderous attacks. These are matters of policing. More casual antisemitism will ebb and flow along with events in Gaza and the West Bank. That is a matter of decency. But the British state will continue, as it has for so long, to cherish its Jews, protect them as best it can, and allow them every opportunity to rise to the pinnacle of every profession. That is a matter of fact, and to conflate a surge in individual viciousness with an existential threat is to degrade a country which deserves more gratitude and trust than that.