I WAS EATING CHEDDAR cheese at tea time at my best friend’s house when his mother announced:
“We don’t like Jews, but you’re different, Adam”
I was less than ten years old at the time, but I can still picture the room in which this was said. I do not remember that I told my parents about what my best friend’s mum had told me, but I remember it almost sixty years later. Knowing how she felt about Jewish people did not spoil my friendship with, ‘R’, her son.
When I was thirteen, I entered Highgate School, which I had chosen because ‘R’ was going to be there. At that time, I still regarded ‘R’ as one of my best friends. However, he did something that made me move away from him. One day he was with a group of other boys when in front of them he directed an anti-Semitic remark at me. Although that did not make me hate him, it marked the end of our long friendship.
I had other friends during my schooldays, who were half Jewish. One of their parents was Jewish. They preferred to forget that fifty percent of their heritage. Such amnesia would not have saved them had the rules formulated at the Wannsee Conference been applied to them.
During the 1970s, I worked on my PhD topic in a laboratory at UCL. During the second year of this, a new PhD student, ‘J’, commenced working on her PhD project. ‘J’, like the others, in the lab seemed very pleasant until one day when she asked me to lend her a pencil.
At this point, you need to know that there was a shortage of pencils in our lab. I have no idea why this was the case. So, when I handed my pencil to ‘J’, I said:
“Please return it.”
To which ‘J’ snapped:
“Don’t be so Jewish, Adam”
I knew that J was most probably unaware that I am of that faith, but what she said upset me. My PhD supervisor’s wife heard what ‘J’ had said, and quickly told her:
“That was not a nice thing to say.”
I was pleased because I was somewhat lost for words.
A few months later, everyone in the lab was invited by my supervisor to attend the large formal Annual Dinner of the Physiological Society. I sat next to my supervisor’s wife and across the table from ‘J’.
When the main course arrived, there were green peas on the plates. I detest this vegetable. ‘J’ noticed me separating the peas from the rest of my food and said:
“When we invite you round for dinner, I must remember not to serve you pork or peas.”
Remembering the pencil incident, I told her immediately:
“If you ever invite me to dinner, I shall refuse without hesitation.”
My supervisor’s wife turned to me and murmured:
J’s face turned deep red, tears began running down her cheeks, she stood up, and left the room.
‘J’ abandoned her PhD a few weeks later.
Although I am regarded as being religiously unobservant by most Jewish people who know me, casual prejudice against Jews, or anyone else for that matter, does make me anxious. Prejudice, even if expressed casually, is potentially dangerous. Always remember: where there is smoke, there is usually fire.