Preaching prejudice

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MORE THAN THIRTY YEARS have passed since I spent Christmas very enjoyably with my good friends, ‘X’ and his wife ‘Y’. After breakfast on the morning of Christmas Day, all of us except the housekeeper, who considered that most churches were not sufficiently devout for her to attend, used to set off for the pretty church in the nearby village of ‘H’. Some of the party, including Y, travelled by car but I joined X and some others, who preferred to tramp the mile or so across the countryside that separated the house from the small hill-top church. We occupied more than two complete bench-like pews in the small, crowded edifice.

The service was traditional with Christmas carols. When it came to the singing of “Come all ye faithful”, X sung it loudly in Latin whilst all around him the rest of the congregation were singing it in English. Like him, I was introduced at private school to the Latin version, which commences with the words “Adeste fideles…”. Once, when Y was bemoaning the use of English instead of Latin in church services, someone pointed out to her that unlike the rest of the congregation, she was in no position to complain because she only attended church at Christmas and for christenings, weddings, and funerals.

The Christmas morning service at H, which was held for families with young children, included a sermon. The vicar of H started his sermon something like this:

“Christmas is a happy time of the year for everyone apart from the Jews. However, there is one exception. And that exception is Lord Sieff, the Chairman of the Marks and Spencer’s retailing firm.”

I was horrified by this and sat fuming throughout the rest of the service. When it was over, we shuffled towards the door where the vicar was receiving greetings from those who had attended. One by one people wished him ‘Merry Christmas’ and hoped that he would enjoy his Christmas meal. When I reached him, I refused to shake his outstretched hand. I said:

“Even if I had not been born Jewish, I would have found the beginning of your sermon to be in the worst of taste.”

The cleric did not reply, but Y, who heard me say this, told me afterwards that I had said the right thing.

Writing this many years after that memorable Christmas service, I cannot imagine what was going through the vicar’s head when he composed the sermon. If a man of the church, which encourages brotherly love between all men, can say those words about Lord Sieff and the Jewish people to his congregation and, more recently, a prominent cosmopolitan, expensively educated personality in British politics has characterised black Africans as “‘piccaninnies’ with ‘watermelon smiles’”, gay men as “bumboys”, and women wearing hijab as “looking like letter boxes”,  is it surprising that so many people in Britain harbour prejudice in their hearts, even if they do not always express their feelings openly?

Where there is smoke, there is fire

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.

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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:

“Well said.”

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.

Misinterpretation

 

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In the 1960s, as a protest against the horrendous apartheid regime in South Africa, shoppers in the UK were asked not to buy produce from South Africa. This is a stry told to me by my late mother, who was born in South Africa but was completely disgusted with the prejudice against ‘black’ and other ‘non-white’ people in the country of her birth.

My mother was in a fruit store in a north London suburb. She saw a fellow customer take some oranges to the sales counter. The customer asked the shop keeper:

“Are these oranges from South Africa?”

“Definitely not, Ma’am.”

“Oh, that’s good. I’ll take them.”

Overhearing this conversation, my mother asked the lady who had just bought the oranges:

“What’s wrong with oranges from South Africa?”

The lady replied:

“You’re not supposed to buy them because they might have been touched by coloured people.”

My mother could not believe what she had heard.

This anecdote just goes to show how a simple message can be totally misinterpreted.

 

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We did not mean to visit Dubai

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I must admit that Dubai was never on the long list of places that I hope to visit during my lifetime. It was a place that, without any rational explanation, I felt like avoiding. Benidorm is another of these places, as are, for example, EuroDisney, Ayia Napa, Eilat, the Seychelles, and Sharm El-Sheikh. However, when flying on the excellent Emirate Airways, it is necessary to change ‘planes at Dubai’s fantastic airport.

A few years ago, we flew from London to Bangalore (India) by Emirates, This entailed changing ‘planes at Dubai. After embarking at Heathrow Airport, we were told that our departure would be delayed while a defective aircraft component was changed. Consequently, we departed about two hours later than we should have. As a result, we missed our connection in Dubai.

At Dubai, we were directed to a desk that dealt with connection/transfer problems such as that we faced. An extremely helpful man with an exuberant moustache and beard offered to put us on the next flight to India, which would have taken us to Bombay rather than Bangalore and advised us that from Bombay, we would no longer be in the care of Emirates. This did not sound satisfactory. Then, he said:

“If you are not in a hurry, why don’t you spend a day in Dubai and take the next day’s Emirate flight to Bangalore?”, adding quickly, “Emirates will put you up in a hotel and pay for our meals and accomodation.”

We opted for that, and within a few minutes we were whisked in a limousine to a hotel close to the airport. There, we were settled in two adjoining luxurious rooms.

Next morning, we decided to see Dubai as we had most of the day to do so. We bought day tickets for the city’s superb rapid transit rail service and visited the oldest part of Dubai, on the Creek. At the Creek, we bought day tickets for the small boats that criss-cross the Creek. 

Without going into detail, we had a wonderful day in Dubai, travelling on boats, visiting museims and historic buildings, and eating superb middle-eastern food. Almost everyone we met was friendly and helpful. 

Although I would not choose to visit Dubai again unless we have to because of a missed ‘plane connection, our day in Dubai removed my previous completely unjustifiable prejudice against visiting the place. Our delayed Emirates flight did us and Dubai a great favour!

The pencil and the peas

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I spent three years working on the experimental aspects of my PhD topic at University College London (‘UCL’) in a laboratory in the Physiology Department. Throughout that time there were always one or two other PhD students working in the same room. ‘Wink’, our supervisor’s wife, was a chemist. She often worked alongside us. Generally, the atmosphere in the laboratory was very congenial.

We were joined by a new PhD student sometime during my second year in the lab. Fortunately, I cannot recall her name, but let’s call her ‘June’.

One morning, June asked me whether she could borrow a pencil from me. As pencils were few and far between in our lab, I said to her: “Make sure you give it back, please.” To which she answered in an unfriendly tone: “Don’t be so Jewish.”

Now, it so happens that I am born Jewish. Although I am the least observant (in religious terms) Jewish person you are ever likely to meet, I am not happy when the word ‘Jewish’ or ‘Jew’ is used pejoratively. Wink must have seen my face flush, because she said to June: “That was unnecessary.”

Although it was almost innocuous, the pencil incident made me wary of June.

Some month’s later, Wink and her husband invited all their PhD students to be their guests at the annual Physiological Society Dinner, which was being held at UCL. I was seated beside Wink and opposite June. When the main course arrived, there were green peas on our plates. I do not like these small round spheres at all.

June noticed me pushing them aside on my plate, and said: “Is your religion also against peas? I must remember that when I invite you around to my place for dinner.” Feeling my face warming, I said to June: “Even if you were to beg me to come to eat at your place, I would have no hesitation in refusing.” Hearing that, June’s face turned bright red. She stood up and without saying anything, left the dining hall. Wink turned to me, and whispered: “Well said, Adam.”

June abandoned her PhD and our lab not long after this dinner.

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Now, many years later, I am still sensitive about anti-Semitic remarks, but also deeply curious as to why European people make them, often when they have had little or no contact with Jewish people. In India, which I visit often, although there have never been many Jewish people there, there is barely, if any, prejudice against them. Often Indian people extol the virtues of Jewish people.