Follow by Email

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Howard Jacobson Thinks I’m Mad

In the light of the recent events in France, according to one of our ‘leading’ Anglo-Jewish novelists Howard Jacobson, “any Jew who is not frightened is mad...”  Well, the events of recent weeks - first in Paris, then the various reactions to them in the Jewish community here in the UK - have provoked in me various emotions from outrage and compassion to confusion and cynicism; but I haven’t felt frightened.  I have felt though an anxious concern about what the current swirl of Jewish paranoia- verging-on-hysteria will do to our sense of ourselves as a community in the months, and maybe years, ahead.

So, I’m not feeling personally frightened. (Or not more so than my normal ongoing fears about everything from what ageing might mean for my health, to what the crude pan-European scapegoating of immigrants might mean for their health and well-being, to the environmental catastrophe that threatens everyone’s well-being in the decades ahead). So does this lack of fear mean that I am indeed, as Jacobson insists, ‘mad’? Mad not to feel frightened by the nihilistic grudge-bearing murderousness of pockets of Islamist publicity-seeking martyrs-in-waiting? Mad not to fear some inevitable outrage in the UK, in spite of all the sterling work the police and intelligence services are obviously doing to track these disaffected youths caught up in these Islamist death cults?
It’s not that I think it is delusional to think an attack could happen – it could, of course – but does that mean I have to avoid taking public transport, or walking around the streets of North London, or avoid recognisable Jewish buildings or shops? or only do so in a state of perpetual fear? I feel sorry for those who are feeling afraid –  I can sympathise with such fearfulness, but I don’t find I have very much, if any, empathy for it: empathy in the sense of sharing the feelings being expressed.  I find myself thinking of Nachman of Bratzlav’s wisdom: ‘The whole world is a very narrow bridge – but the essential thing is not to be afraid, at all’. A tall order, that ‘at all’, but a salutary one.
That 'very narrow bridge' speaks to the fact that life is inherently uncertain, it's immersed in unpredictability. Tragedies can – and do – strike us without warning and in spite of all the precautions and insurances we take out in our vain attempts to feel in control. Am I ‘mad’ in our current climate to refuse to be dominated by fear, ruled by fear, held emotional hostage to fantasies of aggression directed towards me from unknown assailants? That way does madness lie, I would suggest, rather than it being ‘mad’ not to feel it.   
Am I mad to think that – in President Roosevelt’s resonant phrase at his 1933 Inauguration - ‘We have nothing to fear but fear itself’? Am I mad not to take seriously some spurious survey that suggests that 45% of British Jews believe Jews may not have a long term future in the UK? Jacobson says that after the killings in Paris his feeling was of ‘cold fingers at your heart...dread’. (Cold fingers at your heart, Howard ? Mixed metaphor, surely, – but maybe that’s what fear does, it scrambles your thinking).
An inner chill is what I do feel when I read the Jewish Chronicle whipping up the anxiety levels in our community, because I dread our becoming a community that acts as if we are under siege, and I loathe the mentality of ‘they are all out to get us’, and I dread the contagious nature of fear when it is stirred up by communal institutions or the Community Security Trust (who are having a field day). The visible extra security on display – this ratcheting up of overt ‘protection’ – is actually stimulating the fear it is meant to allay.
And I feel some of those cold fingers reaching out to grip me when I see our Home Secretary Theresa May, and our Secretary of State for Communities Eric Pickles, solemnly holding up placards saying ‘Je Suis Juif’. The cynic in me says there’s an element here of pre-election courting of Jewish votes – it’s good politics to put on a show of concern about our concern. But there is something fundamentally askew – though maybe absurd would be a better word - about those placards. ‘No, you’re not’, I want to say, ‘and I don’t want you to be’. I wonder if the placards they held had said ‘I am a Jew’, would more Jews have seen through it? Or at least questioned what was going on?
The issue we face within the UK is about working with differences between peoples and faiths, about finding ways to live together: native born and immigrant, Muslim and Jew and Christian, many cultures, many faiths, many ethnicities, all the complex multiplicity of identities that citizens inhabit. It’s not about merging differences, pretending we are all the same. That ‘Je Suis Juif’ act of pseudo-identification may seem well-meant – but it is conceptually flawed. I found that acted-out show of solidarity rather nauseating. Maddening. But then after all, according to Jacobson, I am just ‘mad’ anyway.  

No comments:

Post a Comment