Old Jewish Tropes and New Jewish Worries

Plaques honouring Sir Rudolf Bing at entrance to Edinburgh International Festival Hub and Usher Concert Hall
Nicola Sturgeon, MSP, First Minister of Scotland, dedicates plaque in 2017 honouring the Jewish artists who founded the Edinburgh International Festivals

Professor Joe Goldblatt

The junior professor of a major US University stood in front of the desk of our German secretary and asked me “Can’t you just Jew them down?” My back immediately stiffened and the German secretary lowered her head and frowned.

The young professor was asking me to negotiate a better hotel rate for our upcoming travels to an academic conference. She did not realise that the phrase she used was deeply offensive to members of the Jewish people as well as people of good hearts throughout the world.

After my colleague walked away the secretary rose and asked to speak with me privately. We stepped into a meeting room and with tears in her eyes she sincerely apologised for the words our colleague had used and told me that as a German she found this particularly offensive. She also said she would have a word with our colleague to better educate her.

I actually found this incident surprising because as a young Jewish boy who lived in a neighbourhood of 40,000 Christians and where we were the only Jewish family, I had never once heard such an evil stereotype such as this. In fact, the first time I heard these words was as an adult at a major university and the words came from an individual with a PhD.

That is why I shuddered when Liz Truss tried to woo Jewish voters by telling us that we share Conservative values and we are good at starting businesses. Her words cut to the quick of the age old stereotypes of Jews being good at business as Mr Shakespeare caricaturised in his character of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice and Charles Dickens depicted in his character of Fagin in Oliver Twist.

What Ms Truss and others have done is to perpetuate the age old hatred for Jews by singling out one skill that some, but certainly not all (including me) have mastered. What she and others did not mention is that one of the reasons that some Jews started businesses is because no one would hire them due to their religion or they were not trusted by monarchs for hundreds of years and the only way to control them was to have them handle their personal business affairs.

The candidate for Prime Minister perhaps should learn from the Chinese about the greater value of Jewish citizens within our society. When I asked the director of the Shanghai Jewish Refugee Museum why their country saved the lives of 20,000 Jews during World War II by granting them refuge when all European countries refused, he enthusiastically told me that the Jews were valuable to China because they were highly educated, hard workers, very intelligent, skilled as doctors, dentists, nurses, scientists, lawyers and business leaders. He looked me in the eye and said “We needed them.”

I wonder why educated adults such as Ms Truss do not see the broader contribution of Jews to the United Kingdom? Did you know that members of the Jewish people have received 20 percent of all the Nobel Prizes that were awarded to 900 persons? They have received the highest percentage of this prize among all ethnic groups. Surely, a candidate for becoming the leader of the UK would understand the value of this group of people and how it exceeds beyond the skills and talents needed to start businesses?

A new book authored by Keith Kahn Harris and photographer Rob Stoddert entitled What Does a Jew Look Like? depicts portraits of dozens of Jewish persons throughout the length and breadth of Great Britain. I appear in this book along with a female friend from Glasgow. Neither of us have a background in being successful in business. In fact, the majority of the people featured in this book, ranging from a prison inmate to a doctor, to teachers, social workers and many more noble professions have little experience in starting businesses.

That is why when Truss tried to woo me and my fellow Jews into the ranks of the Conservative party by mentioning this horrible and inaccurate trope I was offended and disgusted. I was not alone. The Union of Jewish Students in the UK immediately criticised her unhelpful and harmful stereotype. I only wish that others, including those who are not members of the Jewish people, would have stood up and spoke out as well.

I suppose that my friend, the German secretary, was a rare individual who understood, perhaps in the aftermath of World War II, that unless people of good hearts speak up to combat the evil language used in these age old tropes, they will continue to mislead, confuse and harm us and others within and out with the Jewish community.

The harm may not stop there. Pastor Martin Niemoller (1892 – 1984), a German pastor who was once known for his anti – semitic views, changed his thinking after being imprisoned by the Nazi’s in a concentration camp for speaking out against them. He famously wrote:

First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist
Then they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist
Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist
Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew
Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out
for me.

Professor Joe Goldblatt is Emeritus Professor of Planned Events at Queen Margaret University. His views are his own. To read more about his views visit www.joegoldblatt.scot

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