The Atlantic

Corbyn’s Complaint

The Labour Party leader insists he is an anti-racist—but British Jews are losing their doubts that he is also an anti-Semite.
Source: Hannah Mckay / Reuters

Jews are a hyperbolic people. Even English Jews; no matter that we were not hyperbolic enough for Philip Roth. Reticent, unremarkable, and parochial, he is said to have found us during the short time he lived in London in the 1970s. “England’s made a Jew of me in only eight weeks,” says Nathan Zuckerman toward the end of The Counterlife, meaning that nothing confers identity quite like hostility. If we’re going to trade hyperboles, I might ask why it took Zuckerman so long, given the “latent and pervasive” anti-Semitism Roth arranges for him to encounter in London. Most Roth-reading English Jews boggle at those scenes. Jews eat out a lot but don’t commonly hear gentile diners demanding the windows be thrown open to get rid of their smell.

Roth was having it both ways. English Jew-hating made a Jew of even the most reluctantly Jewish of American Jews, but still didn’t inspire in English Jews the unaccommodating, impudent vociferousness he identified with Jewishness. What he forgot was that you need both the safety of numbers and the certainty of entitlement to complain as loudly and indecorously as Portnoy, and we have neither. There are fewer than 300,000 Jews in the whole of the U.K., and it’s scarcely more than 700 years—a mere blink in time as Jewish history goes—since King Edward I expelled them. Keep your heads down, our fathers warned, and maybe the English wouldn’t notice we were back. My own father’s favorite expression was “Take a powder”: Swallow a pill that will make you shut up. You didn’t have to talk Jewish if you weren’t asked; there were other subjects. It was good advice. Balancing exaggeration with understatement is also a Jewish virtue. would never have been a big seller.

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