The Elephant and the Jewish Question: Autumn JQ 2018

The Elephant and the Jewish Question

When I came to live in London in 1994 my friend Bob Tashman offered to fill me in on the local scene. “There are two kinds of Jews” he told me. “Loud. And quiet. You and I are both loud. Most Americans are. But British Jews? They’re quiet.”

I’ve often thought of Bob during the very unquiet broyges between British Jews and the Labour Party, which for a while this summer dominated the headlines, driving such peripheral concerns as Brexit, the economy, the near total collapse of Prime Minister Theresa May’s authority, the slide towards yet another war in the Middle East and even the antics of Donald Trump off the front pages. It seemed British Jews had abandoned their diffidence. We were certainly loud. But were we clear?

Once you got past the shared pain of being made to feel not-quite-British – despite “having lived in their country for a very long time, probably all their lives” – it was hard to see what this was really about. Israel? Palestine? A struggle for power inside the Labour Party? The unwillingness of some victims of racism to extend solidarity to others? If the whole dispute was really about how best to define antisemitism then why, as Brian Klug asks in this issue, “the absence of measured criticism and reasoned debate?”

Klug himself gives one set of answers to that question in the pages that follow, while Marlon Solomon takes a different view. Which reminds me of the joke – once told by the philosopher Jacques Derrida at Jewish Book Week – about the Frenchman, the German and the Jew marooned on a desert island who decide to pass the time by each producing an essay about elephants. The Frenchman writes on the sex life of the elephant; the German produces a comprehensive scientific bibliography devoted to elephants. The Jew, of course, writes on “The Elephant and the Jewish Question.”

Here at the JQ we try to aim past the parochial – or the predictable. So although we would have been delinquent in not addressing this particular elephant in the room, you’ll find most of this issue devoted to various tales of the unexpected, starting with Peter Stephan Junck’s fascinating search for the truth about his cousin Edith: Jewish refugee, famous British photographer – and talent-spotter for the KGB.

The novelist Tova Mirvis uses her own experience of leaving the orthodox world to illuminate the characters and conflicts depicted in the film Disobedience, while Michael Segalov revels in the surprising comfort of the shiva ritual. Rachel Shabi not only coaxes Claudia Roden into revealing a little more about the woman behind the cookbooks but also persuades her to part with the recipe for one of her favourite cheesecakes!

Not all surprises are happy ones: Alyssa Harad never expected to see concentration camps practically in her own Texas backyard. Alam and Bana, the young asylum seekers in Atira Winchester’s report from Israel, never expected to wait a decade without their applications being processed. The inhabitants of Gaza neither expected nor – according to writer Assaf Kfoury – deserve to live in “the world’s largest open-air prison.”

Yet we make no apology for stacking the deck – and this issue – in favour of the astonishingly enteraining. From Michael Carlson’s portrait of Steve Ditko – the comics genius behind Spider-Man and Doctor Strange who threw it all away to draw propaganda for Ayn Rand – to Naomi Gryn’s affectionate tribute to the feminist pioneer Alice Shalvi to Julia Weiner’s stunning, and gorgeously illustrated, introduction to the art of Anni Albers, to Julia Wagner’s preview of the UK Jewish Film Festival we offer a dazzling choice of diversions and deep dives. Plus book reviews, poetry, and theatre. And if all that leaves you too excited to sleep, Marina Benjamin offers consolation, though not a cure.

JQ Autumn 2018 is out now.

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