Stock photo. ©Anna Nahabed
It is a tragic phenomenon, that in societies where you find racism, you also find inverted racism, and the degree of the latter is probably in direct proportion to the extent of the former. Because just because someone is a member of a stigmatised group, does not make that person immune to the misinformation, brainwashing, and systems of thought which prop up and sustain the racism, which that person may then apply to herself or himself.
I know exactly how inverted racism works – how people come to be inverted racists, – because I myself was one – as an 11-year old child. It is a very straightforward process. Suddenly, being Jewish works to your disadvantage. It separates you from people you love. It impedes you from doing the things that you love. As a child with a lack of understanding, I blamed these things on my Jewishness, rather than the anti-Semites, and therefore wished to fully dissociate myself from my Jewishness and – more than hide it – deny it.
I will start further back than that, because I actually experienced anti-Semitism years before, and yet it didn’t have the same effect on me. I think it’s because it didn’t stop me from doing the things I loved doing, and didn’t separate me from anyone. I was born to a young “sabra” – an Israeli woman (who had had very little, if anything – to do with Catholics, and who in fact had not, to my knowledge, experienced anything of European-style anti-Semitism,) and to a holocaust survivor who, working for an architectural firm after the war, would measure up bombed-out churches. In some of these churches, he found boards on which was proclaimed: “The Jews killed Jesus.” We lived in the North London suburbs, with Jewish communities of all denominations: Religious, Orthodox, Reform, Liberal, Secular… and no shortage of Jewish schools, Church of England schools, schools that didn’t define themselves religiously. And yet, for some strange reason which I actually think stemmed entirely from my mother’s love of the film: The Sound of Music(!), my parents decided to bypass the Jewish schools, the C of E schools, the non-denominational schools, the schools within walking distance, and to send me to Sacred Heart Convent School. There, from the age of 4, I routinely crossed myself and put my hands together in prayer, reciting as many Our Father’s and Hail Mary’s as any Catholic child; kneeling in church; and loving Jesus (pictured with long blonde hair as in my Children’s Bible: New Testament). At the age of 6, well-aware of being a sinner, and aspiring to be a nun; a year or two later, during a music-and movement class – wondering if it was significant to find my feet bleeding exactly where nails would have pierced the flesh of Jesus on the cross (after hearing stories of just such saintly signs); and, at the age of 8, being present in the confirmation classes. When I was deemed a little disruptive of these classes – chiming in that Jesus was Jewish; even taking this idea further and informing all my classmates that that meant that they were therefore Jewish too(!), I found myself being sent to piano or elocution lessons while confirmation classes were taking place (apprehensive, perhaps, of possible reactions by Catholic parents upon discovering that, during confirmation classes, their children were being told they were Jewish!) – hence becoming well-spoken – especially for a young Jewish girl whose parents both spoke heavily-accented English.
Once a week, on a Sunday morning, I would be sent to Cheder (the “ch” pronounced as in the Scottish “loch” – Jewish Sunday school/Hebrew classes) – so the balance was definitely in favour of the Catholic influence!
I was the only Jewish child in the school, until my younger brother and sister briefly attended. I experienced anti-Semitism but didn’t know that it was anti-Semitism. For example, when at the age of 6, the art teacher would keep hitting me but didn’t hit anyone else – this is when I started to learn about inconsistency – with one rule (revealed after it was broken) applying to me, and another rule applying to others. A little boy had painted his entire sheet of paper a single colour, which I obviously considered a good idea, since I followed suit! I was hit – he wasn’t!
Or – another example of what I now interpret as anti-Semitism which I experienced was when the music teacher’s eyes would consistently drift past my arm straining in the air, because (for example) I knew I could easily play that bongo beat pattern which eluded the other kids. (I got that she didn’t seem to like me, but even before this had twigged, she was the source of my unrelenting desire to play the guitar.)
I only remember the P.E. teacher from one incident, when I forgot my P.E. kit, and she forced me – much to my great distress and humiliation – to participate in the (mixed-sex) lesson outdoors, stripped to my underwear. I don’t remember that any other child, particularly any other girl, was subjected to such sadistic treatment, and that surely wouldn’t have been because nobody else ever forgot their P.E. kit. Perhaps she derived some kind of fetishistic satisfaction from the power of forcing a young Jewish girl to run around in her underwear amidst fully-clothed (in T-shirts and shorts) Catholic boys and girls.
I didn’t know what anti-Semitism was, and certainly didn’t feel at all negatively towards my own Jewish identity and religion. One incident that I remember in particular is that when a little flaxen-haired boy called Dermot punched me in the stomach for being Jewish, at the age of 8, I knocked on the office door of Sister Maria (the headmistress); she admitted me and listened while I related to her what had happened; and she said nothing (perhaps nodded acknowledgment), and did nothing. The other two nuns I remember were fine! My mother would wax lyrical about how Sister Veronica would place me on her lap and read with me when I was 4. Some years on, Sister Anita would humour me by allowing me to teach her Hebrew phrases while she was on playground duty, when I had no-one to play with during the break. She seemed unimpressed by my experimental artwork, but her artistic opinion paled into insignificance when my father – whose artistic judgement I valued much more highly – gazed intently at my paintings as if beholding works of genius, and kept them to his dying day! (That may have been because he forgot he had them!) Meanwhile, thuggish little Dermot was forced to be kinder to me: we were placed into the same small group to prepare a nativity play, and his best friend Adam, once it was agreed that he should be cast as Joseph, was insistent that I should be Mary, even though Dermot tried to convince him that I couldn’t be Mary because I was Jewish!
Then I was sent to St Mary’s C of E primary school when I just turned 9. A large proportion of the pupils were Jewish, and we had separate Jewish assembly, although I preferred to go to the Christian assembly because I loved singing the hymns, and especially the carols approaching Christmas. The headmaster was a man who maintained and inspired religious tolerance.
Then he retired and was replaced by a new headmistress, Miss Pybus (a very tall woman with hair the colour and texture of straw, and whose face was dominated by a huge curved nose!), who took the school’s status as a Church of England school to mean exclusion of Jews (but not Hindus or any other religion). She prevented any more Jews from being admitted to the school, so the new first year intake, for the first time ever, from having previously been approximately 30% Jewish, was now completely Judenrein! Normally kids came into the first year of that school automatically from the neighbouring infant school, but from this point, that infant school sprouted its own separate primary school, and my youngest brother graduated to that one.
She also prevented Jewish children from singing in the choir. By now, I had entered the fourth and final year of the junior school, and one of the highlights of being in this year was that if you were selected, you got to sit on the stage in assembly each morning as part of the official school choir. The previous year, I had been chosen as one of five soloists for the Christmas carol service (“About the best so far” – when it was my turn to audition, to the protest of one child who couldn’t sing properly in tune: “That’s not fair! She’s Jewish!”) No such protest when the Hindu girl also got chosen. Yet in my fourth year, I was prevented from being a part of the choir of several times five, explicitly because I was Jewish! Yet the Hindu girl was admitted into the choir. What made this even more hurtful was that my best friend (who couldn’t even sing completely in tune – whereas I always sang perfectly in tune) was chosen as part of the choir – so every morning in assembly, we would be separated: she on the stage with the choir – me sitting cross-legged on the floor with the rest of the school. During that year’s Christmas carol concert, I sneaked into the choir stalls in church and sang with the choir, and the music teacher noticed but raised no objection. This was the same music teacher who had chosen me as a soloist the previous year.
With the advent of Miss Pybus, (perhaps her intense anti-Semitism was a means of dissociating herself from Jews in view of the fact that she was the one with the huge nose!) where there had previously always been religious tolerance in the school, suddenly, in the younger year groups, fights developed in the playground between Christians and Jews which my sister and other younger brother found themselves embroiled in, and in the context of which my sister learned to physically fight tooth-and-nail!
This was the year when I started to hate and deny being Jewish, and to dissociate myself from anything to do with Judaism. I didn’t actually hate other Jews, or change my feelings towards them – it was all to do with what had been taken away from me, and the associated humiliation. When I turned 12 and started at my new secondary school, nobody knew my background. If anyone asked, I would say that I was Church of England. The only other Jewish girl in my class whom I’d befriended seemed suspicious of my true identity when she came to my home, but I didn’t reveal the truth even to her. I once asked a boy in my class who, I thought, looked quite Jewish – with his nice brown curly hair – and who seemed to have a Jewish surname, if he was Jewish, and his reaction was one of such strong anger and disgust, that that certainly discouraged any inclination I may have felt to come out. Apparently I didn’t conform to most people’s – even most Jews’ – idea of what a Jew looks like (years later, my aunt in Israel told me I looked like a typical Russian shiksa [Yiddish: “non-Jew”]), and having had a full Catholic/Christian education, I played the part flawlessly. But to me it wasn’t a “part” – I was in full denial, and was almost close to believing it myself. I was still being sent – against my will – to Cheder – and had a close Jewish friend.
The lovely Japanese friend, Nibou, of our Japanese housekeeper (- who had not yet started to show signs of becoming the intensely cruel and highly abusive person she subsequently revealed herself to be) had the sensitivity and insight to give me a copy of Anne Frank’s diary – just at this time when I was in denial about being Jewish and rejecting everything Jewish (except my friends and family)!
After two terms in my first secondary school, I changed to another school where it happened that about 30% of my class were Jewish and it was not an issue. There seemed to be no further need to hold on to my inverted anti-Semitism, and I don’t think it took long to accept my Jewishness, and to stop hiding it.
So that is exactly how inverted racism works. It can manifest in relatively small ways – such as a lack of confidence or undervaluing oneself. Or it can manifest in pathologically self-destructive ways: Otto Weininger comes to mind – a Jewish philosopher living in Austria at the turn of the 19th/20th centuries, when anti-Semitism was rife. He developed a theory that Jews were incapable of originality, and committed suicide as what he apparently saw as a logical consequence of his own theorisation. (If I have remembered this correctly from a philosophy lecture or tutorial attended as a young undergraduate student, a long time ago!)
In another blog post of mine, I have written: “Anti-Semites love a self-hating Jew!” The question as to why a Jew would wish to be loved by anti-Semites is another strange, perverse phenomenon which seems pathological! The anti-Semites’ love is more logical – it is not actually a love of the Jewish person, but it is a love of the validation they are seeking, and which is delivered by the self-hating Jew in her/his self-hatred. They (the anti-Semites) want to say – and they do say: “I’m not anti-Semitic: I have Jewish friends! So-&-so is saying this too, and she/he is Jewish! Therefore my views are validated,” (and spewing forth from their lips come tales of Jewish cabals and the Rothschilds, and Jews controlling the media, “Zionists”, Jews as “Nazis” or “worse than the Nazis”, Israel and “apartheid”, etc. They might express intense sympathy and compassion for actual heinous Nazi criminals languishing in prison in isolation; but none whatsoever for their victims. They will undoubtedly express concern about the Palestinians – but only if they are living in Israel, the West Bank or Gaza. The plight of Palestinians in Syria, or Saudi Arabia, or Iraq, or of Palestinians suffering at the hands of their own leaders is of no interest.) “And therefore,” they say, “I can’t be anti-Semitic.” And the answer is: “Yes you are extremely anti-Semitic, and so, probably, is your Jewish friend you feel so validated by, and on whose self-hatred your friendship is based!”
Of course, you also find a small number (I hope it’s small) of massively destructive Jewish anti-Semites in or from Israel. This is a phenomenon which requires, it seems, a different kind of explanation. Israel is not a society where anti-Semitism is experienced in the same way, or as chronically as, for example, in the UK or the States or – really horrifically – in France. (It is not, for example, hammered by the non-Arab news outlets – or “in the air”.) (As I stated, my mother who was born and grew up there did not, to my knowledge, encounter anti-Semitism except from neighbouring hostile countries.) I will probably leave this phenomenon to someone else to figure out!