Racists keep hating: my shame at my moment of cowardice

Today I took a cab back to my office. In all my years of taking cabs, often listening to them more than they ever find out about me, I’ve never had this experience.

Driving through Regents Park, as we drew near to St Johns Wood Road, the taxi driver asked me outright about who I had voted for. It was a legitimate question, on the back of discussing how the economic climate was affecting his work. The taxi driver said he had voted UKIP, not because he was “a racialist” but that he was  interested in protecting the British.

Because of that, I started to feel a bit edgy about him. I didn’t think he was threatening, I just felt very unsure about him and that coupled with his ‘effing and blinding I felt uncomfortable. So I asked him to drop me off at the block of flats, I quote, “next to the synagogue”.

As we drove past some of the very lovely blocks of flats in St Johns Wood he said, “Be nice to live round here wouldn’t it?”  I agreed.

He then told me, “It’s not as if any of the flats are lived in by anyone from around here. It’s not is it. You know what I’m saying. All the property is lived in by Arabs and others…[giving me a knowing glance] you know.”

I wished I had the wherewithal to take his hackney number, but actually it made me grateful to get out and it was all sly deniable insinuation anyway. It seems to me that this is the type of discourse that has been normalised and made acceptable in the lead up to the election. In particular, for all the energetic work of different groups, their efforts to change the way we speak of people has not really changed those hard to reach parts of society.

Indeed, invited to give my opinion, I wrote a private letter to one supporter of UKIP about the normalisation of this kind of discourse:

The other reason I worry is, whilst they [UKIP] are trying to ensure they have no problems with racism and antisemitism which is commendable, the number of instances of having to use the disciplinary policy is demonstration enough of some of the people attracted to them. It won’t just be members voting in May. A party with a repeated emphasis on British values, British culture, borders and jobs will always be problematic from this point of view – in my opinion.

It reminded me of a story 15 years ago:

It was 15 years ago I went for a local walk. Joined by a ‘charming’ chap who happened to be passing me and my companion, somehow he got stuck talking to us. The simple exchange of pleasantries led into a longer conversation which somehow ended up with him telling me how “The Jews are a shrewd lot.” (I hadn’t mentioned being Jewish).

He continued, obviously he figured we were in need of some of his wisdom about how clever the Jews are with money.  They’re great in business.  We run the country and manage all the politics of the world.

I was deeply uncomfortable with the situation. Without saying who I was, I tried to explain the origins of the stereotypes that he was spouting and his ill founded preconceptions, but it was to no avail. And so it went on – he seemed intellectually incapable of understanding that he was talking a load of drivel.

Eventually, I could stand it no longer.  I turned to him and said, “You should know that I am Jewish.  Not only that I am training to become a Rabbi.  What you are saying I find deeply offensive and perhaps in future you should be a little more circumspect about sharing your views with strangers.”

The man looked at me and said, “Oh, it’s nothing personal.  My wife was half Jewish.  It’s not that I don’t like Jews, it’s just that they’re clever with money.”

I repeated my opposition to what he was saying, to which he replied, “look, I didn’t mean to cause offence, I was just saying.  Anyway, nevermind the Jews.  The Blacks and the Asians…”

So, what to do???

Seeds of division, discord and hate – A Talmudic warning

In one of the most famous tales in the Babylonian Talmud (Bava Metzia 59a-b), the power of words leads to death and near destruction of the rabbinic project. Not only that, the sages of the Babylonian Talmud are able to take God’s words and decontextualise them to mean almost the opposite of their ‘obvious’ meaning. (See Prof Jeffrey Rubenstein’s chapter on this tale for more information).

This all stems from a mishnah that concludes with the words of Exodus 22:20 commanding us that:

“You shall not wrong or oppress the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”.

The seeds of division, discord and hate are sown with words. It is easy to open the ‘gates of wounded feelings‘ (as the Soncino translation puts it in a rather English understated way) it is pretty much impossible to close them.

It is this Talmudic tale, full of deep awareness of human psychology and the destructive power of words, that makes me full of worry for the current discourse with regards to those categories of people that fall effortlessly off the lips of some of our leaders and public voices: asylum seekers, refugees, scroungers, welfare recipients, indigenous populations, p*k** (a racist term for traveller), Muslims and Jews.

Sorry you may ask, did you say p*k**s, indigenous population, Muslims and Jews? Surely any discussion about immigration is always prefaced by a lengthy apologetic style commentary that boils down to the point that it doesn’t make you a racist to talk about immigration? Are we living in the 21st century or the middle of the 20th century?

In the last few months I’ve complained about the racist term P*K** being used in a local freely distributed trades magazine – who to their credit apologised straight away and removed the term:

Screenshot 2014-02-03 18.56.13

I’ve written to my local paper to complain about the way the ‘Indigenous population’ is played against immigrants by the Chair of Hertsmere UKIP in a case that had nothing to do with immigration:

Letter in Borehamwood Times

And I’ve been shocked by what I consider to be antisemitism on facebook – that facebook won’t remove:

Screenshot 2014-02-03 17.29.26

And I’ve also been disturbed by hate filled emails that one MP has passed on to me that preach hate of Muslims, Gypsies and anyone not of the faith, race or nationality that presumably the pure indigenous English author considers to be superior. Apparently ‘we’re’ in need of salvation from the marauding strangers.

So here’s the thing. I think there is a link between discourse that reduces groups, communities and faiths, often speaking of them in a derogatory way, and a growing obsession with those groups that spills into hate. I don’t know how to make a change in the quality of discourse around the issues – I’m not even convinced they’re the actual issues we should even be worrying about – but I do recognise it’s not simple or easy but we must try.

It does not make you a racist to talk about immigration. You’re right. But when you think you talk with nuance it is not always what is heard and there are plenty of racists who are riding on your coat tails. When you speak of groups of people, the disabled, the malingerer, the benefit recipient (and benefits cheat) that you think can be easily bundled together claiming they are cheating hard-working families out of work and ruining our economy, your words can be used to fuel hate and suspicion. When you easily slip into a mocking tone, making fun of cultural and religious practices that you do not share or casting them in a light of suspicion and danger, followers taking over Britain by stealth, be very careful. This rhetoric is at the edge of discourse in which the seeds of division, discord and hate are sown. Do not be surprised when they come back to bite you and have been taken out of context, like God’s word in the Talmudic story above, and used in a way you never intended.

We must never ignore the racist, bigoted and vile poison that spews out of the mouths of the small minority of the population – it must be challenged and we must protest against it. And at the same time, for everyone else who is not in extremist politics we must remember that wronging another person, a stranger, someone who is not you, can be done as easily as the simple act of speech and the gates of wronging another are easily opened and never closed.