Gloria Tessler asks has the pandemic deepened society’s consciousness and so we Jews have to worry less?
Does it seem strange that during the pandemic so many important topics of conversation have suddenly assumed even greater magnitude? Racism in society, gender issues, women’s rights, everything is laid bare before us in terms that were muted before.
The last big thing we had to deal with before our streets went silent was antisemitism, largely in the wake of Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party. Today, since George Floyd and the issue of tearing down statues, since the Meghan and Harry bombshell interview, since the horror of the murder of Sarah Everard, our sensitivities have deepened. Is this because all our fears have increased while the pandemic looms over us like some ancient prophecy of doom? There have been pandemics before; the 14th-century bubonic plague in Europe was sometimes laid at the door of Jews who, it was claimed, had brought it about. I wonder whether deep-rooted terrors which come from a forgotten past have taken hold of our sensitivities and made us plead for change. Today the Jews are not blamed for the pandemic – although we ourselves may blame some Haredi members for spreading it through large gatherings – but it does seem that old atavistic fears are bringing up questions in society.
The Royal Family stands accused of racism. A peculiar brand of aristocratic hierarchy exists in this country unlike any other in Europe. Society has tried its best not to think about it until Meghan and Harry conflated two issues with one: royal racism and press intrusion. Either way, we are confronted with questions that are difficult to answer. Is there an objective truth? Are the royals racist or simply hierarchical (there is a difference)? Are the tabloids racist or simply misogynistic (which may now become a hate crime)?
The Oprah Winfrey interview divided the country in two, one camp praising Meghan’s courage and the other calling her truth into question. It is tempting to consider whether if a Jewish girl had married Prince Harry instead of Meghan, there would have been cries of antisemitism, had she raised similar issues.
In 1992, Princess Anne married Timothy Laurence (Levy), a naval officer of Jewish descent. His paternal grandfather was a Jew. Nothing much was said about that at the time and the monarch, titular head of the Church of England, appeared unfazed by her son-in-law’s lineage.
The Queen and Prince Phillip were also rare among heads of state to visit Bergen-Belsen, taking time to meet British army veterans who helped liberate the camp in April 1945. So, antisemitism? Unlikely, and without finding evidence on either side, Her Majesty appears to have the support of a sizeable number of British Jews. I was always a little surprised when my mother, a Holocaust survivor, used to tell me that while the Royal Family exists there will be no serious antisemitism. I suppose coming from a Europe dominated by a rabid Nazi, it made sense to her. Perhaps less so to me.
Racism in society has overtaken antisemitism and its fears. It is invidious to argue that Jews tend to largely look like other people so the issue may affect us less. But the question is this: not to excuse it – absolutely not – but many Black people have been killed by US police without generating such a backlash before; why has the issue of George Floyd been so explosive now – during this pandemic?
And then there is the tragedy of Sarah Everard. Women have always been murdered by men; our streets have never been safe and we should have called for something to be done years ago, but now, during the pandemic, we are demanding solutions to make our streets safer, we are lighting candles in Sarah’s memory, we are holding virtual vigils – and it is right, so right that we do so. We are in tears at the senseless, evil killing of this innocent young woman with her life ahead of her; as we were with every similar murder by a psychotic male in the past. But then, we shook our heads and turned away, sad, but helpless. Yes, Sarah, with her sweet face beneath the beanie hat, is the latest in a long line of women murdered by men. And it has come during the pandemic. Our anguish rises to the surface, with an outcry that women must be free to walk alone safely at night.
So I ask – has lockdown deepened our awareness and stimulated a need for action? If so, it is timely. And perhaps – if our fears of antisemitism take a back seat in the knowledge that we are not the only ones to suffer and let others be the game changers, that is timely, too. It’s true; our own Jewish nightmares seem for the moment to pale into insignificance. At least for now.