In Howard Jacobson’s new novel (his masterpiece, I suspect) the protagonist, Kevern, is trained by his father to cover his mouth whenever he utters the letter J. Two fingers across the lips; an inadvertent “shoosh.”
Kevern’s father was warning his son – who lives in a world just a little in our future, a world awash with low-level brutality, where apology-giving is a fetish, but only if the apology is meaningless – to suppress mention of anything which could, even tangentially, remind a listener of the word “Jew.”
Suppress the word (ha!), because – in this fictional future – Jacobson’s dystopic people have wiped their memory clean of the event referred to, only ever obliquely, as WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED. Easier to forget. If no-one remembers anything, how can anyone be to blame?
Only fiction, of course. No-one in real life would suppress mention of Judaism, or reference to it, or its practitioners, and certainly not because to look away, to ignore what’s going on, would render their own lives more comfortable. Would they?
On Saturday, the British supermarket Sainsbury’s – that quasi-institution, the patronage of which is one of the defining norms of what it is to be normal, and British – removed kosher food from its Holborn branch. There was some sort of Islamic extremist agit-prop demo going on that day. Sainsbury’s feared…what, exactly? I’ll let them answer in their own words shortly, but first let’s be clear what this act wasn’t.
This wasn’t the craven acceptance of threatened criminality, the sort to which most of us pay obeisance (whenever I don’t tell a lout to pick up their litter, I am guilty.) To banish kosher food from a supermarket’s shelf is too specific an act for some sort of generalised fear of crime. We may presume that no-one removed the halal products.
If the arbiter of the British lower middle-class shopping basket decides that an orthodox Jewish diet may not be sold, then the implication is (no?) that it should not be eaten. You are what you eat; you can’t eat this because we don’t sell it; so you are not. Two fingers across our lips: shoosh. Away with you.
It’s not only Sainsbury’s, of course. We all do something similar, every time an egregious assault is made on our culture by the practitioners of extremist Islam, and we say nothing, or make excuses, like in the old British joke (“You’ve forced a perverted, vicious form of religion into some of our schools – sorry! Must be something we’ve done; let’s blame the government and muck around with laws.”)
Then we wonder at the spike in anti-Semitic hate crime (well, we don’t wonder, not really: once again, we simply choose not to look.) A jihadist flag is flown in East London; reporters who cover this obscenity are asked “Are you Jews?” The reporters respond: “Would it matter?” They are told: “Yes it f****** would.” And so on.
We shouldn’t need novelists to remind us of the path to WHAT IS GOING TO HAPPEN, UNLESS WE START TO LOOK, but if you’re in any doubt, here’s a passage from “J” (page 291):
‘What will it take? The same as it has always taken. The application of a scriptural calumny (in this instance the convergence of two scriptural calumnies) to economic instability, inflamed nationalism, an unemployed and malleable populace in whom the propensity to hero-worship is pronounced, supine government, tedium vitae, a self-righteous and ill-informed elite, the pertinaciousness of old libels – the most consoling of which being that they’d had their chance, the objects of immemorial detestation, chance after chance […] What it won’t take, because it won’t need – because it never needs – is an evil genius to conceive and direct the operation.’
Thank God for novelists, after all (we pay them to look for us; that doesn’t mean our obligations are at an end.) Remember I mentioned that in Jacobson’s book, his characters spend their lives giving meaningless apologies to one another? Here is the email I received from Sainsbury’s on Monday:
‘Dear Mr Archer
Thank you for your email to Mike Coupe and for sharing your comments about an incident in one of our stores. Mike has asked me to respond to you on his behalf. We would like to apologise for any inconvenience or offence this has caused and I appreciate you giving us the opportunity to respond.
As a precautionary measure, during a demonstration close by on Saturday 16th August, the decision was taken in one store only to move these chilled products to cold storage elsewhere in that store for a short period of time. This step was taken to ensure that no product would be spoilt, and all products were returned to the shelf as soon as was practically possible. Our ambient (store cupboard temperature) kosher range was kept on sale in store throughout.
As a non-political organisation, Sainsbury’s would never take such a decision on grounds other than ensuring the quality or safety of our products.
We are grateful to you for taking the time to contact us and I hope I have helped to address your concerns.
Manager, Executive Office’
This letter certainly addressed my concerns. What it didn’t do was wash them away, thoroughly or otherwise. Quite the reverse.