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Table Talk (by Eve Garrard)

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This article originally appeared on normblog. Ms. Garrard and Mr. Geras have kindly given Fighthatred.com permission to reprint it here

'Bloody Jews,' he said. 'Bloody Jews, bugger the Jews, I've no sympathy for them.'

I gazed at him, aghast. Where had this suddenly come from?

The encounter I'm here describing took place very recently, in the course of a large academic dinner at a University in another city, not my own one. It was a pleasant occasion, and the people at my table were innocuously and comfortably talking about sociological issues connected with the economic crisis, all completely harmless and (relatively) uncontentious. And then I heard the academic on my right hand side say to the person opposite him, 'Bloody Jews.'

When he saw my appalled stare, he said impatiently, 'Oh well, I'm sorry, but really...!'

'I'm glad you're sorry,' I replied politely, collecting myself together for a fight. But then he asked, 'Are you Jewish?' When I nodded, this academic - whom I'd met for the first time that day - put his arm around me and said, 'I'm sorry, but really Israel is terrible, the massacres, Plan Dalet, the ethnic cleansing, they're like the Nazis, they're the same as the Nazis...'

The encircling arm was offensive enough in its own right, but the Nazi reference was conclusive - it's so manifestly false, and when addressed to a Jew, it's designed to wound; no one makes that equivalence without malicious prejudice. And this, after all, was an academic talking, a professor, someone trained to resist casual stereotypes and easy equivalences. I wish I could say that I delivered on the spot a furious and crushing analysis of his various misdemeanours. However, because of the special circumstances surrounding this particular academic occasion, if I'd done that it would have caused distress to other people who were present, towards whom I felt nothing but good will, and who have shown me nothing but warmth and kindness. I thought - perhaps wrongly - that I was under an obligation to be restrained. (Somehow, there always seem to be reasons for not telling anti-Semites just what they are.) So all I did was say loudly, 'I don't have to put up with this crap,' and took myself off to join another table.

What did he expect, I wonder? Breathless deference, perhaps: 'Oh yes, I do agree, Israel is terrible; it doesn't speak in my name, no, no, not in the least, not at all; it's an imperialist colonialist fascistic genocidal apartheid settler state, how right you are to be disgusted at it.' Whatever he expected, I don't think it can have been such opposition as I offered him, tame though this was, since others told me that he shortly became full of remorse, and went around apologising alcoholically to those who were present at our interchange. They, of course, were paralysed with a very English embarrassment at the spectacle of someone dropping a social clanger. I was later informed that one (Muslim) academic told the professor that he should apologise to me, a suggestion which he rejected, saying that he neverapologised to 'one of them'. Apart from that, the matter was allowed to drop.

I don't think this would have happened 10 years ago. There certainly was anti-Semitism (of a relatively mild kind) around the place, among academics as elsewhere, but they used to know that there was something wrong with it, and hence restrained themselves, at least in public. I haven't met anything quite as nakedly direct as this in the universities before now, not even in the UCU during the boycott debates: venomous though those debates were, the fig-leaf of anti-Zionism was usually kept more or less in place. Mark Gardner's wry and melancholy comments on the constant drip of criticism of Israel and Jews, the rising waters of this toxic hatred, seem especially resonant to me today.

As I look over what I've written about this encounter, it sounds oddly unreal, even contrived - it reads like an episode in a badly-written novel. But it did happen, a few days ago, here in the UK, exactly as I've described it. (As so often, life seems to imitate second-rate art). The incident wasn't in itself very important - the professor had liquor taken, and perhaps was having a Mel Gibson moment, so to speak. But he wasn't called out on it; no one - not even me - decided that the public expression of hatred towards Jews had to be publicly combated, even at the cost of some social discord. I'm very unsure that my restrained response was the right one, even in the special circumstances which obtained at the time.

People like Ken Livingstone keep telling us that criticism of Israel isn't anti-Semitic, and that those who play the anti-Semitism card (as they see it) are just trying to distract attention from Israel's crimes. The Guardian reviewer Nicholas Lezard seems to think something like this too; as does Caroline Lucas, the leader of the Green party; the UCU leadership has also peddled this line on more than one occasion. Attacks on Israel are nothing to do with anti-Semitism, they say; it's just honest political critique.

'Israel... massacres... Nazis... bloody Jews. Bloody Jews.' (Eve Garrard)