By Christina Patterson, for The Independent
Thursday, 23 December 2010
At the end of a long and exhausting year, it’s sometimes hard to know what will hit the spot. A spa break in Thailand? A month-long marathon of black and white weepies? Or, perhaps, a little surprise. The surprising news, for example, that an organisation famed for hunting down Nazis has named you as one of its top 10 villains for 2010.
It was on Twitter, that online refuge for the bored and wanting-to-be-witty, that I suddenly saw my name next to the words “Simon Wiesenthal”. I clicked on the link and there, on something called “Fishbowl LA”, I was. “This,” it said, “is definitely an awards season Top Ten list no one wants to be on”. The LA Simon Wiesenthal Centre had, it said, “unveiled its Top Ten Anti-Semitic Slurs” for 2010 and I – nestling between a Lithuanian Holocaust-denier, who described the Nuremberg trial as “the biggest legal farce in history”, and anonymous contributions on the Goldman Sachs message boards, which begged for the return of the Gestapo and exhorted readers to “burn all the Jews” – was at No 9.
Simon Wiesenthal, as far as I could remember, was the Holocaust survivor who was involved in the capture and conviction of Adolf Eichmann. A quick check online (but not on the Goldman Sachs message boards) established that he was also involved in the capture of Franz Stangl, the commandant of the Treblinka death camp, and Hermine Braunsteiner-Ryan, who had ordered the torture and murder of thousands of women and children at Majdanek, and Karl Silberbauer, the Gestapo officer responsible for the arrest of Anne Frank. Wiesenthal died five years ago, at the age of 96. Just, perhaps, before he could hunt me down, too.
The work he started continues in his name. The Simon Wiesenthal Centre, based in LA but with franchises in New York, Toronto, Miami, Paris, Buenos Aires and Jerusalem, is “an international Jewish human rights organisation” that “confronts anti-Semitism”, “stands with Israel” and “defends the safety of Jews worldwide”. Its last press release, before the one in which I star, was headed “Wiesenthal Centre Welcomes Rejection by Budapest Court of Libel Suit by Convicted Nazi War Criminal Against its Chief Nazi-Hunter Dr Efraim Zuroff”. Personally, I think I’d put that in my Top Ten Unsnappy Headlines With Way Too Many Capital Letters of 2010, to be unveiled on my new website, Fishbowl Hackney, but style, it’s clear from the cake stands, fig baskets and salt and pepper shakers in the online store of the Simon Wiesenthal’s “Museum of Tolerance”, isn’t anyone’s top priority.
The “Museum of Tolerance”, by the way, is a “human rights laboratory and educational centre” funded by the Simon Wiesenthal Centre. There’s one in New York and there’s going to be one in Jerusalem, on the site of a Muslim cemetery, which the Muslims haven’t regarded as all that tolerant, which the Muslims have, in fact, been quite upset by. Since their protests have got them nowhere, they might consider taking part in the “Museum of Tolerance” online poll about bullying. “Have you been bullied?” it asks, and then invites you to tick the box for “race”, “religion”, “appearance”, “sexual orientation” or “other”, which pretty much ensures that the proportion of the world’s population who can claim to be a victim is around 100 per cent.
Is it my style that the Wiesenthal lot don’t like? My prose style, or the hairstyle in my photo? It is, to be honest, rather hard to work out, because next to a photo of me – looking, no doubt, just like Hermine Braunsteiner-Ryan – they’ve simply chucked a chunk of text from a column I wrote in July. The column was about the limits of multiculturalism. In it, I criticised the bad manners of some of my Hasidic Jewish neighbours and, much more importantly, certain practices, in different religious communities, which conflict with some of the values in British society – free speech, sexual equality, gay rights, the rights of children not to be mutilated by their parents – that have been hardest won. The bad manners, I argued, were the acceptable face of multiculturalism. Some of the practices weren’t.
The column, it’s true, created a bit of a stir. On the blogosphere, I was Stoke Newington’s answer to Eichmann. In my email inbox, however, I was Julian Assange, and with almost as many offers of what we might politely call marriage. Some of them, or at least some of the messages of support, were from people called Solomon, Symons or Greenfeld. Some were from some of my Hasidic Jewish neighbours. Some of them wanted to meet me, to tell me more about the pressures of living in a community that “survives because of the virtual imprisonment of its participants”. Fearing discovery, they, at the last minute, didn’t.
The day after Twitter’s not-so-secret Santa, I had an email from an Orthodox Jew (“you may even,” he said, “say ‘Ultra’ Orthodox”) from New York. He had, he said, seen the Simon Wiesenthal Centre’s list. “What you said,” he said, “is not anti-Semitic. I apologise to you for their wrong”. A Jewish man in Canada wrote to say that the Simon Wiesenthal Centre “purposely gave an inaccurate impression” and that he had written to them to complain. Another said that the Wiesenthal Centre had been “irresponsible”. Another that they were “obviously desperate”. The Wiesenthal Centre, he said, was, “quite simply, not serious”.
Well, I don’t know if they’re desperate, but they seem pretty damn serious to me. They, and their friends in this country, seem pretty damn serious that anyone, anywhere, who criticises the behaviour of anyone who happens to be Jewish should be stuck in the stocks and slapped with a label that marks them out as not just racist, but a hater of a particular, entire race, so that when anyone puts their name in Google, what pops up is words like “anti-Semitic”, “prick” and “bigot”. They seem pretty damn serious that their support for “Jewish Rights in the World” translates into direct support of Israel, too. “Had enough of Israel-bashing?” asks the Wiesenthal website. “Act now!” To speed things along, it has even written the letter. “To the President, Prime Minister and Leaders of Israel,” it says. “We are with you!! Don’t heed the world’s Israel-bashers. We, Jewish and non-Jewish lovers of peace, are with you in your just defensive war against Hamas terror.”
It doesn’t matter if a UN report says that Israel’s raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla “betrayed an unacceptable level of brutality”. It doesn’t matter if its soldiers use weapons banned by the Geneva Convention. It doesn’t matter if they use a nine-year-old child as a human shield. It doesn’t matter if its citizens raze homes and build new ones on someone else’s land. Or if they destroy their neighbours’ crops and treat them like criminals. It doesn’t matter what they do. “We stand,” says the Wiesenthal website, “in solidarity.” And we know what they call those who don’t.
When Hannah Arendt, whose book about Eichmann she called “a report on the banality of evil”, was told by her fellow German-Jewish philosopher, Gershom Scholem, that he could find “little trace” of “love of the Jewish people” in her work, she said this. “You are quite right,” she told him in a letter. “I am not moved by any ‘love’ of the sort, and for two reasons: I have never in my life ‘loved’ any people or collective… The only kind of love I know of and believe in is the love of persons.” The same, she didn’t add, but might have, goes for hate, too.