While the Brexit vote may be new, the ancient feelings of unjust displacement and the lessons of history play underneath the fanfare
I am going to tell you the tale of the Jew who walked the pig.
I think it is an old Sicilian folk story because my grandfather told me in situ, eating pistachio gelato. That is the good thing about the busy gene pool – it never runs out of stories. But over the years, I have heard it told in different ways and places. It is quintessentially a Mediterranean tale; it echoes a history that reads like baklava: multi-layered, polyglot of cultures and faiths, serial refugees and merchants, drenched in the flavours of different empires.
Everybody claims it but nobody knows its real origins, and in the end, nobody cares.
There is a good case that the story rooted in medieval Spain during the brutal times of the Inquisition of Isabella of Castile and her Ferdinand of Aragon. Muslims and Jews were forced to convert or face exile. Converted Jews were called Marranos, Pig Eaters, because they cooked pork on the Sabbath to smelled Catholic, while tending their faith in secret to keep Spanish spies off plan. It percolates down of course to people forced into disguise to ‘assimilate’, to use that treacherous word.
My grandfather said, “Everybody knew they were Jews, but they were Jews who walked the pigs.”
Just before Prime Minister David Cameron announced the EU Referendum in 2015, the popular actress Maureen Lipman said that she, as a Jew, no longer felt safe in Britain. She was contemplating moving to New York or Israel.
Not much was made of it.
Others, who worried in public about the all too clear rise in anti-Semitism in Britain, were labelled ‘hysterical’. I am the child Hannah Arendt never had, and I get nervous when people start calling Jews ‘hysterical’. It is a bit like telling the Armenians off for being ‘fussy’ about their genocide.
There are 245,000 Jews in Britain, overwhelmingly in London. That is a drop in the proverbial ocean, but the increase in reported hate crimes, threats and verbal abuse is fact. Anti-semitism is rife in the Labour Party too. Ms Lipman, a devoted Labour member, made her protest known. Many Jews who are leaving describe themselves as ‘liberal’, but not in any census for instance, are Iraqi and French Jews, the latter often of Algerian and Tunisian heritage, who came to Britain because France is traditionally Jew hostile.
“Nothing happens in isolation,” as Aristotle said. The mood of the time is often found not in what is said, but what is left out, and in the tone. Truman Capote captured it in Cold Blood with the precision of the Stanley knife, “The quietness of his tone, italicised the malice of his reply.”
I forgot all about Maureen Lipman until she turned up in a BBC TV series called Discovering Britain. There are many of these programs in the nostalgic genre of a lost Britain, and really a lost identity. It is part of the collective myth of the countryside with its folklore, which is often an invention of the tourist board. And there she was, engaging in some olden days ritual of pig walking. I know there are people who keep pigs as pets, but a pet to one is a cry of despair and fear for another. I so goddamn felt for that gutsy, outspoken woman.
Ms Lipmann is 70 years old. It is incomprehensible to feel what it means to give up your home because you no longer feel safe. When you are young, you tend to bounce back, albeit with a huge bite mark upon your soul. Ridha did. He started a business, which was already listed at Companies House when he was still officially a ‘bloody asylum seeker’. (That is pretty cool.) Uprooting is tough, but in old age it is just cruel; life in Israel is tough, and New York is not a place to become lonely. So, she walked the pig.
Also on The Big Smoke
- World moves on from Jo, UK moves to Glastonbury: The personal cost of the Brexit – Part six
- The murder of Jo Cox, the end of British Values
- Who’s Your Daddy? The personal cost of the Brexit – Part four
- The personal cost of the Brexit – Part three
- The personal cost of the Brexit – Part two
- The personal cost of the Brexit – Part one
- “Oh, you’re a Jew?” – My experiences facing Antisemitism
That is the saddest story I have heard in a while. But unfortunately not new. It reminded me of my grandmother. She migrated from Germany to Holland with her parents just before WWI. Holland was neutral, as you remember, and there was a lot of dying going on next door. All was well for a while. She grew up, married a Dutch would-be opera singer who ran a bookshop instead, raised twelve (!) children. During WWII, all her children had grown up, most of them with families of their own. Five of the boys disappeared for a few years. Some, like my father, were picked up and sent to camps, others laid low for a while for political reasons. My grandparents didn’t know where half of them were and if they were still alive. It turned my grandfather into a blubbering idiot: he died in a mental asylum in 1946, after he had been given certainty that all his children were safe. Too much fear can kill you.
But that was also after the Dutch had burnt down their house. Cowardly bastards had accepted their once-German neighbour during the war. She was useful then and always had a pot of coffee on the stove. But when the war was over they let her and my grandfather pay for their wartime frustrations. Everything went: pictures, clothes, furniture, the shop, everything they had managed to save during five years of war up in smoke. It taught my family that belonging is a very tentative thing. That it can be taken away when the mood changes, or when you are suddenly on the wrong side of the debate. Then, even walking the pig won’t do it anymore.