On the eve of Hannukah: why I’m a Philo-Semite

Beginning on Sunday and lasting for eight days is 2019’s Hanukkah. Also known as the Festival of Lights, this Jewish holiday isn’t hugely important in religious terms, but has attained a significant place in the cultural calendar, especially in North America.

I don’t have any particular grá for Judaism, though I respect their right to believe. What Hannukah signifies to this atheist is something else: an annual reminder of how much I admire Jewish people.

The world is full of anti-Semitic sentiment (including in Ireland, shamefully; Irish Times journalist Kitty Holland recently tweeted something so obnoxious and offensive, it was genuinely shocking). But I’m among the small band of gentiles at the far-end: not only do I abhor anti-Jewish prejudice, I’m a Philo-Semite.

Now, this isn’t about Israel. I certainly support their right to self-determination and self-defence, but the Palestinian situation is complicated, and I don’t have the knowledge or moral authority to lecture either side.

This is about the worldwide community of Jews, modern-day and historical, as a people and culture. I have massive regard for both, especially their dedication to books and learning.

Presumably it wasn’t always so, growing up; I don’t remember. But by young adulthood, having read enough about their achievements, I’d become a big admirer. That feeling has strengthened over the years. As far as I can see, pretty much everything that makes up modern civilisation is due to Jewish people.

An enormous proportion of the most influential figures of recent centuries are Jews. Einstein, Spinoza, Freud, Neils Bohr, Trotsky, Wolfgang Pauli, Marx, Richard Feynman…this is but the tip of the iceberg.

In physics, chemistry, medicine, economics, technology, psychology, psychiatry, political science and elsewhere, Jews have essentially shaped the world we live in. It’s richer, healthier, freer, more equal, more peaceful.

And it continues: whatever high-tech gizmo is currently saving your life or delivering this column to your screen, chances are a Jewish scientist was involved in its creation.

In short, Jews have made life much better, recognised in this gobsmacking fact: 22.5 percent of Nobel Prize winners are Jewish, despite comprising only 0.2 percent of the planetary population. They’re punching above their weight by 11,000 percent!

It’s not just hard or soft sciences; there are countless great Jewish authors, artists, comedians, musicians and filmmakers. Proust, Kafka, Anne Frank, Lauren Bacall, Philip Roth, Harry Houdini, Joan Rivers, Irving Berlin, Groucho Marx, Diane Arbus, Yehudi Menuhin, Steven Spielberg, Mel Brooks, Natalie Portman, Primo Levi, Jack Kirby…again, merely the tip, not the full iceberg.

Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan and Andrea Dworkin were feminist pioneers. Susan Sontag was a ground-breaking cultural critic, Noam Chomsky equally ground-breaking in linguistics. Garry Kasparov and Bobby Fischer ruled the arcane realm of chess. Wittgenstein, Derrida, Hannah Arendt and Rosa Luxemburg are among the formative philosophers of our time.

Jewish people were instrumental in constructing the music industry as we know it, and basically invented the movies. (I once overheard someone sneer, “The Jews run Hollywood!” I thought, “Yeah, they do – because they built it, out of nothing, in the middle of a desert, having been excluded from the professions by WASP bigots.”) Their sense of amused irony has become the default setting for everyone in a post-modern culture.

For me, Jews represent modernity. Some people may not like the modern world – that’s their right – but it’s hypocritical to enjoy its manifold benefits while despising the people who more-or-less created it.

Every time some barbaric zealot kills a Jewish person, it’s not just a strike against them: it’s an assault on everything that makes life better than it was.

Two things in particular I most admire about Jewish culture. Years ago I asked a Jewish Londoner, why are you guys such high-achievers? She said (I paraphrase) it was because of reverence for the written word, learning, the life of the mind, the higher realms.

The second involves an irony. While strongly connected to their past, to rituals and traditions, Jews also seem incredibly practical-minded. On a press trip to Israel, I was amused that the reaction to almost everything was the same: a shrug, a rueful smile and something like, “It’s a problem; we have to work out a solution.”

They might have been discussing water shortages, wonky air-conditioning – or bloodthirsty gangs of jihadis massing just across the Syrian border. The response was the same: this is a problem, let’s fix it.

We could do worse than adopt some of that attitude. Read, think, be practical. Don’t moan or wait for someone else to fix things: get educated and fix it yourself. It’s worked pretty well for Jews, the most remarkable ethnic group on the planet.


7 responses to “On the eve of Hannukah: why I’m a Philo-Semite

  • Roger H. Panton

    I know this is in the wrong place but I couldn’t find where to comment on your piece about “Middle class memoirs.”
    I’ve drawn attention to it on Facebook, because I think it’s brilliant and I’ve written a memoir.

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