Something remarkable has been happening to me in the past nineteen days. Wherever I go, no-one launches abuse at me. When I open my mouth to speak, I am received with civility and the occasional ’ Have a good one.’ I am not attacked or intimidated to the point of abject fear and loathing. Where have I been visiting for the past two and a half weeks? And where do I live?
The answer lies in a conversation I had with my sister in a charming ice cream parlor in Philadelphia’s historic Suburban Station this afternoon. I looked up from my dessert and said, ‘My God, I’ve gone for nineteen days without anybody -- not taxi drivers, shop clerks or waiters -- launching an abusive tirade at me.
Here is the background scenario: Exactly one month ago today, I was traveling on a London bus when a well-dressed woman boarded with her equally-respectable son in his school uniform. Ahead of her was an elderly American woman, who said, ‘I beg your pardon, I didn’t mean to bang into you.’ This prompted a tirade from the Englishwoman -- let’s call her Lady E -- that resembled a verbal assault by a brownshirt against a hapless Jewish pedestrian in 1933. The American -- call her Mrs. A -- sat down and cowered as the tirade continued: ‘I rejoice every time I hear of another American soldier dying! You people all deserve to die in another 9/11. You are destroying the world.’ Mrs A fought back: ‘I personally am NOT destroying the world.’ This only provoked Lady E more, and as the bus driver and passengers laughed, she screamed into the American’s face ‘I wish every one of you would leave this country and not set foot in it ever again,’ and Mrs A began to wince, crying. ‘Thank you for ruining my day and my trip.’ At this point Lady E lunged at the American and began to shake her. I jumped up and shouted at the top of my voice for the driver to stop and for her to leave the woman alone, prompting Lady E to come over to me and grab me. ‘Another bloody American accent! You come here and think you can strut about, well, you are scum.’ Thankfully, the woman next to me pushed her away. I left the bus as the American woman sat sobbing.
Did I imagine this? No. Was the Englishwoman a crazy? No.
A few weeks before, I had attended a party at which I was lambasted, intimidated and mocked by a group of people I had known for some twenty-odd years. It reminded me of a comment made to me by an American expatriate shortly after 9/11: ‘Now I know what the Jews felt like in pre-war Germany.’
Frankly, I don’t like what is happening in Britain and am shocked and dismayed at the level to which anti-Americanism has peaked in recent months. Does anyone say ‘George W Bush’ or ‘Donald Rumsfeld’ or Dick Cheney’ when they fly into these tirades? No. In fact, the visceral, hurtful and in-your-face America-hatred goes back long before the days of the Bush 43 regime. When Bill Clinton was in the White House I attended a Human Rights Conference at my local synagogue in St John’s Wood. During the tea break I asked a man at one of the booths for a leaflet. Instead of welcoming me and asking for a donation, he had detected my accent and duly launched into a loud and red-faced screeching session about the evils of the American Empire and of the ‘Naziism’ and ‘Fascism’ promulgated by the United States. A black man came over and began shouting about America having ‘invented slavery’ and soon a delicate elderly lady joined the fray to bellow about the Zionists running America (did she mean Robert Rubin, Dennis Ross, Sandy Berger -- after all, it was the pre-Wolfowitz/Perle time zone) and the ‘genocides’ perpetrated by Americans since the days of William Penn. I remember wondering why I had ventured out on a Sunday to be with like-minded people concerned about human rights issues, only to be reduced to a gibbering jelly as the ugly, strident and deeply uncivil crowd soon grew around me. (Remember what it was like being surrounded in the school playground at recess by all the bullies?) The English are not known for public displays of fury except perhaps at soccer matches, but there is something about an American accent that brings out their pent-up rage.
This brings me to an incident that was the cherry on the sundae. Just before leaving for the United States nineteen days ago, I went to my favorite tape duplicating shop to have copies made for the actors who had appeared in the video of my new play in London. I handed the master tape to the proprietor, whom I have known for some ten years. He seemed unusually agitated and flushed. He looked at the material and snarled, ‘Is this another one of your Jewish-Holocaust things?’ I was speechless. He scowled and continued, ‘You know, Carol, I want to get something off my chest that I’ve been dying to say to you for years. Number one, just don’t say Israel to me. Number two, you people should look at yourselves in the mirror and wonder why every so often there is a Holocaust or massacre or pogrom. You bring it on yourselves. Just look at the way you are and then figure out why the rest of the world wants to flatten you. Number three, America throwing money at Israel has to stop, and hopefully all hell will break loose. Israel is not a country. I just hear the word and I turn peuce.’ By this time his anger was so visceral that I wanted to head for the door, but I had to take a stand. ‘Let me tell you,’ I said, ‘If the USA or Israel came under threat I know many Americans who would die for either country,’ to which he replied, ‘ Israel is not a country. The Jews have no right to a country. What makes you people think you have a right to a country? ‘ Me: ‘There are over a hundred Christian countries and fifty-five Muslim countries.’ He:’ The Jews have no right to a country.’ Me:’ What, a strip of land the size of Wales?!’ He (grinding his teeth and close to hitting me) ‘ Just say Israel and I can’t be depended upon for the consequences of my actions, Carol.’ His litany of offences committed by the Jews, Americans and Israel continued for another twenty minutes or so and I came away realizing that a man who had always greeted me with genteel, cheery sweet nothings was actually a rabid Jew-hater.
So, what does this all mean in the scheme of things? I have lived in Europe for all of my adult life and from the day I arrived as a youngster have been aware of an oft-blatant anti-Semitism and resentment of Americans amongst colleagues, teachers, social circle and neighbors. What is significant about this rage is that it emanates not from the great unwashed but from the educated and intellectual classes. We all know about the academic boycotts of Israeli scholars. We all know about poor Philip Lader, former US Ambassador to the Court of St James who was reduced to tears on BBC ‘Question Time’ on 15 September 2001 as the moderator, Davis Dimbleby, sat and dispassionately watched a crazed studio audience stomping its feet and shouting anti-American epithets two days after the Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. What I find so frightening is that I cannot conduct business or even take a taxi ride in London, Bournemouth or Edinburgh without a scathing tirade about the scurrilous Yanks. The day after 9/11 I was obliged to keep a consultant’s appointment and the minicab driver informed me that the ‘yellow Americans’ on the four hijacked planes were typical of the way ‘the Yanks do battle’ -- they chicken out and let the Brits do the dirty work. I was in such a state of shock from the events of 9/11 that I could not find an answer, and he continued with a further lecture about the cowardice and stupidity of Americans and their pilots when they are threatened, and added the assertion that had Brits been on those planes, not one would have come down.
Getting back, however, to the ’Independent’ and ’Guardian’ reading classes, my hunch is that the daily dose of relentless America-bashing in the European media,
combined with the abundance of criticism of Israel has created an atmosphere of anger and hostility that for the first time in my lifetime makes me fearful for my safety in my beloved adopted country, Great Britain. The anger of the video manager went beyond a whining session. He was physically smoldering every time he said ‘Jewish,’ Israel’ or ‘Holocaust’ ( this is now the tool used by more than one person I have encountered in polite circles to accuse Jews of ‘manufacturing an excuse’ for a state). The fury of the otherwise elegant woman on the bus fell just short of serious assault.
The paradox is that we have Islamic extremists in our midst in Britain preaching all manner of mayhem and holding ‘festivals’ to celebrate the ‘magnificent nineteen of September 11th.’ In 1998, when I was producing a documentary about the three monotheistic faiths, I filmed with ease at the local church and synagogue. When it came time to film at the mosque, my cameraman, a Libyan, beseeched me to stay at home, as I would be ‘killed’ if I came to the London central mosque on a Friday. He explained that ‘the crazies’ came out in force on the Sabbath and that if they realized I was American there would be an incident that would reverberate as strongly as the killing of Yvonne Fletcher in April, 1984 outside the Libyan Embassy. He begged me to stay away and I did. It was the first time I had ever stayed away from my own production shoot. Throw your minds back, dear reader, to that date: 1998. There was no wall in Israel and no Intifada. Bill Clinton was President and there were no neo-cons to blame for the Gulf’s ills. But event then, the hatred of America and of Jews was already a palpable force in British life.
There are some 260,000 Jews in Britain and more than two million Muslims, but at dinner parties all one hears about is the ‘birthplace of terror, Menachem Begin’s Israel’ and the ‘world’s number one terrorist state, the United States.’ Last November when President Bush visited the United Kingdom and London’s Mayor, Ken Livingstone, boycotted the State Banquet, ordinary folk gathered in Trafalgar Square to burn and stomp on the Stars and Stripes.
I hesitate to blame my own profession, the media. However, the ‘Guardian’ ran a lead article by Faisal Bodi in January 2001 entitled ‘Israel Simply Has No Right to Exist,’ and on a daily basis Robert Fisk, whom my British friends and colleagues think is God, runs an ’Independent’ piece brutally critical of the United States and Israel. I have stopped attending meetings of my trade union, the National Union of Journalists, because I cannot listen to incessant vitriol about the crimes of my native country, the United States and of Israel when we should be dealing with the problems unions are supposed to address. It is likely the readers of this paper do not know that many British trade unions, including that of the teachers, have been adopting resolutions condemning Israel and the United States. Yes, the Sharon government is the one I have loved the least and yes, there is much to worry about in present American policy, but how many American unions spend hours devising resolutions to censure their most trusted and valued ally? How many Americans invite expat Brits to their dinner table only to abuse and intimidate them, especially if they are Jewish? Another mantra thrown at me daily these days is the news that the United States is one giant Fundamentalist Christian nation peopled by raging Bible-thumpers on every street. I have had otherwise enlightened colleagues tell me that the USA is ‘running wild with religious extremism that threatens the world far more than bin Laden.’ I am also informed that coupled with the religious fervor is the ‘dangerous fact that America, Carol, has no culture to speak of, and that is a lethal mix.’
When I am tearfully overcome with emotion when ‘Jerusalem’ is played every year at the Last Night of the Proms, I am received with considerable bemusement. Many people want to know how on earth an American could ’feel’ British and others are very blunt with, ’But shouldn’t you people really become Israelis?’
Where will it all end? I know Jews -- including Anglo-Jews -- who have ceased socializing because of the abuse they receive from old friends. The much-loved British actress Maureen Lipman and her eminent playwright husband, the late Jack Rosenthal, attended an Israel Solidarity Rally in London two years ago much to the astonishment of her fans. In her long career Lipman had never been political but one suspected she felt as marginalized as the rest of us who turned up for the rally (it was severely hampered by pro-Palestinian demonstrators with loud-speakers.)
I know expat Americans -- including non-Jews-- who receive punishing dressings-down at social and professional gatherings. The standard reprimand contains the list of American misdemeanors: the Project for the New American Century taking over the world’s governments; Wolfowitz, Perle and other ‘Zionists’ bullying the Bush and Blair Administrations into waging war with Iraq to allow Israel to expand across the Gulf and beyond and American Jews running the world’s media, banks and industries. When Barbara Amiel, wife of beleaguered Hollinger executive Conrad Black, stopped writing for the British papers when her husband fell under a cloud there was unmitigated glee amongst the chattering classes and expressions of joy that we would no longer have to read ’ Zionist diatribes.’
Here is what I perceive as the explanation: Europe has always been a seething hotbed of anti-Semitism. England, sadly, has the distinction of being the very first country to expel its Jews and initiate the Blood Libel. The Jews were not allowed back into England until the time of Cromwell and feel to this day that they worship by the grace of the Sovereign. It is impossible to convey to Americans inside the United States, or to American Jews, the open loathing of both groups that dominates daily life outside the United States today. What is so disturbing to me is that I am no longer accepted at face value in my daily encounters. If the media set out some years ago -- even before Bush 43 -- to turn the public against America and Israel, they have done a magnificent job. I have stopped counting the number of unfair accusations hurled at both nations in the course of a day on the airwaves or in the print media. Long ago I stopped wearing a flag pin (how wonderful to be able to wear one as I walk down a Philadelphia street without fearing for my life). Just the other day I had a tongue-lashing from an old acquaintance about the ‘appalling flags the Americans put outside their homes, like Nazis all over again.’
In a recent review of James Naughtie’s book, The Accidental American, Lord Gilmour in The Guardian (18 September issue) asserted that the ‘neo-cons’ or ‘axis of evil’ who comprise Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Feith, Bolton, Libby, Abrams, Perle and others are ‘not only passionate about Israel, they are Likudists to a man.’ He adds that the American ‘Likudists’ are happy to let Sharon create more ‘apartheid settlements.’ Imagine what it is like these days to emerge from one’s home to attend a dinner party or tea and be browbeaten about ‘Zionists’ running America as if it is a criminal offense to be ‘passionate’ about Israel. And, Dammit, I AM passionate about the remnant of my people who made a go of it after the Euro-generated Holocaust. Lord Gilmour quotes a Blair aide making the other accusation that is hurled at Americans abroad these days: ‘the only special relationship is between America and Israel.’
I am aware that many Americans are leaving their homes abroad and returning home after decades in foreign countries. Notwithstanding the loss of free medical care and pills (and that is one hell of a sacrifice!) afforded by their adopted countries, they can no longer endure the daily abuse and the ugly posters and stickers that proliferate across European cities. When the many anti-war rallies were held in February 2003 young people in European cities were seen wearing headbands with slogans wishing death upon Jews and Israel. I went to hear Seymour Hersh speak and he suggested that Americans with dual nationality value the other passport and to ‘keep that villa in Italy.’ I see it, dear Sy, from a different perspective: Europe created the Holocaust, the Inquisition and other genocides. Anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism proliferated long before the Bush Administration came onto the scene in 2000. Anti-Americanism is not a result of Abu Ghraib or of a Rumsfeldian pronouncement. It is a disturbing and hurtful form of psychosis that is rapidly eroding the all-important special relationship.
At present I do not yet fear for my life in jolly little St John’s Wood, but it sure is heaven strolling around the artists’ studios at the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria, Virginia and being greeted as me, not as a bloody American or an accursed Jew.