Choosing the chosen

Unchosen: The Memoirs of a Philosemite
By Julie Burchill
Unbound, 192 pages

Julie Burchill loves the Jews, and she wants everyone to know it.

The English controversialist informs us at the outset of her new book, Unchosen: The Memoirs of a Philosemite: “I have spent my life wrapping myself in the Jewish flag, sometimes metaphorically, sometimes literally. I open my handbag and half a dozen paper ones on toothpicks…fall out. I look up from writing and see two full-sized ones staring proudly back from my bookcases, framing the Torah. Occasionally, when very drunk, I will literally wrap one around me and cry like a baby.”

Burchill is intense. She comes from an England you don’t see on Masterpiece Theatre. Her origins, as she is fond of telling everyone, lie in the tough-but-genuine British working class that prizes hard work, honor, and decency above all else. She is brash, abrasive, and entirely unreasonable in her mode of argument. She has no stiff upper lip; she’d rather burst someone’s lip, particularly if she finds that someone pompous, hypocritical, or worse, an intellectual.

There is no American parallel to her. Maureen Dowd is too delicate, Elizabeth Wurtzel too navel-gazing. She is Dorothy Parker–meets–Pauline Kael–meets–Ann Coulter—and then they all fight. She was a “hip young gunslinger” on a punk magazine and then a columnist for the establishment Sunday Times; a wife and mother who had a brief and well-publicized spell as a lesbian; a Communist who came to sing the praises of Margaret Thatcher; a working-class girl who spent most of the ’80s in London’s ultra-hip Groucho Club. She has been anti-America and pro-America, contemptuous of the Guardian before serving five years there as a columnist.

But Israel has become an enduring theme in her writing in the past decade or so, and her uncompromising defense of the Jewish state is what a new generation of Britons know her for. Unlike the many antagonistic stances she has previously adopted, this is not one that secretly delights London’s chattering classes. The rewards, financial and social, of championing Israel are modest indeed for a journalist based in that city.

Martin Amis, returning to Britain in 2006 after living in South America, remarked upon a change in liberal London: “The most depressing thing was the sight of middle-class white demonstrators, last August, waddling around under placards saying, ‘We Are All Hizbollah Now.’ Well, make the most of being Hizbollah while you can. As its leader, Hasan Nasrallah, famously advised the West: ‘We don’t want anything from you. We just want to eliminate you.’”

It is against this backdrop of a culture on suicide watch that Burchill operates. Not for her the relativism of the English intelligentsia or the hysterical demonization of Israel that are to be found in the country’s most respectable media outlets. Burchill is characteristically brash about her Zionism: “Israel. ISRAEL! Say it loud and there’s music playing—say it soft, and it’s almost like praying. How could any word be so beautiful—and still is real? ISREAL!”

Unchosen charts her turn to Zion, from her humble beginnings in Bristol where a teenage Burchill had yet to meet a Jew but fantasized about marrying a handsome Jewish man and being accepted as a member of the tribe. When she goes to work in 1977 as a critic at the New Musical Express in London, she gets to escape her WASPy hometown and indulges her fantasy by passing as Jewish. She is crestfallen, and indignant, when the two Jews on the staff fail to rumble her. Jews are to let her down again when she finally marries one, film critic Cosmo Landesman, son of London socialites Jay and Fran, and finds the family depressingly apathetic about its heritage.

Later, Burchill begins attending Shabbat services at Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue, under the tutelage of its lesbian rabbi (a very progressive synagogue indeed). News of Burchill’s potential conversion makes the front page of the Jewish Chronicle, but her relationship with the rabbi breaks down over the latter’s enthusiasm for Islam and interfaith dialogue.

Burchill quits the shul and writes: “I came to the conclusion that it wasn’t a Jew that I wanted to be so much as a Zionist. And I can do this by helping to buy fire engines for frontline Israeli towns like Sderot, and by donating a good whack of cash each year to send care parcels to lone IDF soldiers—and still stay in bed with my husband on a Saturday without having to schlep off to a shul and receive lectures on the wonders of Islam.”

And so she throws herself into Zionism, visiting Israel for spiritual succor in Jerusalem and drunken nights out in Tel Aviv and Eilat. She resigns her column at the Guardian with an acid review of the paper’s obsession with Israel and starts to learn Hebrew. Burchill charts her mitzvot for Israel—some touching, some mad—with gaudy humour and polemical flair.

These memoirs have provoked a backlash in Britain from left-wingers who charge that her philosemitism is patronizing, a fetish, even an elaborate form of anti-Semitism. Guardian columnist Hadley Freeman accused her of “divid[ing] up the chosen people into Good Jews (hardliners, Israelites) and Bad Jews (liberal Jews) with the enthusiasm of an anti-Semite.” Warned Freeman: “Anyone who identifies as a philosemite is to be treated with the same amused contempt as anyone who says they love ‘the African people.’”

Such a histrionic response is hardly surprising from the radical left, but it is quite understandable that Burchill’s sympathies would perplex some, even many, Jews. Philosemitism is something short of a philosophy, an impulse lacking an anchor. Just as Irving Kristol categorized neoconservatism as a “persuasion,” so, too, is philosemitism a prejudice—a prejudice in favor of a people whom philosemites believe to be the most common victims of prejudice. It is, however, more than a mere sentiment. It is a connection to the emotional morality of Zionism.

As Burchill writes: “I don’t like Jewish humor, the films of Woody Allen, or bagels. I don’t think families are the most important thing in the world. I’m not seeking anything from the Jews at all, if the truth be told. I am seeking an absence, a mystery, an unknowable something which happened centuries ago which resulted in a tribe of desert nomads surviving for four millennia—while every sucker, charlatan, and Sadducee attempted to eradicate them—to basically build the modern world. A tribe which then imagined itself into triumphant rebirth as a nation, combative and contrary as all get-out, after ceaseless centuries of roaming in the wilderness.”

Perhaps no one—neither Jew nor dispassionate (or hostile) Gentile—can understand this impulse except the philosemite, and even he has trouble comprehending it. It might be akin to pro-Americanism: those of us outside America who admire—nay, adore—the United States, that overachieving teenager of modern history, and idolize the American people, their leaders, their successes.

The attempt to brand philosemitism as a benign tumor of anti-Semitism, however, seems a crude dismissal born of petulance toward those who fail to toe the post-Zionist line. Indeed, philosemitism may only be said to be anti-Jewish in the sense that so much of contemporary Jewish culture is geared toward challenging Jewish tradition. When the philosemite looks at Open Hillel or J Street, he sees, to reach for a very Gentile metaphor, a child who wakes up to the most expensive gifts on Christmas morning but complains about the wrapping paper.

Unchosen is a sentimental, proudly anti-intellectual account of Zionism, but it is intensely moral (despite Burchill’s fondness for graphically detailing her early sexual experiences) in its honesty. The book crackles with the electric prose for which Burchill is famed, but her enthusiasm will be off-putting to some. This isn’t a love letter; it’s the signed confession of a stalker.

Still, Jews have been here before. Evangelical Zionists were long eyed with suspicion for fear that they were trying to convert Jews to Christianity, or worse, Republicanism. Now they are largely welcomed by mainstream Jewish organizations that can no longer afford to be so choosy about their allies and anyway find these Sunday friends endearing, with their earnest attempts at Hebrew and their insistence on saying Judea and Samaria rather than the “West Bank.”

Mainstream Jewry will come to love post-Christian Zionists, too, whether they come to resemble the outrageous Burchill or the LGBT community, another overlooked source of support for Israel. It’s hard to be loved, especially when you find it hard to love yourself, but don’t expect the philosemites to give up their courtship anytime soon.

Originally published in CommentaryFeature image © Lawrie Cate by Creative Commons 2.0.

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