Picture credit: Guy Smallman/Getty Images

Dear Eddy…

A writer apologises to the subject of his next book, a survivor of Belsen

Artillery Row

Dear Eddy, I am sorry that when I worked for the documentary company Brook Lapping Productions in the early part of this century, I heard anti-Semitic remarks and let them pass. The company had a reputation for dealing with the most sensitive subjects with rigour and fair-mindedness, and one of its triumphs was “The 50 Years War, Israel and the Arabs”, acclaimed in Israel and across the Arab world. Yet one day I overheard two young producers standing by the photocopier discussing the upcoming war in Iraq. One of them mentioned that British writers David Aaronovitch and Nick Cohen were supporting Tony Blair in his decision to confront Saddam Hussein. “Interesting surnames,” one said, and they both smirked.

I knew that I should confront them, but I didn’t.

Dear Eddy, I’m sorry that when I made a documentary series about the Beirut hostage crisis, I came upon open Holocaust denial and let it pass. The series included some trenchant criticism of Israel for what happened in Lebanon in the 1980s. This led me one day to have dinner with a table-full of mostly Lebanese Arabs. A well-educated, multilingual group, the women unveiled and drinking wine. When the subject turned to Israel, though, it became clear that every person except me believed that the Holocaust was a Jewish lie, spun by other Jews in New York and Hollywood to deceive the world. “Look, Phil, some people died of typhus, and the rest is all propaganda. We actually feel sorry for you for falling for this, but we know it’s not your fault.”

I knew that I should confront them, but I didn’t.

Dear Eddy, I’m sorry that when Jeremy Corbyn ran the Labour party here, I remained a member for far too long. It took John Ware and Neil Grant’s BBC Panorama exposee to make me leave. Long before that I’d seen and heard the sort of people that Corbyn attracted. I’d seen how Labour Party Facebook posts or Twitter threads on anything related to the Middle East, or indeed ones about totally unrelated questions, inevitably led to page after page of jokes about Anne Frank and caricatures of Jews pulling strings and expanding their tentacles around the globe.

I knew then that something had gone badly wrong, but I didn’t want to be the first to jump.

Dear Eddy, most of all I am sorry that the place where you gave your very moving talk in September this year, the beautiful Wiener Holocaust Library on Russell Square, is just a few hundred yards from where thousands of British young people marched this weekend, some openly supporting Hamas, others openly calling for God to punish the Jews. To hear calls for Jihad in my own city, with British police standing impotently by, so soon after that frenzy of murder in Israel, just turns my stomach. Yet, I know that in my own small way, I helped create the space for people here to behave like that. Every time I refused to make a stand, and every time other people just like me refused to make a stand, it became easier and easier for feelings once conveyed by a smirk in the office, or after the second bottle of Chateau Musar, to explode onto the streets. Every time I kept silent, scrolling past the evidence, telling myself, “oh, it’s just a tiny minority,” it became more and more acceptable to believe the oldest of conspiracy theories and wallow in the oldest of hatreds. It isn’t just here. My heart breaks for you and all my other Australian Jewish friends, hearing calls for gas chambers echoing around the Sydney Opera House.

It breaks my heart too that children going to school in both our cities are now scared to wear their uniforms or else hear language like this London teenager did last week. It sounds terribly like the sort of thing that was said in Holland in the months before your family was taken.

Finally, I’m sorry that people in my industry line up alongside some of the most famous actors in Britain to sign letters about the current crisis that are so grotesquely one-sided.

Why could they not find space to acknowledge an historic atrocity?

In writing to support the civilians of Gaza, why could they not find space to acknowledge an historic atrocity? It confounds my mind. I have read the desperate WhatsApp messages as the killers closed in. I have heard the final voicemails. I’ve seen videos of petrified families made to witness their loved ones being shot. I’ve seen dead babies, slaughtered grandparents and raped women. I’ve seen broken naked bodies spat upon in the streets of Gaza. It’s honestly as if cameras had been with the Einzatsgruppen in 1941 or following your own family into Belsen. I find it physically disturbing to think that Steve Coogan or Tilda Swinton saw these images, too, or at least heard about them, yet still managed to harden their hearts like that.

I suspect none of them started like this, though. It was people like me refusing to challenge anti-Semitic stereotypes, letting thousands of casual remarks pass, out of cowardice, careerism or embarrassment that gradually made it feel OK to care so very little for Jews, even when they are in such dire peril.

Eddy, I promise I will challenge them now.

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