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When the Royal Court published an apology at the weekend for giving a Jewish name to an unscrupulous billionaire in a play, it was greeted with some derision. The theatre said the ‘mistake’ was a result of ‘unconscious bias’. But how could the name Hershel Fink not be instantly identifiable as Jewish? (There’s a Jewish joke that begins: ‘My name’s Fink, whaddya think?’) And why did it not occur to anyone that associating Jews with power, money and unprincipled behaviour is one of the oldest antisemitic clichés in the book?
The Royal Court’s announcement that the playwright, Al Smith, is changing the character’s name to Henry Finn reminds me of another Jewish joke. A man goes to his lawyer to change his name to Brown. ‘You changed your name last year from Cohen to Smith,’ the lawyer says. ‘Why do you want to change it again?’ The man replies: ‘So I can tell people my previous name was Smith.’
Unconscious bias is a plausible explanation, though. It’s unconscious because the association of Jews with power and money is so deeply entrenched in our culture that it isn’t even questioned. The character, according to the Royal Court website, is a ‘Silicon Valley billionaire, who … believes he can save the world building affordable electric cars, and make millions of dollars in the process.’ Perhaps Smith was looking for a name that would remind theatregoers of ‘Elon Musk’, and ‘Hershel Fink’ for some reason seemed to fit the bill. He is a symbol of capitalist exploitation, even when trying to do good – one of the most noxious antisemitic stereotypes.
The theatre describes the play, Rare Earth Mettle, as a ‘brutally comic exploration of risk, delusion and power’. Everyone involved in the production somehow seemed to have forgotten that Jews have long been identified with exploitation: to choose a Jewish name for a non-Jewish baddie reaffirms that identification. However much we may decry antisemitism, the connection between Jews and immoral behaviour runs so deep in cultural memory that we may not always be aware of the resonance.
If the Royal Court are sincere in wanting to understand where they went wrong, they will have to go back a long way. The association of Jews with harm is as old as Christianity. Their characterisation as irredeemably materialist and carnal has been replayed in multiple versions over the centuries. In Anti-Judaism (2013), the historian David Nirenberg showed how this way of thinking about Jews was transmitted into secular thought, through the writings of Voltaire, Spinoza, Kant, Hegel and Marx. Judaism, Nirenberg argues, is in part a ‘set of ideas and attributes with which non-Jews can make sense of and criticise their world’.
As the Royal Court row was going on, a friend sent me an extract from an article in the Financial Times: ‘the debate around free speech on university campuses concerns all sorts of issues, from allegations of anti-Semitism to homophobia and racism’. The implication, she felt, was that racism and homophobia were proven, whereas antisemitism on campus was no more than an allegation. And why, she wanted to know, was antisemitism listed separately from racism, as if it were distinct? She has a point.
In a joke my father tells, a Jewish man is sharing a sleeper compartment from Glasgow to London with a stranger. He’s forgotten to bring any soap. Can he borrow the other passenger’s? ‘Fine,’ says the young man. Next he asks if he can borrow his comb. ‘Be my guest,’ the young man says. Finally, he realises he’s forgotten his toothbrush. Could he use that as well? This time the young man says no and hopes he won’t be offended – it’s a matter of personal hygiene. When the Jewish traveller arrives in London, his wife is there to greet him on the platform. ‘How was the journey?’ she asks. ‘Fine,’ says her husband. ‘But boy, did I meet an antisemite.’
Jews can laugh at themselves for being oversensitive, but when insensitivity towards Jews and antisemitism continues at a time of apparently heightened awareness around racism, they have reason to be twitchy; and editors and theatres need to pay more attention to one of the oldest prejudices around.