Shabbat Goy: Manners of speaking

Are the British really more polite than Israelis?

Politeness (photo credit: Pepe Fainberg)
(photo credit: Pepe Fainberg)
I often have people telling me that I’m polite. Too polite for my own good, even. “It’s the English in you,” they say.
Me, I beg to differ. Why can’t it be the Nigerian in me? Or, for that matter, the Israeli that’s rubbed off on me? Ah, yes. Nigerians have a problem with politeness, apparently.
And so do Israelis. But are the English really so polite? Sometimes, I’m not so sure.
Rudeness isn’t something that has ever bothered Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London, my home city. Red Ken – as he is known, affectionately or not – was turfed out of the job four years ago. It’s election time again next month Ken, dreaming of a glorious return to the biggest job of his life, is currently singing for his supper. But not very well.
Red Ken has a long history of cavalier behavior. All around obnoxiousness, getting up people’s noses, that sort of thing. It has gotten him into trouble in the past, and it did so again a couple of weeks ago. Ken has a history with London’s Jewish community, and in an attempt to patch things over – and perhaps even squeeze a few votes out of them – he arranged to meet with community leaders.
But instead of making nice, he managed to offend pretty much everyone present by suggesting that the meeting was pointless because Jews are rich and wouldn’t vote for him and his left-leaning policies anyway. (I paraphrase slightly.) But here’s the thing: Does it matter? I’m not saying that anti-Semitism doesn’t matter – of course it does. But I’m not sure that branding Red Ken with a big A-S (yup, I’d like to add another “S”) will actually change anything on either side. For one thing, Livingstone has never been a collegiate politician; his political career can be summed up in one lengthy list of alliances of convenience, perpetuated only so long as they served him any useful purpose. Even if he had whispered the seductive sweet nothings expected of him, (“Maideleh, you’re so pretty, that Star of David really brings out the blue in your eyes...”) it wouldn’t count for much. After getting what he wanted, he would have been off like the bounder he is, I’d wager.
But the other thing – the far more important thing, in my mind – is this: Does the Jewish community actually need him and his approval? I think not. I’ve always felt that London’s Jewish community is pretty self sufficient and not particularly dependent on the goodwill of politicians of any ilk. Whether bad manners or racial prejudice, Red Ken behaved as he did because he felt that he could. It was a way of wielding his power; the outraged response merely confirmed what he believed, that his words carry clout.
Might it not have be better to simply ignore him? There’s nothing a bully loathes more than being made to look insignificant, and ignoring him would have done just that.
Thinking about this reminded me of an incident in England from quite a few years ago, bringing together Nigerians, Jews and the touchy topic of money. Buchi Emecheta, a Nigerian writer of reasonable repute, took part in a panel discussion about the representation of blacks and Jews in literature.
I’m guessing that the event was intended to be deep and meaningful and to radiate all sorts of cross-cultural good vibes and stuff.
Anyway, at some point, Emecheta – perhaps carried away by the occasion – blurted out: “Yes, we blacks must aim to be like the Jews so that we too can make a lot of money.” Cue consternation all around.
Her contretemps thrust her headfirst into one of the more egregious stereotypes attached to Jews – that it all comes down to money in the end.
Still, I couldn’t help but feel a little bit sorry for her. Being charitable, I assume that she wasn’t aware of the short straight line in the minds of bigots that runs from Jews with Money to The Elders of Zion.
But there is something else besides.
Emecheta, I think, conflated affluence with independence.
The point she was trying to make – most inelegantly – was that Britain’s Jewish communities are characterized by many by their independence of thought, strong community values and the refusal to allow themselves to be beholden to the interests of others. It’s a template that most other minority groups in the United Kingdom envy.
And once you take out the money business, it stops sounding rude – or worse – and becomes a rather flattering compliment.
Which is why I think that with people like Red Ken, the best thing to do is ignore them. You don’t need him; but his obnoxiousness needs the oxygen of outraged reaction in order to flourish.
Without this, he is nothing.
Closer to home. At the grocery shop near our flat, the Small Noisy One buys a fistful of sweets. “Toda raba,” he says to the shopkeeper. “Ah, he gets the politeness from you,” the shopkeeper laughs. “You English...” But I’m not sure he’s right. I did grow up partially in England; but at a time when little black boys and girls were constantly exhorted, by parents and elders, to always be polite. It’s the only way people will think anything of you, we were told.
Perhaps my “politeness” comes from this uncertainty – an existential insecurity about how I think I am perceived by others. Which is a kind of weakness, I suppose.
Which leads me to another stereotype. Fairly or not, Israelis have a reputation for impoliteness.
Might it have to do with not wanting to seem weak? I wonder...