Identity and immigration

Linda Grant
5 January 2007

When I was growing up, I always knew that there was us and them. I knew that there were two sets of reality and that I was capable of living in both simultaneously; that there were two languages, and I spoke both; that there were two kinds of people, and one day I would have to choose between them.

My father came to England from Poland as a six-month-old infant in his mother's arms. My grandparents had bought passage to America but were fooled by a fake ticket, which let them off at Liverpool from where they proceeded no further. We were meant to be American, not English. My mother was the youngest of six children; the three oldest were born in the Kiev region, in Ukraine, and arrived around the same time, the early years of the last century, as part of the great wave of pogrom immigration from eastern Europe to the west. I don't know much about the specific instances that led both sets of grandparents to leave, but I certainly remember my grandfather in his eighties, spitting on the floor when the name of the tsar was mentioned. Unlike later immigrants who came to Britain to earn money to send home, who saw themselves as temporary exiles, my grandparents had no sentimental attachment to "home", no sense that they would ever return there. They slammed the door on Poland where their ancestors had lived since the middle ages and said good riddance. They never demanded a right of return. "Over my dead body," my father said, at the idea that anyone in the family would visit. After he died, I did. In 1904 the Jewish population of Lomza, his birthplace, was 79%, by 1939 it was 50%, but by 1943 the remaining Jews were taken to a nearby forest and shot and the synagogue dynamited. Only the cemetery is the final trace of a Jewish population.

Nonetheless, my grandparents were typical immigrants. My grandfather arrived in England at the age of 30 and died at the age of 92 without ever learning more than a few words of English. I had to talk to him through my father's interpretation. My parents spoke Yiddish to each other as their secret language, when they didn't want their children to know what they were saying. They kept a kosher home and were members in good standing of a synagogue. To call them religious is a little wide of the mark; they were observant. They obeyed the rules.

Linda Grant is a writer whose novel When I Lived in Modern Times won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2000. Her latest (non-fiction) book, The People on the Street: A Writer’s View of Israel (Virago, 2006), is shortlisted for the 2006 Lettre Ulysses Award for the Art of Reportage.

Linda Grant spoke on the theme of immigration and identity at the Free Thinking Festival in her home city of Liverpool in November 2006

Also by Linda Grant in openDemocracy:

"Boycotting Israel: a reply to Jacqueline Rose" (22 August 2005)

"The People on the Street: A Writer's View of Israel"
(19 September 2006)

In 1947 there were anti-semitic riots in Liverpool and several other cities, a direct, causal result of the kidnapping and murder of two British sergeants by Jewish terrorists in Palestine. My parents believed that outside the encircling walls of the Jewish community danger lay. Only among "our own" could their daughters be protected from racism. They were adamant that if a man married outside the religion, the first time the couple had a row his wife would call him "a dirty Jew". Whether this was legend or reported real-life experience, I don't know. They saw anti-semitism as immutable. Like cockroaches, it never went away. They were simultaneously English patriots who adored the song Land of Hope and Glory and ardent Zionists. I believe my father was part of a group of businessmen raising money to buy arms for the Haganah in Palestine; they didn't see the contradiction. A whole block of the family left behind in eastern Europe had fallen away into oblivion because of the Holocaust, a piece of history which, in our household, we were never too young to learn about and because of the Holocaust, it was to Israel, a Jewish country, rather than a potential Jewish homeland for them, that they developed a second allegiance. It had nothing whatsoever to do with western colonialism - they wouldn't know from colonialism if they fell over it. Their Zionism was the simplest cause and effect - you tried to wipe us out; well, now we've got an army. Try your luck; we've got nukes.

I don't think my parents were ever very comfortable having non-Jews inside their house and they were terrified of entering their homes. My mother had a sister who married out; they noted that when Jewish women married non-Jews they stayed in the working class because the men they married seemed to have none of the drive and ambition of the immigrant community. So to marry out was not only to betray the faith, the family, the community, it was to seal you in the very place you were when you arrived in the country, to cut off the options. My family was upwardly mobile because they had absolutely no sense whatsoever of being working class. Poor, yes, but the class system had nothing to do with them. They didn't know their place inside it; indeed the very idea of knowing your place was anathema. Simply put, they were hungry for everything life had to offer, and grasped it with both hands. Detached houses, jewels, foreign holidays, private schools - if they could afford it, they'd take it. "Nothing is too good for my family," said my father. Coming from repressive societies, they adored freedom.

I know Jews who grew up in secular, socialist, book-lined homes. I am not one of them. My father read Damon Runyon and watched the racing, my mother read Harold Robbins and watched Coronation Street. He was a small-businessman in the hairdressing supplies line and always voted Tory, "because it's in the business interest". My parents had a plan for me: you left school at sixteen with a respectable three O level qualifications, you did a one-year secretarial course at Miss Foulkes College, you got a job working for a firm of Jewish solicitors and by twenty you were married to one of them, and by twenty-one you had made your mother a grandmother, a point of achievement beyond which she could go no further. You moved into a house round the corner from her, and together you went to coffee mornings to raise money for Israel. That was my future and I wasn't having any of it.

The private school that my parents sent me to gave me an education that far outstripped their aspirations, and opened me up to life outside the ghetto. There was no possibility of compromise or accommodation with their values, only direct confrontation, and escape. The war was over absolutely everything, not just my own future - their politics, their cultural taste, their fearfulness, their patriotism and their Zionism. I rejected all of it.

For most of my life, I have lived with almost no awareness of anti-semitism. With one exception, I have never been the victim of an anti-semitic incident, though members of my family have. Until the Durban racism conference in August 2001, I had thought it was a phenomenon that had pretty much gone away. The far right, the National Front and British National Party, were anti-semites, but in the areas they were recruiting you couldn't get much traction with the white population by peddling the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Afro-Caribbeans and Asians were the obvious targets, as the next immigrant community. But when, in Durban, a speaker at the NGO conference from the Holocaust Education Trust was catcalled with cries of "Jew, Jew, Jew", I understood that this was not what you'd call "legitimate creationism of Israeli government policy". The post 9/11 conspiracy theories, the revival of anti-semitic tropes and the use of iconography in national newspapers which has its roots in Nazi-era propaganda (such as the insertion of stars of David into the US flag) has convinced me that my parents were right on one thing, that anti-semitism is a light sleeper. Jews were victims of racism whether they were Bolsheviks, capitalists, rootless cosmopolitans or nationalists.

Being born Jewish in 1950s-Britain made one part of what was then the country's largest and most invisible ethnic minority, just before the arrival of the Windrush generation of Caribbean immigrants. There was always the option to "pass". This was the route I chose for many years. My Jewishness was incidental and insignificant, until I discovered that it wasn't, it was inside me. I am British, but not. I have no attachment to this native soil, yet I have in my head a linear list of the kings and queens of England from King Harold onwards, though no one I am related to has set foot in the country before the reign of Edward VII. I am not prepared to feel responsible for British imperialism or for the Irish potato famine. What I value about Britain is its democracy, the rule of law, its liberalism and the fact that it is not a country of extremists. I don't believe it is possible to foment revolution here. Good.

When the progressive British Muslim lawyer Farmida Bi and I met last year, we were astounded by the similarities between us, of how we felt about ourselves, and our relation to our parents (particularly our mothers). When I wrote my family memoir Remind Me Who I Am Again, I was astonished by the number of letters I received from people who told me that, as the children of immigrants, they shared with me a sense of a family history apart from the main society.

Europe, unlike America, is not a continent of immigration. You arrive in America and are reborn. That's not how we do it here. Philip Roth wrote that as a Jew, he knew that his people had played a role in the construction of the national identity. That's impossible for a British immigrant; the national identity was formed long before we arrived. For this reason, I believe that immigrants have more to say to each other than we think, more to talk about, among ourselves. To what extent can we alter the host culture? To what extent is the experience of present-day British Muslims, under suspicion for attachment to another country, a reprise of the earlier experience to British Jews? And the strong socialist tradition many Jews brought with them from the revolutionary movements of pre-Bolshevik Russia replicated in the contemporary fear of Islamism?

So poisonous has the relationship between Jews and Muslims become, that it barely seems possible to ask these questions any more. My view is that relations between peoples are developed not in a war of ideas, particularly one conducted in the impersonal atmosphere of the internet, but in shared real-life experience. Going to a non-Jewish school, living much of my life among non-Jews, I don't share my parents' terrors.

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