Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Snobism of British Literary Antisemitism

This letter, responding to a snob example of British literary antisemitism, is a wonderful slap-in-the-face:

Refugees from Riga

Sir, – Suppose that A. N. Wilson is right in every judgement he makes of Isaiah Berlin, whom he knew – “malicious, snobbish, boastful, cowardly, pompous”, guilty of “loghorrhoea” and of “somewhat obsessive social climbing” (July 16) – he is nevertheless too narrow and lacking in historical imagination.

It is one thing to have been born, like Wilson, to a British family in 1950 and to have grown up in the long peace of this country of this generation, and quite another to have been a Latvian Jew born in Riga in 1909, arriving in this country, as Wilson recalls Berlin telling him, “with a little cardboard suitcase”. Berlin’s demeanour really was that of someone as Wilson describes him, “an exile in a foreign land”.

My friend and trial colleague, Eli Weinberg, with whom I shared a cell in prison in South Africa, the author of the best-known photographs of Nelson Mandela from before his arrest, was like Berlin a Latvian Jew, born in Riga a year before Berlin.

At the age of six Weinberg was a mascot of the Cossacks in the First World War, separated from his family in 1914 by the turmoil of the German advance; later arrested and tortured in post-war Latvia under the “Grey Barons”; arriving afterwards as a refugee in South Africa, none of whose languages he spoke, but several of which he mastered fluently, including Zulu and Sotho; his immediate family in Latvia wiped out under Hitler.

Might it not have been more charitable for Wilson to have imagined Berlin as formed by similar terrors, a shipwreck from the mincing machine of Stalin and Hitler?

Since we are the beneficiaries of Berlin’s gifts to this culture, from a part of the world of which we know – almost – nothing, Wilson should have been more perceptive about the inner demons that could well have driven this man, who gave us his priceless interview with Anna Akhmatova in Leningrad in the winter of 1945–6, when he was her “Guest from the Future”.

In their personal formation, A. N. Wilson and Isaiah Berlin are worlds apart.

31 Berryfield Road, Aylesbury.

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