Tuesday, 17 April 2012

The Jewish Question: Why has “The Hare with Amber Eyes” been such a smash hit?

The chairwoman of the book group I belong to asked this interesting question about The Hare with Amber Eyes near the end of last night’s lively discussion. One reader thought it was because of our fascination with collecting art, and the superb descriptions of the paintings and objects commissioned and amassed by the fabulously wealthy Ephrussi family in 19th century Paris and Vienna. Another thought it was because the Holocaust was at the heart of the book (although it barely features).

To summarise briefly, the eminent British potter Edmund De Waal recounts the story of his Jewish ancestors from their grain-trading origins in Odesaa to their success as businessmen and bankers in France and Austria (and beyond) by tracing the journey of several hundred netsuke (small Japanese objects carved out of ivory, designed to be carried about on one’s person). These objects, which were bought by dedicated and wealthy art collector Charles Ephrussi in the 1870s, are first encountered by De Waal at the home of his gay Uncle Iggie in Tokyo. They now reside at the writer's Peckham home.

I suggested, lamely, that the book's success might be due to it offering something for everyone. The art collecting sections and all the stuff about the netsuke and how the hyper-rich lived in various European capitals fascinated my wife, but bored me stiff. Contrariwise, I found the ups and (horrendous) downs of the Ephrussi family – and Viennese Jews in general - from the start of the First World War to the eve of WWII rivetting. (The sections involving the lives of Iggie and his Japanese boyfriend in post-war Japan are also absorbing – I could have done with more about them.)

Sneered at if they try to integrate, resented if they try to live apart, despised if they retain their habits, customs and religion, condemned if they try to leave their culture behind, spat on if they remain poor, loathed if they grow rich - after a while you begin to wonder whether Jews shouldn’t follow Mario Balotelli’s example and don T-shirts reading “Why Always Us?”. Well, why? (And, yes, I do realise this isn't a subject to be skated over lightly in a handful of paragraphs.)

Austria invited Russian Jews in: good for the economy. Emperor Franz Joseph was dead keen on them, and never wavered in his support. The result was a massive increase in the number of Jews in Vienna – fewer than 8,000 in 1863 to 145,000 by 1899 (out of a total population of about two million). By 1910, Vienna had the fourth-largest Jewish city in the world, behind New York, Warsaw and Budapest. (De Waal is very good at letting facts speak for themselves – his tone is generally as cool and objective as his prissily tasteful art installations).

A few things struck me while reading the book and during the course of last night's discussion. Here they are in no particular order:

(1) Because of their industriousness and intelligence, Jews – unlike many immigrant groups arriving in large numbers - swiftly occupy all parts of the social and economic spectrum. In effect, this means they’re seen as competition by all classes. It used to give anti-Semites an excuse to point at peasant Jews straight off the boat – the very acme of otherness in terms of their clothes and language and manners -  and claim that the likes of the Ephrussi were simply masquerading as civilised Viennese, when they should have remained true to their origins by wearing greasy, ragged coats and ringlets and talking in Yiddish.

(2) Nowadays super-rich Russian oligarchs - most of whom are Jewish - tend not to belong to any particular city or country, and therefore they no longer need to assimilate in the old-fashioned sense. I doubt if people any longer get the chance to snub them. Interestingly, while upper class married couples could pay visits to Vienna’s Jewish aristocracy in their palaces on the Ringstrasse, no gentile woman would ever pay a visit on her own account (which must have made the wives of rich Jews feel deeply appreciated).  I’m sure Roman Abramovich and his wife (if he has one) couldn’t give a toss whether Lord This or the Countess of Wherever pays them a visit: in fact, they’d probably be told to do one.

(3) Governments create mass immigration: indigenous people never have a say in it. The Jews who poured into Vienna in the last 30 years of the 19th Century brought that city – and the whole of the Austro-Hungarian Empire - untold financial, cultural and scientific benefits. By 1910, 71% of financiers, 65% of lawyers, 59% of doctors and 50% of its journalists were Jewish.  Nevertheless – or perhaps because of those extraordinary statistics - the people of Vienna elected a viciously anti-Semitic mayor. Anti-Semitism seems to have been a constant fact of life in the city. (A young chap called Hitler spent a lot of time there – he painted all the great buildings on the Ring, and must have been well aware of who owned many of the highly decorated private palaces - they'd have been hard to miss: one hates to think what was going on inside his head.)

(4) Poignantly, as the end of the First World War approached, rich Viennese Jews poured their fortunes into war bonds to keep the Austrian effort going. A lot of thanks they got for it.

(5) After we’d discussed the casual, ingrained anti-Semitism of our parents’ generation, one of the book group members commented that “we” had certainly moved on since then. Have we? I realise the anti-Semitism card is an easy one for supporters of Israel to play. But the extraordinary vehemence of white Western liberals’ unquestioning support of the Palestinian cause – which results in people who consider themselves to be deeply compassionate and enlightened allying themselves with fascistic monsters who glory in indiscriminate violence and terror – makes it all too easy to imagine deeper psychic forces at work: their hatred for Israel and America’s powerful pro-Israeli lobby, and their readiness to blame the 2008 credit crunch on the greed of Jewish financiers amounts to a sort of mania which walks, looks and sounds like a racist duck to me. Our generation may not snub Jews socially or disparage them behind their backs – but a Jewish state acts as an extremely useful proxy.

(6) Edmund De Waal is a serious artist, a serious man, and a serious writer. A bit too serious for my taste. In a 350-page book about Jews, there isn’t one joke. Not one. That can’t be right.

(7) Maddeningly, The Hare with Amber Eyes doesn’t have an index, so I can’t find the reference to an early 20th Century satirical novel mentioned by De Waal. In it, Viennese resentment towards the city’s Jewish population boils over, and all the Jews are ordered to leave. Without them, life in the city rapidly becomes so deadly boring the citizens end up begging the Jews to return and breathe rumbustious life back into the place.

I apologise for not being able to arrange these thoughts into a coherent whole – but that’s the effect the book tends to have on readers. Some of the reviews quoted on the cover are ludicrously over the top – it's by no means a masterpiece, but it’s thought-provoking and well worth reading.


  1. And if anyone things attitudes to Jews have changed all that much, here's Mark Steyn:

    If the flow of information is really controlled by Jews, as the Reverend Jeremiah Wright assured his students at the Chicago Theological Seminary a year or two back, you'd think they'd be a little better at making their media minions aware of one of the bleakest stories of the early 21st century: the extinguishing of what's left of Jewish life in Europe. It would seem to me that the first reaction, upon hearing of a Jewish school shooting [in Toulouse]t, would be to put it in the context of the other targeted schools, synagogues, community centers, and cemeteries. And yet liberal American Jews seem barely aware of this grim roll call. Even if you put to one side the public school in Denmark that says it can no longer take Jewish children because of the security situation, and the five children of the chief rabbi of Amsterdam who've decided to emigrate, and the Swedish Jews fleeing the most famously tolerant nation in Europe because of its pervasive anti-Semitism; even if you put all that to the side and consider only the situation in France... No, wait, forget the Villiers-le-Bel schoolgirl brutally beaten by a gang jeering, "Jews must die"; and the Paris disc-jockey who had his throat slit, his eyes gouged out, and his face ripped off by a neighbor who crowed, "I have killed my Jew"; and the young Frenchman tortured to death over three weeks, while his family listened via phone to his howls of agony as his captors chanted from the Koran... No, put all that to one side, too, and consider only the city of Toulouse. In recent years, in this one city, a synagogue has been firebombed, another set alight when two burning cars were driven into it, a third burgled and "Dirty Jews" scrawled on the ark housing the Torah, a kosher butcher's strafed with gunfire, a Jewish sports association attacked with Molotov cocktails...

    Here's Toulouse rabbi Jonathan Guez speaking to the Jewish news agency JTA in 2009: "Guez said Jews would now be 'more discreet' about displaying their religion publicly and careful about avoiding troubled neighborhoods. ... The synagogue will be heavily secured with cameras and patrol units for the first time."

    This is what it means to be a Jew living in one of the most beautiful parts of France in the 21st century."

    Full article here:

    By the way, despite his name, Mark Steyn isn't Jewish.

  2. The two quotes by Mark Steyn [one in your comment, the other in the side-bar] shook me up and then left me feeling very uneasy.

    Another quote. President Kennedy at Yale, 1962 : "The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie - deliberate, contrived and dishonest - but the myth. Too often we hold to the cliches of our forebears. We subject all facts to a pre-determined set of impressions. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought."