He Looked the Part

Belonging to multiple cultures can be both enriching and painful

A scene from Chariots of Fire

Listening to Mordecai Cohen’s fluent Bengali brought to mind an old colleague, Eric Silver, who improved on Disraeli’s “All is race; there is no other truth” by postulating that how you look determines who you are. Cohen is a Baghdadi Jew from Rajshahi; Eric, who died of pancreatic cancer in 2008, was born and bred in Leeds, but his ancestors came from the Baltic. For both, as for many other Jews, the self encompasses many different, perhaps even contradictory, identities.

Eric may have had a personal reason for his incisive observation about appearance. A fellow journalist’s tribute in the collection of his reports, Dateline: Jerusalem: Reporting the Middle East 1967-2008, that his wife, Bridget, has just published reads, “Eric Silver lived in the wonderfully named Street of the Prophets in Jerusalem, and the consensus of his friends was that he looked the part.” A Hebrew prophet hardly cuts a very English figure. Yet the author of that tribute regarded Eric as not only English but a Yorkshireman who prefaced “his remarks with a very Yorkshire ‘Look,’ as in ‘Look, you’ve got to understand two things about Sharon’, or ‘Look, it’s not that simple’…”

We went back to the 1950s but I wasn’t aware of it until Eric telephoned me in London one day in 1968. I was then The Statesman’s London-based European representative while Eric worked for The Guardian. As he reminded me, we had been colleagues a decade earlier on The Northern Echo, which was a unique newspaper: it sold more copies than the population of the town (Darlington in County Durham) where it published. I didn’t know him because it’s usual in journalism for subeditors (copy editors in American parlance) to know more reporters than reporters know subs. Eric was a sub in Darlington and I a reporter in Newcastle upon Tyne, a bigger town 34 miles to the northeast in Northumberland. He knew me not only because I was the paper’s only Indian but because he handled the reports I telephoned through every day.

Eric wanted me to write for the Guardian gossip column, Miscellany, which he edited. Thus, Satyajit Ray’s visit to London, Siddhartha Shankar Ray’s hurried return when Indira Gandhi summoned him back and V.V. Giri’s election were all recorded. Eric had a nice touch. When I described how the British had sent the young Giri packing for flirting with the Irish rebels in the Easter Rebellion, he called the item “President O’Giri”. I was able to return his hospitality 19 years later when instead of returning to Britain at the end of a three-year stint in Delhi, Eric decided to migrate to Israel. India and Israel were barely on speaking terms in those days, and all news from West Asia was heavily Arab-oriented. I commissioned him to write a fortnightly column from Jerusalem for The Statesman. We could pay only $100 an article without going to the Reserve Bank but Eric sounded pleased. “It’s money,” he said, sitting across my desk in Calcutta.

Eric’s posthumous book is the immediate reason for this essay into the past. I am deprived of his mellifluous prose because scrolling through the PDF file Bridget sent is beyond me. But I should imagine that the man who enjoyed reporting from Delhi and chaired the Israel-India Friendship Society in Jerusalem would have been disappointed that there’s nothing he wrote for or from India in the anthology. The bigger reason is the challenge of multiple identities that the film, Chariots of Fire, also highlighted. Like Eric and Cohen, Benjamin Disraeli also epitomized it. John Grigg described Disraeli as “a patriotic Englishman and a British imperialist” who was also “intensely proud of being Jewish” despite being a Christian because his father had him baptized for worldly reasons. Disraeli regarded Jews as a Semitic race that, being “an ethnic group, genetically defined”, could be a distinct community within any gentile nation. That rationalizes the existence of not just Cohen’s Baghdadis but also Cochin’s Paradesi Jews, reckoned to be the first foreign settlers since the Aryans, Bombay’s Beni-Israel and the unlikely Bnei Menashe of Mizoram and Manipur whom some regard as one of the 10 Lost Tribes of Israel.

Grigg believes Disraeli “experienced no conflict of loyalties between his Britishness and Jewishness, feeling that he was a member of two complementary elites”. There may have been no political conflict if Zionism was also British policy, but personal sensitivity is another matter. Would Bismarck have called the newly-created Earl of Beaconsfield “der alte Jude” — the old Jew — at the Congress of Berlin if he had been a pukka Englishman? Sir Jeremy Raisman of the ICS, finance member of the Viceroy’s Council (1939 to 1945), demonstrated the pain of cultural multiplicity even more poignantly.

Like Eric, he belonged to a family of Baltic Jews — extremely poor in Raisman’s case — also settled in Leeds. Sir Jeremy’s nephew, who attended the same religious school as Eric in childhood, told me how his uncle refused, on a visit back to Leeds, to let his mother take his little son to the toilet when the boy wanted to pee. Instead, he dragged his son to the car and back to London. He dared not let his mother discover that in snobbish British India, where a viceregal dignitary was an exalted personage, he hadn’t had the boy circumcized lest the sahibs tumble to his Jewishness.

Eric’s childhood must also have been shadowed by the pogroms in Nazi Germany. Later, it probably resonated with the clashes between British troops and armed Jewish guerrillas demanding their “promised land” in Palestine. Apart from the Jewish school he attended with the younger Raisman, Eric joined Habonim, a Zionist youth movement and was an office-bearer of the Israel Society at Oxford. Haganah, Irgun and Stern Gang, the Jewish terrorist organizations, would have been household names. Apparently, he called himself “a failed Zionist”. Dilemma of the English Jew: in London Eric was regarded as too supportive of Israel; in Jerusalem, not enough.

His first book, a biography of Victor Feather, the British trade unionist, testified to his socialist sympathies. His second book on Menachem Begin was no starry-eyed hagiographer’s delight. It did not seek to exonerate either his subject or Israel in general of guilt for the Deir Yassin, Sabra and Shatila massacres. The thought-provoking columns he wrote for The Statesman were sympathetic to Israel but never anything but objective. In private emails and during our annual meetings in London, he deplored the Palestinian obduracy that he also blamed for the stalemate.

Bridget and their three daughters may know what part looks, distinguishing rituals and attitudes (his, his family’s and the attitude of others, non-Jewish Brits, the goyim) played in a 52-year-old journalist’s drastic decision to not only reject promotion but give up the security of working for one of the world’s top newspapers for the hazards of freelancing. My wife, who was fortunate enough to visit them in Jerusalem, reported that the Silvers lived in a wonderful old house with thick walls, vaulted ceilings and a big rambling garden. But that can’t have been the reason for going, for he lived comfortably enough in London. Zionists claim he “made aliyah”, literally “ascend, to go up”, used for the transition to Israel almost as if the destination were if not heaven, halfway to it.

I can’t imagine Eric sounding so devout or emotional though, clearly, he answered an atavistic call in making the choice he did. Some scars of history don’t heal, and I wondered whether the many English Jews among Eric’s journalist friends (who were also my friends) in London were conscious of a special bonding. If their aliyah is a flight to escape the pains of the past, the Oriental Jew, who has suffered no pogroms, makes aliyah to ensure the future.



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