8 DECEMBER 2001, Page 76

Poisonous prejudice

Petronella Wyatt

Ihave an American friend with whom I often quarrel. He claims that the British are anti-Semitic. I say they are not. I remind him of places such as Florida, where many clubs ban Jews. Then there is the joke about the Jewish holidaymaker who tried to book a room in The Breaker's Hotel in Palm Beach. Although it is low season the manager tells him that the hotel is full. 'What about an attic room?' he asks. Eventually the manager says, 'Well, we might have something. But it will cost you $10,000.' The holidaymaker is astonished but accedes. 'And what about my horse.' he continues, 'can you give my horse somewhere to sleep?' 'No problem.' `And how much will that cost?' 'Twenty dollars.' Why only $20?' 'Because your horse isn't Jewish.'

I suppose I had come across the odd badger-like aristo who, still stuck in the days when tradesmen came in through the back entrance, would make some mildly disparaging jest about someone being Jewish. But then anyone in their right mind or of a liberal political persuasion would give them a look that would have frozen a burning bush. In short, anti-Semitism was not a respectable prejudice. In consequence. I grew up believing that I lived in a country where it did not exist — or at least not to any serious degree.

Yet German Jews living in the Weimar Republic might have thought something similar. Then something happens and out it pops again like a nasty old box one has tried to cram into a cupboard that is slightly too small to contain it permanently. Only a gust of wind, or a knock, is enough to open the door.

What am I saying? I am saying that since 11 September anti-Semitism and its open expression has become respectable once more. Not in Germany or Catholic central Europe — but at London dinner tables.

Too frequently to discount now, I hear remarks that the Jews are to blame for everything. There would be no war if the Israelis did not behave so aggressively. The other day someone referred to Zionism. Zionism? How can there be such a thing when Israel has already been created. It would be like saying that one was 'anti-suffragette'. Over the weekend an intelligent, well-meaning man, whose basic humanity is unquestioned by his friends, asked me, 'As a journalist, do you think there is an international Jewish conspiracy?' Before the war in Afghanistan anyone who asked such a question would be hauled up before some disciplinary board.

More and more I hear the comment that so-and-so 'looks Jewish'. What does it mean to look Jewish? Lauren Bacall, Kirk Douglas and countless other blond Hollywood stars were Jews, So, of course, is Michael Douglas. But Basil Rathbone, who had a large hooked nose and a dark complexion, was not. A Catholic woman of my acquaintance is convinced that I am Jewish — dark hair, olive skin, me that is — although my father was an Anglican and my mother a Papist.

In a line-up of 'pick the Jew', to include myself and several of my Jewish friends, they'd pull me out every time. But we are not only talking about right-wingers here. The liberal establishment, which professes to unsheath its sword at any injustice, has been more anti-Semitic about this whole business than any other political group. One of those crossbench life peers who is never without either a copy of the Guardian or a copy of a human-rights bill told a friend of mine, 'Well, the Jews have been asking for it, and now, thank God, we can say what we think at last.'

Even allowing for the element of antiAmericanism in every leftish soul, this sort of remark is not one I ever expected to hear in this country in my lifetime.

The saddest little episode of all involved my I1-year-old goddaughter, who was told by a schoolteacher last week that she was not English, but half English and half Jewish. Who would ever say to my mother that she was half Hungarian and half Catholic?