Today I took a cab back to my office. In all my years of taking cabs, often listening to them more than they ever find out about me, I’ve never had this experience.
Driving through Regents Park, as we drew near to St Johns Wood Road, the taxi driver asked me outright about who I had voted for. It was a legitimate question, on the back of discussing how the economic climate was affecting his work. The taxi driver said he had voted UKIP, not because he was “a racialist” but that he was interested in protecting the British.
Because of that, I started to feel a bit edgy about him. I didn’t think he was threatening, I just felt very unsure about him and that coupled with his ‘effing and blinding I felt uncomfortable. So I asked him to drop me off at the block of flats, I quote, “next to the synagogue”.
As we drove past some of the very lovely blocks of flats in St Johns Wood he said, “Be nice to live round here wouldn’t it?” I agreed.
He then told me, “It’s not as if any of the flats are lived in by anyone from around here. It’s not is it. You know what I’m saying. All the property is lived in by Arabs and others…[giving me a knowing glance] you know.”
I wished I had the wherewithal to take his hackney number, but actually it made me grateful to get out and it was all sly deniable insinuation anyway. It seems to me that this is the type of discourse that has been normalised and made acceptable in the lead up to the election. In particular, for all the energetic work of different groups, their efforts to change the way we speak of people has not really changed those hard to reach parts of society.
Indeed, invited to give my opinion, I wrote a private letter to one supporter of UKIP about the normalisation of this kind of discourse:
The other reason I worry is, whilst they [UKIP] are trying to ensure they have no problems with racism and antisemitism which is commendable, the number of instances of having to use the disciplinary policy is demonstration enough of some of the people attracted to them. It won’t just be members voting in May. A party with a repeated emphasis on British values, British culture, borders and jobs will always be problematic from this point of view – in my opinion.
It reminded me of a story 15 years ago:
It was 15 years ago I went for a local walk. Joined by a ‘charming’ chap who happened to be passing me and my companion, somehow he got stuck talking to us. The simple exchange of pleasantries led into a longer conversation which somehow ended up with him telling me how “The Jews are a shrewd lot.” (I hadn’t mentioned being Jewish).
He continued, obviously he figured we were in need of some of his wisdom about how clever the Jews are with money. They’re great in business. We run the country and manage all the politics of the world.
I was deeply uncomfortable with the situation. Without saying who I was, I tried to explain the origins of the stereotypes that he was spouting and his ill founded preconceptions, but it was to no avail. And so it went on – he seemed intellectually incapable of understanding that he was talking a load of drivel.
Eventually, I could stand it no longer. I turned to him and said, “You should know that I am Jewish. Not only that I am training to become a Rabbi. What you are saying I find deeply offensive and perhaps in future you should be a little more circumspect about sharing your views with strangers.”
The man looked at me and said, “Oh, it’s nothing personal. My wife was half Jewish. It’s not that I don’t like Jews, it’s just that they’re clever with money.”
I repeated my opposition to what he was saying, to which he replied, “look, I didn’t mean to cause offence, I was just saying. Anyway, nevermind the Jews. The Blacks and the Asians…”
So, what to do???