When the Royal Court published an apology at the weekend for giving a Jewish name to an unscrupulous billionaire in a play, it was greeted with some derision. The theatre said the ‘mistake’ was a result of ‘unconscious bias’. But how could the name Hershel Fink not be instantly identifiable as Jewish? (There’s a Jewish joke that begins: ‘My name’s Fink, whaddya think?’) And why did it not occur to anyone that associating Jews with power, money and unprincipled behaviour is one of the oldest antisemitic clichés in the book?
De Montfort University students’ union is calling for a name change, to rid the institution of its association with Simon de Montfort (c.1205-65), the sixth earl of Leicester, leader of the barons’ revolt against Henry III and a key figure in the prehistory of parliamentary democracy. He also happened to be a hater of Jews (antisemitism wouldn’t exist as a term for another six hundred years) who expelled the Jewish community from Leicester. His supporters assaulted and murdered Jews across the country.
The government announcements that flash up on Twitter tell us that shopping for basic necessities such as food or medicine is one of only four legitimate reasons for leaving your home (although the regulations include 13 ‘reasonable excuses’). But what counts as a basic necessity? The police and local councils have announced that Easter eggs are ‘non-essential goods’. In Plymouth, the police tweeted that ‘going to the shops for beer and cigarettes is not essential’. In my local Boots, in north-east London, the self-service cosmetic racks are covered up as if they’re an offence to modesty, with a sign saying ‘sorry cannot sell as it is non-essential’. The pandemic has unleashed a rash of puritanical dictums on what we’re allowed to buy.