A lush lunch with philo-Semite Julie Burchill

New book ‘Unchosen’ documents the controversial columnist’s long-time love affair with Israel and Jews

Julie Burchill, the philo-Semite you love to hate. (courtesy)
Julie Burchill, the philo-Semite you love to hate. (courtesy)

LONDON — “I’m a 55-year-old alcoholic. I don’t care what you write about me.”

I met Julie Burchill – the British columnist, controversialist, and infamous philo-Semite – at her apartment in Hove, bohemian Brighton’s more bourgeois brother. When I arrived, she was in the middle of a Hebrew lesson with her Israeli teacher, Yael Breuer, and classmate, Karl Henry.

Burchill wasn’t so much speaking Hebrew as what Anglo-Israelis call Hebrewish, delivered always in her inimitable tone, pitch, and Bristolian accent.

“I’ve been learning for five years and have the reading age of a five-year-old,” she said.

At the conclusion of her lesson, she took me to Bistro Nantais just off Palmeira Square where, each year, the city council allows Brighton and Hove’s Chabadniks to erect a giant Hanukah menorah.

‘Do you drink?’

“Do you drink?” she asked me on the way there. Once we sat down, Burchill immediately ordered a double scotch cut with water, which upon arrival she swiftly threw back, before ordering a second. I had rather forgotten, when I agreed to this lunch, about Burchill’s relationship with booze. I requested a gin and tonic, and braced myself.

The subject of our meeting was Burchill’s new book, “Unchosen: The Memoirs of a Philo-Semite.”

Julie Burchill’s new book, 'Unchosen: The Memoirs of a Philo-Semite.' (courtesy)
Julie Burchill’s new book, ‘Unchosen: The Memoirs of a Philo-Semite.’ (courtesy)

“They say you never get over your first love. My first love was a whole race of people – the Jews,” she writes, explaining she was galvanized by an exposure to the Holocaust at age 14. “I took to brooding in my room for hours about the endless list of indignities and atrocities committed against the Jews, with a level of dedication I had previously only brought to brooding over the supreme unfairness of not being old enough to marry Marc Bolan.”

“Some people hate them so much, they must have so much going for them. It must be something about envy,” Burchill told The Times of Israel. “That’s what I saw immediately so I made it my business from the age of 14 to find out about them.”

‘It’s so weird the first time you meet a dumb Jew’

At 17, she went to work for the New Musical Express, known as the NME, where as Burchill recounts there were three Jews working at the time.

“It’s so weird the first time you meet a dumb Jew,” she said. “It’s like meeting a gay man who can’t dance.”

She decided to try and pass as Jewish, dyeing her hair black. “And I’ll tell you what: I made a pretty good one, the way I look at it. I guess I thought, ‘If I’m going to be a whole new person, why can’t that person be Jewish?’ I got away with it for two years.”

Burchill liked Jews so much that, after dumping NME colleague Tony Parsons, she married journalist Cosmo Landesman.

“I ran off with the first hot Jew who crossed my path,” she writes. Indeed, reading her memoir, there does seem to be a prominent sexual competent to her philo-Semitism – as a teenager, she told her mother that one day she would marry someone Jewish.

Over the main course and a bottle of red, we came to the more unappetizing qualities that define Burchill’s philo-Semitism. The most disturbing would be her tendency to use Judaism and Jews as a cudgel with which to beat Islam and Muslims.

‘The corollary of Burchill’s Zionism is contempt for Islam’

“The corollary of Burchill’s Zionism is contempt for Islam,” Keith Kahn-Harris noted in his review of “Unchosen” for The Independent, a book which he concluded “often degenerates into English Defense League-style abuse that lacks any redeeming wit.”

One example: “It’s like even then I knew that if a Mohammedan is searching for one’s clitoris, it’s probably not in order to give a girl some fun, but rather in order to chop it off.”

Another: “It won’t do any favors for the Mohammedan gene pool that an unusually high number of Muslim converts are convicts, or mentally ill, or ex-addicts and alcoholics.”

It’s pretty ugly stuff – and lazy, too.

“That was just one part of it though,” she said of the chapter on Islam, in which she assails the British journalist India Knight – whom she calls a “stupid woman” – for her remark that Muslims are the new Jews.

‘Islamophobia is a word invented by morons and used by bigots to keep fools in line’

“We see what their antics are all over the Middle East now. One beheads people and one doesn’t,” she says. “One has this thing for apostasy where if you leave, you’ll be executed, and the other, your mother just cries for a bit – they’re completely different religions. I did want to put that right.”

Don’t you think she meant that Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are both prominent in our society?

“No. Islamophobia is a word invented by morons and used by bigots to keep fools in line. It’s quite natural to be phobic about something that goes about beheading people who won’t keep their religion. If something is a danger to freedom, progression, and the lives of other people, it’s right to be frightened and to hate that thing. It’s a thing that will kill people and that’s why it’s right, in my book, to loathe and despise it.”

As for Judaism, it would be more accurate to say Burchill doesn’t so much like Jews as some Jews.

Anti-Zionist Jews have no ally in Burchill, for example, and neither do Jewish critics of Israel. Moreover, while she goes to great lengths to defend some of the parochial and pre-modern practices of the ultra-Orthodox – including the myriad, ridiculous ways in which men go out of their way to avoid contact with the opposite sex – progressive Judaism receives short shrift.

In particular, Burchill documents her falling out with Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah of the Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue.

‘I didn’t go to her synagogue to hear how great Islam is’

“When not boasting about being gay and cool, she was boasting about how tolerant she was by ceaselessly ramming the merits of Islam down the collective throats of her captive audience,” Burchill writes, giving her the moniker Call-Me-Elli. She also complains of the rabbi’s “canoodling” with her partner during Shabbat dinner, wondering whether the evening would “turn into a full-on Sapphic free-for-all.”

“She couldn’t keep her yap shut. I didn’t go to her synagogue to hear how great Islam is,” Burchill told me.

Don’t you think it was wrong to write about the “heavy petting” at the dinner?

“I can’t stay away from a fight. I thought it was funny and bitchy.”

But Rabbi Elli didn’t like that.

“She shouldn’t have done it, then. If someone had said that about me, and I’d been doing it, I don’t mind what people say about me. I’d just say, ‘Yeah, I did it.’ I mean, we’re in Brighton! Dogs and cats is doing it in the street [sic].”

Julie Burchill with Israeli flag (courtesy)
Julie Burchill with Israeli flag (courtesy)

Our lunch was completed only after sharing a bottle of dessert wine – Burchill had three glasses, I had two – and I set off in the direction of the seafront for some restorative air while Burchill made for her apartment.

After reading her book and having spent a long, scotch-soaked lunch with her, Burchill remains unfathomable.

She demands to be loved – asking me if I liked her book, if I thought she was funny – but goes out of her way to be hated. And it is evident she rather enjoys that too.

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