Pro-Israel firebrand stirs up English media scene

Pro-Israel firebrand stirs up English media scene

Columnist Julie Burchill prepares her latest lightning rod: A memoir about her love of Israel and aborted conversion to Judaism

'Jews start with so many disadvantages in every country, and do so well,' Julie Burchill observes. (Courtesy of Daniel Morgenstern)
'Jews start with so many disadvantages in every country, and do so well,' Julie Burchill observes. (Courtesy of Daniel Morgenstern)

LONDON — Israel, says Julie Burchill, is “the perfect country in every way. My only criticism is that it could stand to be quite a bit bigger.”

It’s not a sentiment often heard from non-Jewish journalists, especially non-Jewish British journalists, and certainly not non-Jewish British journalists who spent five years as a columnist for the left-wing Guardian newspaper.

But Julie Burchill, one of the country’s most famous — or perhaps infamous — print commentators, seems to enjoy taking a contrarian position. The flamboyant writer has for many years been a passionate philosemite, writing extensively about her love for both the Jewish state and the Jewish people. At one stage she even briefly contemplated conversion.

Now she is completing a memoir, “Unchosen,” about her near-obsession. Its chapters will include a “brief history of philosemitism” (“very brief, as there isn’t much of it around”), an account of her experience touring Israel while drunk (“off my face in the Promised Land”) and a segment explaining why she was “too cool for shul” (“In which I am driven out of my local synagogue by the lesbian rabbi for being ‘too’ pro-Israel”).

Two of her previous books were big successes. “Ambition,” the story of a female journalist climbing to the top of her profession, made the best-seller list, while “Sugar Rush,” a lesbian-themed novel for teenagers, was adapted for television and won an International Emmy. For her latest project, however, she decided not to go with a conventional publisher, but to crowd-source the funding.

“When I had the idea, my agent send it off to 10 publishers, and five were interested,” Burchill says. “But then they expected a 6,000-word sample chapter!”

Her reaction, she admits, was diva-like — what she calls a “Mariah moment.” At 53, after 35 years of writing for the national press, she felt her style was sufficiently well-known for publishers to take the risk. But then she saw that comedian Katy Brand was publishing her book through Unbound, a publisher that raises funds for each project from the public and only prints the ones that prove financially viable. She decided to follow suit.

‘When I am with my Jewish friends at parties and they have their children with them and never get drunk, I realize just how gentile I am’

So far, Burchill has raised more than 80 percent of her £12,000 ($19,300) target, mostly from British Jews, as well as from some of her non-Jewish Facebook friends. Contributions range from £10 ($16), for which donors get an e-edition of the book, to £1,000 ($1,600). Anyone who donates more than £350 gets to “join Julie for a small Israeli-style Shabbat celebration at a Jewish restaurant in London.” (Presumably not on a Shabbat, though.)

So how does one become a philosemite in modern England? For Burchill, it began when she learned about the Holocaust as a teenager in Bristol, a large city in the south. Her background is working-class and leftist, with both parents factory workers.

At 17, she left school without a diploma and joined a music magazine, where she pretended to be a Jew.

Her rise in journalism was meteoric, with Burchill gaining notoriety for her provocative style, and for political opinions that occasionally went against the grain of the newspaper for which she was working. She has reported for or had a column in almost every major British paper, including the Sunday Times, where she covered politics and pop culture, the right-wing Mail on Sunday and the left-wing Guardian, and the establishment Times. But several of her jobs ended unpleasantly. She has claimed that she left the Guardian to protest its “vile anti-Semitism,” and when her columns for the Times ended suddenly, with a year left on her contract, she admitted in an interview that her work had been “arrant crap.”

In 2007, she announced that she was leaving journalism permanently to concentrate on other writing, although she does still publish occasionally.

Her personal life has been no less turbulent. She has had three husbands: first, broadcaster and writer Tony Parsons, whom she met on her first job, at New Musical Express. They had a son, whom Parsons brought up. She then married Cosmo Landesman, another journalist, who with Burchill set up the short-lived Modern Review magazine. They, too, had a son together, whom Landesman raised after Burchill left him for one of the Modern Review’s interns — Charlotte Raven. Finally, after the brief lesbian fling, she married Charlotte’s brother, Daniel Raven, her current partner, who is 13 years her junior. They’ve been together for 17 years.

Perhaps surprisingly, of the three husbands, only one, Landesman, is Jewish — which Burchill, naturally, says was one of his attractions. “I suppose my ideal was the hyper-sexual sort of American Jew I read about in novels when I was a teenager,” says Burchill.

Although she no longer wants to convert to Judaism, Burchill continues to study Hebrew, here with fellow student Karl Henry and tutor Yael Breuer. (Courtesy of Daniel Morgenstern)
Although she no longer wants to convert to Judaism, Burchill continues to study Hebrew, here with fellow student Karl Henry and tutor Yael Breuer. (Courtesy of Daniel Morgenstern)

Landesman fit the bill. His family “were Americans living in London,” says Burchill, “and quite eye-crossingly eccentric. They’ll be fun to write about. The chapter will be called, ‘Meet the Perverts.’ ”

Nevertheless, the divorce — or perhaps the marriage — did not dent Burchill’s enthusiasm for all things Jewish. Well, nearly all things Jewish.

She is “not super-keen” on the humor, the food or the family orientation. (Nor, she adds, was she “over-fond of the way middle-aged Jewish ladies tended to dress when I was younger and more mis[erable]. But now that I’m middle-aged myself, I like a bit of sequin.”)

Jewish culture aside, she finds the religion “endlessly fascinating” and adores Israel, which she calls “miraculous.”

Her friends, she says, do not find her philosemitism strange because most of them are philosemites as well. But why are they so unusual, especially in modern Britain?

“I think it’s down to pure envy,” she says. “Jews start with so many disadvantages in every country, and do so well. That highlights a lot of indigenous peoples’ failure, and people often don’t like feeling that way.”

It’s the same story in the media world, she adds, exacerbated because “most of the left-wing press went to public schools” — known elsewhere as private schools — “and anti-Semitism is especially prevalent there.”

While she cannot judge the levels of local anti-Semitism herself because she mixes mostly with Jews and fellow philosemites, “a lot of my Jewish friends feel it is getting worse again,” she says. “Whereas other forms of racism are fading with each generation, in a grotesque way, anti-Semitism has recruited new blood through the medium of anti-Zionism.”

She cites several examples recently of anti-Zionist activity slipping into anti-Semitism in Brighton, the seaside town in which she lives — including, in October, demonstrators against Israel’s Batsheva Ensemble dance troupe, who were ostensibly protesting for the Palestinians.

“But they openly admitted to my friend, a TV interviewer, that they were anti-Semitic,” she alleges. “And recently an anti-Israeli activist was convicted and fined for giving a Hitler salute and goose-stepping at a demonstration outside EcoStream, an Israeli-owned store in Brighton where we have been counterdemonstrating against the BDS bully-boys.

‘Whereas other forms of racism are fading . . . anti-Semitism has recruited new blood through the medium of anti-Zionism’

“He was a 23-year-old ‘charity worker,’ and he pleaded guilty to racially or religiously aggravated harassment. These people really are the scum of the earth.”

She has equally harsh words for the small number of Jews who have expressed alarm at her enthusiasm for their people. One Guardian columnist, Anne Karpf, wrote in 2010 that “Burchill’s philosemitism is a form of anti-Semitism, I’d suggest, because it bunches all Jews together, as though we were a single, uniform entity. The idea that all Jews are wonderful is little different from all Jews being hateful: in both cases Jews are stripped of individual characteristics, and are nothing except Jewish — a view to which most racists happily subscribe.”

But Burchill is nonplussed, saying that Jews who are nervous about philosemitism suffer from Stockholm Syndrome.

“They start to think they are as undeserving of praise as they have historically been told they are,” she says. “This type can often be found prancing around in favor of Palestine. The half-wits seem blithely unaware that their pet terrorists won’t be happy till every Jew in the world is gone. There aren’t many dumb Jews around, but the pro-Palestine mob definitely qualify.”

Perhaps it was natural, then, that in 2009, she took steps to formalize her relationship with Judaism, and started attending her local Progressive synagogue with a view to converting. This didn’t last long. Not only did she clash with the rabbi over Israeli politics, she soon realized that the process required considerable commitment and effort.

“I find it hard to stick at any discipline, being bone-idle and highly hedonistic (for instance, I was only a lesbian for six months),” she wrote in the Independent newspaper. She also says she felt like a fake.

Instead, she decided to study Hebrew, and three years later still takes regular classes in her home. Her skills are “ktsat tov,” or a bit good, she says in what seems to be a direct translation from the English.

Actually, she’s being modest. Although her sentences are mangled, she is clearly confident, and she can throw in the occasional sophisticated word. Her Israeli teacher, Yael Breuer, she adds, is “yafa meod” — very pretty. “Anachnu levalot harbeh veh-lomedet” — we have a great time and learn, she says in flawed Hebrew, although she doesn’t specify which she does more of.

So, any chance Burchill could change her mind and convert after all?

“When I am with my Jewish friends at parties and they have their children with them and never get drunk, I realize just how gentile I am,” she says. “I think that I will probably spend my life with my nose pressed against the window — not in a perving way, but in an admiring one. But I like being an outsider, so that’s just fine by me.”

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